Annals of art: the three men

(References to male bodies and man-on-man sex, but in decorous language, because the raunchy stuff isn’t the point. But it’s all there, with a (carefully doctored) photo, so some readers might have qualms.)

Yesterday’s discourse on art, triggered by an ad for a gay porn DVD — in my posting “Three men at play” — ended with a fugitive memory:

I had this vague feeling that the arrangement of the [three] bodies [in the gay porn shot] was an allusion to some piece of art (a statue or a painting); it struck me as somehow familiar.

But what piece of art? I was at a loss.

Now one reader has provided the actual source, and another has provided the piece of art that I dimly and inaccurately sort of had in my mind when I asked the question. So, the real thing and the bad (but entirely relevant) guess, and more than that no one could ask for. Artistic satisfaction is mine.

To recap. The gay porn shot (ad advertisement for Falcon’s Alpine Wood Part 1), in a genitals-free version:

(#1) Angel Rock (right) about to give Jimmy Durano (left) a pre-copulatory kiss, while Luke Milan (center) is on the verge of fellating Durano

My discussion continued:

… Well, three hours or so of searching has netted nothing for me. The world of visual art with three human figures is extraordinarily rich (so my search, though fruitless, was enjoyable), almost all of it with one of two arrangements of the bodies: ||| (the three figures with their heads at roughly the same level); o|o (central superior figure flanked by two lower figures)

… almost all logically possible patterns [of | and o] are attested, but with far from equal frequency

… I found only one example of |o|, two superior figures flanking a central lower figure — the arrangement in [(#1)]

… [not to mention] the even more specific |o| with facing superior figures plus the lower figure facing towards one of the superior figures

… [yet] my fugitive artistic memory — which might, of course, be mere confabulation — was of this last specific pattern. In fact, still more specifically, in my memory all three figures were male, and the lower man was appealing to one of the superior men.

The bullseye. In a WordPress comment from reader JD G:

I doubt that this is the painting you’re looking for, but if you scroll down on this Britannica page, you’ll find an image of “Greek psykter depicting reveling satyrs” (which seems rather fitting, considering the subject matter!) in which the three figures are arranged in the | o | position. Though not engaged in an explicitly sexual act, the central figure is thusly posed to indicate his role as recipient in the scene.

(#2) [on the Britannica site:] Greek psykter depicting reveling satyrs: Reveling satyrs, Attic red-figure psykter (wine cooler) signed by Douris, c. 480 BCE; in the British Museum, London.

The Rock satyr is pouring wine into a container, for the Durano satyr to offer to the Milan satyr; the Milan satyr is, of course, gazing, presumably with gratitude, at the Durano satyr, while the Rock satyr looks down at the Milan satyr he’s helping to serve

So the gaze exchanges aren’t the same as in #1, and it’s all about libation, not sex. (Though I can’t help noting that satyrs were known not only as hard drinkers but also as sex pigs — oh, those satyrs! — and that there are robust metaphorical associations between consuming drink and food, on the one hand, and performing oral sex, on the other.)

The really good bad guess. This time my reader guessed at what I had in my mind — the art work is very famous, so I very surely knew it (as a matter of fact, I knew about the reveling satyrs too — the pskyter is an extraordinary object — but it is nowhere near as famous) — except that he didn’t realize just how significantly I had misremembered it, how much I had transformed it in my mind, altered its story. (Alas, memory is like that, as I occasionally reiterate on this blog: things we recall, even with great clarity and certainty about the accuracy of our recollections, might very well be wrong, in small details or even all of them. Even more sadly, knowing that doesn’t help to sort things out.)

So: on Facebook yesterday, from an old friend (who is also a keen museum-goer and observer of art):

Jeff Shaumeyer: For a moment I thought of suggesting Laocoön, but of course it’s 1 superior figure with two lower figures, rather the complement of what you’re looking for. [AZ, somewhat startled, digs out a photo of the statue and realizes that his memory pretty much had everything backwards and upside-down]

AZ >JS: Wow. That was exactly what came to my mind first, and then I realized that it was the complement. Maybe I should comment on that; at the very least, it would be an observation on the way the mind works (in this case, recognizing not the geometric pattern but something more like the emotional one).

First, the background. First, the mythological figure, from NOAD:

noun Laocoon [AZ: /leákoàn/; spelled as here or with a diaeresis on the last O]: Greek Mythology a Trojan priest who, with his two sons, was crushd to death by two great sea serpents as a penalty for warning the Trojans against drawing the wooden horse of the Greeks into Troy.

And then the statue. From Wikipedia:

(#3) The statue of Laocoön and His Sons, also called the Laocoön Group (Italian: Gruppo del Laocoonte)

[The statue] has been one of the most famous ancient sculptures ever since it was excavated in Rome in 1506 and placed on public display in the Vatican Museums, where it remains. It is very likely the same statue that was praised in the highest terms by the main Roman writer on art, Pliny the Elder. The figures are near life-size and the group is a little over 2 m (6 ft 7 in) in height, showing the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus being attacked by sea serpents.

The group has been called “the prototypical icon of human agony” in Western art, and unlike the agony often depicted in Christian art showing the Passion of Jesus and martyrs, this suffering has no redemptive power or reward. The suffering is shown through the contorted expressions of the faces (Charles Darwin pointed out that Laocoön’s bulging eyebrows are physiologically impossible), which are matched by the struggling bodies, especially that of Laocoön himself, with every part of his body straining.

Somehow, what I extracted from my memory of this work was the agony of Laocoön transformed into sexual ecstasy — not actually such a stretch — and Laocoön’s appealing to his sons for their aid transformed into a bid for connection, especially sexual connection. So I made Laocoön into the lower figure.


2 Responses to “Annals of art: the three men”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From JS on Facebook on 4/14:

    It was interesting to read, and an oddly interesting effect. Now you’re making me think of an explanation I heard once about emotional time in opera.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Of course I couldn’t let JS’s teaser just sit there, so I twitted him about his vague allusion. And got these great off-the-cuff remarks from him on 4/15:

      Years ago (what sent these days?), I listened to someone discussing recitative vs aria in earlier opera, with the insight that recitative happens in clock-time, while arias happen in emotional time, which I’ve found a valuable perspective.

      Then that puts me in mind of, say, medieval apse mosaics in which Jesus is an enormous figure, saints are “normal” size, and the bishop who donated the money is the size of a large bug; it’s easy to see as a sort of unsophisticated representation of reality, until one knows that the perspective portrays spiritual size and not physical size.

      Viewing the Laocoön has an emotional component, because it’s a strongly emotional artwork, and I was thinking perhaps it’s not surprising that the relative sizes of the figures in one’s memory map onto an emotional “size” rather than a physical size. (Of course, there could be other “mappings” as well, that get mushed together, I guess, but this is just off-the-cuff thinking.)

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