You’re doing THINGS (?!) to my vocabulary Richard Armitage! (or the ancient Greeks had headcanon too!)

I knew I wanted to post a piece about a particular vase painting today, but I was struggling a bit with exactly how to introduce it.  While I was reading a bit of background, I had an epiphany (nope…that is a pre-Armitage word in my arsenal).  The recent addition to my personal lexicon is HEADCANON.  Having never really participated in fandom activities prior to tumbling head first into Armitageworld in 2012, I had never heard the term, which an UrbanDictionary entry defines as,

Used by followers of various media of entertainment, such as television shows, movies, books, etc. to note a particular belief which has not been used in the universe of whatever program or story they follow, but seems to make sense to that particular individual, and as such is adopted as a sort of “personal canon”. Headcanon may be upgraded to canon if it is incorporated into the program or story’s universe.

The realm of fan fiction is heavily populated with this concept as fic writers expand on or reinterpret chaRActers and stories.  But headcanon are not confined to authors.  Whether we define them as such or not, virtually every fan has his or her own personal and chaRActer/story related Richard Armitage headcanon – with so much information in the realm of supposition, it’s almost impossible not to.

I'm a little afraid to contemplate the headcanons this pic inspired!  ;)

I’m a little afraid to contemplate the headcanons this pic inspired! 😉

The concept of headcanons is a relatively recent one, and is largely confined to fan based activities.  In fact, a search of dictionary.com will bring one to exactly zero definitions of the term in mainstream lexicons.  Imagine my surprise when it jumped out as perfectly applicable to a piece of ancient Greek pottery!

"Vatican 344" by Exekias Source

“Vatican 344” by Exekias
Source

The vase above is considered by many to be the masterpiece work of the potter/vase painter Exekias.  It was made in Athens around 530BC in a style known as Black Figure, which refers to a method of decorating and firing the vessel so that areas painted with slip appear black while the unslipped portions retain the characteristic orange-red color of the local clay.

Detail of Vatican 344

Detail of Vatican 344

While the style of the period and the limitations of the Black Figure technique result in typically “Archaic” looking figures, evident in the heavily stylized indications of musculature and the characteristically rendered eyes, there is no question that Exekias was an artist at the pinnacle of his craft here.  I have always marvelled at the incredible intricacy of the garments the figures wear.  In this technique, each and every bit of detail is added by incising lines into the black areas after firing.  Looking carefully at the cloaks, you can see just how skilled the artist was.

This vase is certainly exceptional in terms of artistry, but the subject of the scene is also very interesting.  On the surface, we have two male figures, dressed in military garb, their armor and weapons close by.  We don’t have to guess at who they are since Exekias was in the habit of labeling his figures.  On the left, still wearing his helmet, is Achilles.  Across the table from him is Ajax.  Achilles and Ajax were the greatest of the Greek heroes who fought in the legendary Trojan War.  Interestingly though, Exekias didn’t show them in the midst of what they did best – fighting.   Instead, he chose to depict these two outstanding Greek warriors…playing a board game?!  There is no question as to what they are doing…again, the artist has captioned the “action” for us as each player calls out the number he’s thrown – Achilles rolled a four, Ajax a three.

Scenes associated with the Trojan War are extremely common in Greek art, and although Homer’s Iliad is the most well known source of Trojan War lore, it actually only covers a very small portion of the whole story arc.  There are a whole slew of other bits and pieces of the Trojan Cycle that survive in fragments from a variety of different sources.  Here’s the catch though – this particular episode is not to be found in any of the extant stories that discuss the Trojan War, yet it became extremely popular as an art motif in the wake of Exekias (there are over 150 known vases decorated with this scene in the 50 years following Exekias’ career).  John Boardman, a heavy hitter in the world of Greek vase painting, suggested that perhaps Exekias was pulling a vignette from local “bardic traditions”  that had never become part of the mainstream story.   In the absence of any strong evidence pointing in another direction, I’d argue that it’s equally possible that an artist like Exekias was tapping into his own imagination…developing a headcanon for what might have gone on in the considerable downtime that the Greek heroes would have had during the ten year siege of Troy.  What was I saying about things changing and staying the same?

I was looking around for an Armitage related image to weave in here, and it turns out that there are not very many filmed scenes of chaRActers playing games, but look at this great piece of original fan art by Natascha illustrating another fan’s prompt:

Thorin and Dwalin arm wrestling....FANtastic headcanon!! Source:

Thorin and Dwalin arm wrestling….FANtastic headcanon!!
Source

Nape curl vortex…Chicago edition

I am diligently exposing my honors class to the Classical tradition at the Art Institute of Chicago…

And look what I found!  (Example on right only :) )

And look what I found! (Example on right only 🙂 )

Good thing they have WiFi here, or I may have blown my professorial cover by squeeing to my students!

ὅ παῖς καλός – Chin up Richard Armitage…

A quick perusal through a gallery of images will confirm that Richard Armitage has perfected his version of a chin down, eyes down partial to full profile look, especially for fashion/artistic style shoots, to great effect.  I had the one below (Keith Clouston, 2011) in mind when I was walking through the Met earlier this year.

Keith Clouston for Recognize Magazine - June 2011 Source:  www.richardarmitagenet.com

Keith Clouston for Recognize Magazine – June 2011
Source: http://www.richardarmitagenet.com

Most recently, another from the plethora of images shot by Robert Ascroft in December 2012 displays a similar look in a 3/4 body pose.

I'm not looking at you.... Robert Ascroft - December 2012 Source:  richardarmitagenet.com

I’m not looking at you….
Robert Ascroft – December 2012
Source: richardarmitagenet.com

These images and this pose have struck a chord with me from day one, and I finally figured out why.  In part, I like them purely because I’m fascinated by the angular lines of his face that are set off so beautifully in profile, but also because of the quiet, contemplative tone of such images.  There is a certain serenity, but perhaps a bit of sadness.  This pose, and how Richard Armitage inhabits it reminded me distinctly of several images from Greek art…

Greek art, especially sculpture and vase painting is full of scenes of men engaged in action – athletics and warfare especially.  It is much less common to see men purely at rest, unless it is in a scene of banqueting, but those scenes don’t really convey the same sort of stillness and introspection of the images above.  For classical Greek men it seems, stillness and contemplation was reserved for situations when death was prominent.

Grave Stele from Brauron Museum of Fine Arts - Boston

Grave Stele from Brauron
Museum of Fine Arts – Boston

Above is a funeral scene where a young man in a similar pose…body relaxed, chin down, eyes down as he looks to the ground contemplating his life.  This is the figure of the deceased depicted on the stone, or stele that would have marked his burial.  This pose is quite common for funerary art…the figure of the deceased avoids eye contact with the living – a sculptural indication that he’s no longer of this world, but belongs to the Underworld.

Below, we see Odysseus in a scene from his trip to the Underworld (Odyssey, XI) in which he is conversing with the shade of his recently deceased comrade Elpenor.  Odysseus, though still alive, exhibits the same pose of quiet contemplation at he listens to Elpenor’s story. (One other place this pose frequently appears is in scenes where warriors are preparing for battle…ie, where death is a distinct possibility.)   These scenes are poignant, emotionally evocative, beautiful in their way.

Scene from Homer's Odyssey - Odysseus visits the shade of Elpenor in the Underworld Source:  Museum of Fine Arts - Boston

Scene from Homer’s Odyssey – Odysseus visits the shade of Elpenor in the Underworld
Source: Museum of Fine Arts – Boston

 Clearly, similar images of Richard Armitage are not meant to convey any notion of funerary sadness, but they do have the power to evoke strong emotional responses…I don’t think it’s accidental that photographers consistently capture this look, it’s a good one for him… ὅ παῖς καλός!

I'm still not looking at you....but you're looking at me aren't you?? Robert Ascroft - December 2012 Source:  richardarmitagenet.com

I’m still not looking at you….but you’re looking at me aren’t you??
Robert Ascroft – December 2012
Source: richardarmitagenet.com

(Incidentally, at the risk of displaying my complete ignorance of men’s fashion…are those sans-a-belt trousers?  🙂 )