On the sculpted head of Alexandros the Great

The white of marble sculpture. I think it’s the white, like the white of Melville’s whale, that has become fixed in the collective Western consciousness. It seems like it was meant to be, that it was the obvious choice for our artistic ancestors, that marble appeared so it could be hewn from the earth to be sculpted into the likeness of the human form.

I love white marble sculptures done in the classical style. If a museum has them, it’s what I’ll look for first. I, in fact, would put one in my home, big or small, if I had the money – and the room. But it’s the heads that have some unnameable power over me. They communicate something to me more than photographs or, sometimes, even stories. They appear in my dreams and daydreams like hollow-eyed spirits of the dead – which is, after all, exactly what they are.

Two heads in particular haunt the space behind my closed eyes.

The first is the extra large head of Goethe. The day I visited Paris’s Musee d’Orsay, it looked down on visitors as they entered the main gallery. It’s a middle-aged Wolfgang, hair back and slightly unkempt, a weary, bemused look on his face. You have interrupted him. Or he has just caught sight of himself in the bathroom mirror, barely awake, shocked things have come to this. Of course, he has no body. All that exists of Goethe now is his writing, Faust and Werther. And this immense head.

(When I think of Paris, I remember grey sky over sandstone. My thoughts quickly turn to I. M. Pei’s glass pyramids in the Louvre’s forecourt and then skip over the river to Orsay. And it’s here that they settle. I think of the wide main gallery, a former train station, and the Orsay clock that kept time for so many faceless and forgotten Parisians. And I think of Goethe and his head. Not even Frankfurt reminds me of Goethe, though it’s his place of birth and I stood at the front of his house on one of the coldest days I’ve experienced in my life.)

I saw the second head, face to stoney face, more recently than Goethe’s, but of this one I have a curiously imprecise memory. It’s the head of Alexandros the Great, which was part of an exhibition on Turkish History, on display in the Korean National Museum (of all places). Unlike Goethe’s, this head is small, about lifesize, but slightly unrealistic, less realistic than I usually like, almost as if time had eroded the detail, smoothing the marble down into something approaching, if taken to its limit, abstraction.

The sculpture was in a glass cabinet in the centre of one of the dark-walled exhibition rooms. In my memory, there is a clean slice across the top of Alexander’s head, as if at some point in its history it was decided that whatever decorated the top – a crown, perhaps – was unbefitting and cleaved off.

Before leaving, I went back to it for a second look; I was at a travelling exhibition in a foreign country – I knew it’d be unlikely that I’d see the sculpture again. And yet, despite this second look, the exact details of it have still slipped from my memory. I even doubt my recollection of the size and angle of the missing part of Alexander’s cranium. It makes my wonder why I remember it at all.

Perhaps the answer lies in the subject. Alexander did not look like this – the sculpted head of Alexandros is actually the white marble sculpture of an idea.

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