Greek Sculpture: The Archaic Period - John Boardman (2016)
2 Achilles binds the wounds of his companion Patroklos at Troy. Interior of an Athenian red-figure cup by the Sosias Painter. About 500 BC. From Vulci. (Berlin, Staatliche Museen 2278)
The first edition of Greek Art was written fifty years ago, and the text and pictures have been modestly adjusted since. When I wrote it I was, frankly, learning much of the subject as I was describing it, and if I think I understand it better now this is because I have spent years studying and teaching various aspects of it. It is a subject that has changed no little over the years. One major element here is the fact that fifty years ago few scholars did more than suspect that classical sculpture - the great marble nudes - were originally realistically coloured. Some artists of the nineteenth century, Gibson and Alma Tadema, had guessed as much, and produced sculptures and paintings showing it. Closer study over the years has proved the point. A major recent exhibition of sculpture at the British Museum, ‘Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art’, demonstrated it well, so the phenomenon must now be judged common knowledge, although it will be hard ever to shake off our view of classical art, Greek or Roman, as defined by figures and compositions in blank, austere, ‘pure’ white marble. Classical antiquity was possibly a more colourful place than the modern world.
Over the same years scholars of Greek art have explored approaches other than the purely aesthetic. For sculpture, the understanding of technique has been important - how models in clay lay behind finished and often larger marbles, the techniques of copying and enlarging, the practice of partial casting from life. The social and religious aspects of Greek art are also by now better defined, and the subject has been subjected, as have so many others, to ‘structural’ and other techniques of intellectual analysis, though commonly not leading to any seriously different understanding for most of us. The role and influence of individual artists, notably in painting (usually on vases), have been better understood and recorded, while internet accessibility has enhanced the breadth of our experience. Significant new finds come thick and fast, and the miscalled ‘minor arts’ of jewellery and gem engraving have been more fully studied and recognized in recent years. Only ancient panel painting really eludes us except in later, but ancient, copies.
I have attempted here to place Greek art back into Greece and away from galleries and art books, to try to recapture what it meant to its makers and viewers, and so better to evaluate what it has meant to later artists in the western world. The original artists’ intentions and the way these masterpieces are viewed now are often leagues apart. Classical art and architecture may seem foreign to much that is produced today but much is still implicit in design and appearance. The Renaissance’s copying of classical art, without its colour, has determined the appearance of the figure arts and architecture of the western world for centuries and can never quite be shaken off. Nor need it be, since it is but one of the legacies of ancient Greece which have helped form western thought, society and art - the product of a civilization which, taking a world view (as I have attempted in The World of Ancient Art, 2006), had a unique effect on the history of mankind. But foremost my aim has been to explain what Greek art looks like, how to look at it, and how to enjoy it as something beyond the tourist’s Parthenon or a broken marble, as part of our common heritage.
I use the term ‘classical’ generically, ‘Classical’ for works in the high style of the 5th century BC. Formulations such as ‘the Geometric’, ‘the Archaic’, and ‘the Orientalizing’ are simply a matter of convenience, since the development from one style to another is smooth, only accelerated by outside influences or the brilliance of individual artists or schools. It is easy to be deceived by terms such as ‘about 500’ or ‘the 6th-century style’, which are meaningless in an antiquity which did not know which century BC it was living in, but they are useful to us. We talk with more conviction about the different spirit of Quattrocento and Cinquecento Italy; the passage into a new decade, century or millennium is more readily felt to be significant in some way - ‘the nineties’, ‘the twenties’, fin de siecle - in modern times.