A striking photo of a human pyramid reminds Kelly Grovier that this structure has dominated art history for centuries. He explains why.
26 August 2016
A thrilling photograph from the streets of Barcelona this week not only captures the agile acrobatics of a group of performers hoisting their bodies into the air in the shape of a gravity-defying pyramid. It also reminds us of the extraordinarily inspirational power of great images - how even a flat, two-dimensional work of art can propel our spirits heavenwards.
Taken during the colourful festival that dominates the streets of the city’s Gràcia district each year, the photo shows scores of Barcelonans in a surge of torsos and limbs that culminates in the outstretched arms of a soaring figure atop the living tower,who appears to offer himself sacrificially to the crowd below. The picture pulses with ascendent energy.
Though it was shot in the last few days, its success, as an image, relies on a visual strategy that has dominated art history for centuries - an optical technique on which old masters relied to elevate the spirits of those who observed their works. Whether one thinks first of Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection (c 1460) or Raphael’s Madonna of the Meadow (1505), or Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (1503) or Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830), sculpting the physiques of a painting’s figures into a triangular structure invites the eye on an aspirational journey upwards that literally lifts the observer’s sights.
Once detected, pyramidal choreography is discernible everywhere in the history of image making and becomes a stock expectation that artists will soon learn to subvert. It’s there in the desperate swell of wretched passengers on Gericault’s doomed Raft of the Medusa. It’s traceable too from the white-knuckle grip to the howling lips of Francis Bacon’s screaming Popes. In these more harrowing versions of the structure, such as Paul Cezanne’s macabre Pyramid of Skulls(c 1901), the horror of the subject is accentuated by our gaze’s inability to transcend it. In these, the pyramid becomes an insidious trap that entombs us, not a scaffold pointing the way out.
Harald Engman’s Human Pyramid (1941) is one of the most complex incarnations of the pyramidal structure in art (Credit: Wikipedia)
Among the most complex incarnations of the pyramidal structure in art, and perhaps the closest parallel for this week’s photo of clambering souls captured on the streets of Barcelona, is a relatively little known symbolic painting by the 20th-Century Danish artist Harald Engman: Human Pyramid (1941). A claustrophobic crush of humanity that rises out of a sea strewn with skulls and bones, Engman’s literal pyramid imagines a brutal winnowing of being from prehistoric times at the bottom to modern-day mankind at the top, capped off by a slingshot wielding boy. While laced intricately with historical commentary on the occupation of Denmark by Nazi Germany, the work nevertheless vibrates with a timeless and universal message: whatever heights we may attain, we owe our reach to those who came before.
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