“Pandora’s Box” by John Fitz Gibbon

The first Art History lecture I heard was also the best. The Deep Winter of Senior Year went Wintry, went Deep. The poster-flyer offered a 4:00 PM Friday talk by a Professor from The Institute Advanced Studies, Princeton. He would take Pandora’s Box for the subject. Come Friday afternoon, nearly the whole Yale population would be off to New York for shopping, home to Fairfield County for a little rest, or up to the women’s colleges to see what’s cooking. Me? For study table.

Plenty of scholars remained on campus, of course most of them anchored to the premise that you came to Yale to study, to learn, eventually to make someone of yourself, make the contribution expected. Yale was not a playpen in which kids like me and my buddies were free to goof around. To my way of thinking, the canting pose of Yale officialdom (WITH PRIVILEGE COMES RESPONSIBILITY) added to the strictures of our parents amounted to little more than that same-o, same-o ranting denunciation of Pleasure that everywhere keeps its muddy boot on Freedom. Yale must surely have retired the brass foulard award by now: for wrapping in cliché a once fresh and poignant thought. I guess in the end it all comes down to marketing.

Meantime there were voices below my window. Students were drifting toward the Pandora lecture, which would at the least be pleasure-seeking, I surmised. “HEY FITZ!” “WAIT UP!” Peer pressure had won another battle with my better self, I grumbled, as I hurried along toward Strathcona Hall. Four bells from Harkness, and I was in the upper back door of an auditorium full to the last seat. The preceding Tuesday it had snowed, and the wide aisles were wet with gray sludge. I grabbed a copy of the Yalie/Daily and wedged between two other latecomers.

Far down in the front of the darkened hall a short, balding, bespectacled man was clicking streams of colored light at us and smiling someway at the peanut gallery, putting his whole body-language into it. Gradually, as each slide drew its successor along, an implicit pattern began to develop, more poetry than narrative, and you saw (or rather) felt the teleology that guided the man in the Princeton professor’s costume as he fluidly re-created the story of found and abandoned Hope through era after art historical era. Erwin Panofsky began his talk with Attic pottery, both red-figure and black; then, veered astonishingly down into fourth century southern Italy to gather up those “grosso e grasso” Apulian vessels where the figures have lost their registers and aimlessly cavort without any stabilizing coordinates: Panofsky didn’t admire these pots but they interested him (and us) for the unmistakable suggestion that Mafia Wedding Bad Taste has been constant through the ages. Skipping rapidly and unerringly on the stepping stones of our civilization, E.P. brought matters up as far as Renoir’s 1919 death. I, of course, could follow but little of the art historical terminology. Much delightful stuff came through anyway. Take our ominous feathered friend the Crow. The Crow in our culture says “CAW, CAW”. He stands a harbinger of Death. To the Medieval German artist, though, this same Crow is an icon of Hope, a symbol of Futurity, of good things to come. Why? Because in Latin the crow says “cras, cras”, cras being the Latin onomatopoeia for the noise the crow makes. But in Latin the word for “tomorrow” is “cras” also. Erwin Panofsky had one helluva good time pressing this bi-lingual word-play on his Yalie auditors, and if you were to have been there to hear E.P. declaim his “cras, cras” in his trans-Atlantic class German accent, well, you’d have it in your ear still, as I do after 50 years. Above all, I was amazed, taken aback, blown, as they say, away by the extent of sexual imagery E. P. discovered in the various representations of the Pandora myth. How about our college-boy slang-usage of the word “box”, meaning of course “vagina”? How was an Ancient Prof of Things Ancient able to reconcile up-to-the-moment argot of the street, and “dirty” too, with the elevated high-flown language, the scholarly E. P. used in his scholarly discourse? Years later, after we’d been friendly for some time, I ventured to put the question to Dr. Horst Janson. Naturally, he meant it so, replied Panofsky’s great student; Panofsky, he continued, liked to say that he enjoyed a dual self: Erwin, the builder of the Strasbourg Cathedral, that was half of him. “And the other half?” I prompted. The other half was Pan, naturally. Janson issued a half smile along with the clarification: “Well, what about the choice itself? I mean he could have picked any of the large Greek myths; what’s so special about Pandora’s Box?” ”Well, my dear young fellow,” the answer came back, “Pan could hardly have chosen otherwise, Pan’s wife’s name was Dora!” “I see, Pan’s Dora’s Box, then.” Dr. Janson’s silence indicated concurrence. “It’s a genitive series, right?”

A genitive series, yes. In the history of Art few ideas have been as stubbornly sustainable as the perception that the vessel is a woman is a vessel, or the even broader notion that a landscape is a body is again a landscape. As we move from corner to corner of the Great Museum, from Titian/Giorgione to Ingres to abstract expressionist Diebenkorn to Mel Ramos we can spot this underlying metaphor (of woman as the Source), and in Renoir we recognize one of its prolific adherents. Renoir, however, was never overly reliant on still-life. When he does do one, it is liable to be large, ebullient, fecundating, over life scale and to carry a message, abetted by richly generous color orchestration, of a blossoming, abundant optimism. In the example Panofsky supplied, matters are different. In an outdoors landscape all bosomy hills and sunlit buttocks, flesh colored drumlins, Renoir would sometimes add a triangular patch of wiry, green grasses to celebrate what he jocularly referred to as “la ravine sauvage”. Panofsky’s Renoir is no joke. For this still-life of a bottle with cut flowers color is subdued. Renoir has the lights turned down, but Panofsky allowed the last slide several minutes to let it sink in that Renoir had painted, glistening and darkling, an open vagina on this vessel, a cavern jewel-like and fearful but whose invitation brooks no refusal. The part for whole synecdoche expressed by Renoir’s little canvas does not support a reading along the lines of “Hope retained when all is lost”. A couple of earlier travelers come to mind. Their gate bears this legend: