Parthenon Frieze

Rocks, Paper, Memory

Wendy Artin’s Watercolor Paintings of Ancient Sculptures

Roman Imperial Image

Portrait Head of Augustus

Augustus was the first Roman emperor (27 BC–AD 14), and he established a tradition (following precedents set by Alexander the Great and later Greek kings) whereby sculpted portraits of the emperor were circulated and reproduced throughout the Roman Empire. The exact mechanisms of this process are uncertain. One possibility is that plaster casts were made of clay or wax portraits of new emperors (or of sitting emperors on important occasions) and quickly disseminated; they then served as models for stonecarvers throughout Italy and the Roman provinces. Portraits produced in this manner have an interesting status as art objects; they are in one sense copies or reproductions of the imperial image, but they are in another sense original creations and as such are often very powerful.

Coins were another more common medium for popularizing the imperial image. Coining, however, is a more mechanical process than marble carving. Although the materials and some of the techniques have changed, ancient coins were minted in a fashion analogous to that still used today, in which a blank piece of metal is stamped between two mold-like “dies,” which bear inverse versions of the obverse (heads) and reverse (tails) coin designs. The same dies can be used to produce many hundreds or thousands of coins.

Wendy Artin and Christopher Ratté in Dialogue


CR: I want to return to the subject of the “discipline” of your work, namely, its fidelity to its subject matter. And I want to make a connection with the Roman practice of “copying” famous Greek statues. This was a fascinating cultural habit, and it is still a major focus of current scholarship. For a long time, much of this scholarship consisted of “mining” the Roman “copies” for evidence for the Greek “originals” that stand behind them, with very little attention paid to their status as objects made for specific contexts and specific users in the Roman period. An alternative school of thought, represented here at Michigan by my colleague Elaine Gazda, draws attention to the facts that these “copies” were usually made in materials different from the “originals” (marble rather than bronze) and that they regularly differ from each other in ways that seem to reflect deliberate choice. Starting from these premises, Elaine and like-minded scholars proceed to try to recapture Roman “copies” of famous Greek statues for the history of Roman art, showing that they are not mechanical reproductions but creative variations on ancient themes that tell us a great deal not only about Greek art but also about Roman society. Central to their argument is the Roman practice of aemulatio, usually rendered in English as “emulation.”

Opponents of this view have argued that fidelity to the model was of the essence of this kind of Roman sculptural practice. Rather than having regarded a “copy” as something inherently inferior to an “original,” Roman sculptors would have gloried in their ability to portray their models with extraordinary fidelity, even when working at different scales or in different media—and Roman viewers would have prized and admired such displays of artistic virtuosity.

I guess I’ll leave my short disquisition on Roman copies of Greek statues at that and simply pose to you the very open-ended question: do you think this has any relevance to your work?

WA: I am not sure whether this has relevance to my work. In art as in music, I relish repetition. I love stripes and trills, choruses and variations. I suspect that this love for repetition extends through my entire life: eating many artichokes, running the same favorite route, seeing the same beloved faces. We repeat in order to learn, in order to play music together, in order to become manually dexterous, in order to relive enjoyment. Painting from life in any form is on some level copying, or repeating, since the image is before you. Then it becomes a question of degree, how faithful one is trying to be, or how independent. Does one try to duplicate the original exactly, whether it is a person, a statue, or a photo of a statue? Or is it simply a point of departure, a grain of inspiration, a muse?

How close were the original ancient Greek statues to their models? I think that many of the ancient statues were in bronze, which means that they were in a sense already copies of the wax models through which they were created. What I have for statue-models, then, is the plaster or marble statue copy of the bronze copy of the wax copy of the live model and the imagined ideal of the original sculptor. This chain of metamorphoses is somewhat reminiscent of the children’s game Telephone, where the message passes from person to person, modified each time.

Although I cannot know what the ancient Romans were trying to do, whether it was exact replication of the Greek statues in a different material or some kind of artistic interpretation, I know that a fundamental aspect of my paintings of statues is the creation of a two-dimensional image, the lightness of a watercolor painting, and the relative abstraction of the statue. Like seawater lapping at the edge of the beach, if the sea is total illusion and the sand is blank paper, I like to be right at the water’s edge, between illusion and materiality.

More of the dialogue