ὅ παῖς καλός – Richard Armitage and the Boxer at Rest: Unique Beauty

In addition to daydreaming and blogging about Richard Armitage, I’m teaching an aesthetics class this summer.  One of the challenges with a class of this type is empowering students to realize that art, in all of its forms is an exceptionally subjective thing.  Discussions early in the term often start out with “X is beautiful, Y is not.” By the end of the class though, many students are able to make a critical adjustment to that statement and say, “X is beautiful to me because….”  or “Y is not to my taste, but the artistry of the work is clear.”  That recognition is a win for me in the classroom.  One thing that has always bothered me about some veins of art history is the persistent tendency to criticize the art of one period in comparison to that of the previous or subsequent period.  The art of the Hellenistic (~330-30 BCE) period has often been maligned as overblown and theatrical in comparison to the more serene stylings of the fifth century.  There is no question that Hellenistic art is much more emotionally evocative and dramatic in its impact, but that is the reason that I love it.  While I can appreciate its artistry,  fifth century sculpture, with its rigid adherence to canon and almost cookie cutter similarity of faces, leaves me largely unmoved.  By contrast,  the dynamic motion and emotion captured by Hellenistic artists has always struck a cord with me.  Looking at these works, the viewer can see unique individuals rather than canonized perfection.

The Boxer at Rest discussed here also, is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.  This is not a sculpture of a perfect model, but one who shows the wear and tear of his profession, a nose that’s been broken, the characteristic “cauliflower” ear.   The tilt of his head and the angle of his brow make him appear to be looking up in questioning response to something.  There is a weariness about him that suggests he’s just finished a bout (he is also still wearing his gloves).  When I assess the look on his face, I’ve thought he looks as if someone has just asked him to fight again…”What?  You want me to fight now?  *sigh*.”  It is the sum of all his imperfections and the emotion conveyed by his face that I find so compelling.  He is unique.

  (His eyes would have been filled in with paste…see here for an example)

Detail of Head (image is flipped for comparison) "Boxer at Rest" Museo Nazionale Romano - Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, inv. 1055.  Lent to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by the Republic of Italy, 2013

Detail of Head (image is flipped for comparison)
“Boxer at Rest”
Museo Nazionale Romano – Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, inv. 1055.
Lent to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by the Republic of Italy, 2013

I think this particular aesthetic of mine may be a part of the reason that I find Richard Armitage so physically appealing.  There is nothing cookie cutter about him.   Like the boxer, his nose and his ears are characteristic features…individual, unique.   The moment of portrait is quite similar as he looks up, his forehead creased, brows raised as if to ask, “What next? *sigh*.”  Of course it’s impossible to tell if this look was deliberately crafted for what is a decidedly artistic shoot, aimed at a particular result, but that is how it spoke to me.  There is also a certain weariness around his eyes and the slightly opened mouth that reminds me of the Boxer too.  It’s an evocative image that would fit well within the Hellenistic aesthetic.    ὅ παῖς καλός!

Richard Armitage at work...looking up a bit askance. Fault Magazine 2012 Source:  richardarmitagenet.com

Richard Armitage at work…looking up a bit askance.
Fault Magazine 2012
Source: richardarmitagenet.com

John Porter and HeRAkles: Battered but not beaten heroes

I have been searching high and low for a classical connection to my favorite Richard Armitage character…John Porter.  I love every damaged, heroic inch of this character from his fingertip gently stroking the cheek of his distraught daughter on a computer screen, to his anguish when he learns of his mate Steve’s death….emotion aplenty.  Then there is the plain physical beauty of the man – I especially love his tantalizing teres.  Although not as obvious, there are a lot of connections to the classical tradition in Porter’s story – they just have to be fleshed out a bit more since they tend to be more conceptual than visual.  That said, it is to the visual (and how) that I turn today.

I’ve looked several times lately at a favorite sculptural work of mine known as the Farnese Hercules (I saw him “in the flesh” in 1992, and the impression has never left me.)   The connection to John Porter struck me only today.  Hercules is the Latin equivalent of the Greek hero HeRAkles.  The Romans adopted him and his mythology wholesale from the Greeks, and his Latin name has become more commonly known than the original Greek version.  There is an enormous volume of myth surrounding Herakles, especially as pertains to his famous Twelve Labors.  Less well known is the reason why he undertook the labors in the first place.

This is a story of guilt and redemption for the most part, very much like the central theme that runs through John Porter’s character arc.  A bit of back story would probably be useful.  Herakles was one of the many illegitimate children of the god Zeus (Jupiter in Latin) and as such was on the bad side of Hera, Zeus’ wife. (Ironically, the name Herakles means “the glory of Hera” in Greek)  Hera is a really interesting character…she hates her husband/brother (yep – incest was common among ancient deities), yet she is insanely jealous of his extracurricular activities.  She can’t take her jealous rage out on him – he is much too powerful, so instead, she lashes out at his lovers and his extramarital offspring.  Hera had it in for Herakles from the cradle where she sent snakes to kill him

"Baby" Hercules strangles the snakes.  I love how the classical Greeks depict infants as miniature adults... Source:  Vase Painting by the Berlin Painter in the Louvre

“Baby” Herakles strangles the snakes sent by Hera.
I love how the classical Greeks depict infants as miniature adults…
Source: Vase Painting by the Berlin Painter in the Louvre

Herakles grew into a man of tremendous strength and courage, but he was a bit of a loose cannon, so there were bumps in the road for him throughout his life.  As a young adult he married a princess named Megara and sometime later in a state of insane rage caused by Hera killed both his wife and their children.  Like Orestes, he fled to Delphi for advice from the oracle.  To redeem himself from his crimes, he was sentenced to carry out what came to be called the Twelve Labors of Herakles…a series of monumental tasks engineered by Hera to set Herakles up for failure and disgrace.  (and thereby keep him off of Mt. Olympus which he had been promised – along with immortality)

One by one Herakles completed each task.  The Farnese Hercules, a Roman copy of a Greek original sculpture by Lysippos, is perhaps the most famous depiction of Herakles.  It lives in the Naples Museum today.

Herakles in a moment of rest... So-called Farnese Hercules Source:  Wikimedia

Herakles in a moment of rest…
So-called Farnese Hercules
Source: Wikimedia

Here we see Herakles in a rare moment of rest, having completed almost all of his tasks.  We can see the skin of the Nemean Lion (Labor #1) draped over the club he leans on.  In behind his back, in his right hand Herakles holds the Apples of the Hesperides (Labor# 11)  The exaggerated musculature of this piece is one of its most striking elements, but I’ve also always found the weariness of the powerful Herakles extremely moving.  He is so close to achieving his goal, so close to redemption, if only he can find the strength to go on.

John Porter (Richard Armitage) in a moment of rest Source:  www.richardarmitagenet.com

John Porter (Richard Armitage) in a moment of rest
Source: http://www.richardarmitagenet.com

He seems so similar to John Porter (here as he digs a grave in Strike Back S1.4).  A powerful male in the midst of an unpleasant, but necessary task.  Labor that no one else can do, labor that stands between him and his quest for redemption.  There are moments in Strike Back when Porter’s exhaustion is almost palpable…it’s not just a physical response, but a mental one as well.  The result is deeply emotional and evocative.

John Porter (Richard Armitage) fights for the will to go on... (Strike Back S1.6) Source:  www.richardarmitagenet.com Source

John Porter (Richard Armitage) fights for the will to go on… (Strike Back S1.6)
Source: http://www.richardarmitagenet.com 

Boxer at Rest, a Hellenistic Greek bronze thought to have been inspired by the Lysippan Herakles, also captures this same attitude of dogged exhaustion…the feeling of digging deep inside to find the energy both physically and mentally to achieve the goal.

"Boxer at Rest" Museo Nazionale Romano - Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, inv. 1055.  Lent to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by the Republic of Italy, 2013

“Boxer at Rest”
Museo Nazionale Romano – Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, inv. 1055.
Lent to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by the Republic of Italy, 2013

These are heroes who have been through the wringer.  They have toiled, they have struggled and for just a moment they are at rest…battered, but not beaten.