Sunday, 24 March 2013

Ancient Greece: Making sculpture their own

To gain an insight into how ancient Greece transformed artistic conventions to create their own aesthetic, we may take a lesson from one of their most renowned achievements: sculpture.

Classical Greek sculpture probably had its beginnings in the assimilation of Near Eastern and Egyptian styles during what we now call the Archaic period (ca. 700–450 BC). The colonisation of the Mediterranean coast and the opening of new trade routes introduced Greek artists to Eastern imagery such as composite beasts – griffins, sphinxes – and palmette and lotus motifs. Herodotus claims in the Histories that Greeks and Egyptians began to interact during the reign of the Pharaoh Psammetichus I, who came to power in 664 BCE. The Egyptians possessed great skills in cutting, transporting and carving huge pieces of stone, and their monumental stone statues and architecture seem to have made a profound impression on the Greeks, who in the second half of the seventh century began to imitate them on a smaller scale back home.

But whereas Egyptian statues are schematic and rigid, we know Greek sculpture as naturalistic and fluid in movement. To understand why sculpture took such different forms in the two societies, we need to look back to the arguments made in the last few articles.

Breathing new life into traditional art

The first step toward the sculpture of Classical Greece was the appearance of human figures known as kouros (male) and kore (female) statues, in the 7th century BCE. These youthful statues seem to have been used as dedications to gods and as tomb monuments. They have a visible relationship to Egyptian models, with stiff upright posture, one foot taking a step forwards, youthful curls mimicking the pharaonic headdress. This sort of stylisation meant that, like the Egyptians, Greek sculptors could produce figures according to a formula.

Egypt meets Greece. On the left, statue of the mayor Nen-kheft-ka, ca 2350 BCE. On the right, one of a pair of marbles depicting Kleobis and Biton, ca. 580 BC.

However, democracy introduced into Greek society a completely different spiritual dynamic. Egyptian statues attempt to impress us with the eternal truth of religion and class hierarchy. As we have been arguing, the Greek context of many city states, with no centralised nobility, and a democratic system granting freedom of speech even to a section of the masses, influenced the cultural conditions in which Greek art was created. The influence of individualism and a new interest in the human over the divine led Greek artists to gradually become interested in representing particular, lifelike human beings, and to this end sought to depict what they saw, rather than what they had been told or thought they knew. For these reasons, Greek sculpture moved away from the rigid Egyptian model.

The kouros is always on a human rather than a monumental scale. Whereas an Egyptian statue was often supported by a pillar, the kouros supports itself, and it is tempting to read this as a symbol of greater confidence in human capacities. We see an increasing secularism in the gradual appearance of artists’ or patrons’ names carved onto the pedestals, and the smile that plays on the statues’ lips breathes human expression into lifeless stone. The sculptors kept striving for ever greater realism in features and anatomy, and by the early fifth century BCE, the kouros had relaxed and become more natural.

The Kritios Boy. Photo: Tetraktys.

The Kritios (or Kritian) Boy, a statue dating to around 480 BCE, illustrates how the kouros had been brought to life. The sculptor sees the figure as a system of parts that is in balance: the left leg takes the weight while the right bends at the knee, subtly shifting the torso. The anatomy is accurate but graceful. This statue is clearly the product of trying to capture the pose of actual standing figures through careful observation. It represents the last phase of the kouros, and is the immediate precursor to the athletes and heroes of Classical Greek sculpture.

Classical sculpture

In the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, now known as the Classical period of Greek art, we see a revolutionary leap to a new form. Greek sculptors had thoroughly mastered the technical aspects of working marble. They had the advantage of iron tools and might model in clay, making moulds to allow for casting with bronze. They also began to produce work that celebrated expressiveness and movement in a way never seen before in sculpture. By studying how nature actually worked, they could show subtle variations in poses and drapery. This took sculpture in a direction quite unlike the Greeks’ contemporaries.

The human body was explored through its anatomy, its three-dimensionality, and its potential for aesthetic grace. The sculptor Polykleitos wrote a treatise or Canon that discussed mathematical proportions for the human figure while exploring how a figure could be brought to life through the counterbalance of relaxed and tensed parts. The Greeks also portrayed subjects that existed in ‘human’ time, such as in Myron’s Discobolus, a statue of a discus-thrower paused at the dramatic moment before the discus is released.

This approach introduced an unprecedented vitality into sculpture. By all accounts, sculptors such as Phidias, Praxiteles, Lysippos and others created elegant works which brought this balance of realism and idealism to an unprecedented perfection. Tragically, only a tiny portion of original Greek sculpture has survived. But the fact that we know their names, and that they were renowned even when alive, is revealing about the permeation of individualism into Greek culture at a time when so much artistic work was anonymous.

We are used to seeing Greek sculpture in the pure white of exposed marble, so our usual image of these works is rather severe. The contemporary reality was different: pigment traces reveal that statues and temples were painted in vivid colours. Bettany Hughes has evoked how Athens must have looked:

Athens was a territory where the breathing population was watched by beautifully worked stone and metal men – idealised versions of humankind, an embodiment of the democratic Athenians’ ambition. Sculptures – bronze, marble, wood – all dressed in real clothes as if they suffered hot and cold like any other human, lined the sanctuaries, the roads, the colonnades, the law-courts. Only a tiny fraction of the bronze statuary cast in Athens in the fifth century remains, so it can be easy to underestimate just what a packed, ever-expanding site-specific gallery this city was, the public spaces populated by crowds of silent humans. Silent, but not muted. With a showman’s urge to make their new attraction (in this case, the show city of democracy) as gaudy as any Persian king’s court or Babylonian tyrant’s processional way, the Athenians stage-set demos-kratia. Statues, monuments, temples, democratic courts were all painted and stained in Technicolour. The stark application and gloopy pigments used would shock most of us today, but these were designed to be seen under the bright Attic sun, and their gaudy glory to be remembered. [1]

The Greeks would have seen their sculpture not as sterile and cold, mounted on a museum wall, but as exuberant, arrogant and buoyant with life [2].

A comment on aesthetic value

Is Greek sculpture better than Egyptian or other Eastern sculpture because of its innovations? It is surely more vital and naturalistic, and this will usually be more to the Western taste, but it would be a mistake to claim that the Greeks or their culture were ‘superior’ to the East. This is a myth constructed from the Renaissance onwards to justify Eurocentrism and racism. The Egyptians were perfectly capable of realist sculpture, as we see from examples such as the famous head of Nefertiti, and they were also capable of great vitality, as in the paintings from Nebamun’s tomb. The reason they did not develop these skills in the same direction as the Greeks was that their cultural needs were different. It is the material and ideological conditions of a culture that define most powerfully the particular qualities of its art.

In Classical Greece, these conditions included a fragmented ruling class, democracy and individualism, and a newly literate culture that encouraged inquiry into the natural world. The result was a balance between their delight in naturalism and a very traditional desire for order and proportion. Some cultures adopted this art as an aesthetic standard, others chose to physically smash it; either way, it was characteristically Greek.

[1] Bettany Hughes, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (2010).
[2] The colour restoration work of German archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann offers us an insight into how ancient Greek sculpture looked in its heyday.

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