Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Bronze Griffins

The term Orientalizing designates the tendency in Greek art of the Archaic period to respond to influence from the East. Here is how Carpenter puts it:
Trade with the East developed during the late 8th century and the influence of eastern forms and styles is clear in Greek art of the 7th century-the term 'orientalizing' is often used to describe the new developments through which geometric forms give way to more natural ones and fantastic figures and shapes proliferate. The 6th century was a time of consolidation and prosperity in Greece, and the term Archaic is used to describe the art of this period. This was, without any question, the most creative period for the depiction of myths in art, and many of the conventions established then carried on in to later times.
Clearly, something mythological is going on here; these are, after all, mythical creatures. We respond to them both as horrible monsters and as rather clever works of art. They may reflect a Greek response to foreign-type devils, treating them with respect for their awesome power, but controlling them with formal design.

These are wonderful pieces, with their sinuous lines and aggressive points and rhythms. Originally, they would have guarded a pot or vessel; a somewhat curious mixture of aggression with domesticity. The ears are sharp, rigid, and intensely vertical, contrasting vividly with the angry curves of mouths and tongues. They have a somewhat civilizing knob coming out of their heads, almost inviting us to pet them--but stay clear of those tense ears. Here is Osborne:

[T]he curve of the upper eyelid is carried on in prominent brows, doubly emphasized and rendered still more threatening as the short curve is taken up in the sharp eagle’s beak and answered by the pointed and thrusting tongue; the scaly neck and serrated edge to the mouth further contribute to the insidious hostility of a beast whose elegant ugliness is still more emphatic in the head-on view. Although the basic formula by which the griffin is presented is more or less unchanging, the detailed treatment by Greek artists varies considerably: eyes may be more to the sides or more to the front, they may be given a roll of lid below as well as arching brows above; the lower jaw may be more or less curved and the tongue, if shown at all, curls upwards in varying degrees; knobs and ears vary in length and the ears may bend forwards; both length and curvature of the beak vary and the junction with the head may be smoother or more abrupt. But if the details vary, fear and loathing are never lost: this uncertain-combination of snake and bird of prey adds the threat posed by its defiance of the categories of natural history to the menace posed by those savage creatures. The domesticated world of horse, sheep, and ox had been good to think with in the eighth century; seventh-century artists see the world through creatures that are far more slippery and hostile” (Robin Osborne, Archaic and Classical Greek Art, 44-45, Oxford History of Art New York: Oxford University Press, 1998)