Sunday, December 30, 2007

Greek Art by Periods and Styles

Exaltation de la Fleur, 470 - 460, now in the Louvre

Greek Art Survey

Geometric period 9th – 7th century BCE

For several hundred years in Greece, between around 1100 to around 800 BCE (the so-called “Dark Ages”) few or no sculptures are made, and decoration on pottery is purely geometric with no figural representations, even of animals. The earliest pieces of sculpture in the round are quite small figures of men, animals, and gods in clay or bronze. By the middle of the 8th Century, then, figural images first make their appearance in Greek art on large, funerary kraters.

The importance of geometry in Greek art is considerable. Geometry represents for the artist a way of apprehending and rendering the world that lies beneath or beyond what we see and experience with our senses. Geometry identifies a realm of universal truths; it can be found in this world only in meager and inexact models, and yet represents an entire and coherent system in the universe that, unlike this world, remains unchangeable, constant, elemental, everywhere and always. The 6th century philosopher Pythagoras is most associated with this world-view, in which relationships between numbers - and between tones in music - establish harmonies deemed to be beautiful. Our moral life, for Pythagoras, is instructed by these universal principles.

Archaic period 8th - early 5th century BCE

By the end of the 8th century the influence of Syria and parts East is recognized, in what has been called the Orientalizing Revolution. By the 7th century, standing or seated stone figures were used as dedications and to decorate buildings. Their style (called Daedalic because of their association with sandstone and limestone sculptures from Crete, home to Daedalus) is broadly Syrian or Eastern, showing frontal figures with large heads, wide, staring eyes, and triangular faces framed by stiff, wig like hair.

By the second half of the 7th century Greek sculptors, influenced by artists and artisans from Egypt, begin to make life-size or even larger figures using the hard white Cycladic marble (from the Cyclades islands in the Mediterranean) and around Athens. The two main types of statuary are the kouroi, (singular kouros) nude males standing upright with their left foot extended and arms to their sides, and the korai (singular kore), clothed women often making dedications. They are used as votices and grave markers.

The Classical period 5th – 4th century BCE

A profound change in Greek art begins in the early 5th century, around 480 BCE. Greek artists begin to approach both human and animal forms realistically. This means they start a careful observation of their models, studying the mechanics of both animal and human anatomy. They discover during this period how a body looks when the pose is no longer stiffly frontal but instead the weight is shifted to one side of the body. This apparently simple change permits artists to explore dimensions of thought and human consciousness as reflected in the pose, and also to experiment with how a body behaves when it is in pain, or in sudden or exaggerated motion. The archaic kouroi gives way to athletic figures and gods or heroes in action. The most common formula for a standing male nude is alert, with one leg relaxed, one tense, a related shift in the rest of the torso and the shoulders, so that the body is no longer rigidly symmetrical. However, a profound concern for underlying patterns of geometry is demonstrated throughout the whole piece by formal contrasts of rigid and relaxed limbs in a chiastic (cross) pattern, as in the Doryphoros, the so-called “canon of proportion” by Polykleitos.

While earlier artists in the Archaic period had carved their work directly into stone blocks, the new realism of the classical period required that artists model their work, building up the figures in clay models and then transferring the copies to stone. Also, bronze statues were modeled using wax that was melted away in the mold. Most bronze originals no longer exist, so we know Greek art mostly from Roman copies, few of which exhibit the same vigor or appeal as bronzes.

The new style - the Early Classical, or Severe Style - is also exemplified in the sculptures at the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, where artists show deliberate attempts to depict emotion in faces and different ages of men’s bodies.

The classical styles of Ancient Greece are based, then, on a combination of geometrical patterns and a new concern for realism. While kouroi and korai figures look like humans in form, they do not, in fact, look human. The new realism permits artists to make sculptures that do look human, so that both facial expressions and bodily postures create not only positions in space but the different sorts of consciousness human exhibit when they do or feel different things. This makes sculpture not only more realistic and naturalistic but also more dramatic. These works can really reach into you. Funerary reliefs are both realistic and warmly inviting, recreating images of the deceased that retain their charm.

The Persian invasion of Greece and sack of Athens (480/479 BC) slowed down for a while artistic endeavors in Greece. The outcome, however, is one of the biggest surprises in history. The Greeks throw off the Persian threat and thrash their attacker soundly. Greeks enjoyed a remarkable rebound in the arts generally, which some believe derives, at least in part, from those victories and what they meant for Athenian democracy. The Parthenon itself, of course, is a commemoration of Greek success over the Persians, and friezes portraying mythical themes such as the victory of the Lapiths over the Centaurs or battles with the Amazons are understood as symbolic representations of the civilized Greeks defeating the uncivilized foe from outside of Greece.

Pheidias, the sculptor responsible for the sculptural program at the Parthenon, uses the style to create an idealized realism, where body forms are both realistic and proportionate and faces show a resolute calmness. The Parthenon inaugurates the style known as the High Classical, during which the basic types for the Greek statues were set.

The end of the fifth century is an especially trying time for Athens, in political upheaval after losing a decades-long war against Sparta, their militarist foes to the West. The Athenians put Socrates to death in 399 – that’s a big story and truly worth knowing, though we will not explore it here. Suffice it to say that Athens loses power to other city-states and, increasingly, to Macedonia, to the north, whence Alexander, whose death in 323 BCE inaugurates the Hellenistic style, the last of the great Greek styles.

Late Classical– 4th C

Essentially, artistic styles of the 4th-century continue from those of the 5th, with what we now see as a commonplace of culture, artistic experimentation basing off models and at the same time extending those models, so that poses are bolder, supports and interactive groups more frequent, and the motif of the human frame is in general slimmed down, lengthened, and made softer. The realism moves from idealistic to both naturalistic and individualistic. If realism is an approach to art that seeks to mimic reality, and hence to some extent the effects that reality will ordinarily have on the audience may be re-lived and re-experienced, naturalism does so within a larger natural setting. A growing individualism means that the characters represented become more approachable, more genuinely human and sensual, and their gestures frequently share the space we move around in with them. This period sees the first fully nude female life-sized nude, Praxitiles’ astonishingly sensual Aphrodite of Cnidos, the so-called Knidian, easily the most widely copied and influential human figure as subject in Greek art. Portraiture also becomes more common, and is especially associated with touching funerary reliefs. One of the patterns that emerges through Greek art of the 4th century is an increasing emotionalism. It has been said that pure realism is an end in itself, but it can be used to excite the emotions in ways that lead both to drama and to sentiment. Drama (simply) represents action in meaningful patterns; sentiment excites our emotions, and we all recognize that can be overdone.

Hellenistic sculpture late 4th – 1st Century BCE

The Hellenistic period from the late 4th to 1st century BCE thrives in the context of the successor states that inherit and distribute Alexander’s new empire. The style merges with that of Rome and becomes dominant for the next five or six centuries. Important centers of Hellenistic work are in spread around the Eastern Mediterranean. Now the drive for realism extends to subjects that would have been thought entirely inappropriate – laughable, really – in the 5th and 4th centuries – the poor, the old, the tired, and the young with their winsomely expressive gestures.

Hellenistic sculpture has been widely – at least until recently – regarded as essentially trite, and certainly never the equal of art from the Classical period. However, the reception of the celebrated Venus de Milo (Aphrodite of Melos) is worth considering. When it was discovered the clearly Hellenistic identification on the pedestal was simply ignored; nobody could conceive of a work of art this successful as being from any other period than the Classical. After some decades scholars at the Louvre Museum in Paris finally admitted that their masterpiece was Hellenistic.