Review: The Dying Gaul

At the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. through March 16

The Dying Gaul
The Dying Gaul / Wikimedia Commons
• February 22, 2014 8:59 am


Did you miss it? 2013 was the Year of Italian Culture (YOIC), brought to us by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The themes of the event were, according to the brochure, "Research, Discovery, and Innovation"—which is somewhat odd, considering that the most noticeable manifestation of the YOIC was the temporary importation of various masterpieces of Italian art that are hundreds or even thousands of years old.

Perhaps the idea was for the YOIC to give evidence of past innovation. In any event, those of us on the receiving end should not be too nitpicky, as the United States benefited from a veritable carpet-bombing of old Italian paintings and sculptures: Caravaggios dropped on Los Angeles, the Capitoline Brutus on Boston, and a cluster of "over seventy" Veronese on Sarasota.

Here in Washington, D.C. we witnessed the inauguration of the YOIC’s artistic outreach with Michelangelo’s David-Apollo last year at the National Gallery. Now, even though it is technically no longer 2013, the YOIC, like a Roman native lingering at the end of a fine meal over the dolce and the digestivo, continues in the form of the Dying Gaul, an ancient statue also on display at the National Gallery. It is located in the Rotunda of the West Building, down the hall from another diplomatic exhibit: the ‘Heaven and Earth’ show displaying Byzantine art and objects, brought to us by the government of Greece.

Though the Italian contribution is only one statue, and the Greek display fills several rooms, it must be said that, as in ancient history, so it goes in the sequel: The Romans have the Greeks beat. ‘Heaven and Earth’ occupies the same exhibition space as the National Gallery’s recent superlative shows on George Bellows and the Pre-Raphaelites, but the Byzantine display—while stocked with some beautiful objects—is thematically a mess and more likely to confuse than to enlighten. If one doesn’t have some sort of prior interest in Byzantine society for religious or other reasons, best to just leave it alone and stay in the Rotunda with the Gaul.

In fairness to the government of Greece, it ought to be said that (also as with ancient history) the Italians are forced to beat the Greeks on Greek terms: The Dying Gaul, sculpted in marble, is held by scholarly consensus to be a Roman copy of a Greek bronze original. This much seems certain; much else that the consensus holds about the sculpture seems to be speculative and reliant upon propositions like mustache = Gaul.

When the sculpture, which depicts a nude warrior collapsed on his shield, sword, and trumpet, bleeding to death from a chest wound, was unearthed from beneath a Roman villa in the Seventeenth Century, no one was exactly sure what the nationality of the subject was. Over the years the statue has been variously thought to be a Greek herald or, more commonly, a gladiator—a description that stuck, in part due to Byron’s identification of the statue as such in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

The current consensus evolved after scholars noticed that the warrior’s hair, neck jewelry, and nudity are consistent with classical descriptions of Gauls in battle. Moreover, a passage in Pliny the Elder describes one Epigonus of Pergamon as having sculpted a bronze "trumpeter" in the third century B.C., when the Pergamenes, who lived on the west coast of what is now Turkey, fought off an invasion of Gauls. Q.E.D.

So be it: The theory has a certain plausibility, and if it seems odd that Gauls made it as far as Turkey, keep in mind that ‘Gaul’ is a synonym for ‘Celt.’ If the Scotch-Irish could make it to Appalachia, it is unsurprising that their forebears could make it to Asia Minor, where they became known as the Galatians of New Testament fame. It heightens the pathos of Paul’s apostolic struggles when one considers that the poor fellow was trying to preach the word to the ancestors of the Hatfields and the McCoys.

The National Gallery’s Gaul is, in the academic literature, often described as being a foundational example of "self-assertive Occidental victory art." (I borrow this particular formulation from one Dr. Brigitte Kahl, who discusses the Dying Gaul in the course of analyzing the relevance of the biblical Paul’s letter to "the global war zone of the present-day encounter between the dominant Euro-American Self and the territory, religion, culture, and economy of people who are other-than-us …" Neither Dr. Kahl’s approach nor her language is unique, as any current American undergraduate knows.)

To this way of thinking, the statue is a manifestation of the intellectual fabrication of a threatening, Oriental "Other" whom Westerners—Europeans, Americans, whites, males, the rich, etc., etc.—have a right to rule. Yet these others, according to the academics, are neither dangerous nor ripe for conquest. Rather, they are just like us, but better—gentle lovers of human rights and equality just as we westerners pretend to be, but in our wealth and white privilege in fact are not.

Leaving aside the myriad ways that this shallow and misleading account insults the West, a look at the Dying Gaul reveals the way in which it also is insulting to the others. In condemning the sort of artistic vision that leads to a statue like the Dying Gaul, the academics indicate their preference for infantilizing non-Westerners, for imagining them to be the harmless, ever-oppressed fellow-liberals of their tenured dreams. Lost is the awareness that a man raised according to non-Western customs can be noble through the cultivation of virtues different from our own; lost, too, is the recognition that uncivilized men, even—or especially—noble ones, can be dangerous to civilization.

Epigonus of Pergamon, if he in fact is the sculptor, conveyed exactly these facts: The Gaul is treated with compassion and admiration. He is physically perfect and exudes as much bravery and self-control as marble can. He does not give the impression of being overly concerned with niceties of Greco-Roman culture such as, for example, the rule of law.

If the sculptor’s attitude toward his Gaul is one of wary respect, there is a touch of implicit reproach to his civilized audience, who had to confront the fact that these Gauls, as the art historian H.W. Janson put it, "knew how to die, barbarians though they were." The Dying Gaul deserves its reputation not only for its technical excellence, not only for its clear-eyed political implications, but also for its startlingly accurate vision of a warrior’s death.

In discussing this aspect of the sculpture, the otherwise interesting exhibition pamphlet goes astray, describing the Gaul’s face as "contorted in pain." This is false. I have seen the exact expression on the Gaul’s face in real life; I am persuaded that the original sculptor had seen it as well. The expression is one of shock, not pain. For the Gaul—at the precise moment the statue depicts him—there is whitening at the edges of vision, a numbing coldness in the extremities. The sound of battle is dimming and becoming hollow, and he can likely taste and smell his own blood, though he might not notice it.

The pain, fear, or anger, the feelings of dishonor or disappointment that were there a few moments ago are all falling away, as is the very earth before him, as is the time in which that earth exists. In the shock there is also acceptance, perhaps because he expects to sleep with his gods, or because the gathering cold, whiteness, and silence of the moment have forced a decisive turn away from the world and its concerns. Perhaps, as often with older warriors, there is also acceptance, because this moment has long been anticipated. As a former British soldier with tours served in Northern Ireland and Iraq once put the matter to me: "There’s nothing to fuss about. It just burns for a couple of minutes—then you go to sleep."

Published under: Art Reviews