Friday, April 13, 2007

Kleobis & Biton

Kleobis and Biton, around 580 BCE

The story, from Herodotus 1.31, celebrates the somewhat peculiar notion of happiness the Greeks, those supreme ironists, seemed to enjoy. When their chariot breaks down, the boys harness themselves to it in order to take their mother the longish distance to the temple. Once there, grateful to them for their efforts, she prays, as they lie sleeping off their strenuous efforts. She prays that the gods grant her boys the boon of dying happy. She goes out to find them both dead. Now that's irony.

She knows that they died happy, though we can imagine her sentiments may have been a bit confused at the moment.

The normal approach of Archaic artists to the representation of human consciousness is perhaps best typified in the kouroi, which were produced throughout the entire period and are among its most representative products. Most kouros figures seem to have been funerary or votive statues commemorating, in fact re-embodying, men who had died young and were thought to have a continuing existence beyond the grave as heroes…. The mutability of life which so haunted the Archaic lyric poets—irrational reversal of fortune, the inscrutability of injustice, natural disaster, the decrepitude of old age—had no further hold on them. Their powerful, ox-like images at Delphi were undoubtedly intended to embody this blissful fate and are, in a way, images of wish-fulfillment, like the cosmologies of the Milesians, which transcend the imperfect world of everyday experience and are unaffected by its travails. The ‘archaic smile’ which characterizes many of the kouroi is not so much an emotion as a symbol, for they are beyond emotion in the ordinary sense of the word” (Pollitt, 6-7, 9).

Jerome J. Pollitt, Art and Experience in Classical Greece. Cambridge University Press, 1972.

I think it is important to note here that the artist has taken pains to assure that the figures are fully human around back, as well; this seems of great interest to some, and is indeed an important element in the development of Greek sculpture since it means that although the frontal pose remains, the figure is a consistent whole front and back.