From Classical Antiquity through Michelangelo to Verlaine, via Godard and Tarkovsky and an essay-load of other makers, Murdo Macdonald shows us how the whole gang of western clever clogs in turn feel the pain of Laocoon – for if art shows us anything it is this: that nothing exists for sure, except the torture of the knowledge that is so, and will be so forever.
My dear old mate Laocoon got strangled
By a couple of sea serpents that did for his sons also
Some say he had offended Apollo, some say Athene
Some say it was Poseidon who sent the serpents in
But I know it was simply his destiny to die as we all must
At the whim of some random deity
I remember in Mackintosh’s art school a plaster cast of a Hellenistic sculpture, the central figure of the Laocoon group, a beautiful reproduction of the original. Two fires destroyed it. The first blackened it, the second shattered it. Laocoon himself might have understood or even predicted that. Proust reminds me that a work can be held even more intensely in the reality of memory but Nakahara catches my mood: ‘Nothing will happen when spring comes; / That child will not come again’. That lost cast is part of my own myth. The story is simple enough. Laocoon, a thoughtful man, a priest of Apollo, suspects that the wooden horse the Greeks have left outside the gates of his city is a trick to gain entry. Some deity or other (the versions differ) sends sea serpents to kill him, for his insight or his hubris or perhaps another thing. They strangle his sons for good measure. There are other versions, one is by Sophocles, but that play is lost. Some say the serpents left Laocoon alive to mourn. The Greeks, concealed in the wooden horse designed by the clever Odysseus are pulled into Troy by a joyful crowd (the younger Tiepolo paints the scene).
What business was it of Laocoon to perceive the truth? The truth has consequences. Laocoon learned that. As did Midas, as he made a fair judgement that a mortal had performed music better than a god. That story gave rise to a work of art as great as the Laocoon group. Titian makes his painting of Marsyas’s flaying as an extended self-portrait. He uses his own features – elderly, pensive – as the model for the judge who by his fair-mindedness condemns himself to the embarrassment of metamorphosis, and Marsyas to death. It is all a bit of a misunderstanding. To judge correctly is not enough. What melody did Marsyas play? Something upbeat? Or a lament? His fingers moving easily, his breath perfectly controlled. And then that blissful moment of his victory over a god. A convincing win. Overturned on appeal. Titian’s image of his flaying is composed on an almost square canvas as is appropriate to the depiction of a figure of the earth. Apollo with his fiddle strikes a pose that is unconvincing and disconnected enough to be that of the god he is. Marsyas hanging upside down his hands bound beneath his head seems fairly stoic about it all as Apollo’s helpers – perhaps just passers-by roped in for the occasion – sever his skin from him with long delicate blades. An androgynous figure in the foreground is making fastest progress and a little dog laps Marsyas’s blood as it pools on the ground. Life is grief. Even the dog looks pensive. The flaying of truth. Marsyas’s expression as Titian portrays him: ah this is just the way it is … at last I understand.
Laocoon’s expression is the reverse of such stoicism. When the sculpture was unearthed in a vineyard in Rome in 1506 Michelangelo absorbed its deluge of feeling as his own. A century later El Greco deconstructed it with a painter’s eye and Toledo became, for a moment, Troy. Later still Blake took an engraving and re-imagined the myth, re-naming it and splattering words around to good effect. By that time Lessing had made an essay that continues to intrigue. Lessing was interested in what his younger contemporary Robert Burns called ‘Smith, wi his sympathetic feeling’, the reference being to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Sympathy is the point here. Being able to put oneself in another’s place and feel their difficulty, joy, or pain. To feel the pain of Laocoon, or to reflect back on one’s own pain in the mirror of his. The psychic mirror of sculpture.
The Renaissance asserts the existence and re-existence of art. It took Balzac to remind us that art may not exist after all. Since its first publication Balzac has reeled in artists with a story that has appeared in various versions and under different titles; it is sometimes called Gillette; it is most often known as Le chef d’oeuvre inconnu. It is about the necessary unknown we call art. The story becomes something other in Jacques Rivette’s film La belle noiseuse but it is still about the impossibility of art. Drawing from life: the movement of the hand reflecting the body and emotion of oneself and another. The compression of charcoal as it shatters. The curve of a hip, the mirror of sex: in each moment a continuum of self. Drawing: that implies everything and fails as it succeeds. The film ends with the word: Non! Balzac and Rivette concur. Non! The soundtrack is voices, echoes, footsteps, cicadas, a breath of wind here and there, and the noise of an artist’s pen scratching ink into paper. Interior, exterior. Instant on instant. Non! It is thus that we are removed.
There is a moonlit photograph of the original plaster of Rodin’s statue of Balzac. It is called The Open Sky and it was made in 1908 under the sculptor’ssupervision. The photographer was the American, Edward Steichen. He understands the figure as an invitation not a definition, which reminds one that Rodin himself thought and rethought his work through pen and pencil modulations of photographs. The finished sculptures are just markers along the way. In the garden of Rodin’s house his thinking collides with The Gates of Hell, a work as unknowable as the painting in Balzac’s story, for it can never be finished. Non! Thus far and no further! Abandon hope. Here and now. The narrative stops. The physicality of time is mislaid. Amor vacui. Where all things are possible. Robert Fludd has an image of lightless nothingness, a square of etched black and on each side the words ‘et sic in infinitum’. Laocoon seems to underpin so much of Rodin’s sculpture, but he never attempted that tortured figure as a subject. Even an individual piece of a man struggling with a snake seems more likely to refer to Dante. Yet in Rodin’s work the Hellenistic sculptor is always there as an interlocutor.
In his exploration of Balzac’s story Richard Hamilton weaves his work from the self-portraits of others. Titian becomes the aged Frenhofer (‘Frenho’ as Jane Birkin calls him in Rivette’s film) the artist who both succeeds and fails, utterly. The others present at Hamilton’s evaluation of the unexperiencable are Poussin, as in Balzac’s text, and Courbet, standing in for Balzac’s (I mean Rivette’s) art dealer. And, in the foreground, the mystery of art and life that cannot be fully perceived, a naked woman. The model. The story implies the question: ‘the model of what?’ Another story tells of Eve and that she was made from Adam’s rib. Leaving aside Lilith for the moment it is interesting to note that Eve was as it were carved from bone like an idol to be worshiped rather than created from flesh. Thus, in that story, the first woman was in fact the first work of art. And – leaving God aside for the moment – the first man was so desperate to make that work of art that he ripped out one of his own ribs to do it. So – at least in Christian mythology – one is looking here not at the creation of woman but at the creation of art. But what of the model? What model was Adam – or God – using for his first sculpture? Were one to believe the legends, only the goddess Lilith was available. The first artist’s model. The primordial being, the point of reference. There is a book of Maggi Hambling’s drawings of her dying lover, the Soho model Henrietta Moraes. ‘I have become Henrietta’s subject, rather than she mine’. The model makes possible the impossible project of art. Or destroys it, asserting its failure as Balzac hints, were one to read his text that way.
There is a moment in Rivette’s film when the art dealer, during an outwardly convivial evening meal, collapses – suddenly, fully. Perhaps he has driven too far that day in the heat of the summer.
Other films come to mind. In Godard’s Le Mépris, a film maker is losing his battle with The Odyssey. Adrian Stokes, drawing on Fletcher, writes of a game that must be lost. Was it such loss that Sabina Spielrein was trying to get at in her notion of a death drive? Things tending to simpler forms. Eros makes complex; Thanatos simplifies. Arendt writes: ‘The human condition is such that pain and effort are not just symptoms which can be removed without changing life itself; they are the modes in which life itself, together with the necessity to which it is bound, makes itself felt. For mortals, the “easy life of the gods” would be a lifeless life.’ As Marsyas discovered to his cost, only the gods can win. Laocoon’s tragedy, like that of Marsyas, becomes representative. The necessity to which we are bound. And then we must act it out. In The King is Alive,Kristian Levring envisions a scratch performance of King Lear in the Namib desert (where else?). And Kurosawa shows us Lear losing himself on a tussocky hillside beneath the cone of a volcano in Japan (where else?). Living with defeat, as Leonard Cohen would put it. Driving through Glasgow I am distracted by thoughts of Tarkovsky’s Moscow motorways. Solaris is a reminder that to remember is to have lost. Tarkovsky kept on making films and polaroid photographs knowing that art is as implausible and difficult as anything else.
Poetry scribbled on the flyleaf of a guide to Paris which I translate freely: ‘It depends on the passer-by / Whether I am nothing or everything / Whether I speak or do not / This doesn’t hold for anyone, just for you / So do not enter without desire’. I track the words back to Verlaine. They appear, it seems, over one of the entrances to the Palais De Chaillot. Do not enter without desire. Bertolucci’s dreamers race in homage through the Louvre. Rivette makes his film in the Chateau D’Assas; the stonework is hot in the sun. Is that it then? Inside the chateau the deep rooms, high and spacious, are informal, worn. The actors wander about. The cinematography attains perfection. The art dealer regains consciousness. Nothing is the same. In the attic Lessing begins to scribble away. Plaster dust and soot drift through my fingers. I re-enter a non-existent place.
 ‘Spring Will Come Again’, The Poems of Nakahara Chūya, translated by Paul Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama. Leominster: Gracewing, 2017, page 92.
 Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, National Gallery, London.
 For images and discussion see Margerete Bieber, Laocoon: The Influence of the Group since its Rediscovery. New York: Columbia University Press, 1942. Revised edition, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1967.
 Archdiocesan Museum, Archbishopric Castle Kroměříž, Czech Republic.
 For context see Katherine Harloe, ‘Sympathy, Tragedy, and the Morality of Sentiment in Lessing’s Laocoon’
in Rethinking Lessing’s Laocoon: Antiquity, Enlightenment, and the ‘Limits’ of Painting and Poetry, edited by Avi Lifschitz and Michael Squire, pages 157–176. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
 For translation and discussion see, Balzac: Gillette or The Unknown Masterpiece, translated with an essay by Anthony Rudolf. London: The Menard Press, 1988.
 For Balzac’s text in French, and discussion of Rivette’s film, see: Honoré de Balzac, Le Chef-d’oeuvre Inconnu.Castelnau-le-Lez: Climats, 1991.
 Edward Steichen. Paris: Photo Poche, 1993. Plate 22.
 Albert E. Elsen, In Rodin’s Studio. Oxford: Phaidon, 1980.
 Auguste Rodin, Man with Serpent, 1885, plaster. Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. For context see Joseph Gibaldi and Richard A. LaFleur, ‘Vanni Fucci and Laocoon: Servius as possible intermediary between Vergil and Dante, Traditio, Vol. 32 (1976), pages 386-397.
 Richard Hamilton: The Late Works. London: National Gallery, 2012.
 maggi & henrietta: drawings of Henrietta Moraes by Maggi Hambling, with a preface by John Berger. London: Bloomsbury, 2001. The quote is opposite a drawing of 7 June 1998.
 Adrian Stokes, A Game That Must be Lost: Collected Papers, Cheadle: Carcanet, 1973.
 Sabina Spielrein,  ‘Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being’, Journal of Analytical Psychology 1994, 39, pages 155-186.
 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958, page 120.