The question to be had was when to begin. There in the cabinet rested the pint glass, right-side up, rinsed out and anticipating since the previous night’s final rite. No questions were to be had once the pint glass was full, full, full, full of his sour mix and stew. There was a beauty in this pint glass’s freedom, his unencumbering schedule: each morning’s bell rang at six, corner stores opened at nine, The Price is Right began at eleven, but this pint glass worked twenty-four seven.
Sometimes the cabinet would open at eight, sometimes two. Ice cubes were or were not made during final rite, a temperamental determiner of the future’s neatness. The kitchen was usually reshuffled come time to make space for the pint glass and an passage leading to the Maker’s Mark across the room, a clearing of Chinese take-out boxes and ice cream ephemera repositioned wherever, as it was usually too heavy to do anything except slide the bottle towards his well. It was usually too heavy to do anything except slide through the day. Slide across the floor. Slide into memories. Slide home. And slew.
The events preceding that one December 7th are clouded, a foggy cold overnight of pacing north-south on a roof perpendicular to a Divisadero St. glowing patiently underneath canopies of solar-timed mercury lights. Sunrise would destroy this moment. I squabbled drawing a vertical line towards the orange street below, I imagined the arc I could draw at each inch from the edge, I imagined the lone moment of impact punctuating the two places of silence I would travel through. I visualized the two pictures I would leave for a commuter’s sunrise.
The question to be had was when to begin. Where to begin the approach? Which direction to take? Would this be a red or grey sunrise?
This short composition will be included in an anthology of City College of San Francisco writers participating in the Writing Success Project, which unites writers of all levels in an incubative atmosphere to collaboratively strengthen and amplify the sound of their words and the might of their ideas.
Among the icons sculpted during the Hellenic Age, no face nor contour is perhaps more recognized than that of the towering, muscled Herakles. However, the spirit of Herakles was larger than his mythological description and stronger than his brawn. Sculptors were drawn to the dramatic, yet inspirational adventures no ordinary man could endure for their raw narrative power. As a result, Herakles, the idyllic hero of brute force and luck, was an icon for emperors and civilians alike, as sculptors employed his story to fashion enduring compositions depicting success.
The son of illimitable Zeus and mortal Alkmene, Herakles begins his life as an object of contention between his parents and Zeus’s wife, the jealous, conniving Hera . Zeus dreamt noble intentions for his child, namely as a protector of god and man alike. Unfortunately, this trajectory is diverted by a seemingly endless series of troubles and trials. As a toddler, Herakles defeats deadly snakes sent into his nursery by way of Hera’s retributive wrath, this just the first of many battles with fauna . In his adolescence, he slays the Nemean Lion on Kithairon and acquires two significant symbols used in Heraklean iconography: the Lion’s pelt and a club made of wild olive . With these attributes he carries on and begins his Twelve Labors, ordeals ascribed by Eurystheus after a conciliatory agreement between Zeus and Hera, and marches towards his apotheosis . Scenes of these labors were common subject matter in Hellenic sculpture and form some of the great compositions of the time .
In fact, the lion’s pelt immediately identifies Herakles in Hellenic sculpture. We see this feature in a clay block carving from the 3rd century BCE, Heracles, from Panticapaeum, now in the collection of The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Intimately capturing a calm moment in the hero’s life, it is only six inches high with a pedestal approximately one-fifth of the composition’s height, a miniature counterpoint to typical towering constructions.
The composition depicts the hero wearing the lion’s pelt over his head, the top of the beast’s mouth resting upon his brow, fangs grasping his skin. The front legs of the pelt are thrown over Herakles’ shoulders, tied, knotted, a paw placed on each breast. The hind legs hang near Herakles’ ankles and the end of the pelt blends contiguously into the bottom plinth. The artist presents Herakles with an athletic body, a lithe torso one would expect of a young, modern-day Olympic swimmer, but without a pronounced musculature that suggests superhuman strength. Herakles gazes towards his path as his left foot crouches forward. Low-relief carving in the face, hands, feet, and pelt contrast smooth pockets of space around the torso and between the legs. The organic contours of this space capture light and gradating shadow, which reinforce a sense of movement and suggest the pelt’s resistance to air in stride, enlivening the character of the human figure. Though the composition is small and quiet, we are aware that Herakles is in transit, occupied by contemplation of that which lies ahead. Here, one senses Herakles is a man emerging from a void.
The real beauty of this delightful sculpture is that it integrates in miniature many of the best qualities of Hellenic art. As Gisela Richter discusses in her book The Sculpture and Sculptors of the Greeks, Hellenic artists relied on simplicity of subject matter and the beauty of contour in an effort to “express action and emotion” with simple gesture . With limited material and subtle definitions of form, the artist successfully imbues the sculpture with stilled emotions. Although the work has a sense of the hero’s inner contentment, it does not particularly embody what Richter categorizes as the quintessential moral depiction in Heraklean iconography, the defeat of evil .
However, the defeat of evil is wonderfully depicted in Antaios and Herakles, a marble sculpture dated 3rd to 2nd century BCE, at the Pitti Palace in Florence, Italy . The sculpture, approximately nine feet, six inches high, is perched on a pedestal that further lifts the moment towards the heavens, monstrously towering over viewers . Beside the Hermitage Heracles, these two compositions illustrate the contrasting applications of the Heraklean myth throughout Hellenic sculpture.
Depicting a moment after Herakles’ penultimate labor, the hero wrestles King Antaeus of Libya, whose notoriety is as a menace that challenges and kills strangers-in-transit after exhausting them through physical struggle. Antaeus, the son of Poseidon and Gaia, is reconstituted with extreme strength whenever he touches earth, the realm of his goddess mother. Accordingly, Herakles discovers during their battle that Antaeus must be lifted off the ground to bring defeat . Here, one sees that moment when the hero draws him up into his chest to crush him to death.
In contrast to the miniature Heracles at the Hermitage, Antaios and Herakles depicts life-sized figures defined by rippling muscle and the integration of negative space; light that flows over their voluptuous bodies and through their struggling limbs dresses these men in vigor. This is especially prominent in Antaeus’ legs, spread at a near ninety-degree angle like two perpendicular sundials, creating a constant light/dark contrast across multiple planes in the round. Moreover, this use of design considers the philosophical dichotomy inherent between the two fighters as it asks whose intentions will prevail: good or evil?
As can be seen in this particular illustration, the importance of light continues at the plane where both bodies converge. Herakles’ wrapped arms draw Antaeus against his frame as he balances the lifted mass against his right shoulder. As Antaeus struggles to free himself from the grip, his left arm creates a right angle that frames Herakles’ face tucked behind his flank. This particular element of the work places the hero’s visage in shadow, prioritizing Antaeus’ embarrassment and loss, suggesting that use of his god-given advantage for menace is dishonorable. While Herakles, too, possessed a god-given brute force, it is his cunning wherewithal — honed during repeated battle with earthly animals — and quick thinking that enabled him to kill this unruly beast for noble reasons .
While the enraptured struggle of their muscular bodies draws a viewer towards the action, the distinct textures of the figures’ heads and the lion’s pelt lying underneath the men reinforce vertical movement, acting as separate and discriminate points of contrast to an otherwise smooth-surfaced composition. The pelt, which Herakles removed before the battle, is perhaps the most interesting element to this work, an implication that even man displaced from his advantages has the power to prevail. The skin of the Nemean Lion was impenetrable, rendering Herakles’ weapons unusable in his original battle with the animal. Therefore, killing the animal required strangulation, which is similar to how he killed Antaeus . The narrative of wrestling with Antaeus is then a reprise of his first labor — success through ingenuity and perseverance.
Furthermore, as T. B. L. Webster suggests in his paper “Personification as a Mode of Greek Thought,” art was imbued with contemporaneous philosophical beliefs (often through mythology) to confront the burden “of taking hold of things which suddenly appear … uncontrollable” . This was certainly necessary in Herakles’ chance encounter with Antaeus. Still, while sophist and Heraklean mythographer Herodoros associates courage with the lion-skin, this sculpture objects reliance on external crutches and affirms power from internal strengths . Cynic and Stoic philosophers agreed, having revered Herakles as a paragon of achievement won through difficulty .
Finally, a visual repetition of form between Antaeus’ dangling left foot and the claw of the pelt, both hanging forward toward the viewer, connect the two figures and their defeat. Even the impenetrable strength of his skin couldn’t save the lion from Herakles’ grip. Antaeus ultimately had his machismo skinned away, too.
Yet, the demonstration of power to imply the impenetrable strength of a nation was important in Hellenic subjectivity. The revered ruler Alexander the Great lionized Herakles, making his myth choice subject matter for artists of that epoch. By supporting artists as a patron, Alexander funded work that created longstanding associations between himself and the hero, a prime example of which are the numismatics he ordered bearing his portrait in the likeness of Herakles .
The hero had already been used on coins before Alexander’s birth, as can be seen in Head of Bearded Herakles in Lion Skin, ordered by Amyntas III and dated 389-369 BCE, collection of The Cleveland Museum of Art. The stater, silver and 2.1cm wide, displayed on its obverse a bearded Herakles in profile, wearing the lion’s pelt over his head similar to the Hermitage Heracles. Alexander’s predecessor, his father Philip II, replicated this theme in his coinage by using a Heraklean depiction of himself, the notable difference being a clean-shaven face. This is demonstrated here in Gold Trihemiobol of Philip II, Macedon, collection of Wriston Art Galleries, Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin. Once Alexander took rule, the imagery extended into his domain, as is the case in the 2.6cm wide Tetradrachm: Head of Youthful Herakles in Lion’s Skin, also at The Cleveland Museum of Art.
These two later examples are strikingly similar in their depictions. In both coins the right ear is framed by the open jaw of the pelt, lower fangs pronounced and sharp against the cheek, upper fangs lost in a thicket of textured hair. The ear of the lion is prominent and recognizable, as is the mane running down the left edge of the coin. However, visible differences exist between each mane’s form — length, volume, and division of clumps. Close examination reveals variations in facial geometry and proportion; Alexander’s nose and chin display signs of wear and disintegration from time, but other details, particularly their lips, have clear variation in shape. The arresting likeness of each eye and the thick, organic furrow of their brows, though, immediately suggest a kinship between these two men and their shared affinity for Herakles.
The association of mythological hero with military might — Alexander’s expansion of Grecian influence through combat reached levels once only known through myth — also served as an honorific for soldiers fighting at the leader’s behest. Because soldiers were often paid bonuses for their retention, as was the case with the League of Corinth after Darius’ death in 330 BCE, remuneration for military service was dressed with symbolic heroism since a soldier’s take would be this coinage minted with the imagery of Herakles . The instant identification with superhuman strength and prowess surely created a psychological affinity within re-enlistees whose mortal lives depended on these extra-mortal traits to quell internal fear. Furthermore, as classical scholar Timothy Gantz posits in his book Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources, Herakles’ motivation to perform the requisite Twelve Labors was a desire to return to his family . The hero’s tenacity was yet another thread tied to the heart of any soldier wishing a successful return home.
Although Alexander perished suddenly and unceremoniously in 323 BCE, the heft of his acclaim and the size of his achievements added a civic heroism to Heraklean iconography . Heraklean imagery would remain prominent in the following centuries, often as imitations of earlier Alexandrian representations . As the Hellenic Empire crouched towards its nadir in 30 BCE, the immortal god Herakles and the myths of his tumultuous life contrasted the defeat and decline facing the populace .
However, skillful representations of Herakles examine this counterpoint to success, the inherent and eventual recession of power and elation from any high point. Sculptor Lysippos, who Grecian art scholar and historian J. J. Pollitt credits as “the single most creative and influential artist of the entire Hellenic period,” extracted elements from the Heraklean narrative to broaden the hero’s ubiquitous image as the pinnacle of strength by revealing the internal labor of a man reckoning with his fate . We see this reflective side in the Heracles Farnese, a 3rd century CE Roman copy of the 4th century BCE original, in the collection of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Fashioned from marble, the statue stands ten feet, four inches high .
The work depicts Herakles at rest. He leans against his club, over which hangs the lion’s pelt, the club inserted into its open mouth. His left armpit rests on top of one end of the club, the opposite end balanced against a rock adjacent to the hero. Herakles stands in contrapposto: his left foot forward and right foot drawn back, angled in opposition, knees brought together as the ankle and heel cross the plane of the left leg. Lysippos instigates two specific structural geometries with this positioning: first, the angling of his left leg creates with the balanced club an implied isosceles triangle, the bottom pedestal as its base; second, the angling of his right leg creates with the balanced club an implied rhomboid. These two intersecting shapes create an illusion of a pyramidal volume of negative space underneath his armpit at their convergence and emphasize movement over opposing planes in space.
Lysippos continues by layering this structure with sensuality. Although the sculpture’s underlying structure is angular, both Herakles’ serpentine posture and the organic modeling of his body with rhythmic, undulating lines infuse the composition with spirit, as the titillating, inflated musculature suggests the finest athlete in a moment of his prime . The hero’s shift of weight causes slinky curvature up through his right flank, over his abdominals, and towards his shoulder. Perpendicular to this, a delicious, plane-shifting line begins at his outstretched left index finger and gracefully spirals over the upper contour of his body, behind his neck, down his bent right arm, and terminates at his right hand placed behind his back. The layering of these snaking lines over his contrapposto stance shift Herakles’ body into a pose full of torsion. This tension of crisscross movement in design not only causes constant shifts of light and shadow, but agitates a viewer to question from all sides the complexity of this completely in-the-round composition.
Herakles’ rest is truly fascinating since myth underscores him as a man of endurance, and the fact that the Heracles Farnese is one of the most popular and timeless representations from the Hellenic age underscores its allure . This representation even typifies a category of subject matter often called Farnese Type, Herakles at Rest, or the Weary Herakles . One should note that while Lysippos may have created the standard for the mortal dilemma of Herakles, archaeologist Ernest A. Gardner asserts that Myron’s Herakles from the 5th century BCE demonstrates a prevision of the style . Art historian Christine Mitchell Havelock agrees with Gardner’s position and expounds the idea by stating the Farnese was the first of such kind to express great “melancholy and moral weariness, such reflective potential” . Writing in the American Journal of Archaeology, Cornelius Vermeule goes even further, calling the type a “symbol of man’s salvation” in a world of disintegrating values .
These observations are undeniable as one analyzes the modeling of Herakles’ face and glance. As he leans on his club, Herakles tilts his head down and looks towards the perched club and hanging pelt. Displaying quintessential Hellenic pathos, Lysippos sculpted Herakles with an internalized, almost sullen gaze . The hero offers us his silent, solitary concentration, a man collecting his thoughts and counting through history the steps of his journey. Here, Herakles looks into the shadows of his past. In the small clay Heracles we see this concentration, a gaze towards the earth and an atmosphere of uninterrupted quiet, but the miniature expresses an internal concentration in-transit, whereas the towering Farnese stands with the weight and stillness of a mountain, locked in self-immersion. This heavy heart encrusted by a mass of inertia multiplies the overall gravity of the composition and the gravitas of its emotion.
Lastly, the rear view of Lysippos’ composition provides the viewer with the key to fully understanding the work. Displaying more of Lyssipos’ omnipresent, curvilinear sensuality, the rear shows Herakles holding in his right hand — the terminus of Lysippos’ plane-shifting spiral — three apples of the Hesperides, daughters of Atlas. These symbols then identify the work as amidst his penultimate labor: in transit to deliver the apples to Eurystheus. The labor requires Herakles to bear the weight of the celestial globe on his own back, having deceived Atlas into retrieving the apples. Once he completes the labor, he then proceeds towards Libya and his battle with Antaeus .
Lysippos, resting the back of Herakles’ hand on top of his buttock, creates an interesting conceptual contrast. His rear hand positioned in the past holds objects of success while his unclenched front hand of the present is empty, suggesting the polarity of thought in the hero’s mind. Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway seems to agree, suggesting the hand’s position on the buttock is the sign of a “challenged hero … not a triumphant Alexander” . Momentarily, Herakles’ strength of a nation wanes.
In conclusion, we can interpret the Farnese as a monument to the hero’s life, one that marks a succession of triumphant endeavors as it honors the bittersweet recognition of mortality. Yet, the Farnese was only one of many stylistic depictions of hero-nature throughout Hellenic times. Like the Farnese‘s position as an exemplar in sculpture, Herakles would eventually take his place amongst the gods after his apotheosis; however, Herakles and his iconography in Hellenic sculpture are the apotheosis of successful living — the persistence to labor through life’s challenges, whether quotidian ritual or immortal quest, and find one’s inner heroism — an inspirational model for citizens of any century.
 T. Gantz. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1993) pg 374.
 R. Graves. The Greek Myths. (London: Penguin, 1990.) pp 90-91.
 Gantz pg 379; Graves pp 95-97.
 Graves pg 86.
 W. Burkert. Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual. (Berkeley: University of California, 1979.) pg 78.
 G. Richter. The Sculpture and Sculptors of the Greeks. Fourth Edition. (New Haven: Yale University, 1970.) pp 19-23.
 Ibid, pg 26.
 R. R. R. Smith. Hellenistic Sculpture. (London: Thames & Hudson, 1991.) pg 107.
 Ibid, pg 120.
 Graves pp 146-147.
 Burkert pp 94-95.
 C. Hemingway. “The Labors of Herakles.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2000.
 T. B. L. Webster. “Personification as a Mode of Greek Thought.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. Vol. 17, No. 1/2, 1954. pp 10-11.
 Ibid, pg 13.
 J. J. Pollitt. Art in the Hellenistic Age. (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1986.) pg 52.
 Ibid, pp 25-26.
 J. A. Evans. Daily Life in the Hellenistic Age: From Alexander to Cleopatra. (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2008.) pp xv-xvi.
 Gantz pg 382.
 Pollitt pg 28.
 O. Palagia. “Art and royalty in Sparta of the 3rd century B.C.” Hesperia 75.2, 2006.
 Evans pp xxv-xxx.
 Pollitt pg 47.
 Ibid, pg 50.
 Ibid, pg 50.
 C. Vermeule. “The Weary Herakles of Lysippos.” American Journal of Archaeology. Vol. 79, No. 4, Oct. 1975. pg 324.
 C. M. Havelock. Hellenistic Art. (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1970.); J. Charbonneaux, R. Martin, F. Villard. Hellenistic Art. (New York: George Braziller, 1973.)
 E. Gardner. Six Greek Sculptors. 1910. (New York: Books For Libraries, 1967.) pp 230-231.
 Havelock pg 120.
 Vermeule pg 332.
 Pollitt pg 51
 Graves pp 145-146.
 B. S. Ridgway. Hellenistic Sculpture II: The Styles of ca. 200-100 B.C. (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin, 1989.) pg 306.
I recently completed what I hope will qualify as the hardest semester of my academic career. Seven classes, eighteen credits, one very exhausted artist. Yet, I feel enriched and I feel accomplished. I spent the better part of twelve weekends working in the library on research papers, texts that will find their way here shortly. I wrote my first research paper in a foreign language, which was absolutely the hardest of the lot. Foreign language acquisition is a bitch, but I’m getting the hang of it now, going into my fourth year. Deutsch! Ich lieb dich!
Perhaps the most rewarding experience of the semester was as a Teacher’s Assistant and tutor for Modern Art History. Obviously a topic I love, I took liberty to run with the opportunity and really threw myself into helping other students see with different vision. I created an arts writing workshop that specifically addressed techniques of visual analysis in concert with crafting an academic paper; I broke down the processes of seeing and writing into similar, digestible parts and presented students with an easier way to tackle the oft despised task of composition for a grade, showing how each part of visual interpretation mimics a stage of writing. It was a crowd pleaser!
I feel like my life has been on hold for three months, overcome with a fury that I like to call Academic Masochism. Nonetheless, I think I nailed it, and considering I just applied to one of the most well-respected public institutions in the world, I would have been foolish to otherwise relax. Right?
The plan now IS to relax – I earned it. After a few days of doing laundry, cleaning the apartment, whispering sweet words to my studio, begging him to take me back into his arms, I will then head off to the Mojave Desert to celebrate das Neujahr, and prepare myself for what will hopefully be the home-stretch of my departure from San Francisco. More to be said about that indeed, as well as catch up on all the art making and art writing and art displaying and art trading that really fuels who I am.
Above: San Francisco, violent grey, diagonal living, transitory, absurd, home; acrylic on paper, Chloe Watson 2012
I’m happy to announce that I will now be contributing to San Francisco Arts Quarterly. It feels great to be offered a new venue in which to put one’s work and I’m absolutely delighted that the hard-working team at SFAQ have brought me into their fold. I’ll be doing monthly reviews on the website and working on longer format stories for future print issues. Please take a moment to check out my first post for them, “Color, loud & quiet“, reviewing two shows currently on view in San Francisco by artists Laura Paulini and Don Voisine.
I am about to spend a few days in Los Angeles touring UCLA, cruising Culver City, sniffing-around studios, and visiting friends. I’m quite looking forward to time away from the Bay – as much as I love it here, one needs to leave its chaos when given the opportunity – but it also puts into perspective how, chances are, I’m beginning my final year in San Francisco.
I have a hard time even remembering when I first arrived here, I have to count back the years on my fingers, though the beginning of my love affair with The City is crystal clear – at first I despised this place. San Francisco has been good to me and I have only a few sour things to say about my home, nothing unexpected from living the city-life, criticisms mostly about poor governance, rapid gentrification, and poor rapid transit. Still, I long to leave.
My hopes, predicated on an even more cantankerous statewide governance of the University of California, draw me south, where I can do some serious research at a major institution and etch my place in the LA art scene, one that loyally spits out work I admire and wish to be close to.
When I fantasize about leaving, I quickly fear the absence of fog. Something so common and reliably ethereal. A cool, grey blanket, as a friend recently described it. How true. And, only the pinnacle of so many uniquely San Francisco moments that pepper our every-days. How lucky to be a San Franciscan.
Errg…alas, what’s a man to do?
This conundrum of cities reminds me of artist Alexis Manheim‘s work, color in frenetic movement. Her work “California!” is truly a portrait of this fine state and its dichotomies: smoke and fog, enigma and wonder; valleys of fire and coasts of blue; a sharpened sun throwing chromatic shadows; anger, tension, eruption; unity, fascination, order. Manheim’s work is especially delicate, her use of pastel – tender pigments hovering against the paper – creates a contrast of materials we rarely see from contemporary San Francisco artists. We’ve become so accustomed to seeing paintings with their flat media permanently affixed, instead we accept this composition is transitory. Without the safety of the frame’s containment, a Santa Ana wind would whisk away the color-in-line from “California!” with the same quickness that it spreads fire across the Los Angeles National Forest. We see a row of houses aflame in her work, recalling the aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake, kindled from the abscessed ground underneath in the lower-center of the composition. Everywhere, and everyhow, the little strings of life keep all the color together – fine lines of ink and graphite interconnect and secure all this motion like unconscious freeway seat belts.
Living in California is nothing if not delicious. Perhaps living on the precipitousness of geological destruction electrically influences our Golden lives. (How California new-agey… ) Here, Manheim’s imagery speaks the delicate words in my heart. Between the captivation of color and the ruin of regret is the valley of volition. Here, with so many beautiful places to be wonder, it’s an enigma to stay put. It’s also hard to think about saying, “So long.”
Above: California!, Pastel, ink, graphite, acrylic on paper, Alexis Manheim 2010