Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What mad pursuit?

I stumbled upon this ancient marble relief while poking around in the online collection of the Museum of Fine Art (Boston). They've catalogued the
entire collection, near as I can tell. The only problem is that it's difficult to find and not easy to navigate. You can take your chances on it here.

I have yet to get the background on this Greco-Roman carving. It made me think immediately of Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats. I loved the poem as a teenager (he had me at "still unravished bride of quietness") mainly because I believed its message of the universal value of art that outlives our smallness and mortality to be "a friend to man."

I didn't realize that, as the poem moves around its subject (the carvings on the "Attic shape" of the Grecian urn), Keats is describing a fairly common subject of Greek vase relief-carving. The images that inspired Keats's musings about art come from a pagan celebration scene very much like this one, a haunting "leaf-fringed legend ... of deities or mortals, or of both" that leaves us asking, "What men or gods are these? What maidens loath? What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?"

Maybe we can never know the final "truth" about a work of art - or anything else, for that matter - but compelling creative works console us with their timeless presence, for we know they too arise from unknowing - and yet they're their own "answer," and at times may even persuade us of the beauty of our predicament.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty"---that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats
from Ode on a Grecian Urn, 1820