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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

Frag­ment of a stat­uette of a bearded re­clin­ing ban­queter, circa 520BC Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity Clas­sics Mu­seum. On dis­play at AD Hope Build­ing, ANU, Can­berra. About 2500 years ago, a small se­lect group of elite men would gather in pri­vate for drink­ing par­ties. But these were no or­di­nary drink­ing par­ties. They were the ul­ti­mate net­work­ing op­por­tu­nity; a get-to­gether where friend­ships were forged and po­lit­i­cal al­liances se­cured.

These gath­er­ings, or sym­po­siums, were an im­por­tant cul­tural in­sti­tu­tion in an­cient Greece. Par­tic­i­pants would meet in a spe­cial room. They would re­cline on couches that had been ar­ranged around the walls so all the men could see each other. Of course there was food and wine, of­ten lots of it by some ac­counts.

The fo­cus of the evening was po­etry and dis­cus­sion of phi­los­o­phy, pol­i­tics and cur­rent af­fairs. But there were also drink­ing games, jokes, gos­sip and en­ter­tain­ment.

Sym­po­siums are widely ref­er­enced in Greek literature, theatre and the vis­ual arts. Per­haps the best known is Plato’s The Sym­po­sium, fea­tur­ing his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ters such as Socrates, Aristo­phanes, Al­cib­i­ades and Agathon hav­ing a dis­cus­sion about the mean­ing of love.

Sym­po­sium scenes were of­ten de­picted in fres­coes and on pots. But par­tic­i­pants also were sculp­tured in clay, and one such ex­am­ple is on dis­play at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity’s Clas­sics Mu­seum in Can­berra. This stat­uette of a re­clin­ing male ban­queter comes from a se­ries of ter­ra­cot­tas char­ac­ter­is­tic of the Spar­tan colony of Taranto, a cen­tre for the man­u­fac­ture of ter­ra­cot­tas of hu­man forms.

It is ev­i­dent that the lower body, the right arm and the legs are miss­ing. But, de­spite this, what re­mains is a be­guil­ing ex­am­ple of the late Ar­chaic pe­riod in Greece (700BC to 480BC). The face is dom­i­nated by pro­trud­ing eyes, an Ar­chaic smile and a beard. The chest is sturdy, with erect nip­ples, the body, broad-shoul­dered.

ANU clas­sics pro­fes­sor El­iz­a­beth Minchin says the func­tion of this stat­uette is “a lit­tle bit hazy” but it may have been pro­duced to serve a lo­cal cult wor­ship of fam­ily he­roes. She says this sculp­ture is cu­ri­ous for sev­eral rea­sons.

“It is thought that the head was cre­ated in­de­pen­dently of the body,” she says. “If you look at it care­fully it ap­pears to have the kind of hair­style that would have be­longed to a woman. So a beard has been at­tached sep­a­rately, as has the lovely gar­land around the head, to make it work for a male.

“But what I love about this fig­urine is the slightly mys­te­ri­ous Ar­chaic smile. These are smiles that you see on all kinds of Ar­chaic stat­ues, a self-aware smile. It is al­ways called a smile, but is it re­ally a smile? I think Ar­chaic heads and faces have a kind of for­mal­ity and styli­sa­tion that you lose once you move into the clas­si­cal and then into the Hel­lenis­tic world, where sculp­tures be­come re­al­is­tic por­tray­als of real peo­ple.”

Minchin says there is much in­ter­est in see­ing the form of an Ar­chaic fig­ure. “Our mu­seum can’t af­ford to pur­chase a gi­ant kouros fig­ure such as the Getty Mu­seum might have, but we can have a fig­ure in minia­ture that il­lus­trates just as pre­cisely the same fea­tures: the smile, the eyes and the physique.”

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