Friday, April 13, 2007

Dionysus Cylix, Exekias

This Cylix by Exekias, which is dated around 540-30 BCE, is one of my favorites. And why not? My own personal preferences for subject matter in works of art are for boats or (and) nudes. The boat here is exquisite, as is everything else.

The story illustrated here is from the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus. It seems the new god, a mere lad, is kidnapped by some dim pirates who fail to recognize the god's potent powers. The new god Dionysus takes command of the ship, has the spars bear grape vines (for wine), and when the frightened sailors jump ship, they turn into dolphins, flippers and all.

And there they are, all around the curve of the bowl, echoing both the lines of the boat and the round shape of the cylix itself. And there are seven of them, just as there are seven new clusters of grapes growing from the vine emerging from the mast. And there is Dionysus himself, setting a fine example by drinking as he enjoys his little sail, lying, relaxed, on deck.

However we look at the scene, there is no distinction between sea and sky, no horizon. It is a justly famous work.

This work, according to Gardner's Art Through the Ages,

...heralds the beginning of a revolution in the world of art... In his drawing of the boat’s sail, Exekias does not show a traditional and conventional symbol that ‘reads’ as a sail, but a sail as a sail would actually look, bellying out and filled with wind. It is an image of the action of the wind itself, the wind made palpable as a force, and it must have come from a new awareness of the physical presence of nature. This awareness is abroad; it is in the Ionian speculation about the physical constitution of the world, and in the reality-charged poetry of Homer…(112)
The estimable Raymond Schoder shows us more:
The whole is nearly integrated with conscious care for balance and subtle interrelationships. The grape clusters above match the dolphins swimming below, and the two on the sides harmoniously complete the inner circle of objects parallel to the outer rim. Curvature of sail and boat counterbalance one another around the center and the varied lines of the dolphins in relation to the rest add to the rhythmic symmetry. The ship’s mast forms an axis around which all is unified. A mysterious, timeless effect is achieved by the monotone background—unreal in color and in omission of distinction between sea and sky. Our eyes are intrigued by this cunning play of lines, our minds challenged by the problems set for interpretation and analysis. Few works in the whole range of Greek art have so much to elicit our awe, admiration, and delight.
...[W]e can enjoy the smaller refinements of drawing in the god’s fine robe, the ship’s rigging and graceful shape, the snout on the prow and curving high stern, the white dolphins along the side, and the gay, lively ones swimming freely to and fro. Altogether, this is one of the most delightful art works surviving from the ancient world (Schoder, #14).
And, remember, it was an object to be used. It held wine. It was held in the hand, raised to the lips. People drank from it. How cool would that be?
The ship is set at an angle to the handles of the cup it decorates. As the drinker drained his cup, he would notice the painting and, turning the vessel in his hand to see it more clearly, would make the wine swirl around so that the image would seem to be emerging from beneath the wine-dark sea itself. The subtly calculated balance of forms and the lyrical mood of this cup interior are unmatched in the whole of Greek art (Woodford, 1984, 25-6).