Shield of Achilles VIII (2008)

Oil on canvas
220 cm in diameter

Exhibited: Mark Alexander A Blacker Gold, Haunch of Venison Berlin, Germany
2 nd May – 15th August 2009

Shield of Achilles is a series of paintings Alexander created in 2008. They are, in essence, self-portraits.

The startled boy is fixed in a circle of gold. He has a shock of hair like
a lion’s mane. He thought he was a lion, king of his world. He thought he
was lord of all. But he was wrong. Now there is outrage in his eyes.

The undulant coils of hair encircling his face might actually be waves
of water. he looks appalled, breathless, like someone on the point
of asphyxiation. He could be drowning, coming up for air, or sinking into
unplumbed depths.

The gilded boy also resembles a seraph: a blessed head without a body.
His cheeks are puffed out, like the cheeks of seraph. But he has no angel’s
trumpet to blow, no place in the heavenly host.

He is a face on a shield.

-Graham-Dixon, Andrew: Reflections on the “Shield of Achilles” (2008)


For a very long time, Alexander wanted to paint something as beautiful as gold, shining
like gold, valued as gold, worshipped by mankind as gold is worshipped – and, like gold,
everlasting. Shield of Achilles was born out of this alchemical ambition. If the wall should
shine with the brilliance of gold, what should be at its core? Alexander places his own
infant face at its epicentre. This image derives directly from his earlier work. Self-portrait.

Alexander’s Self-portrait(1996-99) is a series of monochromatic paintings capturing a
baby at teatime. From the baby blanket draped on his high chair on the background, to his
smoothly slicked baby hair, visibly soft and neatly parted, the picture at first shows
perfect happiness, until something starts to unfurl.

In this series the baby’s tentative expressions and twisting body language as he mouths
his spoonful of food suggest the pleasures and disappointments inherent in babyhood. For
Freud, our exploratory pleasures are mediated through the mouth in the first, oral stage of
infant development. With weaning come our dawning perceptions of powerlessness,
frustration, and loss. Alexander’s Self-portrait is charged with his prevailing motifs of
tenderness and trauma. A contact sheet of black-and-white baby snaps from his own
infancy are transformed and invested with the dignity and disquieting power of obituary daguerreotypes.

Indeed, for Alexander himself there was more to this. The only photographs of him as a
baby, the child of a deprived and fatherless home, were taken by a local village
photographer, who thought his developed imaged lifeless. On every one of the
baby’s pupils, he Tipp-Exed a tiny little triangle of light. In Alexander’s eyes the
mediocre photographer became a little god of creation, investing new life with light in his
village darkroom.

This concept is one of the many lying at the heart of his Shield of Achilles.

Shield of Achilles

The title of tis work is Homeric, and refers to the shield Thetis asked Hephaestos, the
blacksmith god of fire, to forge for her son, Achilles. Homer describes the imagery on the
shield in detail, circling outwards from the Earth, sky, sun, moon and constellations at its
core to the great stream of Ocean on its outer rim. Between the two lie a city where a
wedding and a lawsuit are in process; another city under siege, where an ambush and a
battle can be seen. A harvest is being reaped, a field ploughed, sheep are grazing. In the
vineyard men are harvesting the grapes; herdsmen and their dogs beat off a pair of lions
mauling their long-horned oxen. On the dancing-floor young men and women are
dancing. Thus Homer’s shield encapsulates the entire world in a layered series of eternal
oppositions – war and peace, work and festival, ploughing and reaping.

However, Alexander was also inspired by two other memories – of his childhood
fascinated with Louis XIV, the Sun King, ‘Le Roi Soleil’ – and by the magnificent
Mycenean artefact popularly known as the Death Mask of Agamemnon. This wafer-fine
mask of gold beaten to airy thinness is hammered, chased, and scored with angular
furrows for fourth, nose and eyes. The problem Alexander set himself was the apparently
insuperable paradox of painting a golden image without using gold. It was, in effect, a
Herculean test of artistic power that he set himself.

Alexander often talks of ‘the power’ in his work, and the concept of the masterpiece is
never far from his heart. Innumerable, lengthy soul-sapping trials in the making of the
Shield of Achilles drew him to question the possibility of a masterpiece as an absolute of
perfection. His chance re-encounter of Honoré de Balzac’s Le Chef-d’æuvre Inconnu at
the period of composition seemed to him more of a sign, whether of good omen or ill,
than a coincidence. In Alexander’s self-revealing memory of the story, Balzac’s novella
recounts the friendship between the young Nicolas Poussin and the (fictional) master
painter Frenhofer. For a decade Frenhofer had been working in secret on his master-
work, an image that sought to capture the very essence of feminine beauty of body and
soul. Everyone believed he would succeed. Months passed; the young painter visited the
old master to admire the painting’s progress, and was shocked to find nothing more than
part of a foot peeking out from under a heavy layer upon layer of colour. ‘The impasto
was so thick the whole wall seemed devoured by it, like a giant sea monster emerging
from the dark ocean’ (a fair description of Alexander’s own working methods). That very
evening, the old master destroyed the painting and himself. In 1921, Pablo Picasso also
was fascinated by this story, identifying with the old master to the extent he rented a
studio on the rue des Grands-Augustins in Paris where Balzac’s novella was supposedly
set. It was in this studio that Picasso painted ‘Guernica’ in 1937.


The Shield of Achilles series is Alexander’s first foray into employing silk screen
printing techniques. In part this was to ensure the absolute flatness of the surface at the
same time as achieving the trompe-l’oeuileffect sought in the image’s meticulous realism
of an apparently real, three-dimensional, embossed and sculpted surface. In order to get
the precision he was seeking, every pigment had to be exact, with the calibrated precision
of a scientific process. He wanted to create an object whose enigmatic surface allowed
the viewer to project onto it all manner of ideas, beliefs, and emotions, like the iconic
monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). As the mysterious
smoothly surfaced jet-black slab fostered countless interpretations, so the Shield of
invites viewers to ponder the epic questions of human evolution, mankind’s
odyssey into the mystery of the universe. It is Mark Alexander’s monolith.

Historic antecedents

During the Renaissance, a beautifully wrought shield became the potent symbol of a
monarch’s might. Particularly in the decade 1540-50, court armourers across Europe
competed for commissions to fashion splendid parade shields for the Holy Roman
Emperor, Charles V. They were objects of display, flaunts for the pomp and magnificence,
proclamations of a hubristic pride in the illusion of human omnipotence. These objects
marked the historic moment in Western culture when the shield functioned as a work of
art and a symbol of power.

Leonardo da Vinci’s long lost masterpiece, the Medusa shield, was inspired by the Greek
myth of Perseus. Perseus defeated the Gorgon Medusa, who turned her would -be slayers
who caught her eye to stone, by fighting her with a shield whose mirror surface allowed
him to see her without looking at her. Alexander was also setting himself the task of
following in da Vinci’s footsteps – most identifiably in the dimensions of his shield,
which accord exactly with those of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (c.1490).

Da Vinci’s shield is lost, but another ‘Medusa shield’ survives. It was created for a
Medici ruler at the end of sixteenth century, by Caravaggio. This picture, like
Leonardo’s, is painted on a curved piece of wood shaped like a shield, but where Vasari
describes da Vinci’s lost shield portraying a monster emerging from a cave, Caravaggio’s
shield dramatically displays what its mirror-surface would have reflected: Medusa’s
startled, furious face at the moment of decapitation.

As Andrew Graham-Dixon points out,

“Leonardo had painted a picture of the Medusa that seemed wittily appropriate
merely as the decoration on a shield. Caravaggio did something bolder and
conceptually far more pure. He created a painting that sought to transcend
painting and become the very thing that it depicts. His Medusa is not a painting of
a shield, or at least it pretends not to be. It pretends to be the shield itself, held in
Perseus’s hand at the very instant when he has killed the Medusa. To look at the
picture is to become the conquering hero himself – to gaze, through his eyes, at
the reflection of the Medusa, as she in turn watches herself die, in her own
reflection, in the shield’s mirror.”

“Caravaggio’s Medusa transforms whoever holds it into Perseus himself. To give
such a picture to a Medici was to flatter him in a comfortingly familiar way. But
there is a subtle, slightly bitter taste to the compliment. The image of Medici
power is also an artist’s vision of what that power might one day do to him. He
modelled the Medusa on his own features. The dying face, frozen on the shield, is
the painter’s own face.”

The same is true of Alexander’s Shield of Achilles .


Homer, The Iliad, Book XVIII, The Shield of Achilles

Auden, W.H., The Shield of Achilles (1952)

Graham-Dixon, Andrew, Reflection on The Shield of Achilles (2008)

Vasari, Giorgio, Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori da Cimabue
insane a’ tempi nostri / Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Painters, Sculptors, and
Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times (1568)

de Balzac, Honoré, Le Chef-d’æuvre inconnu (1831)

Mark Alexander in Berlin on Vimeo

installation view Berlin 2009


MEDIA: Oil on canvas

SIZE: 220 cm in diameter


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