Laocoön group, plaster cast from the early 19th century based on the ancient marble original in the Vatican.
Laocoön group, plaster cast from the early 19th century based on the ancient marble original in the Vatican. Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig, Skulpturhalle

The exhausted man

The ancient sculpture of Laocoön and his sons is a turning point in the artistic representation of man – but the piece is also an object of projection for constantly changing ideals of masculinity.

Alexander Rechsteiner

Works at the PR department of the Swiss national museum and holds an M A in modern English literature and political science.

Scandalous! Of all places, the priest Laocoön had sex with his wife on the altar of the god Apollo. Enraged by this sacrilegious act, Apollo sent two snakes to kill Laocoön’s sons. The father tried frantically to free his sons from the serpents’ stranglehold. His efforts were in vain – the snakes were stronger, and bit Laocoön and his sons to death. Inspired by this myth, an unknown artist in ancient Greece immortalised Laocoön’s tragic struggle in a marble sculpture. He shows in detail the father’s pain-contorted body and agonised facial expression. The work was a revolution, because until then man had always been depicted as triumphant hero and victor. In the sculpture, he is seen for the first time in crippling pain, overtaken by his own arrogance and hubris. The representation of man at this moment of exhaustion and debility was a new thing. Throughout history, men have created countless heroic ideals for themselves: radiant victors, autocratic creators, images of God. But on closer inspection every ideal turns out to be a task too big, ultimately overwhelming the man. For Laocoön, it was no different. In 1506, around 1,500 years after its creation, the marble sculpture was found in Rome. Its discovery was a sensation, because this extraordinary work was known from literary sources. Now there it was, actually standing there; it was missing an arm here, a serpent’s head there, but despite these omissions Laocoön’s pain came fully to life. Over the centuries, the sculpture has been an object for projecting the constantly changing image of men. Laocoön shows how adaptable these images can sometimes be. The empty spaces, such as Laocoön’s missing arm, have been used for contemporary interpretations of the sculpture’s significance. As if people felt a need to give Laocoön’s heroism another chance, a powerfully outstretched arm was inserted in the empty space in the late Renaissance period. For the German writer Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), Laocoön then came across as being in the heat of the battle, and capable of defending himself. He can no longer avert defeat, but he is making a heroic stand against it. Laocoön’s missing arm was discovered in 1903. It showed that the arm was not outstretched, but bent back and twisted. Control over what is happening thus slips from Laocoön’s grasp, but he continues to endure his fate with a certain composure.
Renaissance version with outstretched arm.
Version after discovery of the arm in 1903.
Renaissance version with outstretched arm (left), version after discovery of the arm in 1903 (right). Wikimedia / Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig, Skulpturhalle
The Laocoön sculpture also inspired a feminist point of exclamation. In 1968 the Austrian artist Maria Lassnig (1919-2014) painted a self-portrait entitled ‘Frau Laokoon’ (Woman Laocoön). The painter inverted Laocoön’s groaning struggle by interpreting the snake as a phallic symbol and making her struggle an erotic act. The woman in the painting is fighting the animal that was sent to punish the man. The artist thus created a feminist icon, with all that that implies. Back to the ancient sculpture: the final act, for the time being, in the history of the interpretation of this work also deprives the errant priest of his last remaining room for manoeuvre. Based on the most recent research, in 2016 Berlin archaeologist Susanne Muth and her colleague Luca Giuliani moved the serpent’s head from Laocoön’s left hip, where the Renaissance had placed it, to his neck. Laocoön is thus definitively no longer a hero, but a casualty of the forces of nature. His muscular body is of no use to him; the very next moment, the serpent’s bite sucks the man’s fighting spirit out of him. He is, once again, the loser depicted in the original version from antiquity.
Proposal for a digital reconstruction of the Laocoon group.
Proposal for a digital reconstruction of the Laocoön group. © S. Muth / D. Mariaschk (2016), S.Muth (ed.), Auf der Suche nach einem Meisterwerk (2017) 341 Fig. 11

The exhausted man

16.10.2020 10.01.2021 National Museum Zurich
For centuries, ideals of masculinity have swung back and forth between invulnerable strength, and weaknesses laid bare. The fourth exhibition by the two guest curators Stefan Zweifel and Juri Steiner at the National Museum takes a stroll through the European cultural history of mankind. Its traces can be found through the ages, in art, history, literature and cinema.

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