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Leighton, an Athlete Wrestling with a Python

Sir Frederic Leighton, An Athlete Wrestling with a Python, 1877, bronze, 1746 x 984 x 1099 mm (Tate Britain, London). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(lighthearted music) Male Voiceover: Sculpture presented a real problem in the 19th century. When one thinks about the developments and the changes in painting, reinventing painting for a new world, we think of the rise of the industrial culture in painting as a subject, we think of the landscape that was made accessible because of industrialization, we think of cropping, perhaps, because of the rise of photography. Female Voiceover: Or the painting of modern life, and modern subject matter, and going against the academic traditions. Male Voiceover: But in sculpture, there's a real problem, because instead of creating an illusion of a thing, or creating color on a surface, you're actually creating a physical rendering in the world that we take as equivalent to the real. Female Voiceover: Yeah, sculpture has a immediacy to it and a presence to it, so what's allowable and feels comfortable in painting can sometimes be very difficult in sculpture; especially in the representation of the human body. Male Voiceover: We might think, for instance, of the work of Auguste Rodin, who is reinventing sculpture, rethinking what sculpture can be if you think about, for instance, a sculpture like the Walking Man, you can see the fragmentary; there's no head, there are no arms, there's a displaced leg, you can see the implements of the artist's tools in the surface of the bronze that are still left available to us visually. In England, people like Frederic Leighton also try to rethink sculpture, try to reinvent sculpture. Female Voiceover: We're looking at the most important sculpture of this new movement, called the New Sculpture, by Frederic Leighton, called Athlete Wrestling with a Python. This was seen as a turn in English sculpture because of its classicism, its extreme idealization of the body, the physicality of the figure, the idealization of the musculature of the body, and this re-engagement with the male nude. Male Voiceover: All of which also had the added benefit of still having a moral dimension, in that the python was both nature and evil that could be wrestled, that could be vanquished. This is a sculpture that is both wildly new, and also very much rooted, as you said, in history; and so, clearly the artist has looked back to Michelangelo, clearly the artist has looked back, perhaps, even to the Belvedere Torso, which we know Michelangelo was also looking at in turn. But here is trying to create a sculpture that is valid now in the 19th century. Female Voiceover: We know that in late Victorian England ideas about physical health, about masculinity, about the athletic body were connected to ideas of moral rectitude of the health of the nation; and so, there is a symbolic dimension to this sculpture. Male Voiceover: But, all of that is subjugated, at least as I look at it, to the veracity that he has rendered; in other words, there's something so clear about the articulation of the muscles, even of the scales of the serpent that make this almost zoological, make this almost a kind of study of the anatomy of these forms as opposed to allowing for the varnish of ideal. Female Voiceover: But then there are these aspects of hyperrealism that, I think, feel a little bit at odds with that. Male Voiceover: Well, look, for instance, at where he grasps the neck of the python. There's a kind of elasticity to that flesh of the animal as it's punctured, as it's being suffocated, and it really does feel as if he has studied what python skin would look like as it's pressed. There's something that's almost too vivid about that to also allow for all of the moral implications that he's also trying to imbue the sculpture with. Female Voiceover: If you look at the face of the figure and the seriousness with which he engages that python, there's something odd- Male Voiceover: That part just doesn't work for me. I have to say that it looks like that they are staring at each other as if the python is a sentient being; but this is not a rendering of the devil in a Renaissance painting, this is too zoologically accurate. So, there is something absurd about the face-off between these two figures. It elevates the animal, it elevates nature in a way that seems curious, given the specificity and the exactitude with which that animal is rendered. Female Voiceover: If you look at the pose of the athlete, there's something graceful about his movements; especially if you look down at his legs, that doesn't seem to really match the physical strength that we see him calling on in his upper body as he strangles the python. His left leg comes forward and is a little bit off the ground. His heel doesn't touch the ground. I'm not really sure how the bottom part of his body is gathering the strength that we see in the upper part of his body. Male Voiceover: Although, these are issues that are clear to us in the 21st century. In 1877, when the sculpture was made, reviewers loved it. Female Voiceover: And it was purchased by the government for the country, and that's why we see it in Tate Britain today. (lighthearted music)