Greek Art and the Greeks - Greek Sculpture: The Archaic Period - John Boardman

Greek Sculpture: The Archaic Period - John Boardman (2016)

Chapter 7. Greek Art and the Greeks

We look at Greek art in museums and galleries where it is displayed in the same manner as are most western arts from Renaissance to modern. But the majority (not all) of the latter were designed for such display, isolated in frame or case to be admired individually, even as ‘Art for Art’s sake’. This was not true of ancient Greek art, which had a function and a live context, and although we may derive some satisfaction from viewing a Greek vase or sculpture as we might a Titian or Maillol, we are as far as we can be from seeing it as it was intended. And if we value our appreciation of Greek art as a complement to all else that we have learned about the Greeks from their literature, and wish to measure it against the achievements of other cultures, it is surely worth the effort of trying to see it in ancient terms, whether of the artist and writer, or the reader and spectator. Even Greek architecture is divorced from the reality of antiquity by being viewed in dignified or picturesque ruin, although in situ: Roman is often better preserved, or remains in an urban setting, and there is always Pompeii. I have made observations in earlier chapters about this virtually archaeological problem - of divorcing statues from their original setting, of forgetting all the colour, of ignoring the intention and function, but there is a social problem too. For an urban or sanctuary setting we would need to add other ingredients, crowds of people who were not art tourists, the noise, not least the smell. But the visual experience of the ancient Greek may not be totally beyond our powers of imagination, given our other sources of evidence for the nature of Greek society and its history. A reflection on the very different role of Art in our own lives may be illuminating. The art of modern galleries may be for the rich or the thoughtful, and although the subject matter (if any) may relate directly to our experience, it is viewed in scrupulous isolation from it, and a great deal depends upon its historical, educational, sometimes pecuniary appeal. In daily life we are conditioned to an art of symbols (road signs, etc.) and a figurative art that is descriptive or persuasive (advertising), or humorous (cartoon and caricature), spoilt by our easy access to the realistic images of people and action afforded by film. Otherwise we are constantly aware of an art of design in everyday objects, and except where the artist abets education or satire, there are few serious messages and a lot of entertainment. The most general message is about wealth and status, reflected in buildings, what we wear, what we use. Walk down a street and think what art there is in it and what its function may be - intended or effective.

The man in a Greek street had a very different visual experience. Our clothes reflect our wealth and status and some aspire to art or fine craftsmanship (or they used to); in antiquity there was a uniformity of dress, usually untailored and so made distinctive through colour or pattern rather than cut or material. Jewellery seems not to have been worn every day. Then turn from the people to the urban environment, where much must have depended on period and place. The shape of many Greek cities was determined by the presence of a defensible acropolis, which may have been conspicuous, as in Athens or Corinth, or the placing of a harbour or anchorage. In the older cities layout was irregular and only with time did open areas such as the agora acquire a degree of order [273], although this often went little beyond rather mechanical rectangularity. City vistas were not deliberately created. Rectangular, grid layouts were known from the 8th century on (Old Smyrna) and introduced in some new colonial foundations. At the end of the 5th century Hippodamus introduced more sophistication by allocation of groups of blocks to civic and divine buildings, but it seems to have been by their size rather than deliberately created architectural approaches that these buildings made their mark, and this is true of both remodelled cities and new foundations [274].

273 Model of the west side of the agora at Athens, mainly of the late Classical and Hellenistic period. The Doric temple of Hephaistos stands on the hill behind. The other, civic, buildings employ the canonic architectural orders with various plans. The round building (Tholos) is a magistrates’ club house; behind it is the Council House (like a small enclosed theatre) in front of which is the Metroon with a colonnade façade leading to a temple and state archives. Beyond is a little temple of Apollo, then the Stoa of Zeus, with projecting wings, the office of the magistrate in charge of cults. (Agora)

274 Reconstruction (by A. Zippelius) of the new city of Priene, laid out in the later 4th century BC, showing the grid plan with open civic areas, the acropolis rising behind

Independent sanctuaries were not much better, determined by the placing of temple and altar and by the processional way [275]. During their elaboration in the Classical period planned view lines may have been determined here and there, or architectural counterpoints, as in the Propylaea-Erechtheion-Parthenon at Athens, but most seem fortuitous. Landscape had sometimes helped to determine the placing of a sanctuary, as at Delphi [276], but seems not to have been any more exploited by architects than it had been by artists, while garden planning was rudimentary - parallel lines of trees beside the Hephaisteion at Athens. With the Hellenistic period new city plans (Pergamum) and sanctuaries (of Asclepius on Kos or at Lindos on Rhodes nearby [277]) aspire to grander schemes, even to rising symmetrical layouts which might owe something to the example of Eastern or Egyptian palaces and temples. But the Greek in the street was not as constantly aware of the architectural excellences of his home as, for instance, the Parisian or New Yorker; more like the resident of suburbs of Florence or Delhi.

275 Model of the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia. The central square held the new (left) and old temples of Zeus; the round building was for the statues of the Macedonian royal family (Philippeum). Outside are offices, hotels and gymnasia. At the right, a row of Treasuries overlooks the approach, bottom right, to the start of the Stadium. (Olympia)

276 A view of the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, looking down from the slopes of Mount Parnassus towards the Gulf of Corinth

277 Model of the acropolis at Lindos on Rhodes, standing on a high promontory overlooking the sea, mainly as laid out in the Hellenistic period. A broad stoa and Propylaea lead to the relatively small Temple of Athena at the top. (Copenhagen)

The architectural decoration apparent on the monumental buildings, and no doubt in simpler, often wooden forms on lesser structures, was determined by the classical orders, and after the Archaic period these changed very little except in the detail explored by archaeologists. We are used to the classical orders on banks and public buildings, but they are not, thankfully, universal. Classicism commonly means uniformity and this is something again unfamiliar in most of the modern western world. Even in other arts and crafts, which we have yet to consider in this context, there was an overall uniformity of style despite medium or scale, which we would find taxing, even boring: like living in a whole town, not just a house, of post-modern or Art Nouveau design. The application of the canonic orders to structures of different sizes and purpose, or, to turn to other arts, devotion to realistic representation of all human and animal forms, may to some degree seem to impoverish the potential for artistic diversity which we appreciate in other cultures and in our own. It at least provided a unified prospect for a spectator who was always at home with it. This may be a factor in any classical art’s durability and potential for ready transmission outside the environment in which it was created.

With the uniformity went a high quality of finish apparent in most of the arts that have survived. Exceptions are things like mass-produced clay figures or the feebler black-figure vases, and there was no doubt more, but there is nothing shoddy about even very cheap Greek clay cups, and each period and craft seemed able to achieve the best that its materials and techniques allowed. Nowadays we would attribute this to a natural sense for design and workmanship, qualities we might look for in modern Italy rather than Greece or anywhere nearer home. It was something to which the Greek was, it seems, acclimatized and which he might expect.

Today we are well aware of the past or past styles around us - Gothic, Georgian, Victorian. It is not clear whether the average classical Greek had as much of an eye for the truly primitive in what he saw as did later commentators and guides to classical sites. The Archaic style was unmistakably different from the Classical without being wholly foreign, and Archaic buildings and sculpture remained visible; even something of the Greek Bronze Age was still visible, mainly in stray finds, but sometimes in architecture as at Mycenae [14] or the Athenian Acropolis’ own pre-Persian walls. Neither nostalgia nor any positive aesthetic choice may have played a major role in the record of persistent archaism through the Classical period. It was never an important factor and can often be explained in terms of religious conservatism. On vases it led to an odd form of mannerism where style became almost more important than subject. It is easy to draw the line between simply continuing in an old idiom for a century after it had been replaced, and conscious copying of the Archaic style. Archaizing becomes more deliberate in the late Hellenistic period [278], too far removed from the ethos of the original to be plausible. But in both cases it either answered a demand or at least found an appreciative if limited market. A renewed interest in pure Classicism in the later Hellenistic period (neo-Attic) is a different matter, no little encouraged by the market provided by acquisitive Romans and decidedly elitist.

278 Archaizing relief showing Dionysus with three Seasons (Horai). The dress exaggerates the archaic patterns of folds and the figures walk on tiptoe. 1st century BC. Height 32 cm. (Louvre MA 968)

It is doubtful whether many Greeks valued their antiquities, rather than that reassuring homogeneity of classical form that surrounded them. In their literature and religion their past was all-important, but this was not expressed in their art with any attempt at archaeological accuracy. Collecting or creating relics for temples (the Gorgon’s tooth, Heracles’ shield, heroes’ bones) had a certain appeal or was politically expedient, and led to the creation of what amount to the first historical museums in the modern sense (not art galleries), but in representations of the past dress and objects were never anachronistic. So even in the message-laden images of Greek myth-history the classical Greek always viewed the stories in modern dress. This must have reinforced the immediacy of those messages: the problems of an Achilles or Antigone look more relevant when the figures are not dressed up as antique, whether on stage or in art. The Greeks’ more recent history was brought to their eyes by trophies and the dedicated armour of enemies in sanctuaries.

At home, in the street, in sanctuaries, cemeteries and public buildings, the Greek was incessantly reminded of figurative arts. They were not purely decorative, although often the significance of choice of subject may have been forgotten or was too trivial to puzzle the passerby. Archaic statues confronted the viewer and sometimes addressed him in an inscription cut on the base or the figure itself. Later statues were generally more detached, but more thought-provoking. Even pots could carry mottoes proclaiming handsome youths (kaloi) regardless of the figure scene in which they were inscribed. There seems to have been a constant challenge to understand, to share. Art was a means of communication, at all levels from the moral and political to the appropriately entertaining, far more effective than word of mouth or writing. Literacy was not high, books and scripts few and not easy to come by, and recited scripts, in rhapsode performances or on the stage, were mostly one-off affairs and not to be lingered over other than by a small intelligentsia of other writers. Watching five or more plays in one day, over several days, at the main dramatic festival, was no way for the ordinary Greek (including artists) to inform himself in detail about new plots and subjects rather than be moved by what was being made of them. The stories themselves were for the most part familiar already, from mother’s knee or informal recitation; as familiar as Bible stories used to be even to the very young. If we think that the narrative arts of the Greeks are to be understood only as illustrations of their formal literature, we lose almost all of their message. But this is also a point in which they meet. The messages of public art (architectural sculpture) were generally of political and civic relevance in the broadest sense, including the practices of cult, the military and to a lesser degree everyday life, and they were similar, sometimes the same as those of the humbler arts, such as vase painting. Athenian tragedy, on the other hand, was concerned with the eternal human and personal problems of family, duty, anger, revenge, retribution. But, visual or written for performance, they all depended almost wholly on the same body of subject matter - what we call myth, but what was to the Greeks their earliest history, when gods and heroes spoke and walked with men. The present was always explored through the past; a fact I have had occasion to refer to often already and which should never be forgotten in trying to understand the Greek’s perception of the images around him and the reason why they appear as they do. Problems were generalized and expressed through versions of old stories, rather in the way that images were for long generalized and idealized, not presented in terms of contemporary reality. In this the Greeks seem unique among ancient peoples, since this is something that goes far beyond ancestor worship. So our Greek was constantly reminded, not as we are of our political, military and entertainment elite, but of his heroic past, and this was no simple storytelling since in every case there was a moral to be drawn, explicit or not. Only the approach of the Hellenistic period heralded a readiness to comment on contemporary life and people directly in art and literature, and even then, when a Hellenistic king celebrates his defeat of invading barbarians, he will do so both through direct reporting (Greeks fight Gauls) and through myth (gods defeat giants). It was a symptom of the decline of the small city-state and the rise of empires and the cult of the individual. The practice lingers: Olivier’s film Henry V was planned to appear as a commentary on the 1944 invasion of Europe from Britain.

How aware was the classical Greek of these messages? We have to work hard enough to understand them, even to determine that they may be there. ‘Pictures are for entertainment; messages should be delivered by Western Union.’ Sam Goldwyn’s view was probably the sort shared by a majority of Greeks. There would have been many different levels of understanding. When a new public monument like the Parthenon was unveiled it is likely that the message of its sculpture was unmistakable, even if not in all nuances, by the citizenry, many of whom had worked to help create it. They would not need to peer at it as we do to determine - is this a cushion or a shroud, a clipboard or a lyre-box? - and to explain figures and subjects accordingly. If privileged to enter the building he would have found the great gold and ivory statue [146] expressing his city’s divinely protected destiny and its wealth, with other and mythical reminders of her successes [279, 280]. But messages of civic arrogance need not outlive the period of their currency. By 400 BC the citizen of a defeated Athens may have seen or wished to see more myth than message in the sculptures. Later still the point would probably have been totally lost unless it had been explicitly recorded in literature (which, so far as we know, it was not). In the 2nd century AD the guide Pausanias dwelt on the Parthenos and the Athena stories of the pediments and ignored the metopes and frieze.

279 Marble relief from a wreck off Piraeus. A Greek seizes an Amazon by her hair. The group is copied and adapted from part of the composition on the shield of the Athena Parthenos; see [280]. Height 97 cm. (Piraeus)

280 Reconstruction drawing of the shield held by the Athena Parthenos, based on copies in various media [as 279]. Theseus and Athenian heroes rebuff the Amazons from the walls of Athens, a paradigm for the defeat of the Persians in 480/479 BC. The original was about 440 BC

The same story could mean different things to the ancient viewer in different periods. The fight of gods and giants appeared woven on the robe given to Athena’s statue in Athens from before the mid-6th century, perhaps because the warrior goddess was shown at her most effective there, always beside Zeus and her favoured Heracles. On the Siphnian Treasury of about 525 BC it may have been no more than a statement of Olympian power in the sanctuary of the god-lawgiver Apollo. On the Parthenon there may well have been hints that the gods’ defeat of giants to save Olympian power paralleled Athens’ struggle to save Greece; while on the Pergamum altar the implied enemy was probably the invading barbarian Gauls. Or take the Amazons: at first respected distant foes, the object of an expedition by Heracles, or at Troy; in the 5th century playing the part of a mythical parallel to invading and defeated Persians. Or centaurs: at first simply forest hunters, recruited for a role in some myths, even educating heroes in the skills of a country gentleman; but also out of control in civilized company, breaking up a marriage feast, and so a paradigm for barbaric behaviour, which might then be related to the Persians (who behaved as badly, it was said, and who invaded from a northern area which sided with the invader and where centaurs lived); and finally just fun creatures to be teased by Eros or Dionysus’ rout. Yet for most Greeks any given image of an Amazon or centaur probably held no specific message, whatever the direct or indirect inspiration or intention may have been.

The society for which pictorial or other messages were being created would have understood them instinctively. In Athens the city goddess, representing the city’s fortunes, would have been omnipresent, not least on coinage. In the 6th century her association with her favoured hero, Heracles, meant that he could be used to mirror the fortunes and aspirations of Athens’ rulers, by allusion to deeds that could be made to appear relevant, or the creation of new ones. The many images, on temples or thousands of everyday objects such as pots, would have become so commonplace that the Athenian lived rather than repeatedly re-read their messages. In the 5th century Heracles is supplanted by Theseus who becomes the hero of the new democracy and defender of Athens against the mythical forerunners of the Persian invaders - the Amazons. The medium for the change may have been hymns or recited poems, but the message was most widely dispersed in popular art. There are many comparable but minor historical or ritual events whose effect on art can be identified in the same way [281].

281 Icy Boreas, the North Wind, carries off the Athenian princess Oreithyia on an Athenian vase of about 475 BC. The Athenians had been told to worship Boreas because the Wind had helped them twice against the Persian fleet. The subject immediately became popular in Athenian art and literature. (Munich 2345)

As Hellenistic rulers allowed themselves to be assimilated to gods and heroes, so representation of them and their stories proliferated, especially in parade or processional occasions, which surely accounts for the strong Dionysiac element in later Hellenistic art, when every other ruler thought himself a New Dionysus, following Alexander the Great’s lead since he had, like the god, conquered the world. The art of monuments and of everyday objects reinforced such interpretations. The images that beset the man in the Greek street mirrored his whole society, its history and religion. We can barely imagine such power in commonplace visual experience.

I have written of gods and heroes. What of images of the Greeks’ own lives? These were never a dominant element in imagery, and certainly not on public monuments, except in cemeteries, or on votive monuments where the dedicator might dare to show him- or herself, much reduced in size, approaching a deity. The cemeteries were perhaps the most poignant memorials to the common man and woman, placed as they were conspicuously (though for practical reasons) on the roads leading away from cities. Such a public, everyday display of generally quiet homage to lost wives, husbands and children is unparalleled in any other place or period. If we look at vase painting, which probably gives an accurate idea of the range of commonplace images on objects in various media, we find little enough depicting farming or trade or the domestic life of women, nothing at all of contemporary civic life (the Assembly, law courts), and little even of the theatre. Only the workplaces of artists themselves are rather better represented in the Archaic period [282] or generic trivia [283]. In the later Archaic period the high life of the symposium and drunken dance (komos) were common themes on vases (made for symposium use), and the low life of the courtesan (hetaira) was fairly dispassionately recorded. Greek pornographic art was more reportage than titillating, and often shifted into the life of the unrequited satyr, the Athenian male’s alter ego. This rather diffident attitude to the uncontrolled and ineffectual male, especially when expressed by male artists, is as endearing as the many TV programmes in which the male is regularly the idiot or incompetent, the woman in control. The Greek man was not on the whole invited by his art to glorify himself except in the defence of his city, although with time the existence of true portraiture and the hints in grave monuments of a heroized afterlife might have suggested something to aim for. The Greek woman was better served in art, as mortal or heroine.

282 On an Athenian vase workmen assemble a bronze statue (right) in a studio where model parts and implements hang and (left) the furnace is stoked and a boy works the bellows. From the horns above hang little votive plaques and masks. By the Foundry Painter, about 480 BC. (Berlin 2294)

283 A fishmonger, on a South Italian vase, 4th century BC. (Cefalu)

Male nudity in art was not heroic but appropriate for the young or vigorous, no more than a reflection of contemporary behaviour, especially in athletics [284], but recognized as a peculiarly Greek practice when compared with the non-Greek. Female nudity in art was, at all times, either religious or with an erotic connotation; women were not publicly naked. This is what was to make statues of naked goddesses so potent. If women’s contribution to the planning or execution of major works outside the domestic (which was hardly trivial but of real everyday importance) is not apparent in sources or on monuments this is probably because it was slight. For all the male chauvinism and their domination of civic and much private life, Greek artists and writers are not unsympathetic to the achievements of the other sex; poetesses were honoured and heroized. I doubt whether any other female contribution was suppressed in the record, although equally no opportunities outside the domestic were probably offered. As we have seen, for a while the private, and even public [285] activities of women were acceptable subjects for vase painting. A woman’s understanding and appreciation of the messages of civic and private art would have been limited only by her education, which was not ignored for some classes, but more seriously limited by opportunity.

284 Naked wrestlers exercise on an Athenian vase by the Andocides Painter, about 520 BC. The trainer at the left sweetens the air with a nosegay. (Berlin 2159)

285 An Athenian wedding on a vase of about 430 BC (the scene unrolled). The couple leave the bride’s home at night on a chariot (for such a special occasion), accompanied by folk carrying torches and presents, as well as the vase (left) which was used for the bridal bath. (London 1920,1221.1)

The imagery of Greek art was not all anthropoid. Greek artists showed themselves good observers of animal forms and behaviour, and images of them could be easily related to wealth (flocks), status (horse), hunting (deer, hares), sport (cock-fighting), or a degree of domestic comfort (pets). Floral patterns, always highly stylized - this was generally not an area for realism - were not always secondary, and they had a function enlivening an artefact, as it were wreathing it permanently (the Greeks were fond of leafy wreaths rather than flowers). With sturdy logic the Greek artist of the earlier period would not let pass any stray appendage without adding a snake’s head (as on the aegis or the caduceus), and were ready to animate any object. We speak of a vase’s lip, shoulder, belly; the Greek used the same terms and could express them by, for example, painting eyes on a cup, which then becomes like a mask [286], and in many other ways. A ship’s ram is a charging boar’s snout; eyebrows on armour become snakes, kneecaps gorgon faces. This is a form of animation that generally seemed to come more readily to nomadic (Scythian, Celtic) than to urban arts in antiquity.

286 Drinking from an eye-cup makes the vessel like a mask, its foot like a mouth, its handles ears (which is what Greeks called handles - ota)

Greek literature says little enough about contemporary arts. In Euripides Athenian women visiting Delphi recognize subjects in the temple sculpture and relate them to their weaving. The philosophers, such as Plato, could mistrust any art form that seemed to counterfeit reality yet fail to express absolute, ideal forms. Art was not big business until major and expensive projects required the attention of experts (a Phidias), or workshops attracted series of major dedicatory commissions. The famous architects and sculptors seem to have been well paid but the masons who worked for them, though highly skilled, seem to have commanded only a standard day’s wage. Yet many were available and able to work to a high degree of competence. We have the names of many otherwise unknown Classical Athenians who could very effectively copy models of figures and groups into marble for the Erechtheion frieze (we have some of the accounts). This hardly makes a population of artists, but it does imply one in which what we regard as specialized artistic activity was almost a matter of everyday familiarity. Domestic crafts were part of daily life. In a structured society specialist craftsmen - potters, jewellers, smiths, masons - may still have had to work seasonally and tend their crops between whiles, but it is likely that as soon as, for example, pottery acquired a vigorous domestic and export market, the families of potter/painters worked virtually the whole time at it. They would not, however, have earned as much as the middlemen who carried their wares far afield, over sea and land. Potting is a grubby, smoky job, but we know of potters from the Archaic period on who could afford rich dedications and receive civic recognition for their work. Some craftsmen, such as jewellers and silversmiths, were highly mobile and might generally expect their raw material to be provided by their customers.

I have concentrated on urban societies and their visual experience, because these are our fullest source. Many Greek cities were no bigger than villages by our standards, and familiarity with works of architecture or display which we so highly prize were unexceptional to their inhabitants. In the smaller and remoter settlements life was surely hard and the impedimenta of life impoverished. The show places were the local shrines - the parish churches - but also to a lesser degree household shrines, and even these might be graced by a painted vase or bronze figure which would have differed in no significant way from those seen in Athens or Olympia, or recovered from the export market. Greece was a small country, Greeks ready travellers. All this would have reinforced some uniformity of visual experience even if not of conduct of life. The real differences lay in whether you used clay or silver, slept on the floor or on an inlaid couch, had stone walls and a tiled roof, or mud-brick and thatch. But even then there was a common experience of a type which we must doubt ever to have been shared by the fellahin of the empires of the Nile and Mesopotamia with their masters. Perhaps small is beautiful, and even a pseudo-democracy the best of all environments for the effective deployment of arts and crafts for public benefit, instruction and delight. We know we cannot judge the quality of any society by whether it has gunpowder or penicillin or a Social Charter; better perhaps by how its craftsmen create a visual environment for their fellows that answers their aspirations, and encourages their sense of community and their society’s needs.