3 MAY 1975, Page 13

The fine arts

The big frieze

Basil Taylor

The Parthenon Frieze Martin Robertson and Alison Frantz (Phaidon 0.50)

"My heart beat. If I had seen nothing else I had beheld sufficient to keep me to nature for the rest of my life." So Benjamin Robert Haydon reacting in 1808 to his first sight of these sculptures. He had looked at "a female wrist" and seen "the outer condyle visibly affecting the shape as in nature." To study the early reactions — not only Haydon's predictably intense ones — to the Parthenon marbles when Lord Elgin brought them to London in the first decade of the nineteenth century is to realise how comparatiyely unimpressionable we have become, how shrunken our capacity to be surprised, awestruck, re-formed in 'mind and imagination by works of art, now that there is so much to be experienced so readily, and when so many different secondhand impressions of everything crowd in upon the eye. Turner and Tutankhamen have made many queue in the rain and that high-stepping Chinese horse has caused a small stir, but Elgin's great import was perhaps the last astonishing discovery before the slow visual revolution began to lessen the excitement and expectation, stop the heart beat.

These works were not unimaginable relics from some Atlantis or Eldorado but a cargo of classical antiquities brought into a culture inured to classicism for ten generations, for whom Greek and Roman forms were the lingua franca of their experience and utterance. For us classicism has gone so far out of currency that no instances of twentieth century neo-classicism have renewed the old alliance or even seem to be quite acceptable; the neo-classical drawings of Picasso or the particular reclining woman by Moore whose draperies ripple over the body in so Pheidian a manner disappoint by their reference to the past, do not stimulate that sense of intimate kinship with a revered antiquity felt by those of the Keatsian generation. They found in the Parthenon sculptures not merely an affirmation of what had become a conventional, automatic faith, but works which in their kind of naturalism suddenly revivified belief and did so by touching another deep source of contemporary feeling. For that reason along the Elgin marbles should still be the best way back to the feeling for the highest classicism.

In his most lucid and helpful essay introducing the plates Professor Robertson summarises a case for treating the frieze as a rendering of the quadrennial procession, the Great Panatanaia, that carried to the Acropolis a robe with which to drape the olive-wood image of Athena. He also shows that by treating a human event, however ritualistic and mystical its source, this frieze 'differs from those on other Greek temples whose subjects were mythological and other-worldly. It is tempting to connect the subject and content of the work with that humane naturalism which brought Haydon, quivering, to his knees. Hazlitt's response was, intellectually the same: "The chief excellence of the figures depends on their having been copied from nature and not from imagination . . . the forms are from nature; the actions are from nature; the whole is from nature . . art and nature are here the same thing." This ancient attention to nature was the link with modern sensibility. In 1818 Keats decided, for the benefit of his poetry, to experience the sublime first-hand, in the Scottish highlands, and on the way he looked for it in another of its accepted British locations, the Lakes, but what moved him there was something unexpected, not the grand generalisations of mountain scenery, mass and space and fearful monumentality "well-imagined," he wrote, "before one sees them" (as well-imagined, one might say, as the attributes of classical art), but "what astonishes me more than anything is the tone, the colouring, the slate, the stone, the-moss, the rockweed; or if I may say so the intellect, the countenance of such places." This contrast between general abstract nature, however expressive in its particular manifestation, and something more intimate, concrete and indeed sensuous, the breathing countenance, was what he and his friends had found in that "damp, dirty penthouse" of Lord Elgin's where his marvellous accessions had been so haphazardly stacked.

It is surely in exactly these terms that the sculptures need to be revisitea now. The whole array, and the frieze most of all, constitutes one of the difficult masterpieces. The damage the temple suffered cruelly disturbed the physical continuity that the image of the procession once possessed, the subtle pattern of movement and rest, energy and repose which can now only be reconstituted by a careful and sophisticated observation of the relics. I doubt if the most zealous lover of the fragmentary or an aficionado of ruins would prefer the thing in its present state. It was once richly filled with exquisite human countenances, tender and expressive gestures and_ motions of the limbs, but much ofit is now dominated by drapery, wonderfully composed and shaped, but helping to abstract the work into an archaic world. And it is, of course, a relief, a form of sculpture for which modern art and taste has shown little sympathy.

The present book is an ideal preparation both for the newcomer or for anyone who wishes to have expectations and sympathy renewed. Not because it is ostensibly exciting. Dressed 'overall in black and white it may not appeal to readers who want the art book to be a glamorously sensuous product, a specious substitute for the things reproduced. The images are presented with as much plain, sensitive lucidity as Professor Robertson's text possesses. Alison Frantz is a quite excellent photographer of classical works, all the better for being so self-effacing and restrained. She does not attempt to dramatise her subject with appealing contrasts of light and shadow, and does not toy too lovingly with the surfaces. She uses her camera and lamps simply to reveal the modelling of the forms in their particularity and thus her pictures are particularly sensitive in the display and discrimination of the middle tones. Although there are a few large plates devoted to the details, it is the unfolding of the whole frieze in the smaller illustrations which is the real achievement of this unpretending book, Basil Taylor is an art critic and art historian