There is one particular version of him that seems to be everywhere in the room, and that is the “weary Hercules” type. This depicts him, tired-looking yet hugely muscular, leaning on his club under his left arm, with his right hand behind his back and his head downturned. Lysippus made this pose famous, a 4th century BC Greek sculptor who became well known through his portrait of Alexander the Great. Perhaps the most renowned example of this pose is the Farnese Hercules in Naples. It is fitting then, that in the middle of the room there is a life size version of this large Farnese statue. Surprisingly, it is made out of layers of polyester by Matthew Darbyshire last year in Cambridge. This big, startlingly modern work completely dominates the exhibition but the pose can be seen in many of the smaller objects surrounding.
Moving clockwise round the room, the objects pass through different periods of art from the ancient up to the modern. Greek vases and bronzes make way for Renaissance paintings and statues. We see how classical statues were discovered in the 15th and 16th centuries, how they were restored and imitated. Some imitate rather loosely and some imitate as closely as to blur the line between the copies and the originals. Some even imitate rather wittily. There is an amusing photograph of the pioneering bodybuilder Eugen Sandow in the nude, posing as a weary Hercules by Napoleon Sarony. There is even a somewhat erotic work of Hercules and Omphale about to kiss in bright white Rococo porcelain.
Though the room is dominated by the resting Hercules type, the exhibition does try to show Hercules in all his forms. He is not always bearded and muscular: there is a depiction of a young, slender, smooth cheeked Hercules. One pair of statues is particularly appealing, two small wooden carvings of him carrying out a couple of his twelve labours. One is a 16th century Italian polished fruitwood work of him subduing the Nemean lion. Here his is composed, relaxed, powerful. He is completely calm and in control. Then in the other, a 17th/18th century limewood composition, he is leaping upon Cerberus in an animalistic fashion. He is on all fours and almost becoming the lion whose skin he wears fluttering off his head. Although the subject is quite similar in each case – Hercules taming an animal, rendered in wood – they are so different. Here we can see why Hercules was chosen as the figure to provide the exhibition’s story of art. He can be represented in so many ways and has captured our attention from early Antiquity right through to the modern day. By looking at the development of these representations of Hercules, we discover how ancient artefacts became classical art.
Following Hercules: The story of classical art is on at the Fitzwilliam Museum, free entry, until the 6th of December