Friday, May 16, 2008

The three Sirens of Altes - Amazon, Nefertiti and Nike

Embedded within Berlin’s masculine flesh of chauvinist architecture evolved through multiple palimpsests of memory and power, are three transplants that very gracefully tread the tight rope between the poles of elegant power and absolute beauty. Ironically all the three foreign feminine bodies belonging to different culture, space and time have lodged themselves within Schinkel’s Altes museum. Each of these three women to me seemed to emit an Aura Borealis that seemed to pass through every other artefact in stone, wood and clay and mesmerizing every visitor as they through their composure held the reigns of power and rode the chariots of beauty to become the very symbols of their civilizations within the space of the museum.

The first sculpture is along the steps guarding the gates of the museum. The sculpture of woman, stead and beast (by August Kiss and Albert Wolf) engaged in a battle for survival is frozen in a moment where the potential difference within the struggle has reached its peak and the very next instance the act of throwing of the spear will determine the outcome. The arm that holds the spear is stretched to its limit and points towards the heart of the beast with a calm composure that promises assurance of the outcome. The scale of the statue is about 1.5 times the life size, which makes it small enough for the observer to be a witness and at the same time big enough to restrict ones role only to that. This statue called ‘the Amazon’ beats most of the Victorian lion riders, golden angels, baby cherubs, grumpy queens, gate keepers etc hands down.

In contrast to this sculpture that bears the wind, rain and snow, the other two are highly prized and protected artefacts separated by level difference and civilizations- ground floor dedicated to the Greek civilization and the first floor to the Egyptian civilization. As one enters the central room on the first floor, which is comparatively dimly lit and has only one artefact- the bust of Nefertiti. Seeing it is like seeing the real queen and feeling her gaze on you, with her chin held high, sharp features, beautiful eyes and the head that bears the weight of the crown. She is encased in a glass box that tends to throw multiple reflections of her from different perspectives, in a manner such that one stops acknowledging it as an artefact but starts referring to it as ‘her’, the ultimate three dimensional Fayum portrait that comes to life and asserts to us that ‘I existed’ and ‘I was beautiful and powerful, behold me’.
The third sculpture is not something which is displayed as impressively as Nefertiti or is poised like the Amazon at the steps. The third is in the central rotunda arranged as one of the ten odd Greek gods of love, hate, sex and whatever that the Greeks worshiped.

One might even miss her, but if you do glance at her and especially her feet, all the images of present day science fiction and media’s portrayal of flight seem rather bland in comparison to this statue of Nike’ the goddess of flight (and victory). Looking straight ahead, her clothes flutter and show us the wind and her legs elevated above the ground by just a few inches, a detail I could never forget in my entire life! And then this piece of marble takes flight! I can only imagine what might be the impact of another such statue of the headless Nike in the Louvre in Paris that is positioned at the end of a long circulation axis and is in a pose that is about to leap and challenge gravity. Never before have I been so excited on seeing sculpture, but these three sirens are simply fabulous. Madly in love with all three.


  1. Hi Saurabh - the nefertitii simply took my breath away and that too only in a digital photo your blog! What an experience it must be to see the real thing!

  2. The Nike detail is amazing. I was one step short of clapping my hands in glee!!!