This article is about a specific art object, one that bears accession number 14.130.12 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It has two handles, an opening at the top, and a body that bulges out from the neck and then tapers towards the bottom. It is, therefore, an amphora, but not just any amphora. This one, attributed to the Euphelitos Painter, is called a Panathenaic prize amphora, which means that it was awarded to the winner of an athletic contest held in Athens to celebrate the birthday of the city’s patron goddess, Athena.
In this case, the contest was a footrace and so the vase depicts five naked men running across the face of the vase, closely overlapping each other, but with one man clearly in the lead, and the last man clearly in the rear. The figures are similar to each other in important aspects of their form: posed solely on the ball and toe of the right foot, with the left leg kicking so high that the thigh is parallel to the ground; the right arm angled downward; and the left forearm crooked so that it is, for the most part, perpendicular to the thigh and thus vertical in the frame.
Despite their similarities, the figures are not perfectly identical to one another. Each man’s beard is slightly different, two are painted red and one, the last runner, has less of a beard and is therefore presumably younger than the others. Moreover, their arms and legs are not exactly parallel or perpendicular to those of their fellows, but are at slightly varying angles, giving them an enlivened, rather than static, sense of movement that, in fact, suggests competition. The faces, legs and penises are viewed in profile while the torsos are turned frontally; this reflects the “summary fashion of early times” consistent with the vase’s dating to circa 530, that is to say, the late Archaic period.
The vase is currently displayed in the Met’s newly-renovated Greek and Roman Galleries next to another Panethenaic vase, this one by the artist Nikias, whose figures are substantially less fluid than Euphelitos Painter’s, with fewer etched anatomical details, less precision in the form of the leading feet, and little overlap or other inter-relationship between the figures. The same could be said about the footrace of four men depicted on another Panathenaic amphora, this one by the Berlin Painter.
Whether or not these artists actually intended to convey a sense of movement in the footraces they painted, it does seem fair to say that Euphelitos was the most successful, at least of these three examples. But it is also true, as noted, that he is not strictly speaking a representationalist, faithful to the anatomical and individual details of the contestants. His main concern, rather, is to present a moment in time as well as movement through time. At the risk of using a modern term, we clearly have a “snapshot” moment depicted. But because the runners are moving through space, their respective positions are due to their relative rates of speed, and consequently the artist is also depicting their movement through time.
It is not always the case that an artistic rendering gives us the dual sense of a moment in time as well as the sequential process leading up to that moment and, indeed, just past it. Once we are led to focus on the runners’ movement through time, it is not a great leap of imagination to see the image as a recapitulation of the winning runner’s own past history; that is to say, if we imagine the man in last place to be a younger, less experienced or accomplished version of the athlete who ultimately wins the race five paces ahead of him, and the intermediate runners as the same man developing his skills over time, then the vase is not only a memorial to his achievement in a particular race against four other men but also a memory of his progress up to that point, beginning with earlier races in prior years.
If we therefore accept that the Euphelitos Painter affords us a window not only into a given runner’s victory at a moment in time in sixth century Athens, but also into more universal concepts of time, including development and aging, then it is likewise not too great a leap to note the remarkably similar artistic concerns shown by artists beginning in the late 19th century, especially with regard to the new medium of photography. This is hardly the place, of course, to engage in an extended discussion of the nature of time, or even the varied ways in which time is expressed in art (still lifes, for example, are all about time, while seeming to be timeless).
But it is nearly irresistible to compare this combination of individualized moments and group movement from 530 B.C. with a photographic study of a runner in motion made by Eadweard Muybridge in 1887.
The seriality of this work clearly brings to mind the runners on a Panathenaic vase, as do his images of a naked woman descending a staircase.
It is similarly clear that Muybridge’s images, while recalling ancient efforts to convey a sense of time and sequence in an otherwise static medium, paved the way for Marcel Duchamp’s later collapsing of such a woman’s movements in his iconic 1912 painting, “Nude Descending a Staircase.”
Indeed, Duchamp’s seminal image displays the same kind of inherent ambiguities that might underlie the ancient vase image: In the painting, is it one woman descending a staircase over a short span of time, or a group of women all at once? In the vase, is it five men running on one day, or the running life of one man?
A more contemporary approach may be found in William Anastasi’s 1967 piece, “Nine Polaroid Portraits of a Mirror,” for which the artist photographed a mirror, attached the instantly-available Polaroid print to the mirror, photographed it again, and continued the process until the surface was nearly covered.
The result is both a series of moments in time and a highly self-referential portrayal of a brief passage of time in the artist’s own life. In other words, the work is a series of self-portraits with the artist a little bit older (if only by moments) in each, accompanied at the same time by very recent images of his “younger” self, and indeed by images of the images, resulting in an exponential increase in the total number of images in each successive frame. And the question posed by the title of the work goes to the very heart of what an image is: the deceptive likeness of a portrait, or of a mirror.
The search for mimetic faithfulness, while commonly conceived as the goal of art for most of its history, at least in the West, is a false quest. There can be no such faithfulness. The moment a “likeness” is captured, it is both sealed into the past and eternally present, as Anastasi’s use of Polaroid technology vividly demonstrated. Or in William Faulkner’s phrase, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And the Euphelitos Painter’s instincts might well have been the same: time flies by, as do runners, but they carry their past with them.
MICHAEL STRAUS is a Contributing Writer for The Brooklyn Rail as well as one of its Board members. He is also Chairman of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, past Chairman of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and a member of the Drawings Committee of the Whitney Museum of American Art.