|The Falling Gaul. Height 73cm.
All images from Ridgway, Plates 148a,b,c
I would place this work between numbers 200 and 201 in the Boardman text. Number 200 illustrates the most famous of the Attalid victory groups - the Suicidal (Ludovisi) Gaul and the Dying (Capitoline) Gaul. Boardman and others date these works at c.230-220 B.C. to reflect the Attalid victories over the Gauls of 233 and 228 B.C. Both works are slightly over life-sized. They are two examples from the so-called "Larger Attalid Dedication," generally thought to have been placed on the Acropolis at Pergamon. Boardman mentions that there were other monuments on the Pergamene Acropolis, though none is named.
The Smaller Dedication comprises a number of works assumed to derive from a monument placed on the Athenian Acropolis by Attalos I in 200 B.C. The basis for the assumption is the size of the works (approximately half life-size); certain literary references from antiquity (said to be the only Attalid monument with such references (Robertson, p.529)); the species of marble in which they are copied (originals were presumably in bronze); the subject matter; and the "find spot"(Ridgway, p.291). Scholarly opinion differs on many details of both the Larger and Smaller Dedications, but I use the generally accepted scenarios.
I would contest that the works attributed to the Smaller Dedication provide a potentially more significant example of Hellenistic (e.g. Pergamene) outlook than the Larger, and if not for their very unusual scale and somewhat lesser renown they would make a fine replacement for Boardman's number 200. The works are interesting in that they were apparently set up near the south wall of the Acropolis, and would have created a complement to the sculptural reliefs on the Parthenon, which they echo in theme and style. They therefore served as a monument to the relationship of the Pergamenes to the Athenians, and drew a comparison between the Atttalid victories over the Galatians and the mytho-historical victories of the Athenians represented on the Parthenon. The size of these pieces may be accounted for by their proximity to the Parthenon friezes, which were twice the size but forty feet off the ground. Observers standing at the Smaller Dedication would therefore perceive all at a similar size, and the dramatic Attalid monument would not dwarf the earlier work (Stewart, p.210). Through these works we glimpse the relationship of Attalid Pergamon to Athens in all her manifestations: Mythological, historical, political, military, artistic.
The Gaul has evidently been run over by a horse, and holds his left arm aloft in hopeless defense against the rider, who no doubt wields a heavy sword and will presently slay him. The Gaul's right arm locks in a strong vertical; his left leg extends perpendicularly to this arm and is slightly flexed at the knee, touching the irregular ground plane only at the heel. The right leg is flexed and medially rotated, the knee almost fully flexed, with the right foot in plantar flexion and slight inversion, causing it to solidly contact the base. The restored left arm is set parallel to the left leg, flexed at the elbow to form a strong diagonal with the lower left leg, with the hand hyper-extended and fingers slightly flexed. The torso is violently rotated to the Gaul's right and flexed, making a long crescent with the left leg and severely twisted abdominal region. The head, thrown back only slightly, faces the attacker, and wears the oft-repeated Hellenistic expression of helpless pleading with knitted brows and parted lips. The overall composition is something of a tetrahedral wedge with its horizontal edge facing the attacker.
In the Falling Gaul we have a technical tour-de-force unlike any previous freestanding sculpture in the round. This is not simply a figure bent over backwards, but a fully realized compositional whole in which Classical structure subserves a free-form, flowing, no-holds-barred pose. The excruciating technical difficulties in representing a twisting, falling figure suspended off the ground in a tripod-like stance are handled with staggering virtuosity; here naturalistic sculpture reaches its zenith. The complicated anatomical contortions of the stricken soldier remain structurally cohesive; there is an unmistakable, explicit naturalness to his falling; he is not in the least awkward or stiff. Muscle groups are accurately rendered in their appropriate states of tension and relaxation for their function in this position.
Indeed, to represent varying physical states and to bring forth, as it were, the illusion of living, dynamic flesh is a hallmark of the Hellenistic style. We see other excellent examples of this in the Terme Boxer (Boardman, fig.211) and the Barberini Faun (Boardman, fig.209), in which the particular characteristics of the musculature express the emotional state. One could remove the heads and lose none of the emotion, as these works are filled with pathos and there is a sense of essential humanity embodied in the structural elements of the pose itself. There is a common observation in the literature on the Capitoline Gaul that his flesh is "leather-like" and his musculature somewhat muted under an arabesque of surface pattern not entirely related to the emotive quality of the pose. Whether this is a by-product of the method of copying or was intended in the original cannot be known. Some writers favor the effect, others do not. Either way, the result is perhaps inconsistent with the most expressive of Hellenistic statuary, of which the Falling Gaul is a prime example.
The Falling Gaul certainly has precedents throughout the history of Greek art. The pose is reminiscent of a type seen in pediments in which a reclining or kneeling figure fills a triangular space. We see antecedents in the friezes of the late 6th Century Siphnian Treasury (Boardman fig.35B) and the metopes of the early 5th Century Athenian Treasury (Boardman fig.37B). We also see precursors in the Parthenon reliefs and pedimental sculpture (Boardman, figs.105C,D). In the pediments, however, the figures are always half-kneeling or semi-supported in some way. And although the Parthenon anatomy is fully formed, the work is without the Hellenistic dynamism and variation in muscular tension, and the figures are therefore somewhat homogeneous and the emotional meaning is more suggested than entirely apparent. But of course this is a complete style in its own right, and lacks nothing.
The Falling Gaul is a truly striking example of the Pergamene school of the later 3rd Century BC, with shades of the wildly "baroque" style seen on the Great Altar. In fact, one can easily imagine this figure placed on the steps in front of the frieze on the north wing, having fully detached himself from the high relief and forcing visitors to nimbly tread their way around his splayed limbs. Surely he was similarly arrayed on the Athenian Acropolis, a reminder of a glorious Attalid victory for the continued preservation of the civilized world, reinforcing the great Attic battle over barbaric intrusion. He was certainly a precursor to certain figures on the Great Altar, and even in much later Roman works we see the pose repeated, as in the 2nd Century A.D. Portonaccio Battle sarcophagus (Boardman, fig.353).
I find the Smaller Attalid Dedication to be a thoroughly exciting series of sculptures, and the Falling Gaul the best of the lot. I like the sculptures not just for their makers' remarkably close observation, but for the dramatic subject matter rendered with an artistic realism that feels natural. One cannot imagine how they could be any more dynamic or contorted without breaking the structural limits of the human form, and this is precisely what happens at the Great Altar of Pergamon and in later Hellenistic works, in which Classical structure is distorted and violated for the sake of compositional drama. The Falling Gaul is as dramatic as possible, taken to the brink of structural disintegration, but holding on to his inherent humanity.
I also find the compositional structures themselves very interesting, and particularly in the case of the Falling Gaul the use of negative space. This is an ancient pose, to be sure, yet sculpted in the round, jutting into all dimensions, the enclosing tetrahedron of this composition is clearly presented in a jigsaw-like manner with limbs, torso and head all defining three-dimensional space. This is a solid pose, as well, having a tripod structure. Despite that the Gaul is falling over backwards, the composition is so strong that there is a real sense of solidity and balance. The Gaul gives a sense of oppressed space - he is getting squashed into the ground - yet the space around the figure supports him with large strong angular shapes. Perhaps it is this apparent contradiction - the structural integrity of the composition containing a precarious situation wrought with drama and impending destruction - that accounts for the fascination I have for this piece.
In terms of my own work, I am interested in geometric structure and the Platonic spaces occupied by natural forms. I may take a rectangular surface and attempt to burst the confines of the space with a swarm of massed particles, ideally to suggest that the known, human-imposed grid, the geometric form, is an inconsequential overlay on top of the ultimately unknowable, tending-towards-chaos natural world. I could relate the Falling Gaul to this idea, except that he is losing to the space. In his case, the geometric confines of the composition appear to close in around him, as he defines the space so precisely and does not break the borders of the composition. If the enclosing solid were tumbled in three dimensions with the Gaul inside, the pose would take on very different meanings.
I am also intrigued by the semi-reclining pose in sculpture, which presents problems of foreshortening and issues regarding the picture plane, particularly when used in relief. Since this kind of pose is inherently triangular, the space underneath the figure becomes as important to the composition as the figure itself. I have lately contemplated using this sort of pose for a diploma project in sculpture, although I had envisioned my figure well supported under the rib cage by solid mass, not negative space. The Falling Gaul is certainly an exceptionally fine solution to these issues, and the problem for me would be how to break the picture plane or to stretch the boundaries of the enclosure without losing the compositional strength.