The Trojan priest who still holds sculptors in thrall

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According to Virgil, Laocoon was the Trojan priest who revealed to his fellow citizens the plot to secrete men inside a wooden horse in order to facilitate the overthrow of the city of Troy by the Greeks. The Greek gods, furious to have been betrayed, punished him and his sons, terribly, by strangling them with snakes. The Roman historian, Pliny, also describes, albeit cursorily, a great piece of sculpture by three Greeks whose subject was the same as that described by Virgil – the punishment of Laocoon and his sons.

Fast forward almost 1,500 years. In 1506 the antique figure group was excavated on a hillside just outside Rome, to great excitement. Was it some Greek original? Was it a Roman copy? No one was quite sure. What seemed certain was that – as Pliny had said – it had been carved out of a single piece of stone. Michelangelo the stone carver saw it – and promptly disagreed. Commentaries were written about it. Damaged when unearthed, it was restored and then restored again.

By the 18th century, it was still regarded by Goethe, Winkelmann and Lessing as a paradigm of the antique. A wax copy of it entered the collections of the newly founded British Museum in 1768. A marble bust of Laocoon was sculpted by Joseph Wilton in 1758.

This show at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds investigates, through a small collection of objects, how the subject of Laocoon has held sculptors in thrall. It consists of seven objects in three galleries. The earliest is that small wax copy of the original figure group which went to the British Museum. The most recent are sculptures by Eduardo Paolozzi, Tony Cragg and Richard Deacon. The latest work – a towering structure of twisted and tortured wood by Deacon – dates from 1996.

The wax copy shows Laocoon, at centre stage of his own drama, wrestling with those two great snakes, which have also lifted his two sons off the ground, to his left and his right. It is a frozen moment of absolute horror, of life-or-death struggle. Laocoon looks flagrantly muscular – more Hercules than priest. The intensity of all this drama is snugly contained inside a glass vitrine.

To its left and right, two pieces by Tony Cragg spill wantonly across the floor. One, “George and the Dragon”, consists of sections of robust, terracotta-coloured domestic piping which writhes and snakes along, catching up – or entwining with – objects as it goes. It wrestles with a humdrum table. It has a milk churn in its grip. Laocoon is very much present in this piece in the rolling, horizontal spillage of energy and movement.

Deacon’s huge piece rears up in the double-height central gallery, the emotional epicentre of any display in this institute. It is a huge piece of writhing and twisting wood, continually in frozen motion and it is juxtaposed with Wilton’s head on its plinth, which looks tiny when cowering in its shadow.

Wilton’s choice to sculpt the head alone, with its tortured face, may be to do with a debate about human suffering. It is not immediately clear whether Deacon’s piece is about suffering too or whether Deacon, Cragg and Paolozzi in the final room, had merely learnt formal sculptural lessons from the antique group – lessons about time, movement, the dispersal of energy across a surface – without much engagement with the human story of Laocoon.

But as we gaze at Deacon’s piece, we conclude that, although this is an abstract piece, it embodies human impulse and human feeling. This could be a suffering head. These could be hands, eternally wrung – or features, twisted awry. There is nothing cool, nothing cerebrally detached about this sculpture. It seems to be drenched in the story of the terrible fate of human beings and the howls of Laocoon are undeniably present.
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