A Catalogue of Shapes von Solms

Created between 2010 and 2013, this series is a sculptural exploration of the artistry of Homeric poetry.


A Catalogue of Shapes is premised on the idea that the oral-formulaic compositional method underlying two ancient Greek epics (the Iliad and Odyssey) is comparable to the artform of sculptural assemblage. Individually the twelve sculptures that comprise the series function as personifications of twelve characters from the epics.

As a set they form a composite object portrait that depicts Homer not as a person, but as a creative process.


A portrait of Homer

This series reflects the theory that the Homeric poems were composed by means of oral-formulaic composition. In this understanding ‘Homer’ is not a historical person, but a poetic persona. In my reading, the figure of Homer represents the compositional system used over generations to create the Iliad and the Odyssey. This portrait of an oral-formulaic Homer is therefore a representation of a method of creating poetry, instead of a depiction of a specific poet.

Homer Portrait Types

Copy of a Hellenistic portrait of Homer; British Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons and a detail of Penelope ΑΡΕΤΗ showing the vertical band inscribed with a hexametrical pattern

I based my representation of Homer on the idea of the ‘composite object portrait’. Early examples of this form of depiction is can be seen in the paintings of the Italian Mannerist artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo. He constructed his images from collections of symbolic attributes, as opposed to physical likenesses. This approach to representation underlies the metaphoric use of objects in modern collage and assemblage.

Composite Object Portraits

The Waiter by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1574); Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


The role of the viewer

The sculptural technique of assemblage invites a multi-faceted interpretive approach. Each of the objects used to construct an assemblage can carry multiple meanings. The viewer must determine which combinations of material, formal, and functional aspects of a selection of items to rely on when decoding the artwork. Such composition by means of  pre-existing ‘phrases’ with contextually determined meanings echoes the use of formulae in oral-formulaic composition.

When viewing A Catalogue of Shapes, the interpreter is not a passive recipient of a coherent message but an active composer.

Each individual sculpture contains elements repeated elsewhere within the series. The iconography of A Catalogue of Shapes is based on the elimination of the figure and the development of a metaphoric ‘code’ of objects. To achieve a sense of overall coherence I devised a compositional template to create a metrical format. In this scheme the smallest variation becomes significant. There are two registers (upper and lower) for each sculpture. The identity and role of each character is indicated by the register in which significant details and variations occur.

A Catalogue of Shapes Compositional Registers

The compositional registers in A Catalogue of Shapes

The game for the viewer is to identify these interrelationships and construct whichever meaning makes sense to them within the context of the artwork. The sequence and extent to which this occurs is unique to each interpreter. The aim was to enable a modern viewer to experience of the performance and interpretation of the Homeric epics as an active re-composition.


Main themes in A Catalogue of Shapes

The selection of the dramatic ‘personae’ referred to in the artworks comprising A Catalogue of Shapes was thematically determined. In this reading The Iliad and the Odyssey constitute two distinct types of epic:

1. The Iliad, with Achilles as its main hero, is defined as a kleos epic. The dramatic theme of the poem revolves around the poetic immortalization of the hero by death in battle.
2. The Odyssey recounts the adventures of Odysseus following the Trojan War. It is essentially a nostos epic, meaning that the hero’s poetic immortalization is achieved by a successful homecoming or return to being.

Odysseus and Achilles form the twin nuclei of the series. These sculptures are a visual exploration of the characters whose attributes and functions in the plot represent Homer’s principal heroes and their epics.



Colour and pattern

Within A Catalogue of Shapes, signifying details were achieved by the manipulation of component parts. These changes range from reduction to embellishment. The use of colour and pattern are amongst the most frequently used means of adjusting the meaning of an object.

As can be seen in examples of Ancient Greek sculptures and reliefs where pigmentation has been restored, combinations of bright colours flatten, emphasize, and distort, three-dimensional form.

Colour also allows for symbolic coding and the establishment of reciprocal interrelations between individual sculptures. I used colour coding to establish connections between classes of things that might otherwise not share characteristics. The most obvious example of which is that the Iliadic and Odyssean categories were each assigned their own sets of colours.

Color and Pattern in A Catalogue of Shapes

The use of colour and pattern across the entire series of A Catalogue of Shapes

While many of the patterns I applied derive from ancient sources, others were determined by the objects used to construct the artworks. The jelly moulds for example, each had their own raised patterns which I emphasized with different coloured paints. In the colander, the spacing of the holes served as a guide for the pattern I applied. Many of the objects used were symmetrical in design and embellishment. In another, area patterns had been created by the long-term patination of now-lost brass brackets against weather-exposed wood.


The catalogue format

The Homeric catalogue format served as an important model for this series. A catalogue such as the “Catalogue of Ships” in Book II of the Iliad is not simply a repository of names, origins and troop numbers. It is also a careful arrangement of sets of allusions, events and characters.

Catalogues provide a predominantly spatial and visual context within which epic narrative occurs.

As a visual catalogue, this series of sculptures incorporates structural parallels, and subsets within larger sequences.


The structure of A Catalogue of Shapes

The twelve sculptural assemblages comprising this series were designed to function as a coherent unit. Displayed on custom plinths laid out in a specific format, the sculptures are arranged into two main categories. These are characters from the Odyssey and from the Iliad. In addition, there are also four sub-categories: The Warriors; The Wives; The Deities; and The Kings. This structure is reflected in the spatial presentation of the collection.

Spatial Schematic a Catalogue of Shapes

Paired sets are located either alongside or opposite each other. This enables the establishments of iconographic correlation and visual cross-referencing. Thematic relationships between categories of sculptures are signaled by formal means, using symmetrical geometry in the physical layout of the group.

Interrelational Schematic A Catalogue of Shapes

The sculptures are arranged around a central square in a grid-like format. This layout includes a series of overlapping linear, rectangular, tripartite and hexagonal patterns. Each pattern denotes a specific set of thematic relationships. The masculine characters (Menelaus, Odysseus, Achilles, Telemachus, Hector and Nestor) provide the North–South axis. The feminine (Calypso, Circe, Penelope, Helen, Eris and Ate) lie on the East–West axis. Each of these are symmetrical inversions of one another.


The structure of A Catalogue of Shapes does not describe the catalogue as a purely sequential listing of information. Instead, it combines various patterns and relationships within a collection of autonomous elements. The spatial arrangement and structure of the series, the appropriation and manipulation of objects, and the symbolic use of colour, pattern, form, and material, are all designed to encourage the viewer to trace and identify interrelationships to construct a different catalogic sequence with each viewing. This multiform system is intended to reflect the dialectical hermeneutics of Homeric oral-formulaic composition during performance.


For some background into the origins of the notion of an oral-formulaic Homer here is an interview with Robert Kanigel, author of Hearing Homer’s Song: The Brief Life and Big Idea of Milman Parry.