Garden Sketchabout #5 – Canova “The Boxers”

February 5, 2011

        

4×5″, 5B pencil, watercolour pencil. Dangerously too hot to sketch plein air today, Sat 5 Feb, so I’ve turned to photos taken during the week.  I think the spare line indicates my current inability to work in the heat. I look forward to cooler days when I can sketch the statues ‘in the flesh’. My aim is to build up slowly from tonal thumbnails (as Ernest Watson would have me do); the fall of shadows is dramatic enough to sustain a treatment involving an entire absence of contour for example. I am keen too to practice rendering them in straight lines only, no curved lives.

 

The repros of The Boxers by Canova in the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens hold special personal appeal. I doubt they’ll make themselves into the sketchbooks of any lady-painters, but for me they are central to the RBG experience. Figure-in-landscape is something to which I aspire, in the wake of my gay exemplars Keith Vaughan and David Hockney. I was very inspired by an exhibition in Newcastle Regional Gallery years ago of the early work of Euan MacLeod, who put males in torrid, almost frenzied, green landscapes. He’s gone on to other things of course and his figures now look more wraith-like by comparison; the early works now seem very early, but I found the rawness attractive then and still do now.  Of course, the Canova Boxers are larger than life and brutish. Boxing is of course a hideous sport, a microcosm of war itself, but is entirely emblematic of how men relate to each other. In a sense it’s what gay men entirely reject. Mention boxing to str8 men and an eerie lust wells up: their voices falter, their eyes narrow and the gourge of blood-lust is like some vampiric calling. I don’t know any str8 man who doesn’t love boxing passionately since their whole being is focussed on patrolling the boundaries of their gender and being ever-ready to ‘box’ to prove it.

Like the footpath separating the two sculpted men however, these boxers aren’t engaged in a real fight. They preen, like gay men drinking at a dark, seedy bar late at night. The simple plans of light and dark can make representation of the boxers almost trite, so the art lies in not making them look entirely like cardboard cutouts. A quirky or edgy sketchbook would in fact have them as pop-ups against a garish watercolour pencil green background and faded yellow grass. I would desperately like to transplant them to Australia and not re-create for them an English repro-sculpture context, though the surrounding lawns and trees reinforce that perspective. They are, after all, Italian in origin. I’m reminded of several attempts in the 1970s to link Sydney with Venice: 1974 saw the first production of a baroque Venetian opera in Australia in the NSW Conservatorium close by the Gardens (the Opera House not then completed) and much was made at the time of the link between both cities and the waters on which they sit. Such an early post-modernist interpretation has not been sustained over time since then. But the real trick would be to introduce some Italianism into a sketch of the sculptures.

One of the things which surprised (and inspired) me on looking into the Gardens Sketchabout event was the proliferation of sculpture and installations. I wasn’t prepared for a figure of over four dozen, which confirms my concept of the Gardens being a mashup of the natural world and art objects imposed on it and in it. It is an amazing figure and I’m sure the RBG are not widely enough appreciated as a contributor to the city’s arts.

The originals in the Vatican (without figleaves, depending on which photographs you come across) are said to have been inspired by the Dioscuri of the Palazzo Quirinale. The Gabinetto del Canova in the Vatican (perhaps also known as the Cortile ottagonale del Belvedere) contains three neoclassical statues placed here when Napoleon took most of the Classical masterpieces to Paris in 1800: Perseus (inspired by the Apollo Belvedere) and the boxers Creugas & Damoxenes.

The RBG copies in marble, by an anonymous copyist, are 2 metres high, were set up in the 1880s or at least by 1890. One wonders why these sculptures in particular, at this particular time, unless it was in the wake of some wave of European feeling following the demise of the Palace in 1882. Judging from a photo on Flickr take in 1998, Creugas seesm to have been cleaned of algae and is no longer looking like the The Green Man. The Boxers were not among Sydney statues “clothed” during the 2010 Sydney Statues: Project!

The northern Boxer is Kreugas or Creugas, while in the shade of the tree stands his opponent Damoxenes. Gardens management have highlighted the loser unprotected in an open field, while the canny winner lurks beneath a large tree; the eternal conflict between light and dark, though this is not at all about good vs evil as the story of the boxers below will tell. One commentator, http://www.publicartaroundtheworld.com/The_Boxers_Statues.html, likened them to one bowling a cricket ball which is a typically deprecating Australian perspective. Typically Australian too is the notion of trivialising serious issues around gender and masculinity, not to say of trivialising culture and art in general in Australia.

Antonio Canova (1 Nov 1757 to 13 Oct 1822) was a successful Italian sculptor, famous for his marble sculptures that delicately rendered flesh. The epitome of the neoclassical style, his work marked a return to classical refinement after the theatrical excess of Baroque sculpture. Canova seemed to have been somewhat tortured artistically: his natural strength lay in graceful beauty and apparently produced the Boxers and other heavily masculine statutes to refute the charge of being little more than an effete Bernini. Do these Boxers ultimately lack strength and masterliness? Are they wimps in disguise? Are these boxers trying to be something they can never be, are they innately locked into being comely? How very Sydney!

I find it fascinating they are separated by a roadway or footpath – we, as observers, travel between them, as if we were the judge of the fight. There is something of a Greek tragedy here, since we know the outcome of the boxing match. That is to say, if we think these are inoffensive copies of Italian sculptures, we need to think again. www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/Athletes.htm provides information about the original boxing event, the detail of which seems to reinforce my opinions about boxing and str8 men.

In a Pancration event in Nemea in 400BC (Creugas (or Kreugas) of Epidamnos and Damoxenos of Syracuse struggle for hours without a decision, Creugas and Damoxenos agreed that each would accept an undefended blow. Creugas delivered his first punch to his opponent’s head. Still standing, Damoxenos jabbed Creugas with hits fingers straight out, piercing his rib cage. Damoxenos yanked out his intestines, killing him on the spot, Damoxenos was expelled, although seemingly on a technicality; the judges deemed the disembowelling to be several blows (one for each finger) instead of the single agreed-upon blow. (Info from Betsy Carpenter, The First Olympics, US News 1/8/04).

In addition to various photos of the RBG and original Boxers on the Internet, I note in particular one at http://www.artandarchitecture.org.uk/images/conway/35936592.html; A&A art and architecture: the Courtauld Institute of Art has in its Conway Collections, a plaster model of Creugas, dated 1802, located at Possagno Veneto in Italy, Canova’s birthplace.

In terms of artistic representation of the RBG Boxers, the Powerhouse Museum possesses a full-plate silver gelatin dry plate glass negative taken by Kerry & Co. c. 1884-1917. The view looking west shows the same wide path between the sculptures which exists today, but the Boxers are out in an open field, with no background vegetation, The sandstone pedestals are surrounded by garden beds with flowering Spring plants – a huge work for the gardeners, to be sure. This fin-de-siecle photo (available on Flickr with Commons restrictions) is useful in terms of evaluating the building skyline to the west.

On a final note, it’s important to note that Canova appeared to have been a sketcher, or at least a journaller, with his Quaderni di viaggio still extant. (Hugh Honour, Canova’s Studio Practice-1: The Early Years, The Burlington Magazine 114 no.828, March 1972, 146-159).

References

Tyrrell Photographic Collection, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney – http://www.flickr.com/photos/powerhouse_museum/2414453771/in/set-72157605112590123/

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