Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Ancient Greek Inscription on the Bust of James Dean

A few years ago I visited Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, not only to capture the spectacular views, but as a film buff, to also see where dozens of scenes from Hollywood movies were filmed, including one of my all time favorites, Rebel Without a Cause, in which Griffith Observatory played a pivotal role. I had known there was a bust of James Dean set up in his honor there, so I made it a priority to visit the bust and try to get a photo with it. It was then that I noticed something that surprised me, and confused me a bit, that prompted me to do a little research in an attempt to figure out why I was looking at an ancient Greek inscription on his right shoulder. Since today is the 65th anniversary of the premature and tragic death of James Dean on September 30, 1955, I thought I would post the story behind this ancient Greek inscription.
In 1955, James Dean went to the studio of Hollywood-based artist Kenneth Kendall after seeing a sculpture he had done of Dean's hero, Marlon Brando, and requested that Kendall do his bust as well. Kendall began the sculpture the night that Dean was killed. Decades later, in commemoration of the use of the Observatory in the film, Rebel Without a Cause, a monument featuring the bust Dean commissioned was placed on the west side of the Observatory lawn (a second copy of the bust can be seen at the James Dean Memorial Park in the actor's hometown of Fairmount, Indiana). The monument has now been restored and reinstalled in its new location, where visitors can snap pictures of the monument with the iconic Hollywood Sign in the same frame.
The ancient Greek inscription Kendall included on the right shoulder of the bust reads: "ΘΕΡΕΟΣ ΝΕΟΝ ΙΣΤΑΜΕΝΟΕΟ". The translation of this inscription is "As Summer Was Just Beginning". This sentiment refers to the fact that he died so young, at just 24 years old, and although he had already become a legend, it was only the bright beginning for him when he was suddenly killed. The inscription itself comes from a famous painting by John LaFarge that is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum titled "Wreath of Flowers" that was painted in 1866. The meaning behind the inscription on this famous painting is not known, and some believe LaFarge purposefully kept it enigmatic. Today it has become associated with James Dean. I think it's meaning as far as James Dean is concerned is further illuminated by the plaque beneath the bust, which quotes the Aztec poem "The Flight of Quetzalcoatl"

It ended... 
With his body changed to light, 
A star that burns forever in that sky.



Kenneth Kendall

"Wreath of Flowers", 1866