Thursday, 31 May 2018

Dancing for Dionysus

I've been thinking just now about the pottery we saw yesterday at the museum at ancient Aleria. The fact that the artefacts were drawn from across the central Mediterranean reveals how critical the place was as a trading hub. A map in the museum shows the way it was linked to other places in the early classical era.

However, it's not the collection's historical significance that I have been mulling over, but the pieces themselves, particularly the Attic Red Figure vases. They are the most beautiful and thought provoking things I have seen in a while, perhaps since visiting the small museum at Mycenae a couple of years ago.

It seems the knack of being able to capture the essence of something simply by outlining it is an innate human characteristic. Picture-space based on mathematical perspective may be a product of European culture, but humans have been skilled at line drawing for tens of thousands of years, as the cave art at Lascaux and Altamira testifies. Japanese woodcuts, the calligraphic landscape artists of China, as well as Western masters like Botticelli, Durer, Ingres, Matisse and Picasso, all were magicians at 'taking a line for a walk'. The anonymous Black and Red Figure vase painters' work in Aleria museum can stand comparison with anyone. They did not take their line for a walk, they made it dance.

A few years ago I read 'Camera Lucida', Roland Barthes' reflections on the nature of the photographic image. He distinguishds between two modes of looking. One, called the studium, places images within the context of similar works and attempts to understand their cultural value. The second, Barthes calls 'the punctum' - those images which 'exist only for us' - that have an individual significance, a psychological power that pricks the viewer. These are not so much 'arresting images' but ones that 'arrest' the viewer. It seems the red figure  'collared' me good and proper.

For all the apparent simplicity of their line, they seem ambiguous, contradictory even. 

Exultant, yet restrained.

The way the couple's feet make a 'X'' shape as they turn to glance at each other - so beautiful.

Startlingly candid, yet oddly coy.

A strange dichotomy between the erect phallus and the spindly, almost feminine arms - slightly androgynous, disturbing..

Wild, yet farcical.

These two  seem to be having a chat amid the Dionysian revelry, "How's the missus, then" 
The historian Bettany Hughes recently presented a TV programme about the cult of Dionysus. It made an interesting point - that the cult was popular not because Athenian society was permissive and unconstrained, but precisely the opposite. Citizens were expected to be committed to their civic and religious duties, emphasis on physical prowess and beauty smacked of what we now might see as 'body fascism', the role of women citizens was restricted to household matters mainly, only female slaves and prostitutes could wander the streets. - Dionysian festivals, and the imagery associated with them, constituted a rare opportunity to cast aside these constraints. Perhaps the contradictory aspects of the figures reflect the tensions between the social conventions and spirited the individualism of Athen's fifth century democratic experiment. . 

For some reason a snippet of a Joni Mitchell song occurred to me as I was thinking about the red figures of Aleria.

"I met a friend of spirit 
He drank and womanized 
And I sat before his sanity
I was holding back from crying
He saw my complications
And he mirrored me back simplified
And we laughed how our perfection
Would always be denied."

It seemed strange. The opening lines of 'Refuge of the Roads are not overtly Dionysian. It is a song about wanderlust, so I struggled to see the connection. Maybe it's the bit about seeing complications mirrored back simplified - that's what I think these images do, what all great linear draughtsmen can do, but these figures address questions of our wild animal nature, our passionate exultant selves, yet they are grounded in the commonplace - perfection denied; therein lies their power and undying fascination.

Evening becomes twilight. Tonight is our last in Aleria, we've been here five days, that's a semi-permanent residency by our standards. It has been a great day. This morning we headed back to the Etang de Diane, this time I took my swimming stuff and snorkel and had a good time being a fish.

The small splosh to the right of the waves breaking on the reef is Pete...
Where the afternoon went I have no idea, it simply slipped by. It is our goodbye Aleria moment a stunningly sunny and blue one. We declared it the correct moment to open the posh bottle of Rosé we bought in Moutere Valley in New Zealand. Delicious!

Before dark we took a last stroll along the beach towards the river mouth. The Tavignano is one of Corsica's larger rivers tumbling down through deep wooded gorges from the mountainous interior. The beach is covered in driftwood, not the odd bough, but whole trunks white as dinosaur bones, gnarled roots wind sculpted into strange Dali-esque forms.

In Spain people have taken to piling stones on beaches making personal 'cairns' to mark their visit. Here is strictly shingle, so driftwood is the preferred medium. Big boughs and slender eucalyptus branches woven into temporary shelters, some constructed on top of sand 'mottes' or protected by ditches. 

A long salt-whitened tree trunk beached by the water's edge got me thinking about Corsica's first inhabitants. They island hopped here from Tuscany via Elba and Capraia. Their dugout canoes could not have been much bigger than this fallen tree. Maybe 9000 years ago groups of them paddled up this river, built temporary shelters out of what was to hand. It must have been a hunter gatherers Eden, the island had been cut off for a million years. Strange animals roamed its forests, such as pygmy hippos. The first Corsicans feasted them to extinction. 

What struck me, among the latter-day shelters, the outline of ancient Aleria silhouetted on its bluff above the river, the lights of camping bungalows among the trees, was how much we had in common - the people now with the people then.

The point was reinforced by two kids on the beach. They had found a couple of empty 5l plastic water carriers, They beat out a jaunty rhythm with sticks on their make-do drum kit. Their older sister jigged a bit, dancing for Dionysus, then wandered off and stared at the sea.

Another zero day when time plays tricks on us, right there, right now - simultaneously here now and back then, mere shadows on a beach at twilight who share a rare moment then fade away.

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