At Fitzwilliam Museum’s Octagon Gallery
Action 125: Tikrit city, Iraq, Prisoner of war. Hand carved polychrome, lime-wood, oil paint, gesso and glass eyes
The Fitzwilliam’s Director, Luke Syson, said: “We are delighted to have these two extraordinary and powerful masterpieces of coloured, unnervingly naturalistic sculpture on loan, which speak so eloquently to our annual theme of Sensual/Virtual. I’m very grateful to the owners for helping us make this happen. Both mesmerisingly beautiful but gritty sculptures focus on the challenging subject-matter of martyrdom and subjugation. They conjure up a whole range of emotions from sexual desire to stomach-wrenching disgust. It is great how belief – whether political, cultural or religious – and sexuality come together in this bold pairing. We hope that visitors will find the juxtaposition exceptionally relevant as we continue to grapple with the C-19 pandemic and violent protest and suppression across the globe.”
Berruguete’s recently discovered and conserved St Sebastian is a masterpiece by one of the most talented artists of Renaissance Spain. The statue portrays a well-known story, that of St Sebastian, a Roman army general who was martyred for his Christian faith by the anti-Christian Emperor Diocletian in 283 AD. The cult of St Sebastian became widespread in Catholic Europe from the 1400s, as it was believed that he could cure believers of the plague. The Martyrdom of St Sebastian was also a subject favoured by Renaissance artists as it gave them a legitimate excuse to portray an almost nude, idealised male body, in a religious context. Berruguete’s statue may have been made as part of a large multi- figure altarpiece or, more likely, as a stand-alone sculpture that could be carried through the streets in holy processions.
Berruguete had been to Italy and Sebastian’s pose is based on a famous work by Michelangelo. But this was not intended as an elevated work of art. Instead this was a piece made to inspire popular religious devotion, to make a community feel protected. Church commentators at the time worried however that the realistic nudity of such images would cause inappropriate desire. It would be interesting to discover whether St Sebastian, beautiful and suffering, was always associated with gay identity, as he is now.
In contrast Action 125 is a contemporary secular subject. Its subtitle reveals it to be a Muslim Iraqi prisoner of war captured by invading American forces in Tikrit, Northern Iraq, on 14 April 2003, at the start of the Iraq War (2003–2011). Seen here as a stand-alone piece, it was made in 2010–11 as part of a larger series of nine sculptures, each representing an act of subjugation. The sculptures show a lone male victim – exposed, humiliated, forced to strip down and so rendered horribly, temptingly vulnerable. Aramesh’s haunting and unnerving ‘icons of beauty and terror’ derive from a number of visual sources. These range from beautiful, highly-finished Renaissance and Baroque sculptures and paintings of ecstatic saints – like Berruguete’s St Sebastian – to shocking, hastily-snapped reportage photographs of victims of war, conflict, and displacement from Algeria and Korea in the 1950s to present-day Iraq and Palestine. Aramesh’s aim is to ‘create a dialogue between icons of European art history and images of contemporary political conflicts’.
More information here