Sunday, December 30, 2007

Some Topics in Greek Art

Funerary Stele

Representation of human consciousness

Greek artists inherit from the Egyptians and from art of the near east generally – going back to the Neolithic - a tradition of figural representation that shows faces with abstract looks, with eyes that seem to stare out – presumably they are looking at a god, or watching out for the gods - but which reveal nothing about any thoughts inside. Highly formalized and stylized patterns in both Geometric and Archaic art create a sense of rigidity in the human face and frame that appears closed rather than open, remote rather than approachable. In the Archaic smile a generalized sort of emotional expression is developed, but this too is highly stylized and generic, pleasant, but not individual or personable. (In at least one case, the Etruscan Apollo of Veii from the late 6th century BCE, the Archaic smile may come across as distinctly sinister.) With the advent of the early classical period, from around 480 BCE onwards, artists start taking an interest in the poses and expressions of humans engaged not only in purposive action but also, apparently, in the thought that accompanies it. Artists then begin to explore how the body expresses the mind - which we call today "body language" - and in this fashion enable the audience to participate in an experience with the piece. That is, whether the figure is merely taking a step and looking out somewhere, or throwing a discus or a spear, the work involves us in a mimicry of the sensations involved in the procedure. For these reasons, it seems to me, the study and appreciation of Greek art is a good way to come to terms with the analysis and interpretation of art in general.

Neolithic statuettes and the Mother Earth / Venus fertility goddess

Getting to know about Greek art, it is worth going back to look at the figural representations of the Mycenaen and Minoan ages and beyond; wherever you look, Greek art looks fundamentally different, and it is worth exploring the nature of those differences. Dating back to the Paleolithic (ca 30,000 BCE) female figurines or statuettes , often with expressively female features, are believed to represent fertility or Mother Goddesses. There are a great many examples from the Neolithic (ca 10,000 – 2,000 BCE). Frequently, these figures will hold one or both hands up to the breast, a gesture occasionally found in Archaic Greek sculpture (the so-called Auxerre goddess). Because of the notion that a god might inhabit a statue, it is conceivable that original viewers of the Knidian Aphrodite of Praxitiles saw in her/it a god of sex and fertility not entirely unlike in spirit, at least, these figurines.

Incidentally, the names scholars and others gave to the Venus de Willendorff, the Venus of Engen, and those other female figurines derive from the original Venus Impudique, and was seen by 19th Century scholars as a joshing contrast with the Venus Pudica motif of Classical art. They are only Venus figures to us, not to their original users. The fact is, we have no firm knowledge regarding how they were originally conceived.

Religious vs. aesthetic approach

There is no question that much Greek art emerges from religious worship and offerings. Basically, votive objects appear to be based on their role in a system of divine patronage in which humans seek and derive favors from the gods in return for gifts of great worth and value, and so they offer votive statues to the gods. If you can afford it, you may hire an artist to create a piece for this purpose. As you can imagine, the gods care nothing for wealth as such, but they do – Greek gods, at least – appreciate beauty. Therefore, individuals will create – that is, have created by hired artists and artisans – worthy and beautiful objects to donate to a god in exchange for specified or unspecified favors and requests. The Greek temple is, among other things, a sanctuary where such beautiful and desirable objects may be stored without fear of loss. The space within the temple is clearly demarcated from the space outside; it is sacred. So long as the belief system holds, the power of the sanctuary prevents thievery. Furthermore, there is apparently some notion that the gods actually dwell within the temples built on their behalf, and specifically within statues; occasionally the statues are destroyed, presumably in a manner with ritual significance. All of this must contribute to the notion of their beauty, which can be called numinous. Numinous means “wholly other,” and is an entrance to the holy. As objects, many of these pieces, as with Christian pieces from the 3rd C.E. onwards, make for sharp distinctions between two different levels of reality for those for whom they were created. They are in that sense "wholly other."

Egypt and Ka-Aper

In the 7th century or so the Greeks, who had a trading colony in Egypt, began to learn the crafts of stone carving from the Egyptians. This had a profound effect on both Greek architecture – wooden constructions were gradually replaced by stone – and on Greek sculpture. The celebrated wooden sculpture of Ka-Aper, a court official dating from 2465-20 BCE (hence much, much earlier than Greek sculptures), forms a clear contrast with Greek sculpture. The Egyptian official is clothed, is not freestanding, and resembles a portrait, whereas Greek examples became freestanding nude males, more abstract and ideal than a portrayal of real people.

Anatomical details and abstract motifs

In Greek art from the Geometric through the Orientalizing, Archaic, and Classical periods, lines and shapes may represent both the anatomy of the human or animal subject and an abstract world of mathematical geometry that underlies the one we experience with our senses. Geometrical forms, that is, form the basis for the Greek artist's approach to anatomy. This is especially clear in the kouros, which are perfectly symmetrical and designed as compositions that derive from V and W shapes. Later, in the Classical period, the abstract motif of the chiastic dynamic set up through the weight shift - contrapposto - makes for an intricate pattern of relationships that conveys both geometrical balance and human consciousness.

Freestanding sculpture and sculpture in relief

Freestanding sculpture exists in the round, so that you can walk around it; sculpture in relief emerges from a background. Freestanding sculpture is relatively easy in small forms, but for life-sized and larger figures a great deal of technique is necessary. The Greeks learned monumental sculpture from the Egyptians, but worked out the freestanding forms for their life-sized statues. Sculpture in relief was especially noteworthy as part of architectural decoration, where it could emerge from the frieze, metopes or tympanum (the triangular space within a pediment).

Frontal and in the round sculpture - freestanding

Regardless of whether a piece of sculpture is freestanding or in relief, it may be oriented frontally or in the round. Frontal orientation can have a strict and impersonal regularity to it, since it can only be really seen as intelligible from one the position in front of the object. The kouros (Archaic sculpture) is a good example of frontal orientation. Sculpture in the round, to the contrary, can only really be understood by walking around it, thus engaging the audience in a more dynamic fashion. As Greek art develops from the Archaic through the Classical periods subjects are increasingly shown in the round. The work of Lyssipos (4th century BCE) provides good examples of pieces that must be seen from front, back, and side views. The essentially frontal nature of that extraordinary sculpture group the Laocoon puzzles many both because of its late date and its apparent unwillingness to exploit what would seem to be a natural dimension of the piece as drama.

High relief/alto relievo and low relief/bas relief

Sculptures in low relief are carved or etched on the surface of the stone, those in high relief extend at least halfway from the surface, and are likely to be more highly modeled showing greater effects of light and shadow.

Sculptural effects and surface modeling in sculpture

Carving is not as supple as modeling; carving is done on hard, relatively unyielding substances like wood or stone whereas modeling is done with soft, yielding materials like clay. Modeling provides artists with a way of rendering details of anatomy and drapery in both lifelike and expressive ways, so that effects of light and shadow play over the surface.

[Sculptural effects and surface modeling in painting

Painting on 2-dimensions may be given the look and feel of 3-dimensions by manipulating effects of light and shadow over the contours and surfaces being represented. This is not a topic we consider much in Greek art, but is fundamental to art generally. The so-called Issus or Alexander mosaic, showing Alexander the Great in one of his decisive battles, apparently derives from an earlier Greek painting, and is a good example of modeling effects created for 2-dimensional art. The horse's rump in that work is a particularly effective example of how modeling light and shade creates the impression of 3-dimensions over a 2-dimensional surface.]

Archaic kouros (pl. kouroi) and Kore (pl. korai)

The kouros is the original Greek freestanding male nude, generally stiff, frontal, and abstract. The kore is the female equivalent, although freestanding, always clothed, often with an extended arm as if making an offering. Greek artists experimented with drapery effects on kore figures. The arrival of the classical period basically does away with the kouros figure, whose stiff, unbending and uncompromising pose limits the freedom of the artist to explore the challenges posed by the human body and its manifold expressive nature.

Crete and the Daedalic conventions

Limestone and sandstone, far easier to carve than marble, were found on Crete. Crete was thought to be the dwelling place of Daedalus, a mythic inventor of (among other things) sculpture. Therefore, the style of figural sculpture that emerged in the Archaic period as a result of the Orientalizing revolution is called Daedalic. These conventions consist of highly patterned wig-like hair with symmetrical braids that frame a triangular face.

The Archaic smile

Another of the Daedalic conventions which remain with Greek art until the change from Archaic to Classic style is this characteristic and smile. Sometimes it looks genuine, though more often it looks, as it was, pasted on.

Cycladic marble

The hard, white marble from the Cyclades, islands of the Greek Mediterranean, replaced the softer stones from Crete when Greek artists became skilled enough with their tools to work it.

Greek garmentschiton, himation, peplos

The chiton is a piece of clothing formed of two rectangular pieces of fabric sewn together and worn directly over the body, cinched either at the waist or under the breasts. Over it was commonly worn a cloak called a himation, worn diagonally over the torso. The peplos, worn only by women, is a cylindrical piece of cloth folded on the top line and pinned at the shoulders. Greek artists recognize the expressive effects of drapery from the Archaic period, but push them to their limits by the High Classical sculpture of the Parthenon and many Nikes.

Drapery effects

Greek artists explore the effects made by representing drapery as it falls over and around the human form. This is especially the case with females, since males are generally represented nude. Drapery effects become a virtual constant in representational art from this point on. They effectively demonstrate both the body beneath and external conditions – often showing how drapery looks when blown by the wind, when agitated by violent motion, or when wet. Drapery effects, however, not only represent the body beneath and external conditions but also internal, psychological states, so that – in some cases even more than the relatively placid faces, and often the heads are missing altogether – what the drapery does indicates what the character is feeling or going through. In these ways, drapery effects are expressive means by which artists encourage viewers to identify with their subject matter.

Architectural effects

Putting to the side the entire subject of Greek architecture, the architectural effects found in Greek art as such are found primarily in funerary reliefs, as above, where the scene is established as an interior by the minimal presence of a pediment supported by pilasters which frame the scene. This motif, used in architecture around doors and windows, may be called the aedicule, and becomes a predominant motif in Classical art with the Romans.

The nude and the heroic nude

Greek artists invented the nude as a motif. As Kenneth Clark famously stated,

…to be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word 'nude,' on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed.

While the Greeks learned the art and techniques of life-sized figural sculpture from the Egyptians, they put their own stamp on the form by sculpting the male body nude and freestanding. There are many reasons for this, not least of which is that male nudity was relatively uncomplicated and normal; men exercised naked, for example. Also, the nude male came to represent an ideal, both in beauty and in virtue of his independent status. Clothing makes gives a body more of a social and personal dimension, rooting it in a culture of place and time, whereas the standing nude exemplifies a universal ideal. The heroic nude, of course, develops by leaps and bounds during the Renaissance, when artists turned back to Classical models and motifs. It was especially elaborated as an ideal by one of the founding fathers of art history, Joachim Winckelmann, whose approach in the 18th century to the classic male nude bordered on the idolatrous.

The pose, contrapposto, and the chiastic pattern

Greek artists explore the various effects of the model’s pose, starting from the conventional, rigid, frontal pose of the kouros and korai figures in which the left leg – longer than the right – extends forward. Conventionally, this step is seen as approaching a religious or numinous space. The discovery of the effects of weight shift on the rest of the body – contrapposto – enabled artists to develop a variety of dynamic poses that could at the same time represent real persons and ideal forms. This is done, partly at least, by alternating the tension and relaxation of arms and legs in a cross or chiastic pattern, as seen in such figures as the Doryphoros and the Riace Warriors. By the late Classical period, artists discovered the particular effects of contrapposto on the female form.

The “canon of proportion”

Polykleitos, a Greek sculptor from the 5th century BCE, was thought to have written a manual exemplifying and extolling a system of proportions ideally suited to the human – male – body. His book no longer exists, and the piece of said to exemplify those proportions – the Doryphoros or Spear-carrier – exists only in relatively poor Roman copies. However, the canon, or rule, ("canon" in this context means "measuring rod") became widely influential, even if its strict proportions can not be worked out. The canon is one of the ways the underlying geometries of the piece are considered, so that to contemplate the statue means, among other things, confronting geometry.

The torso

The fragmentary torso, at first the result of haphazard shocks and accidents on complete statues, emerged in the Renaissance as a sculptural motif with its own identity. The so-called “cuirasse esthetique,” a commonplace in museums, derived from the Doryphoros of Polykleitos.

Greek bronzes and Roman copies

Greek bronzes were made of the “lost wax” technique, in which wax is molded and then melted away to be replaced by bronze. Most original bronzes were long ago melted down for other purposes; only a few remain, largely from shipwrecks, which give an idea of what Greek art was like. The Romans, who admired anything Greek, were fond of having copies of Greek originals made. It is from Roman copies, often not very good originally, and often in fragmentary shape, that most of our knowledge about Greek sculpture derives.

Greek vases - shapes

Many shapes and sizes of Greek vases testify to their common usefulness in Greek culture. A few common shapes are the amphora, with two handles and a long, narrow neck; the krater, large vessel used in drinking parties (symposia) to mix wine and water) and the kylix, a flat cup for drinking.

Greek vases - black-figure technique

In black-figure vases, which originates in Corinth in the 7th Century BCE, figures emerge as black silhouettes against a red background – this background is the clay of the vessel itself, the black figures are the paint that remains after firing the clay.

Greek vases - red-figure technique

Developed in Athens around 530 BCE, red-figure technique reverses the process of black-figure, so that now the figures that emerge are themselves colored red against a black background. This techniques gives artists more control over their material, permitting, for example, overlapping figures that are more lively and realistic than those of black-figure technique.