Escape Artists

August 31, 2020
Index Magazine

Escape Artists

A small brass figurine depicts a woolly ram with a long tail. A bearded man pokes his head out from under its belly, grasping the animal’s side with his left arm. The animal’s fur is indicated by striated lines. The surface is shiny and nearly black, and partly covered in light brown encrustations.
Odysseus and the ram, Roman, 1st–3rd century CE or later. Brass. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Purchase through the generosity of Walter and Ursula Cliff and William Collins Kohler in honor of Professor Emily T. Vermeule and the Gerhardt Liebmann Bequest, by exchange, 1994.8.

Art allows both artists and their audiences to disregard bleak realities and enter a world of their own imagination, however transient. A recent Index article discussed the political engagement of artists; the present one explores artists’ retreat into pleasant pastimes, dreamlands, exuberant ornamentation, and fantasy.

In a Culture Track survey carried out this spring, respondents said that they look to cultural institutions to help them “laugh and relax” and “offer distraction and escape during the crisis,” and that the majority of those eager to visit an art museum want to experience beauty. The artworks selected here respond to this impulse by representing escapes from immediate danger, health and political crises, the demands of daily life, and even the rules of nature.  

A little bronze figure invites us to forget our worries and tag along on the adventures of the great escape artist Odysseus, for what is the Odyssey but a series of narrow escapes from hairy situations? A drawing by Claude Monet hints at the close personal connection that may be found in a shared pastime amid the tranquility of nature. A painting by Japanese artist Watanabe Gentai conjures up a fleeting pastoral idyll in brilliant colors—look closely, since you may not be able to return. An elaborately decorated Athenian water jar shows that the craving for beauty in times of crisis dates back millennia. And a grotesque bird by Dutch metalsmith Arent van Bolten takes us on a (wingless) flight of fancy, revealing the artist as a creator who may ignore the rules of nature to build an alternative universe.

Going Out on a Lamb

In the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, my father found himself with the charge of entertaining me for months. Without electricity, the still, dark evenings were hard to bear, so he filled them with legends. Half-remembered stories inspired new narrations and were my introduction to the tale enfolded in the small sculpture seen above: the elaborate escape by Odysseus and his men from the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus. After inebriating their captor, Odysseus lied about his name and blinded the Cyclops’s one eye with the aid of his men. The Greeks then absconded under the bellies of thick-fleeced sheep, where they were hidden from Polyphemus’s probing touch. In a rare flash of tenderness that moved me as a child, Polyphemus imagined that the burden that slowed down his favorite ram was sadness for his lost eye and not the added weight of the hidden Odysseus. 

Figurines can be small and simple, yet profoundly evocative. Here, Odysseus pokes his head out from under the ram, foreshadowing the boastful reveal of his identity that will curse him to a 10-year voyage. The ram smiles in turn, knowing perhaps that the trespasses against its master will not go unpunished. The two bodies here, alone and summarily rendered, contain an epic and encourage the beholder to join in on the adventure. Is it possible that the feel of this sculpture inspired a parent trying to comfort their child all these centuries ago? 

Frances Gallart Marqués, Frederick Randolph Grace Curatorial Fellow in Ancient Art, Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art

It Takes Two

Painter Claude Monet and writer Guy de Maupassant both liked to escape from the metropolis of Paris to Argenteuil, the small town on the banks of the Seine where boating, fishing, and other leisure activities beckoned. Coincidentally, in 1882, both men dedicated masterful works to the theme of friendship between two men fishing side by side. How do these fishing friends communicate their feelings without necessarily verbalizing them? Monet’s drawing after his 1882 painting renders two men sitting across from each other in their dinghies. How long have they been there? Their presence appears almost immovable. The water, indicated by loose crayon lines, is flowing rapidly between them. Monet scratched the fishing poles into the textured paper, indicating, in the subtlest way, how the two figures relate to each other with antenna-like receptors.

Maupassant probed in his famous short story Two Friends (Deux Amis) quite how far the understanding between such fishing companions can go. Two friends sneak out of Paris during the Franco-Prussian war, at a time of siege and deprivation, to find solace in their favorite pastime. When they are caught by the Germans and arrested as spies, their friendship is suddenly tested and they die as heroes for the motherland, while a German officer devours their fish. Reading Maupassant with Monet in mind, and looking at the drawing after reading Maupassant, reminds you of how friendship and values are upheld in a world in constant flux. 

Joachim Homann, Maida and George Abrams Curator of Drawings, Division of European and American Art

Peach Blossom Spring

The title “Peach Blossom Spring” derives from a prose preface written by the Chinese poet Tao Yuanming (365–427) during a time of notable political instability. In the text, a fisherman chances upon a paradisal realm after passing through a cave hidden by blossoming peach trees. When the fisherman emerges, he finds a rustic landscape populated by contented farmers, who are unaware of the political turmoil in the outside world. They welcome him hospitably to their peaceful, isolated land. Despite being warned against it, the fisherman returns home after a few days to tell others of his discovery, only to fail to find the cave ever again. Gentai’s rendering follows the ancient tradition of using azurite blue and malachite green to endow the mountains that shelter the utopian village with sacred meaning. Gentai borrowed from the idioms of professional Chinese painting that were otherwise anathema to the amateur literati tradition, which favored monochrome ink painting. As a result, he developed a style previously unwitnessed in early modern Japanese painting.

Rachel Saunders, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Curator of Asian Art, Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art

Retreat into Florals 

Tucked below the vertical handle on the back of a capacious water jar, two stacked palmettes sprout delicate tendrils. Curving up and down, the tendrils curl into scrolls and bear further palmettes. Comparison suggests that these refined florals were painted in an Athenian potter’s workshop in the last decades of the fifth century BCE, at a time when life in the democratic city state was dire. Commentators have looked to late fifth-century Athens in search of a precedent to our current health crisis. A plague—typhoid, smallpox, or another highly contagious disease—hit in 430, decimating the population of the city while it was embroiled in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE) with Sparta. The historian Thucydides recounts how “the bodies of the dead and dying were piled on one another and people at the point of death reeled about the streets . . .” He also tells of the resulting erosion of social norms. 

Archaeologists have recorded mass graves and increased investment in healing sanctuaries, but horror and desperation brought by plague and a war that Athens would ultimately lose is not conveyed in the visual arts of the time. Sculpture and pottery are often described as “rich,” “ornate,” and “florid,” delighting in exuberant drapery and ornamentation. The figure scene featuring the wine god Dionysos on the front of this water jar follows that trend. As Dionysos promised immortality to his followers, the scene might allude to yet other ways of coping with harsh realities: finding solace in drink and hoping for a blissful afterlife. 

Susanne Ebbinghaus, George M.A. Hanfmann Curator of Ancient Art and Head, Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art

A Flight of Fancy 

Arent van Bolten’s Grotesque Bird is an invitation to escape reality. Walking on two skinny ostrich legs, the creature extends an unctuous neck from its snail shell to caw at the sky. We know the bird was cast in bronze at the beginning of the 17th century, but the inspiration for Bolten’s bird is a mystery. Along with the many drawings he made of similar creatures, the bird shares characteristics with the hybrid monsters that populate Hieronymus Bosch’s fantastic hellscapes. Bosch modeled his monstrous chimeras on birds. At once a popular motif for the human soul, birds also effortlessly transgressed the logic that other animals were ruled by: warm-blooded, they laid eggs like reptiles; they were able to live on the ground and in the water; they could fly; and they walked upright on two legs and could even imitate speech. In the 16th century, following the discovery in 1480 of Nero’s Domus Aurea, with its fantastical ancient Roman frescos, the grotesque became a vehicle for pure fantasia, a space in which artists could imagine and create works unencumbered from the laws that regulated reality. Bolten’s Grotesque Bird is an object absconded from a more magical and more monstrous world. 

Hollie Buttery, Graduate Student, Department of History of Art and Architecture


Susanne Ebbinghaus, the George M.A. Hanfmann Curator of Ancient Art in the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art, and Joachim Homann, the Maida and George Abrams Curator of Drawings in the Division of European and American Art, compiled and edited the entries.