Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Doryphoros - Spear-Carrier - The Canon of Polykleitos



Doryphoros, Polykleitos, 450-440

Galen, [de placitis hippocratis et platonis 5]: “Beauty arises…in the proportion (symmetria) of the parts of the body, such as that of finger to finger, and of all the fingers to the palm and the wrist, and of those to the forearm, and of the forearm to the upper arm, and, in fact, of everything to everything else, just as it is written in the Canon of Polykleitos.

For having taught us in that work all the proportions of the body, Polykleitos supported his treatise with a work of art; that is, he made a statue according to the tenets of his treatise, and called the statue, like the work, the “Canon.”

Galen, [de temperamentis 1.9]: “Modellers and sculptors and painters, and in fact image-makers in general, paint or model beautiful figures by observing an ideal form in each case, that is, whatever form is the most beautiful in man or in the horse or in the cow or in the lion, always looking for the mean within each genus. And a certain statue might perhaps also be commended, the one called the “Canon” of Polykleitos; it got such a name from having precise symmetria of all the parts to one another.”
The loss of so many original Greek bronzes is tough. Those we do possess - the Zeus (Poseidon?) of Artemesion, the Charioteer of Delphi, the Riace Warriors - are, whatever else they are, convincing. In so many cases, however, we are stuck with base Roman copies like this one. Fragments may be tragically incomplete and yet strike us for some quality or other worth noting; often they summon us in spite of their tatters. For most copies, however, we must take an entirely different approach. We are not moved. Nothing especially noteworthy calls our attention until we start reading the work and re-imagining it as quick and vivid and vital and compelling. Instead of being convinced by the work itself, we have to convince ourselves, which is not how it ought to work.

Sigh. But so it goes.

And this, then, is the masterpiece of Polykleitos, the so-called "canon of proportion." The book of that name, by Polykleitos, is, of course, lost, and we can not recover the exact proportions themselves. So, let's take a look. He holds a spear in his left hand and is about to take a step as he looks off to the right. All his weight is supported by the right leg. His right arm is relaxed, his left tense. We begin to pick up a cross-rhythm here, a chiastic pattern in which the tension of the right leg is balanced by the relaxation of the right arm, and the relaxation of the left leg is balanced by the tension of the left arm. It is through the torso we may see how most of the energy is distributed. The contrapposto stance, with that left leg relaxed, extends the contour on this side through the lowered hip. The relaxed line of his left side contrasts with the tension we find on the right, where the hip is raised. And so in the torso here we find a dynamism that animates the entire figure, so that the shifting of axes at both hips and shoulders, combined with the chiastic nature of the limbs and that curious head tilt, give the whole piece life and energy while preserving both rhythmos and symmetria.

Lord Clark calls our attention to the torso [pictured above] based on the Polykeitian canon located at the Uffizi.

The cuirasse esthetique, which so greatly delighted the artists of the Renaissance, is one of the features of antique art that have done most to alienate modern taste. It seems to us ungraceful in itself and completely lacking in vitality. But although a row of formalized torsos in the Galleries of the Vatican or the Naples Museum may not cause the pulse to vary its beat, we can see from certain replicas that this was originally a construction of great power. Such is the copy of the Doryphoros in the Uffizi, which, being in a hard, smooth basalt, conveys the effect of bronze, and is executed with unusual care. It preserves some of the urgency and concentration of the original, and proves that Polykleitos’ scheme of the body, like all abstractions that have survived, not only contained life, but was bursting with a vitality all the more potent because forced into so narrow a channel (Clark, The Nude, 68).



Rhythmos & Symmetria


Myron is the first sculptor who appears to have enlarged the scope of realism, having more rhythms [rhythmos] in his art than Polycleitus and being more careful in his proportions [symmetria]. Yet he himself so far as surface configuration goes attained great finish, but he does not seem to have given expression to the feelings of the mind, and moreover he has not treated the hair and the pubes with any more accuracy than had been achieved by the rude work of olden days. (Pliny the Elder)

The term rhythmos derives from the dance, long an integral part of Greek community culture. It is easy to find our word rhythm there, but probably a mistake to rely on it too firmly. The rhythms of Myron's Discobolos, as we can see, emerge from the way its parts and shapes echo each other throughout the whole. The Greek concept of rhythmos is not the same thing. It refers to the momentary positions taken by dancers during the course of their performance. By striving to find some equivalent of rhythmos in their work, sculptors were seeking to establish a mechanism whereby the world of flux might be represented in their art. In this way, they provide a way for rational inquiry itself - the proportions and patterns of their craft - to explore the nature of motion.

Symmetria is generally linked to rhythmos as a particular effect much sought after by Greek sculptors. Symmetria derives from the notion that the parts of a work will be proportionate to each other and, hence, to the whole. Here we pose, and are posed, questions of design and proportion in things generally, but particularly in things like buildings and pieces of sculpture. In architecture, symmetria takes account of the such things as the relations among ground plans and elevations, and between column diameter and columniation - so that a proportional relation exists between how wide the columns are and the distance between each column.

As such, symmetriais present in the work of both the Geometric and the Archaic periods as well as the Classical. It is perhaps best known, however, as the goal for which Polykleitos was striving in, for example, his Doryphoros, where harmonious proportion of the whole combines with rhythmos.

Polykleitos was remembered in Antiquity as the chief master and foremost exponent of the principle of symmetria, ‘commensurability of parts,’ in art. Around the middle of the fifth century, or shortly thereafter, he wrote a treatise, known as the Canon, in which he delineated and apparently sought to justify the system of symmetria which he had developed for representing the human body in sculpture. The Canon seems to have been well-known and influential, in its intent at least, in later times...

The basic idea behind the symmetria principle, that an artistic composition should consist of clearly definable parts, was a venerable one in Greek art. It existed, as we have seen, in the Geometric period and continued in force throughout the Archaic period. Greek sculpture in particular in the Archaic period saw the development of workshop formulae of symmetria which seem to have been inspired by Egyptian prototypes, but underwent considerable local development.

What distinguished Polykleitos’ system of symmetria from what had gone on before, however, was that it seems to have had philosophical content as well as a practical function. Its aim was to express what Polykleitos himself called [in Greek] to eu, ‘the perfect’ or ‘the good,’ and what others seems to have called to kallos, ‘the beautiful.’ There is some evidence that the philosophical tradition which gave rise to and helped to shape this philosophical conception of symmetria was Pythagoreanism” (Pollitt, 106).







Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Diskobolos, Myron


Diskobolos, The Discus-thrower, Myron, 460-50

Nobody doesn't know this work of art, though not always, perhaps, as a work of art. As with the Artemision Zeus, the artist - in this case identified as Myron - has sought, with enormous success, to capture a moment in time as it is expressed through the human form in action. Specifically, an athlete is poised just at the moment of greatest contortion before sending the discus on its way. The Discus-thrower, alas, only exists in relatively weak Roman copies. Unlike the Artemision Zeus, our attention is not drawn to where the event will happen, but to the fact that it will happen, and to the physical expression that makes possible our anticipation. We note the curious combinations of semi-circles - the patterning is most effective - and we may also begin to feel, through the sympathetic stretch of our own skeletal-muscular systems, something of the particular consciousness involved in the action. Such a reaction may derive from the skill with which the artist has rendered the body's features; the face itself is virtually expressionless.

Surface modeling is ... masterful. The muscles have just the right tautness and prominence, the flesh is firm and lively, major veins of hands and arms show their pulsing vigor, and all the contours of the body are beautifully proportioned in their rhythmic flow. The sweeping arc of arms is continued by the inner leg and counter-balanced by the torso’s curve in the opposite direction, completed by the outer thigh. The round discus is balanced by the circle of the head, at equal distance from the center of gravity on which the body pivots. The vertical line of the lower right leg provides dynamic contrast to these correlated curves, and is an element of stability and strength. It is paralleled by the vertical left foot, resting on its bent toes, and is given effective counterpoise by the horizontal line of the right foot and supporting base. This attention to intelligible pattern, to repetition and variety and pleasing inter-relationship of lines, is characteristic of the Greek mind in its best literature and art” (Schoder, #39).
Schoder speaks of the "harmonious symmetry and proportion" of the piece. Susan Woodford, on the other hand, locates both symmetry and the repetition of shapes as characteristic of the earlier Archaic ideal. Here, in the early Classical style, new patterns emerge.

The Greeks were concerned not only to make their statues resemble men but also to make them objects of aesthetic delight. In the archaic period, symmetry and repetition of shapes were used to produce beautiful effects. These were now out of fashion. In fact, they were systematically rejected in the design of the Discus-thrower. Notice how consistently symmetry is avoided. The right side of the statue is dominated by the sweep of a continuous, almost unbroken curve, the left by a jagged zigzag; the right side is closed, the left open; the right side is smooth, the left angular. The simplicity of the main forms, the great arc and the four straight lines meeting almost at right angles, bring harmony to the agitated figure. One sees the torso from the front and the legs from the side so that the most characteristic features of each are presented simultaneously. Both representation and design are marvelously clear.

But what of the problems that emerged from the active pose of the Zeus of Aremisium? Alas, they are still there, perhaps even in aggravated form. The torso is so little expressive of the actual action of the limbs that in the 18th century another copy of the Discus-thrower torso was taken to be part of a dying warrior and restored as such; and the side view, showing chest and legs each in their least characteristic aspects, is almost unrecognizable as a human figure.

It was up to the artists of the next generation, in the high classical period (about 450-420 BC), to try to solve these problems” (Woodford, 2004, 18)

Artemision Zeus


The Zeus or Poseidon of Artemision (c. 460 BCE)

This iconic piece explains as it demonstrates the Early Classical ("severe") ideal. The body is captured at a precise moment - and a momentous precision it is. The god's entire body, and his mind, which we can begin to comprehend, are both alert and supremely focused. It is an exhilarating piece to admire, in part because we can begin to participate in the anticipated throw.

This is one of the only bronzes to survive from this era. He was recovered from a shipwreck. He might be Poseidon, but I think of Poseidon as rougher around the edges. This to me is Zeus, the god of storms and lightning, not earthquakes, and of balanced harmonies, not sudden bursts of passion. One of the things that works so well in this statue is the combination of relaxation with poised tension. The contrapposto stance is expressed by way of exaggerated extension in a body that is anatomically precise, while seeming to exemplify geometric patterning.

Woodford, her good and well-trained eye especially observant here, points out some of the technical problems with the piece; they're interesting, but don't much matter in the end.

We have seen that doing something new can easily unbalance the coherence of a work of art and that unforeseen problems are likely to emerge. This has happened with the Zeus of Artemisium. A novel sense of movement has been brilliantly captured, but at the same time two new problems have appeared, neither of which is solved. First, though the torso should be dramatically affected by the vigorous activity of the limbs, it is as still as it would have been in a quietly standing figure like the Kritios boy. Second, though the Zeus of Artemisium is splendid from the front and the back, it is pathetically unintelligible from the sides, which was not the case with the Kritios boy or even the kouroi (Woodford, The Art of Greece and Rome, 2004, 16).
I recall a passage, I think from William H. Gass somewhere (The World Within the Word?), in which he used the image of an equestrian statue in which the fellow points with his sword - to nothing. He was writing about meaning in a literary work, but it would serve as well, I think, for a statue like this. Although the expansive gesture encompasses more space than many other pieces of its (somewhat large) size, we don't turn to see what he has in mind to smite. We turn to see how he's doing it.

The Ludovisi Throne


Something can happen to marble, under the right hands, as here in the Birth of Aphrodite panel of the Ludovisi Throne, that seems to introduce entirely new ideas about the material itself. Here, the hard and dry evoke the soft and wet. To me this is one of those uncanny works of extraordinary appeal at which worship would not be out of order. The patterning is extraordinary; notice the interplay of diagonals in the arms and legs. The rippling verticals and the expansive catenaries are both impressive drapery effects that enhance our sensory response.

She is probably Aphrodite, at birth, rising from the seas after they've conjoined with the severed genitals of Ouranos.
When first he had cut off the genitals with the adamant and cast them from the land on the swelling sea, they were carried for a long time on the deep. And white foam arose about from the immortal flesh and in it a maiden grew. First she was brought to holy Cythera, and then from there she came to sea-girt Cyprus. And she emerged a dread and beautiful goddess and grass rose under her slender feet. (188–195)

Gods and human beings call her Aphrodite, and the foam-born goddess because she grew amid the foam (aphros), and Cytherea of the beautiful crown because she came to Cythera, and Cyprogenes because she arose in Cyprus washed by the waves. She is called too Philommedes (genital-loving) because she arose from the genitals. Eros attended her and beautiful desire followed her when she was born and when she first went into the company of the gods. From the beginning she has this honor, and among human beings and the immortal gods she wins as her due the whispers of girls, smiles, deceits, sweet pleasure, and the gentle delicacy of love. (195–206) Hesiod
She might also be Persephone rising with the springtime after serving out the winter as Queen of the Dead.

My child, tell me, surely you have not tasted any food while you were below? Speak out and hide nothing, but let us both know. For if you have not, you shall come back from loathly Hades and live with me and your father, the dark-clouded Son of Cronos and be honoured by all the deathless gods; but if you have tasted food, you must go back again beneath the secret places of the earth, there to dwell a third part of the seasons every year: yet for the two parts you shall be with me and the other deathless gods. But when the earth shall bloom with the fragrant flowers of spring in every kind, then from the realm of darkness and gloom thou shalt come up once more to be a wonder for gods and mortal men. And now tell me how he rapt you away to the realm of darkness and gloom, and by what trick did the strong Host of Many beguile you? (Homeric Hymn to Demeter)

Both are great stories, and maybe its yet a third option nobody has thought of. Regardless. We know that a story of that sort, a myth, is being told; that much is clear. We are constantly invited in, as we are with all great works, to explore. Lord Clark speaks of "that landscape of the breasts."

“...those carvings in which the body is covered by a light, clinging garment, what the French call a draperie mouillée. This device was used from archaic times onward, the earliest sculptors seeming to recognize how drapery may render a form both more mysterious and more comprehensible. The section of a limb as it swells and subsides may be delineated precisely or left to the imagination; parts of the body that are plastically satisfying can be emphasized, those less interesting can be concealed; and awkward transitions can be made smooth by the flow of line. Drapery makes the bodies of the sixth-century maidens as beautiful as those of the young men, and consoles us for the absence of female nudes by the presence of the korai; and in that isolated masterpiece, the Ludovisi Throne, the body of the naked flute player moves us less than that of the lightly draped Aphrodite. The flute player’s pose has not allowed the sculptor to develop the leading motives of the nude, whereas in the Aphrodite, who rises with such benign confidence between the arms of her attendants, he has discovered that landscape of the breasts and thorax which for some mysterious reason, connected, perhaps, with our earliest physical needs, is one of the most satisfying the eye can rest upon. In the execution of this passage, how skillfully he has used the pleats of her shift, which outline her shoulders, vanish under the pressure of the swelling breasts, and occupy with delicate curves that plane of her chest which, without them, would have seemed to flat for continuous beauty! The modeling of her attendants’ legs, half seen through their flimsy skirts, is done with equal subtlety and sensuous understanding” (Kenneth Clark, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, 119).

Friday, April 27, 2007

Kenneth Clark's Study in Ideal Form


The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, by Kenneth Clark (aka Lord Clark of Civilization) Doubleday Anchor Books, Garden City, New York, 1959

While I was growing up, in Bloomington, Indiana, we frequently visited friends who had this book in one of their bookshelves. As a lad, I would take it down, thumb through it, and invariably put it back. I was always so disappointed. I did try reading it, but mostly tried to look at the pictures. Arrgh! I adore nudes, but I am still not fond of the pictures in this book, that is, of the reproductions; maybe they've improved in the newer edition, though I doubt it.

However, I find the text exemplary. It is, I admit, in the somewhat old-fashioned fuddy-duddy style of art history, where unabashed hero-worship and connoisseurship combine with a certain high style that off-puts our more proletarian and modernist tendencies. However, Clark has enormous knowledge combined with both a good eye and a fine writing style, which for me is in the category of What More Could I Ask For?

Lord Clark spends very little time sneering in this book - which is something I profoundly wish another grand master, Harold Bloom, would simply leave off.

As I was saying... as a lad I looked for pictures of naked women where I could find them. It made sense that a book called The Nude would have them, and though it did, they failed to satisfy. Mind you, I had enjoyed times spent at museums with all the naked women, er, nudes, I could possibly imagine. The problem here was the black & white reproductions were so small and bleak. I enjoyed the nudes in museums because I found them erotic. I thought, of course, that I was not supposed to, and that if I ever got around to reading Clark's book I would discover how.

Had I read it earlier, I might have been consoled by the following observation:
No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling… The desire to grasp and be united with another human is so fundamental a part of our nature that our judgement of what is known as ‘pure form’ is inevitably influenced by it, and one of the difficulties of the nude as a subject for art is that these instincts cannot be hidden.
Lord Clark's first chapter, "The Naked and the Nude", is justly famous. Here, he makes a noteworthy distinction.
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.

This chapter has been widely criticized, some of which has been summarized by Leslie Bostrom, who writes,
Clark's attempt to clothe the nakedness of bodies with nudity is an attempt to return to the innocence of the Garden and/or to imaginary Greek paganism. This explains why Clark leaves most of Northern European nudity out of his "good" category; the gazes of grim Protestant painters such as Lucas Cranach, Jan van Eyck, and so on never allow Adam and Eve to return to their Greek, preapple innocent sexiness.
I'm not so sure about that. It seems to me that if your problem with somebody's writing is all that harrumphing, it does little good to go harrumphing yourself.

In any case, quite a bit more generous, and much more interesting, is the assessment of Julie Copeland and Frances Borzello in a conversation from Sunday Morning. They quote extensively from the book, and fill in details of the author's biography.

Frances Borzello: ... One of the reviews that I read—I was really interested to find out some of the reviews—was in The New Statesman in 1956 by Benedict Nicholson, who’s a very well respected writer, and he just said, ‘Kenneth Clark is a Mediterraneanist.’ You know, that’s his world, and it’s so interesting to read his chapter called ‘The Alternative Tradition’, and that has some wonderful, wonderful writing in it. Can I tell you something that he writes about the medieval—just to continue that—‘The body changed its status. It ceased to be the mirror of divine perfection and became an object of humiliation and shame.’ And the way he introduces that chapter, I remembered it…when I read it I thought, oh, that’s where I got this from. ‘Roots and bulbs pulled up into the light give us for a moment a feeling of shame.’ And that is what he says the Gothic nude bodies, you know, in last judgements are like, roots and bulbs.

Julie Copeland: It’s a great image.

Frances Borzello: I just think that’s so brilliant. He just is a lovely writer.

Julie Copeland: I suppose what you’re saying is that he certainly made us see particular works in a particular way, and that many of his ideas weren’t new, in fact they were probably the end of a fine tradition. The idea, for example, that the north did have this…what he calls the ‘alternative convention’, you know, the Gothic northern naked body, which he poses opposite that archaic classical ideal of beauty, and that he quotes artists like Durer, the German artist. He says, ‘Durer approached the nude with a mixture of curiosity and horror.’

Frances Borzello: He does. I’m not quite sure how he knows all this, but anyway it’s true. But then you see, Kenneth Clark is endearing because when he gets to Cranach’s nudes, those wonderful ladies who are just sexy and slender and Gothic with their little apple high breasts…

Julie Copeland: And very evil, cat-like faces.

Frances Borzello: Absolutely. And then they’re dressed up. I mean, they’ve got big hats on. There’s one in the national gallery here, a lady in a great big hat and a necklace, and, God, she’s sexy. And he’s very sensitive to that, so she may be alternative and Gothic and all of those things, but he can see that she is really lovely. And I do find that very endearing about him. He’s very human in the way he sees painting...

A bit gushy, maybe, but correct. Here is how Clark opens his chapter on The Alternative Convention:

Roots and bulbs, pulled up into the light, give us for a moment a feeling of shame. They are pale, defenseless, , unself-supporting. They have the formless character of life that has been both protected and oppressed. In the darkness their slow, biological gropings have been the contrary of the quick, resolute movements of free creatures, bird, fish, or dander, flashing through a transparent medium, and have made them baggy, scraggy, and indiscriminate. Looking at a group of naked figures in a Gothic painting or miniature we experience the same sensation. The bulblike women and rootlike men seem to have been dragged out of the protective darkness in which the human body had lain muffled for a thousand years.

Yes, this is good writing. Worth reading.

Krater by the Niobid Painter

This krater by the Niobid Painter - the name comes from the other side of the vase, which shows the death of Niobe's children at the hands of Leto's two kids -is an interesting example of painterly composition. The figures are arranged on different planes, so that there is more than one ground line, the original ground line firmly established by the reclining figure. Presumably, this is done to achieve a sense of depth. The technique is said to derive from Greek painters, though none of their work has survived. The figures themselves - obviously, this is red-figure technique - are extremely well-achieved. They are not named, though one of them may represent Herakles, and the ensemble may represent the Argonauts.

Aspasia Type


This statue, a Roman copy of a Greek original from perhaps 460 BCE, is misnamed. It apparently does not represent the celebrated mistress of Pericles, named Aspasia. It may represent a god. It is, in any case, a severely draped woman, almost totally wrapped in a himation, with almost none of the woman's body beneath revealed. What is revealed by these stunning drapery effects, however, is achieved through that elegant concatenation of catenaries under the right shoulder, the beautiful diagonals that hang from the left arm, and that stunningly beautiful diagonal across the middle. The whole sculpture seems to be a massive base for that somber head encased in that deep hood. The only other part of the body revealed are her toes.

Although we would not (I think) refer to this piece as a kore, - it is far too somber, too austere, too self-possessed - there are definite echoes.

Zeus and Ganymede, Temple of Zeus at Olympia



This terracotta statue of Zeus (c. 470 BCE) transporting Ganymede to Mount Olympus, where eternal youth will be his, has always struck me as slightly absurd. Both characters adopt stiff, artificial poses, and the scene is unconvincing either as rape or as seduction. However, I believe it is an effective acroterion, and I can well assume it looks better from below looking up. Zeus' archaic smile is in full bloom, and although the figures may be a bit more vigorous than their Archaic counterparts, it seems to herald the end of one style rather than the opening of another.

Thematically, the piece fits into a program, of sorts, at the Olympia site, where pederastic motifs associate with the theme of athletics and with the story of Pelops and the chariot race with king Oinomaus. Pelops was beloved of Poseidon, the god of the sea. Pindar, as Judith Barringer points out, links both couples in his first ode [Pelops is the son of Tantalos]:

Meet is it for a man that concerning gods he speak honourably; for the
reproach is less. Of thee, son of Tantalos, I will speak contrariwise
to them who have gone before me, and I will tell how when thy father
had bidden thee to that most seemly feast at his beloved Sipylos,
repaying to the gods their banquet, then did he of the Bright
Trident[6], his heart vanquished by love, snatch thee and bear thee
behind his golden steeds to the house of august Zeus in the highest,whither again on a like errand came Ganymede in the after time. (Pindar, Olympian Ode #1, translated by Ernest Myers)
The word catamite, incidentally, derives from the name of Ganymede.

The Herakles Metopes, Temple of Zeus at Olympia




The Herakles metopes at the Temple of Zeus in Olympia (470 - 456 BCE) are justly renowned. They depict the hero performing each of his labors over the course of his career, so that, biography-like, the images take us from the young hero to the tired old man.

Tired, however, probably best describes even the young man as he looks down quizzically at the Nemean lion he has just slain - his first labor, of twelve. Instead of acting the hero and posing heroically, the artists have caught him in a pensive, thoughtful stance, as if responding to what he has just done. This is the kind of thing that engaged the artists of the early Classical period so fully. They seem to be trying to find some way of expressing, not so much how a hero would respond to these events, but how a human would. Even through the blank spaces torn away by time, what remains of the Nemean metope is a profound exploration of human consciousness.

I like to think of the Herakles figure in these metopes as in some way standing in for the artist himself, (or perhaps I should say the artists themselves). It is as if the artist finds a mode of expression by asking, "How would I react if I had just done this?" The Atlas metope, in much better condition, and widely reproduced, gives us another thoughtful image of the hero (or, should I say, man?). To me, he just looks like the artist. And there's Athena helping out by stretching her hand to help support the weight of the world.

The composition of the metope combines three big verticals with a most satisfying horizontal in Atlas's hands, which hold the golden apples of the Hesperides, assuring Herakles of immortality. For me, again (and I have no particular warrant for this interpretation), the scene demonstrates the artist who supports the weight of the earth with the help of the gods and receives a timely reward by tricking the titan. Adding to the compositional flair is the studied exposition of three sorts of perspectives in depicting the body. Athena is shown as fully frontal, Herakles in profile, and Atlas in 3/4 view.

Perhaps because she is the only figure not fragmented, Athena's form stands out. The drapery effects here, and the modeling of the body beneath, are especially well achieved.

Athena, who stands quietly by choice, turns toward Herakles and raises one hand, effortlessly, to ease his burden. She is again wearing a heavy peplos which falls in deep sparse folds. The formula for indicating the stance of the figure beneath the drapery is becoming conventional: straight folds, uninterrupted, fall over the supporting leg; over the projecting knee of the weightless leg, they are smoothed out. The simplicity of the plain, undecorated areas is contrasted with the sharply cut details, and the severity is enlivened by the calligraphic elegance of the line at the bottom of the overfold, which falls to just below Athena’s waist. (Susan Woodford, An Introduction to Greek Art, Cornell University Press, 1986 , 102)

The metopes considered as a whole (not a task I feel up to) demonstrate a variety of poses and interests, generally arranged around verticals, horizontals, and diagonals.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

West Pediment, Temple of Zeus, Olympia



The West pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia shows a marked contrast to the East pediment. The East pediment shows a relatively static scene, albeit one fraught with anticipation. This scene presents a wild and woolly battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs, with the god Apollo calmly exerting his authority with his extended right arm - though he is conceivably intended to be invisible to the participants - over the entire scene.

The story is told in Homer by Antinoos - failing to see himself in his tale, a classic instance of Homeric irony - when Odysseus, still in disguise, suggests they leave off their rowdy behavior.
"It was wine that inflamed the Centaur Eurytion when he was staying with Peirithoos among the Lapiths. When the wine had got into his head he went mad and did ill deeds about the house of Peirithoos; this grieved [akhos] the heroes who were there assembled, so they rushed at him and cut off his ears and nostrils; then they dragged him through the doorway out of the house, so he went away crazed, and bore the burden [atê] of his crime, bereft of understanding..."
Here's the myth: Perithoos, King of the Lapiths, has a wedding feast at his marriage to Deidamia. He invites the centaurs, which is the neighborly thing to do, but they fall prey to their own nature and get drunk. When they attempt to rape the bride and carry away both girls and boys for their own party down the road a spell, Theseus, one of the wedding guests, helps Perithoos and his Lapiths subdue by force of arms the unruly centaurs.

The Centauromachy became a favorite subject for Greek reliefs, in the company of similarly-themed battles with Giants or with Amazons, and this one at Olympia is the first time the story was expressed in architectural relief sculpture. The Greeks saw themselves, in the commanding presence of the implacable Apollo, at war with chaos. Just as they defeated the Persians, so, too, would they defeat Centaurs, Amazons, or Giants.

Kenneth Clark calls our attention to the central figure of Apollo:
One great image of Apollo from the beginning of the classic period has survived in the original: he who rises above the struggle, in the west pediment of the temple of Olympia, and, with a gesture of sovereign authority, reproves the bestial fury of the centaurs. Nowhere else, perhaps, is the early Greek ideal so perfectly embodied: calm, pitiless, and supremely confident in the power of physical beauty. Not a shade of doubt of compunction could soften the arc of cheek or brow.... His body, though not without a certain passive magnificence, is flat and inexpressive. Like all the sculptures at Olympia, it lacks the rigorous precision of Attic work. It is twenty years later than the Kritios youth, but is plastically less evolved (The Nude, 74).
The Apollo is a magnificent presence alone; in the midst of the carnage, he presents an even statelier figure, contrasting nobly with the grimaced visages around him. An especially expressive centaur pulls away from the desperate grasp of the woman he is trying to abduct while behind him Theseus raises his weaponed arm for a mortal blow. The exact layout of the original pedimental composition is speculative, but there is abundant evidence of fervent artistic engagement in both the narrative and the dramatic expression.

Much of this works by way of contrast. The East and this West pediments are themselves deliberately differentiated, and many of the individual faces of centaurs, Lapiths, and maidens are presented by way of how they contrast with each other. The artist is well aware of how bodies move when they wrestle, and how bodies get mangled, and demonstrates an especially acute interest in the sense of touch. The Apollo figure is remote from the rest of the scene, leading to speculation that he is invisible to the participants, or perhaps (one of my favorite interpretations) a statue within the group, in which case the god himself might have been intended to inhabit this very piece.

The West pediment at Olympia is a work of art worth getting to know and contemplate. It tells a dramatic and violent story in sculptures that are highly expressive of individual effort and concentration; all of the characters are desperately engaged in what they are doing. An interesting quality of thoughtfulness pervades the scene, whose formal energies are enhanced by some especially beautiful drapery effects.

Judith M. Barringer provides an excellent analysis of the entire temple, very much worth reading.



Seer, Kladeos, East Pediment, Temple of Zeus at Olympia

Seer (left) and Kladeos (right) from the East Pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, (462-457 BCE)


The temple itself has crumbled, but its fine sculptures, or at least some of them, in various states of ruin, remain. These two heads are especially interesting, in particular because of what they suggest by way of comparison.

The first head -the seer - shows us part of a story, one of the many sorry episodes in the house of Atreus, which culminate in the Oresteia of Aeschylus. The daughter of King Oenomaus, Hippodamia, is unable to marry. Her father has set a marriage test [a motif of the impossible task as found in Rumpelstiltskin, or the Odyssey] of a chariot race with himself as the other contestant; the winner gets to marry her, but the loser will forfeit his life. Why? Maybe a prophecy of some sort, or perhaps, as in Shakespeare's play, he loves her for himself. Pelops, who would seem to have already had enough adventure for one lifetime, decides to play the game; he cheats, however. He enlists Myrtilus, the king's charioteer, in a scheme to replace the chariot's bronze linchpin with one of beeswax. Again, you can find different reasons for this betrayal; perhaps Pelops offers him gold, or power, or access to Hippodamia.

The seer in this pedimental sculpture watches the linchpin get replaced. He catches his breath, hardly believing what he has seen, or what he sees will happen. (He is a seer, remember.) This portrait of dawning consciousness helps to convey the story both as immediate event and as something anticipated to happen.

By the way, the ruse works, the king is killed when the chariot falls apart during the race, and afterwards Pelops throws Myrtilus from a cliff rather than pay up. As he falls to his death the doomed charioteer curses, again, that sorry family. Pelops and Hippodamia count among their children Atreus and Thyestes, a disagreeable pair.

The stark realism of the seer's face, and its implications for character, event, thought, and narrative, contrast vividly with the recumbent Kladeos figure. Here is the blankest of blank stares, the emptiest of empty faces. Who is he? Maybe a river god. We'll never know, but it seems as if the artist(s) might have conceived of these pieces as deliberately contrastive, to highlight differences, so that the pieces resonate more not only with the story, but with the minds of the viewers.

Krater, the Pan Painter


Krater, the Pan Painter, c. 470

Red-figure technique gives the artist more control over details than the earlier black-figure technique. This krater shows Artemis aiming her arrow, somewhat pointlessly it would appear, at an Actaeon who is being viciously devoured by his own hunting dogs. The familiar story, widely illustrated throughout western art because of Ovid's masterful tale, has the hapless hunter chance upon the bathing Artemis (Diana), who turns him into a stag who is then chased and devoured alive, all in full human consciousness of the horror, by his faithful dogs.

The artist has arranged the figures neatly within the shape, so that the V-shape they make with their bodies and the one created in negative space both echo the shape of the krater. Actaeon, however, is not a stag here, which I take to be a sign of his fully human consciousness. Artemis is not nude either, which is accounted for by convention. Nude females were not to be in vogue for a hundred years or so. Actaeon's helpless gesture echoes the goddess' bow and emphasizes his mounting pain and horror. He is posing, not entirely unlike the Archaic fallen warrior from the Aphaia temple, though the mouth, shut tight, and the eloquence of the gesture, pack a wallop.

The other side of the krater gives the painter his moniker. It shows an ithyphallic Pan pursuing a shepherd boy.

Temple at Paestum


Temple of Athena, Paestum, c. 500 BCE

To me this is one of the most satisfying works of art in the world. I can only think of it as we have it now, a ruin; its spare, bare qualities and open roof emphasize and at the same time diminish its immense physicality and weight. The rhythmic nature of the peripteral colonnade sets a standard. It presents Doric strength with the most compelling and inviting qualities. The textures and colors, which can only hover uncertainly about any reproduction, contribute much here.

When this slide shows up in class I usually ask students to think of it as a kind of self-portrait of the Classical mind. Its harmonies exquisitely call to mind (mind!) a sense of rational inquiry combined with visual pleasure. Idealism is often too far removed or abstract to be felt as a physical sensation, and here the combination of the two is unearthly. With my students, I usually tend to identify the Doric by quick reference to the capital - Doric echoes in our neighborhoods are usually just that - but I always turn back to this temple to remind me of the Order's particular eloquence.

I don't know how accurate I am when I talk about this as a self-portrait of the Classical mind - might one say the same of anything in the Classical canon? - but as a heuristic I believe it helps get at something that was getting at the Greeks. The beauty we locate in the harmonies of proportion is apprehended one way by the architect who has measured and arranged, another to those of us who just look, but in each case a sense of the parts relating to other parts and of how they relate to the whole helps us to appreciate and makes us glad.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Bust (portrait?) of Themistokles


Roman copy of an original, dating to maybe 470 BCE

Portraits are, generally speaking, from a later date. This piece, however, looks very much as if it could have been modeled from a real guy. And, what a guy! Themistokles rose up in Athenian society through guile and force of will; he was apparently an arrogant son of a bitch, but his forceful arguments on behalf of naval expansion and his brilliant leadership led to the destruction of Xerxes' naval fleet at the Battle of Salamis.

There were lots of portraits done at the time, and later, but there is good evidence that they were done without specific reference to what the model actually looked like. Although we don't know if this is a portrait, it looks like it could be.

The Bronze Charioteer

The Bronze Charioteer of Delphi, 478-474 BCE
A single day's blessing
is the highest good a mortal knows.
I must crown him now
to the horseman's tune
in Aeolian rhythms
for I believe
the shimmering folds of my song
shall never embrace
a host more lordly in power or perception of beauty.
Pindar, Olympian Ode #1, translated by Frank J. Nisetich

This bronze Charioteer, one of the few remaining original Greek bronzes, originally formed part of a votive group, no doubt representing the stately victory march after a competition. His chiton is belted high and tied down around the shoulders to keep it in place during the fast and furious race which, presumably, this young fellow has just won. You can sense, even from photographs, the successful attempt to model the bronze so that it reflects a psychological state. We can read in the austerity of the image a combination of the champion's pride and youthful wariness, as if he is telling himself, "Don't look too proud."

The inner life of consciousness, however, is not private or personal. It reflects that Greek ideal of physical beauty attached to balance and harmony. The drapery - it always starts with the drapery - falls in artful, patterned folds. Below the waist the folds have an almost flute-like regularity, suggestive of a Doric column. Above the waist, the folds reveal the muscles of the upper arms and provide a sense of life to the chest, as if he were taking a breath.

The Bronze Krater of Vix


The Vix Krater, around 500 BCE

This huge krater was found near Chatillon-sur-Seine and is still in the little folkloric museum there. Somehow, the Louvre failed to get its paws around this thing, which may have been described by Herodotus himself.

It is a volute krater, identified by the volute (scrolled) handles. The decoration is especially rich. The elaborate volutes are decorated with snaky Gorgons, one of whom was peeping out of the ground in 1952, leading to the discovery of this magnificent vessel. Running around the top is an elegant frieze which caps a continuous band of warriors accompanying horses and chariots. The design of these is boldly stated and carefully patterned with especially fine horses.

Herodotus 1.70:
This was one reason why the Lacedaemonians were so willing to make the alliance: another was, because Croesus had chosen them for his friends in preference to all the other Greeks. They therefore held themselves in readiness to come at his summons, and not content with so doing, they further had a huge vase made in bronze, covered with figures of animals all round the outside of the rim, and large enough to contain three hundred amphorae, which they sent to Croesus as a return for his presents to them. The vase, however, never reached Sardis. Its miscarriage is accounted for in two quite different ways. The Lacedaemonian story is that when it reached Samos, on its way towards Sardis, the Samians having knowledge of it, put to sea in their ships of war and made it their prize. But the Samians declare that the Lacedaemonians who had the vase in charge, happening to arrive too late, and learning that Sardis had fallen and that Croesus was a prisoner, sold it in their island, and the purchasers (who were, they say, private persons) made an offering of it at the shrine of Juno: the sellers were very likely on their return to Sparta to have said that they had been robbed of it by the Samians. Such, then, was the fate of the vase.
Classics, MIT


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Riace Warriors

The Riace Warriors, c. 475-50 BCE, bronze. A is on the left, B on the right.

These guys are good examples of Greek bronzes from the early Classical period. They are named for the village in Calabria, in Southern Italy, near which they were found. They were no doubt in a shipwreck, or possibly a storm so dangerous the captain had to jettison the cargo. Too bad for him, but lucky for us.

They stand in similar poses, holding a spear in their left hand and a shield in their right; obviously, both are now missing. A was crowned by a diadem and wreath, B with a helmet, also gone, making them seem unusually bald on top.

Their names are A and B, a formality which serves to distinguish them, but which hardly identifies them. They have always looked Italian to me, but I assume that is because of the Riace moniker. Although they look alike, when we look again we see obvious differences. A is younger, more alert, and in great physical condition. B, by contrast, is older, less fit, and, though alert, seems to be somewhat less concerned.

Although they can not be dated for certain, they are clearly from that glorious period known as the Early Classical. This style combines the Greek fascination with geometrical abstraction with a new interest in rendering the human body in a naturalistic way. Their poses are both arranged in contrapposto , with the weight on one leg, which sets off a series of reactions in the rest of the body alternating the tense with the relaxed. This makes bodies appear energetic, poised, and, if not actually moving, about to move, or, even, thinking about it. Artists at this time are clearly becoming increasingly interested in exploring dimensions of human consciousness by portraying the body and the face in particular ways. Perhaps this accounts for the single artist - if it was a single artist - exploring two states of consciousness in these two pieces.

The Blond Boy

The so-called Blond Boy, from the Acropolis, dated to around 480 BCE, is a good example of the so-called “severe style,” in which the archaic smile has been replaced by a pout. Paint remaining on the pupils indicates something about the original conception, which would have created a concentrated, somewhat somber stare, perhaps aloof, but also self-aware. He knows you’re looking at him, and acts unconnected, unconcerned.

Compared to the typical archaic face, all these facial features seem compacted and tightly-knit. In the Blond Boy this effect arises, as Rhys Carpenter has pointed out, from a simple system of proportions in which multiples of basic horizontal and vertical modules (e.g. the width of the nose at the junction of the eyebrows) are applied to all the basic parts of the face. A uniform 3 : 4 proportion between all the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the face is at the root of its (literal and metaphysical) measure and order. The new, increasingly squarish (or perhaps we should say ‘foursquare’) canon of proportions which we see under development in the Blond Boy seems to represent an adaptation of the ‘feeling’ of the severe style to an increasingly sophisticated tradition devoted to an analysis of, and speculation about the significance of the interrelationships of the various parts of a work of art—a tradition which went back to the very beginning of Greek art and began to move in important new directions in the fifth century. (Pollitt, 39-41).



Sunday, April 15, 2007

Art Lexicon - :Learning the Terms we Already Know

Anatomy of a Male Nude, Leonardo da Vinci, 1504-6


Learning terms associated with art and art objects is a valuable, though practically endless proposition. You can think of the terms as coming in two categories: those you already know and those you don't. I think it is best to start by reminding ourselves of those we already know. These include, but are not limited to the following:

First, think of the formal terms that help us make our way around the composition. These will include: point, line, shape, volume, space, texture, with the various aspects of motion, direction or other energies these may suggest or create. Also, we learn to look for shapes and volumes to see larger and smaller patterns: circles, squares and rectangles, triangles, and the e-dimensional spheres, cubes, pyramids.

Also first , we make sense of whatever light there is, its qualities and source(s), and how the light relates to shadows and darks.

When it comes to color, we may need to remember that hue is the name of the color, that value or tone refers to the lightness or darkness of the color, and that saturation or intensity refers to its brightness or dullness.

Always, though, we ask, whenever we remark on something in a work of art: What is it and what is it doing? What are they doing together, whatever they are? In this, we learn to look at works of art in terms of both the larger composition itself and the various patterns and arrangements of repeated elements or qualities we find.

Repetition is one of the most common devices in art of all sorts, meaning essentially that just identifying repetition as such is dull. Things that repeat may call attention to themselves, so that they become more noticeable and, hence, more expressive as a result. Themes and motifs in works of art become what they are because they repeat. The various ways elements repeat create various sorts of identifiable patterns..

Parallelism refers to how two or more elements of a work relate to each other by some significant means, generally because they are similarly placed or sized, so that one echoes the other. (Incidentally, since parallelism generally provides clarity of relation to the parts at hand, the best advice I can give to struggling writers is to nail sentence parallelism.)

Antithesis & contrast organize the relationship of parts - usually just two - in opposition; we tend to locate meaning by way of contrasts: If this, then not that. Contrasts are found in formal elements - rectilinear and curvilinear lines, light and dark - and in thematic elements - creation and destruction, life death.

Rhythm is a particular form of repetition based on an on/off pattern. Like other structural elements, rhythm may be found in any sort of art, in sound and vision. In the visual arts rhythms are frequently created out of repeated lines or shapes that parallel each other. Rhythms tend to be highly self-conscious, or at least highly structured, so that even things that do not themselves move can appear to move. Visual rhythms are often appealing and may suggest the dance.

Symmetry refers to the relationship of parts based on similarity and balance. Like other elements of structure and cohesiveness, symmetry creates echoes among different parts of a text, and is found in virtually all the arts.

Juxtaposition refers to how close or contiguous the various elements of a piece are to one another. Ordinarily, of course, we take no notice because of its common quotidian character - something is always next to something else. When we do notice related parts of a text, we may find special relevance in their being juxtaposed.

It is also worth spending some time getting somewhat familiar at least with some of the ways artists are taught to do things. Each artist will have her own particular style and approach, but some of the basics - how to draw men and women, for example - can be especially interesting. Figure drawing implies some kind of knowledge or understanding of human anatomy.

As we learn to name the parts of a work of art and to identify how those parts relate to each other and to the whole, we may become increasingly aware of the myriads of things in the world we live in which we can identify by name in any given work of art. Just starting to account for almost any visual portrayal can start taxing our powers of language. How many parts are there in a work of art? Too many to count, if you start putting everything together. But that practice can take us to a place in our experience of the work at which the piece starts to (seems to) interact.

For all of the above, we already know most of the terms mentioned. All we need to do is gain some practice applying them to works of art. Probably the best way to do this is to start talking - to yourself and to others - about what you find, and writing down - in sentences as well as paragraphs - what you observe.

Artlex May be the biggest and best of the online lexicons

Architecture Dictionary is a fine, well-illustrated site

Architecture dictionary Some terms are illustrated

Sculpture dictionary Looks like a useful site

Medieval Art and Architecture A very good site

The Work as Event


Fragmentary Head of a Queen, ca. 1352-1336, Dynasty 18, Reign of Akhenaten

When we look at a work of art, any work of art, we generally want to make sense of it. There may be other motives involved, but getting it is likely to be big. I have found that treating the work itself as an event - that is, as something that happens, or that does something - helps get me there.

What if nothing happens? Well that, I figure, is on me; so I move on until I find something where something happens. As here.

So, what does it mean for a work to happen, or to do something, or to be an event? Look first for initial impressions, and make a note of them. You might forget what they are, and they can be so revealing. Also, start making lists of things you notice. These are likely to consist more of nouns (which name persons, places, or things) and adjectives (which modify or define nouns) than verbs (which expresses actions, events, or states of being) or adverbs (which modify verbs or adjectives). Also, I think it is a good idea also to find something somebody has written about it, since whether I agree with it or not, I get to share someone else's experience of it. My response, then, can be to the thing itself, but also, if I wish, to the other writer.

Most art books tell us to learn something about the artist and the original audience. Although this is always good advice - you won't get very far in a vacuum - in my courses I try to focus not on the original audience, who are usually so far away and hard to understand, but on myself and my students. We are the audience that comes first.

However, the name Akhenaten is important. Even those of us who know next to nothing about the art of Ancient Egypt know that something strange was going on during the reign of this singular Pharaoh. He is best known for worshiping one god - the sun. He was also a weird looking dude. His court went along with him, changing their worship and rites entirely, until he died, when they dismantled everything he had done and put it back where it was.

Art during the period was also considerably different from the norm. Egyptian art is traditional art, meaning that the artists tended to do pretty much what they had been taught, going on not just from generation to generation, but across thousands of years. Then comes this blip of the Akhenaten reign, known as the Amarna period, where things change for a bit. This puts our piece in a new perspective. To follow up, we can read more on Egyptian art, both of the traditional sort and of the new style inaugurated during Akhenaten's reign.

Still, my interest is going to remain with the Queen over anything else I might learn about Egyptian art in general or the art of the Amarna period. And by "the Queen" I do not mean the actual person presumably represented, which might or might not be Queen Nefertiti. I mean the piece itself.

What sorts of things would you make a list of here? How do things relate to each other? What do you make of its fragmentary nature? What does this piece do?

Multiplicity and Unity Styles (Wolfflin)


Jan Van Eyck, Rollin Madonna, 1439 (left)

Rembrandt, Night Watch 1642 (right)

Heinrich Wolfflin was a 19th Century art historian whose work on the styles of Renaissance and Baroque painters uncovered tendencies which help us to make sense of the style and composition of a wide variety of paintings, both from these eras and from others. His approach is to define by way of comparison and contrast a handful of compositional devices which help us to make better visual sense of the works.

Of the two pictures above, the Van Eyck is from the Renaissance and the Rembrandt from the Baroque period. Can you see how to make sense of Wolfflin's categories with them?

Multiplicity and unity form the pair of terms which is most obviously relative, for all great works are unified in one way or another. What Wolfflin means here is that the Renaissance painting is made up of distinct parts, each one sculpturally rounded in its own right, each one clearly filled with its own single, local colour, while the unity 0of the Baroque picture is much more thoroughgoing, largely achieved by means of the strong, directed light. In [Rubens' Holy Family with St. Frances] all the units - and there are very many of them - are welded into a single whole: none of them could be isolated. Colours blend and mingle, and their appearance depends largely on how the light strikes them. For instance, the Madonna's red dress looks truly red only in parts, other parts being darkened to grey in shadow, something which is much less true of the cloak of the saint to the far right in Raphael's painting, [Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints]. The even, diffused light in the Renaissance picture helps to isolate elements so that a multiplicity of independent units can be balanced against one another. (Woodford, Looking at Pictures, 92-3)


Saturday, April 14, 2007

On the Kouroi


Kenneth's Clark's The Nude is a classic study of this classical theme. Here is an extended passage in which he explains the role of Apollo and the significance of the Kritios Boy.


The Greeks had no doubt that the god Apollo was like a perfectly beautiful man. He was beautiful because his body conformed to certain laws of proportion and so partook of the divine beauty of mathematics. The first great philosopher of mathematical harmony had called himself Pythagoras, son of the Pythian Apollo. So in the embodiment of Apollo everything must be calm and clear; clear as daylight, for Apollo is the god of light. Since justice can exist only when facts are measured in the light of reason, Apollo is the god of justice; sol justitiae. But the sun is also fierce; neither graceful athlete nor geometrician’s dummy, nor an artful combination of the two, will embody Apollo, the python slayer, the vanquisher of darkness. The god of reason and light superintended the flaying of Marsyas.

But the earliest nudes in Greek art, traditionally known as Apollos, are not beautiful. They are alert and confident, members of a conquering race, “the young, lighthearted masters of the waves.” But they are stiff, with a kind of ritual stiffness; the transitions between their members are abrupt and awkward, and they have a curious flatness, as if the sculptor could think only of one plane at a time. They are notably less natural and less easy than the Egyptian figures upon which, to a large extent, they are modeled and which, over a thousand years earlier, had achieved a limited perfection. Stage by stage, in less than a century they grew into models that were to satisfy your western notion of beauty till the present day. They have two characteristics, and only two, that foreshadow this momentous evolution. They are clear and they are ideal. The shapes they present are neither pleasant in themselves nor comfortably related to one another, but each one is firmly delineated and aspires to a shape that the measuring eye can grasp. Historians who have written in the belief that all art consists in a striving for realism have sometimes expressed surprise that the Greeks, with their vivid curiosity, should have approached nature so reluctantly; that in the fifty years between the Moscophoros and the funeral stele of Aristion, there should have been so little ‘progress.’ This is to misconceive the basis of Greek art. It is fundamentally idea. It starts from the concept of a perfect shape and only gradually feels able to modify that shape in the interests of imitation. And the character of the shapes chosen is expressed in the word used to describe the earliest form of Greek art, geometric; a dreary, monotonous style and at first ill adapted to realization in the round. But the head yields easily to geometric treatment, and already in the most archaic heads of Apollo we see how geometry can be combined with plastic vitality. In a century the same unifying power will subordinate the dispersed and intractable forms of the body.

So Apollo is clear and ideal before he is beautiful. How and when did the transformation take place? Ranging in a hypothetical order of time the kourai—the nude male figures—of the sixth century, we see the transitions from shape to shape becoming smoother, and absorbing, in the process, details that had been left as decorative notations. Then, quite suddenly, in about the year 480, there appears before us the perfect human body, the marble figure from the Akropolis known as the Ephebe of Kritios. Of course we was not really a sudden, isolated creation. We have only a slender reason to attribute him to the sculptor Kritios, and we have even less reason to suppose that Kritios was the initiator of so momentous a change. Literary sources give the name of Pythagoras of Rhegium as the sculptor who ‘first gave rhythm and proportion to his statues.’ All the evidence suggests that the new concept of form would have been first expressed in bronze and not in marble; and the Apollo of Piombino, although slightly earlier and stiffer, may give some notion of what had been going on in the first twenty years of the fifth century. But since almost every bronze statue made in Greece in classic times has been melted down, the Ephebe of Kritos remains the first beautiful nude in art. Here for the first time we feel the passionate pleasure in the human body familiar to all readers of Greek literature, for the delicate eagerness with which the sculptor’s eye has followed every muscle or watched the skin stretch and relax as it passes over a bone could not have been achieved without a heightened sensuality... [T]wo powerful emotions ... dominated the Greek games and are largely absent from our own: religious dedication and love. These gave to the cult of physical perfection a solemnity and a rapture that have not been experienced since. Greek athletes competed in somewhat the same poetical and chivalrous spirit as knights, before the eyes of their loves, jousted in the lists; but all that pride and devotion which medieval contestants expressed through the flashing symbolism of heraldry was, in the games of antiquity, concentrated in one object, the naked body. No wonder that it has never again been looked at with such a keen sense of its qualities, its proportion, symmetry, elasticity, and aplomb; and when we consider that this passionate scrutiny of the individual was united to the intellectual need for geometric form, we can estimate what a rare coincidence brought the male nude to perfection.

Perfection hangs by a thread and is weighted in the jeweler’s balance. We must therefore submit the classic nude, at its first appearance, to an examination that may seem fastidious, until we remember how the rhythmic organization of this form was still dominating sculpture 2300 years after its invention. When, a page ago, I used the Apollo of Piombino as an example of bronze casting, how strikingly it brought out the classic character of the Kritios youth! In twenty years a basic alteration of style has taken place. It can be illustrated by examining the lower part of the torso—to be precise, the junction of the hips, abdomen, and thorax. One of the most peculiar features of the early kouroi—for example, the Apollo of Tenea—is their thin, flat, stomachs. They conform to a sharp, ogival rhythm, which we may describe as Gothic. The chief areas—thighs and stomach—are inscribed within elongated ovals. Gothic nudes, dominated by the pointed-arch form, do in fact display very much the same characteristics, and one of the earliest nude studies that have come down to us, a drawing in the Ufizzi from the circle of Uccello, combines Gothic and naturalistic forms with a remarkable likeness to a sixth century kouros. In the Apollo of Piombino these Gothic forms are less marked. The thorax is of classic rectangularity, but it bears an uneasy relationship to the flat triangle of the stomach. Like Perrault’s facade of the Louvre, we feel that a richly classical upper story is resting on a base too stiff and thin to support it. In the Kritios youth this uneasiness has vanished altogether. The legs and divisions of the torso flow together with the same full and fruitful rhythm. How is this achieved? To begin with, the hips are not parallel, but since he rests his weight on his left leg, that hip is slightly higher. The full implications of this pose are more easily seen from behind, for, as usual in early Greek sculpture, the back is more naturalistic and more plastically developed than the front. But even from the front we can perceive, for the first time, that subtle equilibrium of outline and axis which is to be the basis of classical art. This delicate balance of movement gives the torso its unity of rhythm. It also allows the sculptor to solve the problem of the abdomen by realizing it as a dominant, as opposed to a recessive form: and this has involved an anatomical emphasis that was to be exaggerated to the point of distortion in the next fifty years. I refer to the muscles that lie above the pelvis and mark the junction of the thighs and the torso. They are largely absent from archaic sculpture, and since it seems unlikely that between the years 500 and 450 Greek athletes really did develop these muscles to such an unequaled extent, we must reckon them chiefly a device by which the rhythmic structure of the torso might be set in motion, and its lower half supported by two buttresses, before descending to the arc of the abdomen. They were elements in the classic architecture of the human body, and as such they lasted as long as metopes and triglyphs.

All this we discover in the youth of Kritios when we compare him to the figures that precede him. But it is not obtruded. He is so straight-forwardly beautiful that we do not willingly use him to demonstrate the mechanics of form or the rules of an aesthetic theory. To the sculptors of the next generation this grace and naturalness was a defect, or at least a danger. It is as if they foresaw the frivolous beauty of Hellenistic art, and wished to defend themselves against it as long as possible” (Kenneth Clark, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, Doubleday Anchor Books, Garden City, New York, 1959, pp 55, 57, 61-3).