Few sculptures have had such an enduring impact as the Laocoon. The Antique group - which depicts the Trojan priest Laocoon and his sons in the grip of two giant snakes - was rediscovered in 1506 and almost immediately put on show in the Vatican. Since that time artists and writers have succumbed to its fascination, and its inspirational quality is the subject of this Henry Moore Institute exhibition.
As a centre for sculpture the Institute is the perfect place in which to consider the sculptural aspects of Laocoon and how they have been interpreted and re-interpreted by artists over time. This exhibition looks at Laocoon through a British lens, focusing on juxtapositions of seven works from the 18th and 20th centuries. While the historic works reference the original sculpture, highlighting interest in the Laocoon’s drama, narrative, expression and status, the more recent pieces take the Laocoon’s more formal characteristics, turning a figurative story into an abstract one.
Eduardo Paolozzi, Tony Cragg and Richard Deacon have each made a number of works which respond to or mirror the fascination of the Laocoon. Paolozzi was fascinated by our classical heritage, and owned his own small-scale cast of the group. His works variously re-define its serpentine coils and imprisoned forms. Cragg’s works also focus on the forms which are caught up by the snakes, binding them together in an endless deadly embrace but rendered in everyday, found objects. Deacon’s monumental ’Laocoon’ similarly plays on the quality of time by locking straight and curved wooden sections into one great continuous spiral.
This exhibition invites the audience to think again about the formal fascination of the Laocoon group, and to consider how its suspense has been translated into the forms of modern sculpture. Its more complex history - which includes questions about its origins, its rediscovery and restoration, brief relocation to Paris, its literary and philosophical appeal - is covered in a wide-ranging catalogue, with scholars dealing with particularly pertinent moments from Virgil and Pliny the Elder to JJ Winckelmann, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and more recently by Clement Greenberg.