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These are troubled times for the nation as we sort out what portions of archaic, outworn, or unethical philosophy have brought us to this ghastly low point.  Our national leaders have conducted some focus groups, examined some metrics, and taken a great deal of money from interested private parties.  This has allowed America’s leaders to comprehensively conclude that they are certainly in no way to blame for mass death, unemployment, and nationwide unrest.  We still need a scapegoat though, and one prominent group has been singled out for particular moral censure.  This time next year a great many of these familiar figures may be missing–gently lead out to pasture, forcibly retired, or worse.

I am speaking about mascots of course! Not only has Gritty been accused of punching children in the back (so far he has, surprisingly, been cleared of all charges) but Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and, almost certainly, the Washington Redskins are on their way out too. Yet this is the great thing about mascots. They are designed to reflect our values by selling us corn syrup, wood pulp, and brain damage.  When it is obviously time for them to go we can just take them out and put them by the curb (unlike say Mitch McConnell, Devin Nunes, or Ted Cruz who have decided to take the country straight down into hell along with them).

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Is this who we are…or who we were?

We all know about what happened to Aunt Jemima, but an equally famous frontman mascot is also being surreptitiously mothballed (although, looking at him, it seems quite possible that he will fight his way back from the basement). I am talking about “Big Boy” an iconic brand of the bygone automobile age.  Big Boy began in Glendale California in the 1930s and quickly became the name, logo, and emblem of a chain of diner-type restaurants across the country.  During the ’50s and ’60s when American life was conducted entirely from cars (as far as I can tell based on anecdotes) the oversized statues of the shiny anime-eyed be-pompadoured lad in checked suspenders were everywhere.  I have my own fond memories of hamburgers and sundaes with grandparents during the 1970s and 80s.  Indeed I even took the winsome Lorraine Hahn to a Big Boy in Falls Church when I was a junior in high school (an all-time apogee for the brand…and for my young dating life).

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However tastes change and Big Boy has really been losing steam in the last few decades.  Even though he isn’t exactly a problematic mascot as such, his cisgender (?) Warner Brother cartoon masculinity and his eagerness to serve don’t seem to quite fit our times.  Therefor, Big Boy is being given emeritus mascot status and the job of shilling new food offerings at Big Boy franchise locations will be handed over to…

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Dolly! Dolly has been an obscure supporting character from “Big Boy” comic books of the 1950s, but now 70 years later she is getting her chance to helm the franchise.  It has been a confusing year and Dolly looks comforting and nice, maybe she will breath some fresh vitality into a restaurant chain that I really do have a surprising number of fond memories about.  I hadn’t thought about Big Boy restaurants for years until writing this post, and then suddenly long vanished vacations and special meetings with family members have come flooding back and now I am blinking away tears thinking about how all of those fudge cake sundaes really meant that Grandma loved me.

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Anyway best wishes to Dolly.  She has some big shoes to fill (snicker) but I feel she is up to it.  Big Boy himself will still remain enshrined in the name. Additionally, I suspect that a number of franchise locations will look at the cost of tearing down a 14 foot concrete statue during a pandemic and discover new appreciation for old boys.  In the meantime I wish everyone in the restaurant and hospitality industry the very best. That is always such hard work…and frankly it seems impossible right now.  I promise I will come buy a hamburger from you all as soon as I can (you are invited too Lorraine, if you are somewhere out there).  This post was supposed to be funny and snarky, but it has made me reflect on the real sentimental power of silly shared kitsch.  I wonder if people 70 years from now will be misting up over memories of diner food with loved ones under the familiar shadow of Dolly…

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The Euthydikos Kore, ca. 500 BCE

I have been fretting about the post I wrote last week concerning the polos, a minimally-adorned cylindrical crown which was worn by certain goddesses of the Greek pantheon.  One of several mysteries about the polos is how it went from being normal (?) feminine headwear of the Mycenaean world to something worn only by goddesses from the 5th century onward.  Mycenaean civilization was swept away by cataclysm around 1100 BC.  The 5th century occurred in, um, the 5th century BC. So was anybody wearing these things during the intervening 600 years? It is as though one noted that Western women of the early 15th century AD wore hennins but nobody wears them now except for magical fairytale beings (which, come to think of it, is completely true).

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There is no fashion guide of Archaic Greek ladies’ style to answer this question, but we do have a mighty trove of data in the form of korai statues.  The kore was a sort of idealized statue of a perfect Greek maiden wearing heavy draperies and an enigmatic empty smile (“kourai” is the plural of the word “kore” which means “maiden”).  There are many of these statues in existence, since the Greeks apparently presented them to great temples as a sort of religious tribute (and as a status competition between leading citizens).  Additionally the statues were esteemed by collectors of subsequent ages so they didn’t suffer the same level of destruction as some other sorts of statues from two-and-a-half-millenia ago.

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Kore of Lyons (540s BC, Athens)

Unfortunately, contemporary classics and art scholars have some big unanswered questions about the korai statues.  Were they meant to represent goddesses outright?  Some kore statues have garb or items which were later regarded as symbolic of divinity (like the polos, as seen in the “Kore of Lyons” above).   Yet, the statues have a somewhat different tone than votive statues of the proud goddesses of ancient Greece.  They are softer and less assertive than the goddess statues and, even though the korai represent perfect female beauty as construed by an Archaic-era Greek sculptor, the statues are less concerned with fertility and nudity than are goddess statues.  Perhaps they are statues of a transitional goddess such as Persephone or Semele (both of whom had mortal aspects).  Another school of thought holds that they are divine attendants which embody general maidenly ideals–as would a group of priestesses or votaries.  This explains why they sometimes have divine accoutrements but lack more specific iconography or identification.  There is also a school of thought that the statues are simply “maidens” from a time when the more rigorous traditions of the Greco-Roman pantheon were coalescing.

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So I have failed to answer any questions about the polos (maybe there is a reason nobody talks about these things), however we have looked at some lovely statues from a looooong time ago and we have learned something about the figurative sculpture of Archaic Greece in the era leading up to the Golden Age.   This in turn is relevant, because the Kourai (and their male counterparts the kouros/kouroi statues) are arguably the main antecedent to Western figurative sculptural arts.  European Sculptors have lingered for long centuries in the shadow of Ancient Greece.  Whatever these statues are, we are indebted to them.

 

 

The garden of the House of the Vettii in Pompeii

The ancient Romans were devotees of all sorts of gardens.  As classical Mediterranean culture reached its apogee during the eras of the Roman Republic and the Roman Principate, Roman gardeners combined the best aspects of garden styles from Greece, Persia, and Egypt to create their own tranquil refuges from stress, strife, and crowds.  Some of these gardens were sprawling temple gardens built to honor various deities (while also granting beauty and serenity to the worshippers), or large pleasure gardens which combined orchards with ornate terraces, but the classical Roman garden which everyone thinks of today was the peristyle garden at the center of the Roman urban household.  This was designed to be one of the two centers of the Roman home.  The other center, the atria was symbolic and formal—it related to ancestors, religion, and the past, but the garden was meant to be lived in and enjoyed.

Reconstruction of the garden of the House of the Vettii in Pompeii (from the opposite side as from the picture taken in the actual garden above)

A peristyle garden was located in an open courtyard of a domus and was generally surrounded by colonnades.  Various ornamental plants and statues could be found in the garden.  If the family was especially prosperous, there might also be fountains, pools, murals, and running water.  However even humbler houses would have an opening in the ceiling and some potted herbs and flowers.

The Garden of the House of the Golden Cupids (Pompeii)

For security reasons Roman urban houses did not usually have windows facing the street, so the garden (and the formal atrium at the front of the house) became the source of fresh air as well as water.  Fragrant, herbs, shrubs and flowers were carefully cultivated amidst complementary artworks. We have paintings of these gardens, and literary descriptions, but, best of all, we have examples of the gardens themselves from Pompeii.  Although the actual plants from Pompeian villas emerged worse for the wear after being entombed for centuries beneath volcanic ash, the statues and decorations remained.  This post contains photos of how some of these actual Roman gardens look when replanted and tended.

Peristyle Garden at the “House of Menander,” Pompeii

The old-fashioned Roman domus began to vanish in the 6th century AD as Christianity became universal, but the peristyle did not vanish.  The peristyle garden evolved into the atrium of the Basillica–and then the concept became even more removed from the mundane world as it changed into the monastic cloister.

Outer Peristyle at the Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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