Tag Archives: sculpture

Rafael

Mayan wood sculpture of a bat from the highlands of Guatemala

Rafael (front view)

It happened in the Guatemalan highlands almost ten years ago.

“¿Qué es eso?” I asked the Mayan shopkeeper. The wooden sculpture, obviously carved from the round trunk of a tree, seemed to me to have the face of a dog.

“Es un murciélago,” he replied in Spanish. “You hang it on your house, and it protects your animals from the flying things that come in the night to suck their blood.” He was referring to bats—vampire bats. There are no vampire bats in that region of Guatemala, but in the humid eastern jungles, it’s quite another matter. This creature’s red mouth curled up in a smile. With simple flattened feet and rounded arms crossed over its chest, this earthbound bat seems more given to hunkering than to flying.

Mayan wood sculpture of a bat from the highlands of Guatemala

Rafael #2

We bought the bat and named him Rafael. In our home, Rafael has become our dark angel. My husband, Jon, jokes about taking him along for protection when anticipating a contentious meeting at work. The vampires are out there, surely, and don’t we need protection?

Rafael remains in our living room, giving off some primitive aura that pleases me. He is one of my favorite objects in the whole world. Sometimes I cross my arms just like Rafael, especially when I feel defensive and want to say: “Well!! This is off-limits!” My own wings are sometimes dark wings, corporeal wings that block the light.

My little sculpture also tells me something about the nature of a work of art. The Mayan shopkeeper may have been pulling my leg. Rafael might have been a carving made simply for the tourist trade, and his authenticity as a protective talisman is certainly suspect. But all that doesn’t matter because we make his meaning every day.

As an icon, he is a perfect representative of the dark side of life but always with a touch of humor. Rafael seems to be licking his lips in anticipation. His expression is enigmatic, watching the parade of life before him, as if ready to choose his next meal.

“Seated Man” at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts

“Seated Man,” andesite, northwest Syria or southeastern Turkey, Neo-Hittite or Aramaean, mid-9th–8th centuries BC

“Seated Man,” andesite, northwest Syria or southeastern Turkey, Neo-Hittite or Aramaean, mid-9th–8th centuries BC

“Seated Man”–This man is a cube. He emerges from a block of stone in his display case at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He is pure shape. He has a pure face with wide-open eyes. He radiates the calm of the stone, the sense of presence and place of something that cannot be easily defaced or destroyed. His eyes might have been more unnerving if they were painted with dark, bright pupils and whites. Maybe, originally, they were painted. Maybe he was actually bright red with a gaze of turquoise, but here, that is all calmed by the texture of the stone and by its uniform color.

I like the fact that the human body is emerging from this cube looking like a piece of furniture, the lap perhaps a place for the placement of offerings or gifts. This man is pure compression. He is what art is about—the confinement or containment of the spirit in a physical material, in this case andesite, a very hard stone related to granite. It must have been a difficult job to carve him, to eke him out, to release him from the geology of his rock.

His disproportionately large head greets me, bringing some message from another time. It’s pure poetry. I don’t have to learn about it to understand it. I’m interested in its archaeology, but I’m also interested in what it communicates: directness, a solid, stolid sense that his culture was forever.

And as I walk through my suburban neighborhood at dusk, I realize that most people believe this. They think that our culture is forever. They believe that people will always be driving around in cars, mowing their lawns, and peering out their windows at birdfeeders that attract chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice. My man tells me otherwise. This world will not last. It will change. My man admonishes me. But he also speaks of some great strength within human beings—the power to make art and ritual objects, the power to communicate through image and symbol. His culture has reached into mine. He’s in a museum, for God’s sake, halfway around the world from where he was unearthed. He got himself cleaned up and put into this glass case, and he makes me laugh. When I am gone, he’ll still be here. There’s great humor in that and also some insight.

“Horseman and Dog” at Boston’s MFA

 

Horseman and Dog

“Horseman and Dog,” terracotta, Italy (Sicily), Late archaic period (500 BC), The Museum of Fine Arts

Almost every time I visit Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, I have a look at this small sculpture. It’s a favorite, and I often take guests to see the piece in the Greek galleries. The terracotta figurine is a funerary object made for a grave. Presumably, the young boy depicted with his horse and dog has already passed into another world. I go to this sculpture because it so captures some in-between place—a moment balanced between life and death—somehow found and preserved. It finds that exact place—an exuberant place—and it stays there telling me the truth: This is what life is. This is also about death.

My late thirties were characterized by loss. Three young people from my milieu died suddenly—two through unrelated murders and the other because of a heart arrhythmia that took him as a young man. It was a time of grief and also of rebellion against what had occurred. My feelings went beyond sadness or questioning. I felt rage. It seemed unfair. These things were not supposed to happen at all, and, certainly, they were not supposed to happen to anyone who was close to me!

Gradually, the anger and the sadness gave way and something else replaced it—the beginning of a new kind of vision—a new world seen through the tears of loss—a kind of hyper-vision infused with light. I saw in a way that could make a glass of water look like the loveliest thing in the world. I could look through a paned window at the branches of a tree and weep.

I’m not sure scholars would agree with me, but I identify the expression on the boy’s face as having something to do with the “archaic smile.” It is found on other Greek sculptures from this period, especially on the faces of highly stylized statues of young boys called kouroi. The meaning of the smile is both debatable and debated by those who speculate about cultural expression. I’m okay with that. For me, the archaic smile always represents the ultimate in serenity, a kind of confidence in both life and death. In the case of my horseman and his dog, the memory is about three beings who were once very alive and then were taken. That’s enough to give the piece its sad and joyous meaning.