But is it Art?, Guest Rants

That Porn on the Patio

“Mirabilia” entry pot at NW Flower & Garden Show by Classic Nursery.

Guest Rant by Alan Burke 

I was asked a few years ago to put together a landscape design for a historic school in Seattle. Wrapping the bases of the building’s large Corinthian columns with Bears breech (Acanthus mollis), I pointed out to the client that Acanthus was the plant motif used to ornament the column capitals.

The client, an academic who prided herself on her historical knowledge, didn’t realize that this relatively common plant held such a noteworthy place in the architecture of the building. It struck me then, as it does now, that we can often miss cultural significance in everyday garden patterns.

That’s certainly the case with our common “Roman” pot. That ubiquitous urn, you know the one, with figures seemingly “dancing” in a circle below the rim?

I found out the hard way when, building an exhibit at a garden show a number of years back, we placed a massive 16-foot urn at the Seattle Convention center entry with heavy equipment. Looking up at the motif after it was placed, I noticed the graphic of a man and woman – copulating. Shocked and thinking “WTF” (literally), we brought back the big equipment and turned the beautifully rendered, but offending face away from the entry to a more benign view of naked Romans traipsing along a path.

The image stuck with me, and being a wonk about ancient landscapes and all things botanically historic, I scratched my head and did some research on this fascinatingly disturbing – and common – pottery theme.

That impasto image on your patio pot? It’s a rape scene, folks. “The Rape of the Sabine Women,” to be indelicately accurate, is a story mythologized in fact and history and depicted in art by Degas, Poussin, Rubens and Picasso.

Originating at the time of ancient Rome’s founding, it appears that Romulus (remember him?), surrounded by an all-male cast, abducted women from a neighboring area – the region of the Sabines. Granted, “rape” in the artistic vintage title may connote a more literal meaning of abduction, but it’s the graphic depiction we are talking about here. And it’s NSFW.

Giambologna, “The Rape of the Sabine Women”

In the story, the Sabine women reluctantly assimilated into Roman society and bore little Romans, as their enraged fathers sought vengeance and attacked the Rome abductors. At the height of the battle between husband and in-law, the Sabine women bravely intervened between the warring parties and ‘threw themselves in among the flying weapons’, wishing rather to ‘live widowed and fatherless’ than see the sacrifice of the one against the other. This story could come in handy this Thanksgiving, methinks, when you visit the folks and dad starts up about the orange bloviator.

Finishing up a project the other day, I pointed this recurring pottery motif out to a client as we stood next to one of her large older pots. She was horrified and had never noticed it. I pointed out that ultimately, the story was really one of peace, courage and feminine strength borne from adversity. But like many of these tough tales, from Laura Ingalls to Wonder Woman – girls gotta wade through blood n’ guts to find their glory. Maybe it’s worth getting one of these pots just to remind ourselves of that.

Images of our NW Flower & Garden Show exhibit “Mirabilia”.

Posted by Alan Burke on August 2, 2017 at 8:25 am, in the category But is it Art?, Guest Rants.
3 Comments

3 responses to “That Porn on the Patio”

  1. Linus says:

    For the Roman pot, what no strategic fig leaves or ivy?

  2. Alan Burke says:

    Linus, it’s pretty graphic. I am still looking online for a better detail of the actual image, though I see it quite often while or and about. . .

  3. What a great column on a little-known history! Thanks, Alan. I’ll try in the future to avert my eyes at such lurid earthen displays (and to avoid purchasing items with that particular historically-derived adornment for my own garden).

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