Defense Mechanisms? Richard Armitage, Jay Brooks & Greek Sculpture

It is well known that photographer Jay Brooks shot a striking series of images of Richard Armitage as John Proctor which were used in the promotion of the Old Vic run of The Crucible over the summer.  (One of them, in poster form, graces the wall of my office – curiously, my officemates don’t seem to mind 😉  )  Brooks published the image below, clearly from the same shoot, on his Twitter feed some time after the first batch.

Richard Armitage as John Proctor?

Richard Armitage as John Proctor?

I love “reading” iconography…deciphering the clues to meaning in a piece of art.  From my perspective, this image stands apart from the rest of the series to a certain degree.  The pose is rather curious, the positioning of the arms relative to the head and torso creates a series of planes and angles that produce a level of three dimensionality that struck me as quite sculptural in effect.  It inspired me to take a look through the classical sculptural corpus to see if there was anything similar.

As it turns out, there are not a lot of male sculptures depicted in the arms to the head position, but there are a couple of pretty striking examples.  The first thing I thought to look for were depictions of Atlas.

Farnese Atlas Source

Farnese Atlas

After the battle between the Olympian gods and their elders the Titans, Zeus sentenced a number of the defeated Titans to onerous punishments.  Atlas was sentenced to bear the heavens in his arms – he literally had the “weight of the world on his shoulders.”  Depictions of Atlas usually show him struggling under the weight he’s been charged with bearing.  The Farnese Atlas, a Roman copy of a 2nd century BC Greek original sculpture, shows Atlas with powerful musculature, but clearly putting forth enormous effort to hold it all up.  If Atlas were to be animated, I’ve always thought that one would be able to see subtle tremors and quivers in his musculature under this enormous burden.

Farnese Atlas - Face Source

Farnese Atlas – Face

Interestingly, a closer look at Atlas’ face reveals that although he shows signs of his stress, his expression is far from one of hopelessness or despair.  That seemed to me to bear some resemblance to the expression captured by Jay Brooks on the image of Richard Armitage.  Here Proctor is dirty and burdened, his expression strained, but the upturned eyes indicate resilience, perhaps even defiance.

The most common examples of sculpted males with arms raised around the head are those who are captured unawares in an unguarded moment of sleep.  I showed you Endymion a few weeks ago and another stunning example of a “sleeping beauty” comes in the form of the Barberini Faun.

Baberini Faun Source

Baberini Faun

A faun is a half human, half goat woodland creature – similar to a satyr.  This piece, 3rd century BC in date, captures a faun in one of his favorite activities – sleeping (cavorting about in the woods can *exhausting*!). This is a moment of extreme defenselessness and vulnerability…the splayed open legs and the upraised right arm, hooked behind his head, leave the faun completely open to attack.  The problem here is that while the arm behind the head is similar, the images of Proctor never convey this level of vulnerability.

What we don’t see in the ancient corpus is a lot of examples of another reason to raise arms to the head…that is, defensively.  You really only need to watch an hour or two of crime or forensic science programming to learn that defensive wounds most commonly appear on the hands and forearms of victims.  It is instinctive to raise one’s arms to ward off an attack to the torso or head.  However, even in sculptural groups with incredibly violent action (Centauromachy, Gigantomachy, Titanomachy) there are very few figures depicted in this defensive position.  I imagine it has something to do with the sort of inherent submissive quality it conveys.  Warriors are not depicted as submissive, and there is even a desire to depict enemies about to fall as glorious in defeat.  In this context, the absence of a position of defense is not all that surprising.  Defense doesn’t seem to be what is going on in the Brooks photo either…I don’t see a whole lot of “defensiveness” in the image of Richard Armitage as John Proctor – not really surprising since Proctor’s defense is much more active than submissive.

All of this leaves me in a bit of a quandry about what Jay Brooks is trying to convey with this particular shot within the context in which it was taken. While physically imposing, John Proctor becomes increasing vulnerable as the play progresses…by the end, like the faun, he’s laid almost completely bare.  Like Atlas, John Proctor does have a massive burden to bear, but is resolute, fighting against it to the very end.  All in all, the connections are very nebulous, nothing quite fits.  In fact, if you page through the images on his website, you’ll see that Jay Brooks seems fond of putting subjects into unusually striking positions. So, maybe this image was never really intended to convey any of the visual language of The Crucible, but is instead an artistic expression of the photographer.  (The fact that it was released separate from the images used for promotion of The Crucible is perhaps telling as well.)


21 comments on “Defense Mechanisms? Richard Armitage, Jay Brooks & Greek Sculpture

  1. guylty says:

    Thank you, Obscura – that was really interesting.The fact that there is hardly an example for a similar pose in classical sculpture is telling in itself. I really need to write a companion piece to your post – there is much to say about it from the photographer’s POV. The fact that I haven’t, is also telling because the image has a lot about it that would make it an iconic photograph of Armitage – the fact that it is a nude (well, by omission of the lower part of his body), the striking pose, the contrast of black background and pale skin, the dramatic lighting. The image certainly is unique among Armitage’s output as a sitter so far. But here comes the revelation: The main reason I have not felt particularly compelled to *ooof* this most *ooof*worthy of images is that its strong undertones of homoeroticism both require some research (genuinely scientific, on my part :-D) and its mention will most likely encounter criticism if not controversy. But what I always wonder is – what does Armitage himself think about this picture? For a look in your brain, Armitage…

    • obscura says:

      A look into the mind of the sitter is a really compelling thing isn’t it? I’ve wondered along the same lines about the shoot with the notable LV sweater and others where he’s been asked to climb into some “interesting” poses.

      When this image first surfaced I remembered seeing a comment remarking on how this image was reminiscent of certain homoerotic art (I think it was Linnet…). Ancient homoerotic art is considerable less subtle, and I’m not terribly familiar with the modern genre, so I confess, it didn’t immediately strike me as such.

      I do understand your hesitance to touch on this issue…it has certainly been a hot button one in the past – although why it needs to be is beyond me.

  2. sparkhouse1 says:

    When I looked at the picture when it was first released I immediately thought of that ‘Vogue’ dance style Madonna had the song about and also thought it was quite homoerotic..I would love to read guylty’s review of it. I also loved this comparison to the sculptures….I know very little about these things and find it fascinating!

  3. jazzbaby1 says:

    I love this post. And I’m CERTAIN your office mates don’t mind. 😉

  4. Hi Obscura,

    Love your essays! And actually, I had found an almost identical sculptural pose to RA’s above–in Michaelangelo’s “Dying Slave”–and I suggested it in my earlier blog post here:

    However, I’m not familiar with that sculpture’s iconography, other than that it clicked in my brain when I saw Richard Armitage in that pose. What are your thoughts about that sculpture and RA’s pose?

    Cheers! Grati ;->

    • obscura says:

      Cool…I missed that along the way! I’m not overly familiar with the Renaissance, but artists like Michelangelo were certainly the hours to the revival of classical traditions. From what I’ve read, there is a series of six slaves – the one you reference is the most complete – that were intended to decorate the tomb of Pope Julius II (a huge papal patron of Renaissance art). The similarity of psce is definitely striking. Iconographically, this series is thought to be representative of the concept of struggling against bondage..literally to an extent, but more so against the intellectual bondage of ignorance, etc. in that sense, the this piece is a really good model for John Proctor. Thanks for turning me on to it!

  5. Hariclea says:

    Fascinating and even more interesting to know how few references of such poses actually exist. I felt the same when i saw the picture, that is was very sculptural. It made me think of David/Michelangelo or rather Michelangelo in general. Grati’s suggestion is very interesting indeed as well. Maybe it’s, more than the pose itself, the way the male subject is depicted and how powerful it comes across. And very likely because of the influences Guylty mentioned.
    But while the physical beauty in it made me think of how Michelangelo depicted it, the sculptor it made me think even more of is my personal favourite, Rodin. It’s somehow very earthy, raw in it’s intensity, humanity in it’s mucky state, and even more stunning for it.
    And lo and behold i remembered this! Rodin’s L’âge d’airain
    There are various casts of it in different museums

    There are also very interesting stories about this particular sculpture, Rodin being accused of actually casting it after a human being, which he denied, commissioning as proof photographies of one of his models by a famous photographer of his time, i.e. to show how nude inspired him but was not an identical cast 🙂 Article here

    • obscura says:

      Very interesting info on Rodin! I thought of Rodin too. I think the bronze conveys that vitality and earthiness you refer to much better than marble. Even though I can’t quite put my finger on it, there is something powerfully evocative about this image. I’m really glad Jay Brooks shared it with us!

      • Hariclea says:

        me too! i never tired of looking at it 🙂 totally get it why it didn’t become a Crucible poster and don’t think i could have this up my wall without it being a total distraction 😉 but it is stunning and makes me wish i knew more about the intention in both sitter and photographer 🙂

        • obscura says:

          I’m told by several photographer friends that sitters are virtual slaves… 😉

          • Hariclea says:

            i’m sure they are but i do wonder what he thinks about when he eyes look like that 🙂

          • obscura says:

            Oh totally!! I am housed in a wing with art historians, historians and artists who I was discussing this image with yesterday. One colleague remarked that the uplifted gaze from within the arms reminded her of martyrdom paintings where the saint-to-be looks heavenward from amidst a peppering of arrows. I thought that rather apt 🙂

          • Hariclea says:

            ahhhhh, so true, you just brought about a hundred paintings of saints back into my mind! but somehow although the gaze is upwards looking i don’t feel the kind of abandon or suffering that is usually there, here there is more determination, i feel… I have to say i almost wish it was a sculpture to be able to twist it around and look at it from other angles 🙂

          • obscura says:

            Yes…there is will here. Resolute..beleagured, but determined (?) comes to mind The saints are giving themselves and their will up to God in that moment I think.

            The ability to see it from different directions would be fab!

  6. Hariclea says:

    upsy, i added some photographic evidence into my previous post and it’s sent the comment into moderation, curious to see what you will think of it 🙂

  7. linnetmoss says:

    I believe this type of pose appeals to certain photographers with a “sculptural bent.” And yes, there are big echoes of Michelangelo, which fits with the homoerotic element. Remember, men can find him attractive too! I feel that the aesthetic is something to do with finding vulnerability within masculinity. I have seen this type of photograph of other male actors, indeed there is even a set of examples of a young Ciarán Hinds posing in similar style (though clothed):
    If you scroll down you can see three photos where he has his hands up around his head. I think I’ve seen something similar with Alan Rickman though he was younger…

    • obscura says:

      Now that I’ve troubled myself to have a thumb through the genre, I can clearly see what the reference points are…I came across the Barberini faun in the the image array as well. I have zero trouble believing that anyone could find instances of such beauty attractive…regardless of race, creed or gender ;). I guess I’ve always seen them as simply erotic without further classification of the modern terminology (which is applied retroactively to ancient works). *shrugs*. It’s all gorgeous to me.

        • Hariclea says:

          aha i see too, interesting photographs. I’m with you too here that i find it all beautiful and i am sure the subject has to have a certain impact on the artists too to depict it in a certain way. Not sure, but wouldn’t they have to feel in a what what they want people to feel when they look at it? But at least in ancient times they were less bogged down with putting things into categories 🙂

  8. Servetus says:

    Nice point about the eyes / martyrdom. This pose doesn’t really recall any moment in the play. But neither does the other “naked” pose of Armitage as Proctor (although it does recall a certain mood).

  9. humma' says:

    ….Your 3rd Paragraph is spot-on…..and I think I like the pose for Mr. Brooks’ ‘take’ on Mr. A’s questioning of his own ability to bring-off the part,… and tells US that he (MR. B) also questions why? does Mr. A doubt himself, because we ALL can see Mr.A finds a way…and Mr. B shows it with the almost hidden-in-plain-sight left thumb in the armpit, supporting.., As Always….I just LOVE the gentle, yet STRONG, suggestion…..or…is it just that….?!?!?!?…

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