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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)