Saturday, April 14, 2007

Ajax and Achilles at Dice, Exekias

Ajax and Achilles at Dice, Exekias, 540-530 BCE

Here is our Ajax again, on the right, but in a scene far more pleasant and enjoyable than either running off the battlefield carrying the corpse of Achilles or planting his sword in the ground to end his own life. He is playing a game with Achilles-we may call it dice, but it might be chess, or checkers, or what have you-both men ready for battle-they are in a tent at Troy-but intently engaged on the problem before them on the gaming board. The artist has linked the game that absorbs these warriors with the war raging outside. The elaborate refinery both of the garments these soldiers wear and of the execution itself, by that great black-figure painter Exekias, is especially notable. For me, the intensity of their concentration on their game mimics, or calls to mind, the intensity of the artist at work in creating such exquisite patterns.

I like the interpretation of the scene as one that shows Achilles with his friend during the time after he has pulled away from the Greeks, because of Agamemnon's insult. I am not sure, however, why, in that case, Achilles would be wearing his helmet. This interpretation, though, does a lot to help us find suggestive forebodings in the image.

The scene is widely reproduced, yet difficult to capture. It really needs to be understood, as so many of these vase paintings do, in the context of the entire amphora. Their two shields, for example, have been placed behind them at such an angle as to extend up into the handles of the vase. This acknowledgment of the shape, form, and physical presence of the vase qua vase in the image itself is one of the glories of this sort of art. Similarly, their spears also point to the tops of the handles above. Furthermore, each of their backs curves in a way that echoes the curve of the vase. These characters are both at Troy and on a vase painting. And they seem to know it. Take a look at a close up of Ajax's face, where intensity of human thought combines with patterned elegance of design.

It is one of the great features of Greek art to explore consciousness. This work exemplifies that concern.