AN OUTLINE OF ANCIENT GREEK SCULPTURE AND PAINTING
Greek art developed over a period of 600 years and produced a national genius, a pure, classical school which was to inspire sculptors, painters and architects up to the present day, and perhaps for all time.
As early as the 7th century B.C., men and animals and nature became the main subjects of designs that were supremely visual: accurate observation combined with an amazing clarity of design. A deer hammered on a sheet of gold to make a drinking vessel contains in its bulging, simplified planes ail the rhythmical vitality one expects from the workshops of today. The Greek artisan was accustomed from an early age to using his eyes to fight and hunt. The naked landscape around him, infused with the magical light of Greece-a light so intense and pure, it throws forms and shapes into sharp relief-imposed its discipline on the mind and eye. When he chipped and shaped and smoothed, every strain and twitch of a horse’s head, every gathering of muscle, blossoming flower or gust of wind, expressed simply, with restraint and symmetry, the power of the mind’s eye. Order and balance asserted themselves in flawless expressive lines. Mere size never impressed the Greek artist. It was in form rather than in bulk that he always sought perfection. This undeniable striving after truth, a searching for form, even beneath the draperies, is evident in all the statuary of the great periods of Greek sculpture.
Historians of artistic development draw a sharp line of division between the arts of the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures and that which followed their abrupt end about 1000 B.C. With the coming of the Dorians, Greece itself relapsed into a state of semi barbarism for more than two hundred years. Not until the 7th century B.C. did the current of culture return and flow from east to west. Greece experienced then a period of artistic development and great achievement such as has never been equal in the history of the world.
Beginning with the minor bronzes and pottery of the Geometric period (1000-800 B.C.), so called because of the simple application of geometry to the problems of the human form, Greek art then reached the Archaic phase (800-600 B.C.), when Greek seafarers brought back with them from Egypt and the East works decorated in styles completely different from those of the geometric art. This period gave us the well-known “kouroi” “statues of young men and women), which point clearly to Egyptian influence: stereotype pose with one foot set before the other, fixed smile, arms joined to the sides, and clenched fists.
The Egyptian figures were of the hardest stones-porphyry and granite, but the Greeks did not have to face this challenge. The fine white marble of the islands could be carved easily with light tools and emery. Gradually, the rigid posture acquired variety in its composition, when the sculptors gave a more realistic treatment to the human form.
It was from these important years that the beginnings of Greek monumental sculpture and architecture stem, and in which we recognize the origins of the Classical art.
With the dawn of the 6th century B.C. the emancipation from the Archaic was well on its way. However, the great period of Greek sculpture begins in the Classical Age (500-400 B.C.), when Greek sculptors sought the ultimate perfection in subject and execution-and seldom fell far short of it.
By the 5th century B.C., the stark majesty of the monumental sculptor gave way to the graceful power of Pheidias and, a little later, to the refinement and delicacy of the gods and goddesses of Praxiteles. Sculptors exerted themselves to get the utmost out of the marble in their hands. They even tortured it to express ideas hardly expressible in stone-and they were amazingly successful. Polycleitus, Myron and Pheidias were the three masters of this period. The famous “Doryphorus” of Polycleitus was one of the earliest statues in which the weight of the body, instead of resting on both feet, is thrown on to one foot, while the other leg is “free standing” with the heel raised from the ground. The result is a wonderfully easy pose. Myron was the first to discard the rigid uprightness of chest and head, and to show the full flexibility of the body in action. His statues of athletes, among them the well-known “Discus Thrower”, are notable examples of his art.
Fifth century B.C. sculpture reached its culminating point in Pheidias, who was undoubtedly the leading spirit in the sculptural decoration of the Acropolis, and was responsible for the colossal statue of Athena (40 ft high), by which this group of buildings was once dominated. It is considered likely that the sculptures of the Parthenon, if not actually Pheidias” work, were made under his direction.
In the 4th century B.C., the sculptor’s ideal became modified. Instead of aiming merely at the interpretation of a robust physical life and spiritual serenity, he sought the expression of human emotion and passion. The most well-known sculptors of this school are Scopas, Lysippus and Praxiteles. Scopas, in particular, is famous for the passion he put into marble faces, with deep-set eyes and agonized foreheads. To him has been attributed a head from the temple at Tegea (in the Athens National Museum) and world-masterpieces such as the Niobe group and the Victory of Samothrace are ascribed at least to his influence. The most famous works of Praxiteles are the Venus of Cnidus, at the Vatican in Rome, and the Hermes with the in fact Dionysos at the Olympia Museum-works that show less passion and more dreamy tenderness than is seen in the art of Scopas. Lysippus, who is said to have executed a vast number of statues, including many of Alexander the Great, delighted in the rendering of physical vigor, as in the “Apoxyomenus”, also in the Vatican.
The ultimate in the representation of human suffering was reached in the group which shows the legendary Laocoon, with his sons, writhing in the coils of the deadly serpents. By this time, Greek art had entered the Hellenistic Age (300-150 B.C.), when Alexander the Great united all the Greeks and their civilization spread beyond the borders of Greece. The change in political conditions caused by the formation of independent states under Alexander’s generals is held to have been responsible for a certain decline in the artistic ideal. But there are works of genius and real beauty belonging to this age. Art could be great and monumental, just as architecture tended to the gigantic and to great feats of engineering. The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the seven wonders of the world, with its frieze of struggling Greeks and Amazons, crowned by the immense and serene statues of Mausolus and Artemisia in their chariot, belongs to this same age. The little kingdom of Pergamum, in Asia.
Minor, boasted a great temple and an immense open-air altar of Zeus, surrounded by a agglomerate of sculpture on a truly colossal scale. Other masterpieces of loveliness include the Victory of Samothraki, the Dying Gaul and the Aphrodite of Melos, all of which vie in beauty, dignity and restraint with the greatest achievements of the age of Pheidias.
At the other end of the scale art became more homely, and sought inspiration in the everyday aspects of life. Sculptors produced thousands of terracotta figures richly illustrative of Greek daily life and charmingly free from the classic conventions. From this phase of Greek art, we have such examples as the pleasant little statue of a child struggling to hold a goose, or a boy pulling a thorn from his foot, or an old woman, bent with age but vital in every wrinkle.
A very attractive form of this lighter Greek sculpture is seen in the Tanagra figurines, thousands of which have been found in graves.
It was in the Hellenistic Age, too, that the arts of cutting cameos and striking coins achieved perfection.
There is no extant Greek painting on which to form a judgement, apart from the Greek vases and the Pompeian wall-paintings executed by Greek artists during the late Hellenistic period. But there is no lack of literary records, and many names of Greeks painters have come down to us.
We know that they used the fresco technique for wall paintings, and tempera for panels, and – in the best period – the encaustic method, painting with dry wax-sticks and burning the colors into the carefully prepared surface. Later came the mosaic work which was to become vulgarized in the decoration of Roman houses-a debasement which led Horace to remark that “conquered Greece led her conqueror captive” in the arts. This has been taken to mean that the Romans were merely copying from the older Greek civilization.
The decorative paintings of Polygnotus and Micon were, it is safe to assume, colored outline drawings, without modeling, shadow or perspective. According to the records, Agatharchus, at the end of the fifth century B.C., was one of the first artists to study the problem of perspective. Then came Apollodorus,a pioneer in light and shade, and those reputed masters of realism, Zeuxis, Parrhasius, and Apelles.
Although we have no means of comparing a single example of Greek painting with medieval or modern work in that medium, we have at any rate the evidence of the red and black figure pottery to guide us in our estimate of the painters” progress in general. This ware, produced in great quantities from the 6th to the 4th centuries B.C. and distributed through the Mediterranean countries, represents in many cases the loveliest combination of ceramic design and pictorial embellishment ever devised.