My Laoco÷n: Alternative Claims in the Interpretation of Artworks

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University of California Press, May 31, 2000 - Art - 146 pages
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Analyzing the theme, provenance, and history of the Vatican Laoco÷n, Richard Brilliant traces the interpretation of this masterpiece of Greco-Roman sculpture through the ages, showing how these interpretations have shaped its reception. The Vatican Laoco÷n has suffered the vicissitudes of changing tastes, differing agendas of incompatible interpretations, and relegation to the margins of aesthetic preference. Several Laoco÷ns are identified in this erudite and strikingly original study: the alleged, lost "Greek original" the extant marbles sculpted in the first century; the sixteenth-century restoration and its impact; the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century topos of critical judgment; the twentieth-century re-restored artifact of ancient art. Yet, the Vatican Laoco÷n contains all of them in its obdurate self, and My Laoco÷n treats their history as a means of demonstrating an artwork's power to transcend its critical reception.

Discovered in Rome in 1506, the Laoco÷n stimulated the imagination of sixteenth-century artists and humanists because of the sculpture’s expressive exploitation of the human body under stress. Variations in the critical reception of the Laoco÷n and disagreements about what the work represented, and how it did so, came to a climax when it became the victim of the controversy between Winckelmann and Lessing. Lessing’s anti-Laoco÷n Laoco÷n, certainly one of the seminal tracts of aesthetic criticism, eventually won out. Ironically, this victory coincided with Winckelmann’s invention of the history of ancient art, which differentiated between Greek and Roman artworks and bestowed upon the former a much higher aesthetic evaluation.

This value-laden historiographical development seriously affected the Laoco÷n’s reception, once scholars deemed it a "Roman" work, perhaps even a copy of a lost Greek original. The Laoco÷n was doubly damned: it was Roman, not Greek, and its ontological credentials had been compromised, often to such a degree that the marbles were rendered almost invisible in the search for the Greek precedents. Re-restoration of the Laoco÷n in 1960 intensified its emotive power, but by then artists and critics had become indifferent. Brilliant tells the Laoco÷n story with wit and erudition, and his selection of Laoco÷n illustrations masterfully demonstrates the influence that this work has exerted over the centuries.


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User Review  - giovannigf - LibraryThing

There are lots of good tidbits in this very short book (106 pages, including lots of illustrations), but you have to trudge through the inelegant ademic-ese that gets in the way of a simple thesis ... Read full review


Before 1506
Winckelmann Lessing Goethe
After 1960
My Laoco÷n

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About the author (2000)

Richard Brilliant is Professor of Art and Archaeology at Columbia University and the author of many books, including Visual Narratives: Storytelling in Etruscan and Roman Art (1984), Portraiture (1991), Commentaries on Roman Art (1994), and Facing the New World: Jewish Portraits in Colonial and Federal America (1997).

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