Monday, 18 February 2013

Talos: Is this the ugliest statue in Cambridge?

Look.  It's an ugly statue in the middle of Cambridge.

Well, I think it's ugly.  You may disagree.  My suspicion, though, is that most of you agree.  Judging by the lack of love accorded this statue.

Nobody stands and looks at it.  Nobody has their photograph taken with it.  Tourists, children and punt touts cluster around the Snowy Farr statue less than 20 yards around the corner but nobody loves Talos.

For this is the statue's title:  Talos.

Who, may you ask, or what, is Talos?

If you are an afficionado of the role-playing videogame The Elder Scrolls / Skyrim, you will have your own ideas about Talos. For the rest of us, it's a trip back to ancient Greek mythology.

Talos in Greek mythology

Zeus abducted Europa and took her to the island of Crete.  On Crete, a bronze giant guarded Europa from pirates by circling the island's shores three times a day.  This bronze robot man was called Talos.  He was made by either Zeus or Dadaelus (the engineer) or Hephaistos (the god of fire and iron).  A single vein of molten metal gave Talos life; this 'blood' was kept inside the giant's body by a bronze peg in his ankle.

When Jason and the Argonauts landed on Crete, Talos attacked them.  Jason's companion, the sorceress Medea, charmed the clueless Talos into taking out the bronze peg, and all his ichor flowed into the sand.  Talos 'died'.

Some of us will remember Talos from the 1963 movie Jason and the Argonauts, magnificently animated by stop-motion guru Ray Harryhausen.

Click on the clip above.  Or watch it at youtube:

But Harryhausen's Talos is a far cry from the maimed and armless Cambridge Talos.

Post-war angst

The Cambridge sculpture is made of bronze (just like the mythical Talos).  It has no arms.  It has no face, just a featureless angular blob.  Its torso bulges out in a box-like shape.

Look closely.  The surface texture is rough and unfinished.  Items that look like small pebbles or fossils are embedded in the bronze.
03 Michael Ayrton, Talos, Cambridge 1950
It is not so much a metal machine as a stunted man.  Because why would a robot need a penis?
04 Michael Ayrton, Talos, Cambridge 1950

The man is hollowed out -- literally.  Look at the cavity of his back.
02 Michael Ayrton, Talos, Cambridge 1950

Talos was sculpted in 1950.  The anonymous authors of the (really good) Cambridge Sculpture Trails inform us:
"By depicting him [Talos] without arms, Michael Ayrton (1921-1975) portrays the anger and bewilderment felt by many of the post-war generation British sculptors."

I don't usually like to take others' interpretations on wholesale but there is something to this view.  Look at some other post-World War Two bronze sculptures:

Germaine Richier, Praying Mantis, 1949.  Source:  © Christie's
Richier's figure is emaciated and barely human:  an insect-woman hybrid, without face or will.

Ossip Zadkine, The Destroyed City, 1951-3, Rotterdam, memorial to the 1940 bombing of Rotterdam by Germany.  Source:  Japanese wikipedia.

Zadkine's hollowed-out man throws his arms in the air but is helpless in the face of destruction.  All the post-war statues are like these:  not heroic but humans reduced to their existential essentials.

Lynn Chadwick, Teddy Boy and Girl, 1955.  Source:
Even Chadwick's Teddy Boy and Girl are strangely stunted creatures.  You'd think that 1950s rockin' youth would be more cheerful but no.  They, too, must do without faces, balanced on spindly legs, oddly misshapen and bereft of muscles.

What does it all mean?

The sculptor of Talos is Michael Ayrton.  He was interested in Greek mythology.  Here's another Greek subject, sculpted by Ayrton:

Michael Ayrton, Minotaur, 1968-9, Barbican, London.  Source:  © Metro Centric via a Wikimedia Creative Commons Licence.

The sculptor himself wrote about Talos:
"A certain tranquillity lies in his stupid presence, a certain comfort.  He has no brains and no arms, but looks very powerful."

Maybe Europa found comfort in her bronze guardian.  But do we find comfort in Ayrton's faceless man?

The classics scholar Jacob E. Nyenhuis (who wrote the abovecited book about Ayrton) compared Talos to contemporary military leaders, from Iran to China.  Nyenhuis says that when a dictatorial army crushes the people, 
"that victory is as hollow as Ayrton's sentinel figures  and the country's leadership as mindless as the maddened, bronzed Talos." (pp.103-4)

How ugly is Talos?

To me, Talos is very ugly.  But my detective work into the work's context and background now makes me think:  perhaps its ugliness is the statue's very point?  Perhaps, in a world only five years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and after the discoveries of World War genocide, humans did really seem maimed and unheroic?  The future bleak, the face blinded and mute, the stocky torso and muscular calves just a sham?

Today, I walked past the statue and some pranksters had put a lampshade on Talos's head:

talos with lampshade 18 feb

Was Talos's head just too ugly and bleak to be coped with? Is the lampshade an improvement?  Or do we prefer Talos's inhuman mask?   

Ten minutes later I walked past again, and diligent city cleaners had removed the ruffled head.  Back to the everyday, then.

What:  Talos, 1950, bronze sculpture, by Michael Ayrton.
Where:  Guildhall Street, in front of St George's House, opposite the Guildhall, between Yo Sushi' and The Red Cow.
When:  Erected on the completion of Lion Yard and Fisher House in 1973.

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  1. that is fascinating! I shall look at it with fresh eyes (though will probably, being me, still find it unpleasing -- weighty meaning can't bypass what I feel, though it may change what I think).

    1. I'm totally with you on the think vs feel front. Aesthetics is one thing, and intellectual appreciation is another. Still: I wanted to do a ranty post but it did morph into something a little different. Also, once I veered off into Harryhausen (not to mention the weird world of Skyrim), things became a whole lot jollier.

  2. Michael Ayrton is pretty awful! Hate the Zadkine. But I think Ayrton's Minotaur has got something, even if it is by him. And I like Lynn Chadwick. Sculpture took a wrong turn after the war and became quite sentimental. It seems to be over-influenced by Picasso's Blue Period (and he notoriously couldn't draw).

    1. I sometimes also wonder if it's the location. The minotaur sits in a park-like setting; it sort of crouches among the grasses - it sort of makes sense. Talos is on this big tall plinth so looms above you in a sidestreet that everybody just hurries through. I'd now be interested why this subject was picked out by Cambridge councillors to begin with. Hm, more archival ferreting needed... I do like the Chadwicks, and I was looking at Reg Butler and Kenneth Armitage as well. No wonder books about these sculptors are called things like The Geometry of Fear...

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  3. Your arguments are persuasive but I still hate it. Just saw a thumbnail of a Cambridge Rock. I'd like that better.

    1. Don't get me wrong: I do think the Talos is terribly ugly. :-) It's just that I may sort of understand or sympathise with the ugliness a bit more. Still, I do wish the City Fathers had chosen a Serra... ;-p

  4. Well, at least it's not ... boring! Maybe that pebble is the peg? And this is a take on what the empty/dead Talos would look like? Hmm. Great post!

    1. Ah, the pebble as peg! I like that a lot! Will check it out next time I'm walking past.

  5. I have to say I smile every time I see Talos, ask my family to stop and admire him too. He is strong and bold and scary and unique, and Cambridge would be the poorer without him.

    1. You know, I'm glad you're saying this. It's nice that this sculpture gets some love. Ironically, it's also my young son's favourite Cambridge sculpture.


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