This slide shows ancient Greek sculpture from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus as displayed in the British Museum in the early 20th century. What I love is the way that the image frames these pieces of sculpture within the black border of the slide as if viewed through a peephole. There is something deliciously intimate about this image, something illicit almost, as our eye is drawn to those nude male torsos and their chiseled muscles, their heads turned away from us seemingly unaware of our gaze. By making us voyeur, the slide invites a reification of these classical bodies, something that is played with in the composition of the image itself, with those fragmentary torsos mirroring the body of the standing nude on the column and encouraging us to dissect his body similarly. The layers of labels (both in the image and on the slide) only push this objectification further, as does the opportunity to hold the slide in our hand and bring it close to our eye. Looking at classical sculpture in this way encourages us to rethink our relationship to the classical body and to classical art. On a slide, these bodies become something temporary and lightweight, unlike the marble originals they replicate, but they also become something we can look at whenever and wherever we want. They almost act as fetish, keeping the ancient original nearby and in sight.
Lantern slides such as this were widely used in faculties and art schools from the mid-19th century, and played a vital role in the study of Greek and Roman art, enabling the visual study of ancient works otherwise dispersed across collections in various countries. Alongside plaster casts, which were also popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, as artefacts they can tell us much about the modern reception of classical art but, perhaps more interestingly, they also foreground questions of replication, representation, and the veneration of the original. By translating sculpture into two dimensions, lantern slides make more acute the process of removal and reinterpretation that every act of looking and re-presentation entails: even an ‘original’ Greek or Roman sculpture taken from its ancient display context and exhibited in a museum is not the same sculpture and can never have the same meaning to its new audience that it did to its viewers in antiquity. Held at a remove, therefore, these slides function as lenses pointing us back to the original sculpture but also asking us to question what exactly is being reproduced.
Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge