Spending time with Thyrsis (Volunteers Week at Tate Britain, London)

A vital component of my art practice is finding ways to share my passion with others (outside of exhibiting my artwork or teaching, of course!) So when the opportunity to join Tate as a Volunteer Visitor Host came up, I said “yes!” immediately. I have always loved Tate since my first visit to Tate Modern in 2004 where I experienced Olafur Eliasson’s “Weather Project”, one of those life-changing artworks I’ll never forget.

Tate’s real “superpower”, though, is not just in this one artwork; their true strength lies in the impactful way of taking the viewer on a journey – it’s their ability to tell a story through the experience of art that I find compelling – and I wanted to be a part of that story.  Also, my role as a Visitor Host is a great way to share my passion for art with other people whom I might not meet otherwise. It’s a real pleasure to help others enjoy Tate’s collection in variety of ways – it might be a chance conversation about a particular artwork, providing information about activities that day, or just guiding them through the 500 years of British Art.

Which brings me to “Thrysis” (James Havard Thomas, 1912, bronze), prominently displayed just inside the Millbank entrance. Thyrsis hasn’t always been a favourite; but I noticed it more and more each time a group of school children came through the door; of the four works in this foyer, the kids seem to notice Thyrsis first, pointing and giggling, while adults rarely notice him at all.

James Havard Thomas, ‘Thyrsis’, 1912, bronze, at Tate Britain, London. Image courtesy Tate.org.uk

Who is this naked flute player, I asked myself. A few minutes and an iPhone led me to the story of Thyrsis depicted here, a bold shepherd boy who challenged a god/musical genius, Corydon, to a singing contest – and lost. Perhaps, as is often a god’s way, Thyrsis lost his life for his audacity. Or at the very least, his dignity, which was hardly fair, considering Corydon’s poetic prowess.
Another reference more contemporary to Thomas’s time was a poem with which the artist surely was familiar, by Mathew Arnold (1865) about lost youth – in which Arnold writes that it was Time that conquers Thyrsis, not Corydon. Standing next to the sculpture now, I find it beautifully ironic that all the kids notice this bold young man (frozen in the moment of dauntless hope that he might win a contest against someone far more experienced and accomplished than he, a god), while adults pass Thyrsis right on by and don’t offer a second glance.
I’ve heard it said, “youth is wasted on the young”, yet the way our young visitors engage with this artwork may suggest otherwise…

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