Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Apollo part 4

* A note to readers:
This is the last post of the Apollo series and it remains unfinished.  I've worked on it for a long time, but I am unable to finish it because of circumstances.  Please accept my apologies.
It looks like the time has come to wrap up this blog after so many years as well.  Perhaps I may come back to it when happier days return.  I may even finish this post.  But for now, I am unable to sustain it. 
I may do other projects with Blogger in the future.  I simply do not have the skills or funds for websites, so mercifully I have Blogger for the time being.  The things I post here are less self publicizing than they are messages in a bottle that I hope someone somewhere picks up and reads.  And that is you dear reader.
Until we meet again, I wish you well.

Apollo the god of light, health, and reason saw his place in the world become less and less secure with the arrival of modernity.

Apollo Lost in the Modern World

I think it's safe to assume that the modern world regards Apollo as a tiresome bore, the empty symbol of a discredited conception of "high culture."  But then, Apollo is not a modern character.  He is a splendid and sometimes vindictive ancient Greek aristocrat.  He is that kind of nobility that modernity detests and has loathed for over two centuries; a nobleman so sure of his supremacy that no one else matters.  However, Apollo stands for success earned through excellence, something that we moderns still respect, even if we do so grudgingly.  Apollo is not an egalitarian, and he would have precious little patience for participation trophies or universal enfranchisement.  He would have considered one law for both the warrior-aristocrat and the craftsman who made his sword to be absurd on its face.  Apollo would have no patience with the struggle for money and status that dominates modern life.  Ancient Greek aristocrat that he was, he despised money and markets as the realm of women and slaves unworthy of the energies of free men.  By "free men" he would mean not only people who were not slaves, but people of means under no necessity to earn their living -- noblemen.
"Liberty" and "Equality" are modern ideas that would have been foreign to Apollo and his ancient devotees.  The idea that those things are a universal birthright of all people would be incomprehensible to Apollo.  So too ideas of race and racial hierarchy, modern concepts alien to the ancient world that created Apollo.  Apollo identified himself in terms of family, tribe, and city.  "Types" and "species" of people -- classification -- is our way of thinking about identity, not Apollo's or his worshipers'.   Apollo the object of so much same-sex love, the first god to fall in love with members of his own sex, would not have recognized the word or the concept of "homosexuality," a word and an identity coined in the 19th century; another modern classification.  Above all, the idea at the heart of modernity, that the basic conditions of human life can be changed, that they are not immutable, would have been incomprehensible to Apollo and to his ancient worshipers who assumed that they lived in a world of eternal and unchanging verities.

Likewise, there is much about Apollo and the world that spawned him that disgusts and alienates us the inhabitants of the modern world; slavery, the subjugation of women and children, the parochialism, the ever-present violence, superstition, cruelty, squalor, etc.  We especially would not tolerate the very partial and unequal justice of so much of the pre-modern world that pardoned in the nobility actions that would have earned commoners the death penalty.  We certainly don't enjoy the many tales of Apollo forcing himself on women.  We would certainly not pardon Apollo or his sister Artemis for their cruel revenge on Niobe for her careless boast.  In our world, Apollo and his twin sister would be tried and convicted for murdering Niobe's children.   Apollo the arrogant and violent prince today would be a case for the police and the social worker.

The Modern World that emerged out of the American, French, and Industrial Revolutions -- the world we still live in -- destroyed Apollo, but in doing so, rediscovered something of his original life and complexity.  Conservatives clinging to historic inheritance in an age of unprecedented transformation hollowed out Apollo, making him an empty symbol of a legacy that they saw as threatened and slipping away.  Modernists threw bombs at Apollo seeing him as the personification of a discredited and irrelevant institutional classicism.  They blew Apollo to bits and burned the pieces.  And yet, it would be those very bomb-throwers who would recover some of Apollo's original meaning, his life, and complexity. They discarded Apollo himself, but they remade his meanings and life to speak to modern experience.
It would be the liberated desires and passions of the modern era that would restore to Apollo some of his original form as a lover and beloved of his own gender.

Apollo, Lover and Beloved of Men

Apollo plays a less majestic role in this painting by Tiepolo of the death of his first male lover, Hyacinthus.  It appears to me that Tiepolo was very uncomfortable with this subject, possibly painted for a gay client.  He certainly did not approve of it.  Tiepolo made Hyacinthus very girlishly pretty, looking more like his versions of Venus or Diana.  A carved satyr glares at the pair overhead.  A group of spectators on the left looks on in bemused curiosity.  There are little details here and there like the macaw and the tennis racket and balls that speak less of lost love and more of corrupted luxury.

Apollo was the first of the gods to fall in love with his own gender, and to in turn be likewise beloved according to the mythological literature.  His first such love, and the first male to fall in love with him was the youth Hyacinthus who was likewise beloved by the first mortal to love his own gender, the poet Thamyris.  Homoeroticism always played large role in Apollo's worship.  In ancient times, such eroticism was normal and bound up with athletics and military service in the very phallocratic society of ancient Greece.  In the early Christian era, this kind of love became a scandal, and Apollo was obliged to put on clothes in order to act the part of Christ.  By the time of the High Renaissance, Apollo the Beautiful and Desirable returned barely concealed in a thin mixture of Platonic and Christian allegory.

With the demise of institutional Christianity, Apollo the gay lover shed the religious allegorical pretensions.

Later NeoClassical and Romantic artists did not share Tiepolo's censorious view of the love of Apollo and Hyacinthus.  Homoeroticism bloomed in those schools of art with a candor that some still find unsettling.  Beginning in Germany and the Netherlands in the late 18th century, cults of male friendship grew in Romantic literary circles and quickly turned to male homoerotic desire and love.  These cults of friendship and the homoerotic culture that they generated laid the foundation for the creation of a gay identity and political awakening beginning in Germany in the mid 19th century and then spreading internationally in the 20th century.

Jean Baptiste Regnault, Cupid and Hymen Drink from the Cup of Friendship, 1820

On the surface, this painting by Regnault shows an allegory of love and marriage.  Two winged youths act an allegorical pantomime: Cupid (love) befriends Hymen (marital happiness).  Their symbolism is an act and their wings are stage props.  Their play-acting barely conceals a strikingly frank image of same sex love.  Two beautiful nude youths hold each other tenderly as they drink together from the cup of friendship.  The painting may be a play about love and marriage, but the real drama lies between the young actors whose love and passion for each other is no moralizing allegory.

NeoClassical and Romantic painters returned to the homoerotic loves of Apollo with an intense sensuality and frankness that startles even 21st century viewers.

Nicholas-René Jollain, The Death of Hyacinth, 1769

Merry Joseph Blondel, Death of Hyacinth, circa 1830

Claude Marie Dubufe, Apollo and Cyparissus, 1821; another one of Apollo's same sex loves.

Jean Broc, Death of Hyacinth, 1801

Artists from the late 18th and early 19th century trained a desiring gaze on young men that was formerly reserved only for women.  These two paintings of Endymion, the goddess Diana's sleeping lover show the beautiful youth sprawled out and displayed for us like sleeping Venus in earlier paintings. 

Girodet (a painting in the Louvre that was a favorite of the gay author and artist David Wojnarowicz when he lived in Paris)

Narcisse Guerin

Both Neo-Classicism and its competitor Romanticism began as movements of glamorous attractive young men.  Numerous portraits and self-portraits of and by them emphasize this beauty and glamor.  Cults of male friendship from this time eventually lead to modern conceptions of gay identity and love.  Such nascent self-awareness of these passions almost certainly informs these portraits, and the sitters' expectations of them.

Thomas Lawrence, Arthur Asherly, the liberal political leader in his youthful Eton days.

Abel de Pujol, Self Portrait; a remarkably earnest and intense youthful self-portrait by a noted Neo-Classical artist.

George Henry Harlow, Self Portrait

Theodore Gericault, Portrait of an unknown young artist; the typical young Romantic painter, handsome, fashionably dressed, and surrounded by signs of independence, poverty, and extreme subject matter of love and death.

Theodore Gericault, Portrait of a Young Man who may be Louis-Alexis Jamar, Gericault's young auburn haired studio assistant (and possibly a love interest) who appears twice in the famous painting The Raft of the Medusa.

Theodore Gericault, Raft of the Medusa, detail
Jamar posed for the dying young man sprawled out in the foreground, and for another figure shirtless and seen from behind on the other side of the painting.

Homoeroticism and the scandal dominant culture assigned to it dogged the devotees of Apollo throughout the modern era inviting scorn and contempt.  But that same erotic desire preserved Apollo as a living character who had feelings, and very strong ones.  Outside of the circles of same-sexuality, Apollo began the long process of turning from a god into an ornament for libraries and concert halls.  Sometimes, exceptional artists could breathe a bit of new life into Apollo casting him as a champion of liberal Enlightenment values, or of imperial conquest.

"Behold, The Light After the Clouds"

Frontispiece to Christian Wolff, Vernünftige Gedanken von Gott, der Welt und der Seele des Menschen, auch allen Dingen überhaupt (1719)

Christian Wolff, the most eminent German philosopher between Leibniz and Kant, put great faith in the ability of methodical reasoning to reveal truth.  The frontispiece to one of his many books shows the radiant sun personified (an echo of the ancient Apollo/Helios) breaking up the dark clouds and illumining the landscape below.  The motto in Latin translates "Behold, the Light after the clouds!"

At the beginning of the modern industrial era, Apollo enjoyed a brief career as a champion of the Enlightenment.  The god of light and of all that is done in the light now becomes the disinfectant sunshine chasing away the dark shadows of ignorance and superstition. 
Isaac Newton at the beginning of the 18th century in his Principia Mathematica demonstrated that the same forces that move objects on the earth move the stars and planets in the heavens, that nature works by comprehensible natural forces, not divine intervention.
Thoughtful people in the 18th century saw this discovery as a liberation. The early generations of the 18th century optimistically believed that they stood on the threshold of a wonderful new age of possibility. Reason turned out to be the Lever of Archimedes that really did move the earth.  Newton laid the scientific groundwork for new technology and what would soon become the Industrial Revolution, a big lever indeed.

This new world of clear rational understanding of what was formerly dark and mysterious put characters like Apollo in peril of unemployment.  This new much more direct and literal minded way of looking at nature that proved to be so productive as well as transformative had little room for ancient deities even if they were no more than allegories.  The ancient poetic language of personification and symbol could not help but yield to the new language of applied mathematics and empirical data.  Even more than the Protestant Reformation, the Scientific Revolution put Apollo out of work.

Apollo couldn't possibly beat the new Enlightenment, so he tried to join it.

Jan Wandelaar, Frontispiece to Carl von Linnaeus Hortus Cliffortianus, c. 1738

Here he play-acts as he once did for Christianity; only instead of Christ or the Good Christian Poet, here he plays the role of Enlightenment itself, the god of light dispelling the darkness of ignorance and superstition.
What I presume is the goddess of fame crowns the bust of what may be George Clifford, a wealthy Dutch merchant with a large estate and garden outside the Hague.  Clifford commissioned this pioneering work of botanical classification from Linnaeus and gave the scientist access to his vast and noted botanical gardens.  The scene takes place in a topiary garden, perhaps one owned by Clifford.
Apollo appears in the foreground.

detail from Wandelaar's frontispiece to Linnaeus' book.

Apollo appears at the beginning of a scientific book holding a lighted torch and lifting the veil from Nature enthroned upon a lion.   He stands like St. Michael upon the slain dragon of ignorance and superstition; a new role for Apollo's nemesis Python, the great dragon in the First Book of Ovid's Metamorphoses.  Apollo plays the role of Enlightenment drawing back the dark veil of mystery from Nature and her workings.

The young sculptor Joseph Chinard, working in Rome in 1791 successfully recruited Apollo into the service of the French Revolution.

Joseph Chinard, Apollo Triumphant Over Superstition, terra cotta, 1791.

Chinard found himself doing time in the Papal prison in the Castel Sant' Angelo for this terra cotta model for a candelabra that was never made.  A radiant and winged Apollo tramples on a figure of Superstition who carries several un-subtle references to the Roman Catholic Church.

Here is a detail of Chinard's model showing Superstition garbed like a nun carrying a cross and a chalice.  The young sculptor who previously enjoyed the unusual honor for a foreigner of membership and an exhibition by the Academia di San Luca in Rome was promptly sent back to France after serving time in the Papal jail.

Apollo less than a century before played the role of metaphor for royal power; as the radiant sun god fills the world with light so the king's power fills the realm from frontier to frontier. Now, a young upstart revolutionary sculptor recruits Apollo to play role of the Light of Enlightenment dispelling the dark incense clouds of ecclesiastical authority.

Anton Raphael Mengs painted this Apollo aiming a flaming arrow at the earth as an allegory of the heat of mid day.  But, the 18th century Enlightenment would recruit Apollo in a similar role aiming his flaming arrows at ignorance, superstition, and bigotry.

The Enlightenment created a revolutionary new nation on a vast continent unknown to Apollo and his ancient worshippers.

This new nation was created out of the revolutionary idea that people could rule themselves for their own sakes, that the people making a covenant among themselves were their own sovereigns.  Authority rose up from the free consent of people to live by it, instead of coming down from God through king and bishop compelling their obedience.

Thomas Jefferson imagined a new republic of independent rural squires living either in log cabins or in palatial plantation houses.  Both in their separate ways were landowners with a stake in the new nation.  Whether wearing buckskin or silk such men constituted a democratic republic (though not a fully egalitarian democracy -- the labor of enslaved Africans sustained this wilderness Arcadia).  Rich or poor, such free white men for Jefferson were a new aristocracy whose nobility came not from lineage but from merit and independence.  But to successfully govern themselves and a growing "empire of liberty," such men required education; not just practical training, but the shaping of character necessary for self-governing people.

Thomas Jefferson founded, designed, and built the world's first secular university, the University of Virginia at Charlottesville.  As the god Apollo gave the idea of a sound mind in a sound body to the slave-owning democracy of Athens, so too would those same values shape the citizenry of a much larger slave-owning democracy of the United States of America that had little patience with ancient deities.

Jefferson the architect turned the homes of Apollo and his fellow Olympians into classrooms and dormitories.  Jefferson rebuilt the temples of the gods in the Virginia wilderness in locally made brick, wood, and stone, and on a much smaller scale.  He pierced the walls of their sanctuaries with windows and doors, and subdivided the sacred cella with classrooms, offices, and living quarters.
He grouped these secularized temples not around a paved forum, but around a green and shady campus quad; the pattern for the layout of many later American universities and colleges.  The design of this campus and its many successors makes its intended impression of a place of secure and tranquil sanctuary for free study and inquiry.

The centerpiece of many a college and university campus in Europe and the Middle East is the church or mosque.  Beginning with the University of Al Azhar in Cairo in the 10th century, universities began as religious institutions for the training of clergy and the promotion of orthodoxy.
This building that forms the centerpiece to Jefferson's university campus is not a church or a temple, though it is modeled on a famous religious structure, the Roman Pantheon.  It is a library.
The head of the campus would not be a place of prayer, but a storehouse of accumulated knowledge and collective memory open to faculty and students to use.

Jefferson's building outwardly appears to be beautiful interpretation of Rome's Pantheon in the native building materials of 18th century Virginia, but within is a very sharply different building in form and function.  The bottom two floors of this building originally were the library stacks.  The top floor under the dome was a reading room.  A cryptoporticus contains corridors linking the library to all the other buildings on the campus around the green quad.  Unlike the original Roman Pantheon, this library has porticoes on both sides facing the quad, and facing the campus exterior on the other side.  It is a very open and available building unlike an ancient Roman temple.

The domed upper floor once served as the reading room and now is a space for concerts and campus events.   This room with its vast spare dome and doubled Corinthian columns remains one of the most beautiful rooms in the United States.
Unlike the vast dark interior of the Roman Pantheon lit by the front door and the oculus in the dome, sunlight fills this smaller room from not only a glassed oculus, but from windows behind the screen of columns.  This certainly accommodated reading, and continues to make the domed room a welcoming and happy place.

Some of the doubled columns in the recently restored reading room of the Library of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

This grand sunny room reminds us of an idea that was central to Jefferson's political thinking, that the point of being free and self-governing is to pursue happiness.  Happiness for Jefferson (and for Apollo and his ancient Greek worshippers) meant something more than simple pleasure.  It meant the reward of a good life lived well.  The point of education was to create that path to happiness, to understand what it means to live well.  That pursuit should itself be happy shared in happy fellowship with other free and equal citizens.

John Archibald Woodside, 1814

This allegory by a Philadelphia sign painter made shortly after the War of 1812 proudly announces the founding revolutionary idea of the USA despite the dubious end of that questionable war.
Peasants, serfs, servants, and other members of the Third Estate subordinate to crown, sword, and miter became free people who governed themselves.  After much conflict and warfare, that idea and its consequent enfranchisement began to extend to former slaves, to the poor, to women, to immigrants, and to the formerly marginalized in the world's first project to create a universal democracy, a project that remains far from accomplished.
The nobility of sound mind, body, and character that Apollo stood for now belongs to anyone and everyone.  The radiant sun god yields to the free and happy sailor crowned with Apollo's laurels by Liberty.

Apollo appears very rarely in William Blake's visionary work.  He usually appears as he does here in Blake's engraved illustrations to the Book of Job, as a god of the sun and as a personification of the Enlightenment that Blake regarded so skeptically.  He appears in this print on the left in the middle register as god of light and the day riding his four horse chariot pushing back the clouds that confine him.  Blake questioned the rationalism and cult of reason that formed the heart of the new movement.  He saw Reason as limiting and constraining, which is not how its proponents saw it at all.  They saw it as liberating.  Reason banished the mysteries and superstition that kept free people in thrall according to Reason's advocates.  But Blake had a point.  The health and harmony that Apollo and the Enlightenment stood for described a contained world that referred back to itself.  The Classical world was a closed world that disdained all that lay beyond its bounds.  The world of Reason where everything always stood in the clear light of day was likewise a contained world.  Only that which lay within the beam of Reason's light was real and truly mattered.  All that lay beyond was madness and superstition.

William Blake lived a life full of constraints.  Poverty constrained him all his life.  After the French Revolution, Blake spent the rest of his life under constant police surveillance because of his refusal to recant his support for it.  For all his brave radicalism in print, in life the attentions of the police terrified him.  In 1803, he was arrested and tried for sedition.  The court acquitted him, but the experience traumatized him deeply. He kept a low profile, regarded by most of his contemporaries as eccentric or even mad, and therefore harmless.  Few people in Blake's lifetime recognized his brilliance, or the power of the vision described in his work.

Blake's work is about freedom, something much more than political liberty, but a spiritual freedom beyond the constraints of doctrine, law, and morality.  In that radical freedom of body and spirit Blake believed he could find true feeling in the spiritual and physical ecstasies of love.
Despite a marriage to Catherine (Boucher) Blake that by all accounts was happy and lasted to his death, a strong current of homoeroticism flows through all of Blake's art.  This most liberated of men seemed to have aspects about himself that he refused to acknowledge, and they come out in torrents in his prints and drawings.

Apollo/Christ appears reincarnated in Blake's works, an image of free unrestrained energy and fulfillment in the form a a beautiful young man.

William Blake, The Dance of Albion, c.1796

The Dance of Albion (or Albion Rose...) is among the most moving images of liberation.  A nude young man throws open his arms in a Christ-like gesture.  The open arms of the Crucifixion become the open arms of freedom.  Light and colors radiate from his serene face, emphasizing the gesture of the arms.  As in Michelangelo's work, radiant Apollo and the risen Christ merge into a single image that takes a step into a new and unprecedented age.  For Blake and for others, the revolutionary promise of political liberation from ancient hierarchies meant also a spiritual liberation from law and doctrine and from the enforcing fires of hell. Blake imagined a political world without humiliation and constraint, and a spiritual world without compulsion and coercion.  Albion dancing shows us vividly what Blake believed that should look like, a beautiful young man free from the sting of the lash and flame of hellfire.

Vincenzo Scamozzi, Human Proportions from L'Idea della Architectura, book I, part 1, page 40, 1615.

Remarkably, Blake may have gotten the idea for this figure of liberation from an early 17th century book on architecture, from a woodcut illustrating the Roman architect Vitruvius' idea that human proportions fit into the square and the circle.  It's hard to imagine an image Blake would have found more loathsome; a human being confined within a framework of geometry, trapped within a fixed system.  That Blake could take such a confined image and turn it into a vivid embodiment of liberated energy is inspired.

William Blake, The Dance of Albion,  1804.

About eight years later Blake made an engraved version that is much more spare and sober.  He added some verse at the bottom of the print:
Albion rose from where he labourd at the Mill with Slaves
Giving Himself for the Nations he danc'd the dance of Eternal Death. 
The inscription is a paraphrase of lines from John Milton's Samson Agonistes.
While we might miss the beautiful golden coloring of the earlier colored print, the figure in this print is much finer and the gesture more convincing.  The moth and the worm added along with the verses suggest that this image tells about resurrection as much as liberation.

The nature of Blake's desires and affections comes out in this life drawing that has always been identified as a portrait of William Blake's beloved and mysterious younger brother Robert who would have been about 17 or 18 at the time.  William would have been about 5 years older, but still quite young.  Robert remains a mystery because there are so few records of him, and those that exist are unreliable.  All that is known is that he died young and William Blake grieved his loss for the rest of his life.  That friends or relatives should pose nude for hard up art students (as William Blake was at the time) is not unusual.  What is out of the ordinary is the affection and sensuality that comes through in this drawing despite its problems with proportion.  The head is too small and the right arm is too long.  The drawing has a finish and attention unusual in Blake's work from any period in his life.   It's not hard to imagine that so many of the beautiful young men who inhabit Blake's spirit world are memories of young Robert.

William Blake, The Great Sun from illustrations to Milton's L'Allegro Penseroso, c.1816 - 1820

Blake made this last magnificent image of Apollo as the majestic sun god to illustrate Milton's poetic dialogue between the cheerful and the melancholic.  A giant radiant figure steps forth in majesty from the gates of the dawn to begin the day.  While he carries a scepter, Apollo is not exactly the same glowing metaphor for monarchy as he was riding his chariot across the ceilings of palaces in the 17th and 18th centuries.  He wears the seven spiked crown of Helios, but the flames, the majesty, and the off-kilter sun disk behind his head might indicate that we should see him also as Lucifer in all his glory before the Fall.  Lucifer was the angel of the morning star before his pride made him Satan.  As in Milton's poetic description of Satan, Blake makes Apollo a heroic and majestic figure, but one who is ultimately deluded.

The Slayer of the Python

Ovid's great poem The Metamorphoses tells the tale of Apollo's slaying of the Python, a great dragon who lived at Delphi.  In Ovid's telling, Python was one of the monstrous creatures created by heat and moisture out of the swampy earth left from the Great Flood.  Ovid describes Apollo killing the Python in terms of a struggle between darkness and light:
The latest of new creatures was the serpent
Even you, great Python of hillside and valley
Who haunt the deepest shadows of men's hearts!
Wherever the monster turned, green darkness fell
In winding paths through sacred grove and briar.
Then bright Apollo with sun-tipped arrows
Whose swiftness stilled the flight of goat and deer
Aimed at the beast with darts that fell in showers
-- Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book I, translated by Horace Gregory
 Ovid describes the battle as hard fought costing Apollo most of the arrows in his quiver before the monster finally succumbs.

Ovid's was among the last of many tellings and retellings of this ancient story that played a central role in Greek imaginative life.  The Greeks believed that Delphi was the center of the earth and originally the dwelling place of Python, a son of the earth goddess Gaia.  When Apollo slew Python, he took Delphi and its oracle into his possession.

The tale described Greek warrior ideas of courage, clearing away wilderness and danger, subduing fear, and conquering enemies.  These ideas would be appropriated by later rulers and regimes who aspired to conquer and to civilize.

Apollo would find a place in the 19th century's pre-occupation with power, and with its imperial ambitions.  Apollo the Python slayer would spawn some very curious avatars in the 19th century world where the West aspired to conquer under the guise of civilizing a benighted world, and to clear the wilderness to make a home for noble peoples.

King Louis XIV ordered the rebuilding of the Salon d'Apollon in the Louvre in 1661 after a fire destroyed its original decoration.  Colbert worked out an allegorical program of Apollo the Sun moving through the times of day in order to glorify the Roi du Soleil, Louis XIV.  The painted program remained unfinished at the king's death in 1715 and would not be completed until the 19th century.  Today, this room displays what remains of the French crown jewels.  

Among the very last paintings completing Colbert's original allegorical cycle was Eugene Delacroix's famous painting of Apollo slaying the Python.

Eugene Delacroix, Apollo Slaying the Python on the ceiling of the Galerie Apollon in the Louvre, 1850.

Where King Louis' painters such as Charles LeBrun or Charles de la Fosse would show Apollo as metaphor for the King confidently slaying the enemies of the Crown, the Church, and France, Delacroix makes Apollo earn his victory.  Delacroix's Apollo is no royal metaphor, but a fighting champion of civilized values prevailing over forces of darkness, the last and greatest manifestation of Apollo the Enlightenment hero.  

Delacroix thrills us with running horses and wild manes.  Apollo barely clings to his chariot by one foot pouring his fury and determination into his arrows aimed at the coiling monster below.   No less thrilling is the fighting color.  Golden light punctuated with brilliant blues and greens fights to clear out the murky green shadows beneath.  
Apollo clears out the primordial darkness and chaos establishing the rule of light and consciousness, but not without a struggle. 

JMW Turner paints Apollo sitting below the dead mutilated beast exhausted after the struggle.  Turner is less interested in Apollo than he is in the vast damaged landscape left behind by the titanic struggle.

Apollo slayer of the Python becomes the domineering young champion conquering men and wilderness in the imagination of imperial Europe and America throughout the 19th century.  Apollo the beautiful young man is a fighter who expects to win.  He expects to subdue the forces of darkness be they revolutionaries, conquered peoples, the wilderness, or a boxing champion.
Artists commemorated actual young men who died in mid struggle by making them look like Apollonian champions.

Pierre-Narcisse Guerin, Henri de Rochejaquelin, 1817

Pierre-Narcisse Guerin painted the long dead Royalist champion Henri de la Rochejaquelin in 1817, the second year of the reign of the restored Bourbon king Louis XVIII.  He transforms the young hero of legendary courage and recklessness into not just a handsome Apollo, but an avenging St. Michael leading his peasant army to fight the blaspheming regicides during the Vendee Rebellion.

Earlier, Antoine Gros painted another portrait of a strikingly handsome and strikingly young casualty of Napoleon's wars.

Antoine Gros, Lieutenant Charles Legrand, c1810

Like Guerin's portrait of Rochejaquelin, Gros' portrait of Legrand is posthumous, commissioned by his grieving parents about two years after his death in French occupied Spain in the Puerta del Sol uprising.  He was among the first to be pulled off his horse and knifed to death by mobs angry that Napoleon's soldiers were taking the Spanish royal family to exile in France.  Legrand came from a military family.  His father was a distinguished general.  They certainly saw his death as a squalid brutal affair, as the work of savages driven by fury.   Goya's famous painting of the May 2nd 1808, the occasion of Legrand's death would have given no comfort to his bereaved parents.
Gros portrays young Legrand as the calm embodiment of all that is decent and civilized... and reliably white and European.

The vision of brave noble young white men subduing chaos in the name of civilization crossed the Atlantic and found an enthusiastic audience in the United States still in the process of subduing the North American continent, both its natural wilds and its primordial human inhabitants.

In the hands of artists like Winslow Homer, Apollo the Python slayer became the young white hunter subduing the wilderness.  Americans replaced ancient Classical mythology with new myths of courageous, resourceful, and self reliant young champions braving the wilderness to make a path for urban tenderfoots to follow.  Winslow Homer who really did go hunting and fishing in the wilderness was perhaps this myth's greatest painter.  The very young hunter weighed down by his trophies looks so vulnerable against the vast wilderness behind him.  And yet, he occupies the center of the painting dominating nature and art.
Caesar never had more enthusiastic heralds of his fame than the hunting dogs greeting their commander as he rests his foot on the enormous stump of a felled tree, an indication of what he has accomplished and his role in making a somewhere out of a huge ocean of nowhere.  

Winslow Homer painted this splendid watercolor of a woodsman confronting the enormity of his task.  The low horizon at his knees tells us that he will ultimately succeed.
Homer painted these champions of imperial conquest with a bracing lack of sentimentality and rhetorical flourish.  


Respectable Apollo, God of High Culture

--The cult of the Apollo Belvedere created by the writings of Winckelmann; the smoothed out formulaic male anatomy of Apollo that also smooths out the parts of his nature that the modern world would find too difficult; his arrogance, his violence, the bitter experience that led to his embrace of civilized values, and above all, the homoeroticism.
-- Apollo tamed and moved into the library, the concert hall, and the gallery.

The photographs from the 19th and early 20th centuries don't lie.  The brutality of the early industrial age that high culture tried to conceal and justify stands naked before us.

The poet Charles Baudelaire in The Heroism of Modern Life faulted this high culture not simply for evading the true nature of the modern world, but for failing to see its potential for art:
I have noticed that the majority of artists who have tackled modern subjects have contented themselves with public and official subjects, our victories and our political heroism.  Even so, they do it with an ill grace and only because they are at the beck and call of the government that pays them.  But, there are private subjects that are much more heroic than these.  Scenes of high life and thousands of uprooted lives that haunt the underworld of a great city, criminals and prostitutes...are there to show us that we have only to open our eyes to see and know the heroism of our day.

Apollo Destroyed

Sixth Avenue in New York, 1903.

--Apollo discarded and his form destroyed by the unprecedented experiences of modern life and the need to articulate them truthfully.

"The Festival of Beauty"

Nazi athletic display, Nuremberg rally, 1938

The totalitarian cult of the athletic ideal was not about actual athletes, but about an abstraction that seemed to come to life in athletic competition.  Totalitarian regimes believed wholeheartedly in human perfectibility, and that meant physical and moral perfection.  They wanted to somehow make "new men."  The Nazis wanted to fundamentally remake the human species along the lines of racial hierarchy with white Aryan men at the very top.  Tested and tried by history (symbolized through athletic competition), the new Aryan man refined and purified of all weakness and inferior "blood" would dominate the world enslaving or exterminating all the "inferior" races.  Communists under Stalin and other leaders such as Mao and Castro also wanted to remake human beings.  They wanted to make "new men" too, purged of natural human selfishness and individualism and refashioned as selfless and heroic servants of the collective state.

Apollo was the ultimate athlete, but he would never have recognized these muscle bound legions marching in lockstep and shouting slogans.  Apollo like most ancient Greek athletes very much retained his individual character and identity.  He and other athletes at the Pythian, Olympic, and Panathenaic Games competed for his own glory and to give glory to the god honored in the games.  The ancient games were filled with drama, conflict, and even tragedy as skill, strength, and fortune brought glory to some and defeated others through hubris and bad luck.  The ancient games could be brutal in ways that would never be tolerated in modern sports.  Another difference was that athletes were the love objects of men and women, celebrated for their beauty as much as for their strength and ability.  Apollo always appeared nude like an ancient athlete.  Apollo and the athlete were both living embodiments of the healthy mind and in a healthy body.  Their honed and graceful bodies personified everything that the Greeks held highest in life.  They needed no clothes or any further ornament.  The ancient games like modern sports were about the drama of mortals bravely trying to master huge tasks that test their limits and abilities, about competing to extend the limits of physical possibility for mortal people.

These things hardly mattered to the athletic spectacles created by the ideological states of the 20th century.  They were about showcasing the ideals of the regime, the truth and success of the reigning ideology in overcoming human limits and remaking flawed and impure human nature.  Certainly the grace and beauty of the athletic body was to be admired, but the erotic desire and individual uniqueness that formed part of the ancient Games were made out to be "degenerate" by puritanical totalitarian states obsessed with health, cleanliness, and purity.

Soviet gym teachers' parade, 1956

Apollo's opposite is not Dionysus.  The god's divine half brother represents a complement, not opposition to Apollo's project to bring light to the world.  The opposite to Apollo is not passion, but chaos.  Chaos confuses fire for light.  Chaos replaces reason with force, and sees everything as a means to some selfish end.  Chaos presumes the world to be an arena of unending warfare, whose only law is domination and submission.  In such a world, everything is a weapon.  The ideological god kings of the 20th century accepted that brutal vision of the world, and determined to win.  The only real peace is through victory in unending struggle.  The only virtue is steely strength and force of will tempered in the fires of conflict.  The ideological tyrannies of the Twentieth century reduced the ideas and forms of Classicism to parody.  The Greek ideal of the warrior athlete becomes the brain dead muscle bound athletes in grotesquely inflated detail dear to the hearts of modern dictators.

The totalitarian cult of the athletic body produced only one masterpiece of art.  It was neither a painting nor a sculpture, but that most modern of media, a film.  It was Leni Rieffenstahl's documentary about the 1936 Olympics, Olympia.

Apollo's Legacy

Apollo Comes Out

Francis Bacon, Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer, 1968

While the light and health that Apollo stood for survived in modern design, his image faded from cultural imagination, except as the love object of gay men.  Apollo the most beautiful of men comes back, even if indirectly in the work of gay male artists of the 20th century.  The splendid life drawings of Paul Cadmus from the mid twentieth century are as truly Apollonian as any painting by Matisse or building by Le Corbusier.  What returns in Cadmus' work is the animating spark of desire within the constraints of discipline and form.  These drawings are truly classical not in their subject matter, but in their ambition to take a fleeting experience -- looking at and drawing a beautiful model -- and to make it stand for all such experiences.

George Platt Lynes

George Platt Lynes

Bruce Weber

Bruce Weber

Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe

Peter Hujar

Peter Hujar

Cosmopolitan Apollo

It's hard to imagine a more Eurocentric deity than Apollo, but he never had a monopoly on male beauty or civilized values or those two things joined.  Apollo always shared Parnassus with cousins from around the world.

Shiva Nataraja, 13th century


Anne and Patrick Poirier, Jupiter and Encelade, 1982

Apollo the god of light, health, and reason still dwells insecurely on the margins of our world.  We pay lip service to those things he stood for, but we don't really believe in them.  We believe in commerce, or we believe in some reincarnation of stern and even more ancient Middle Eastern deities from Enlil to Jehovah to Allah.  Apollo's light that clarifies becomes the blinding light and consuming fire of the fanatic.  The soundness of mind and body, the health that Apollo embodies bores us.  We turn health into one more advantage in the perpetual scramble for profits and status that is modern life; we can use our bodies to force or seduce our way up the food chain.  Reason for Apollo meant regarding the world clearly and justly without illusion or cynicism.   Today what passes for "reason" is but a kind of weaponized rationalism; coercion by syllogism, another gun in a constant battle of ideologies and dogmas for domination.

Civilization and civilized values are things that are not fully appreciated until they are gone.  We discover to our horror, that technological sophistication, far from making us more civilized, only enable our most primitive passions and our darkest desires.   Technology serves our most crudely brutal vision of life as dominance and submission.

And now, we are in the middle of a historic global epidemic that has killed tens of thousands and will kill thousands more before it passes.  Our once dominant economy crashes to Great Depression level devastation all around us.  Our power, prosperity, reputation, and democracy disappear in shame and humiliation.  The USA seems to be well past decline and coming to an end in disease, poverty, and squalor.  It's hard to see a future that isn't anything but bleak.

But the in the midst of decline, something else always struggles to be born.  Everything dies and decays, and from the remains the green shoots of spring appear.  Invisible to us now, but seeds of the world that will replace ours sprout here and there.

Apollo knows no despair.

No other Western cultural tradition proved more durable than the Classical culture created by Greece and Rome.  It has been pronounced dead many times over only to spring up like a dandelion through concrete and flourish again.  The Dorian mode and the Ionic order may be gone, but what they stood for survives; the values of human experience, the human point of view, individual freedom and agency, success through distinction, courage and enterprise in the face of a dark chaotic world; values that began with an aristocratic warrior culture.  These things flourish despite a nihilistic capitalist culture that denies the possibility of any values beyond use and exchange.  Those once local aristocratic values are now democratic and universal. The civilizing values of a sound mind in a sound body; of education, health, dignity, and free agency began in small quarrelsome slave-holding Greek city states.   And now they are global and universal.  Peoples that the ancient Greeks once despised and enslaved, or never knew, claim them as their own.   Classical culture endured because it adapted to changing circumstances and expectations.  Subsequent eras -- including our own -- saw something of themselves in the legacy of ancient Greece and Rome.  While Apollo's sun sets today, there's no reason to assume that he is finished once and for all.  Perhaps some generation in the distant future will rediscover him and Aurora will wake to lead his horses up over the eastern horizon to start a new day.