Art History for Chapter 4:
Trial of the Hellenes: The Ancient Greeks, 1200 B.C. to A.D. 146
Historians have long hailed the Greek achievement in art as being markedly different from all previous and contemporary civilizations. It is with the Greeks that Western Art really began, many say. Mesopotamians and Egyptians clearly influenced them, but the Greeks moved toward a naturalism and humanism that surpassed that of the Middle Eastern Civilizations. In doing so they set a tone and expectation for Western Art ever since.
The three main phases of Greek art, like their politics, are the Archaic Age (800-500 B.C.), Classical Age (500-338 B.C.) and Hellenistic Age (338-146 B.C.). The artistic trend is from rough abstract forms, through cool realism, to emotional vibrancy.
Greek art in the Archaic Age was similar to that of other ancient peoples, drawing on simplistic abstract forms and geometric patterns.
While Greek painting has hardly survived, many painted ceramics (vases, pots, bowls, urns) give us a rich record of drawings and stories. In the trading economy, pots and vases stored wine, oil, and grain. In everyday life, they decorated the table and provided vessels for eating and drinking.
In the Archaic period, the first decorations were geometrical designs. Later artists began to draw naturalistic human figures, usually illustrating mythological scenes. The black-figured style featured dark forms against a background of the natural red coloration of baked clay. As artists approached the Classical period around 500 B.C., a new red-figured style became more popular, using the natural clay’s color for filling the figures set against a black background.
The earliest Greek statues of people were small, simple stick-like figures, known as the Cycladian style.
Soon the Greeks were clearly imitating the Egyptians, producing life-size statues of the male nude (called the kouros). Although appearing stiff and unnaturally rooted to the ground, the kouros was also very anatomically correct while also serene and otherwordly (especially the face with set eyes and a frozen “Archaic smile”). It is unclear if these represented men or gods, but either way nudity was used by artists to reveal the true essence of humanity. The Greeks were took longer to sculpting the female nude.
The Classical Period, after the victories over Persia and before the complete devastation brought on by the Peloponnesian Wars is most representative of Greek art. Much was created in Athens, but other city-states also encouraged art to highlight their values.
Red-figured vases provide a rich collection of Greek art, illustrating mythology and everyday life.
Greek sculptors soon transitioned to much more relaxed poses in their portrayals of the human figure. Realism and naturalism meaning they looked like real people in nature. Sculptors achieved liveliness in stone by the contrappasto pose: shifting the hip (to give a curve to the overall torso) and one foot resting only lightly on the base.
There are three great sculptors of the classical period, who are noted for having their names survive. Previously the creators of art were not considered important enough to remember.
First, Phidias (500-432 B.C.), supervised the sculptures on the Parthenon, especially the battle of men against the centaurs (standing in for the Athenians against the Persians).
Second, Polykleitos/Polyclitus of Argos (fl. 450-420), was famous for sculpting athletes, Olympic champions, like his Spear-bearer/Doryphoros. He determined the classic body proportions which they thought most beautiful.
Third, Praxiteles (mid-4th Cent.), gave art its first female nude, the Aphrodite of Cnidos ca. 340, the first female nude. He used as a model the Athenian hetaira (courtesan) Phryne, whose enemies accused her of impiety. According to tradition, the statue was first done for City of Cos, but they were too shocked at a female nude. She then went to Cnidos and became a tourist attraction (with a panel that opened behind her, so the rear view could be admired).
We see these statues now as blindingly white or richly bronze, but the Greeks often painted them with bright colors.
Politically, the Greeks rejected the powerful kings and gods as they had in Mesopotamia and Egypt. So, also, most architecture was concentrated public buildings, designed more for normal citizens: stoa (market places), stadia, gymnasia, theaters, and fortifications.
The temples were the most aesthetically enduring buildings. They clearly drew their basic ideas from wood buildings: grooves on columns like those scraped off wood, supports imitating wood. The Greeks at first used brick and limestone, but increasingly marble.
They developed three Orders, or styles of columns. In chronological order of use:
First, Doric columns were simple slightly curved (entasis or bulge in the center) shafts rising from a base with a rounded capital on top.
Greatest example of a Doric Temple is the Parthenon (447), the temple to Athena in Athens, the largest temple on mainland, designed by Iktinos and Kallikrates. The temple is made up of brilliant optical illusions: curves and slopes that only make it seem perpendicular and parallel from a distance.
Second, Ionic columns are slender, lighter in proportion. The capital has egg and tongue ornaments with scroll curls that imitate the "spleening" of wood under heavy weight.
Third, Corinthian columns are a variant on Ionic. Their capitals add bands of acanthus leaves, making it more blatantly ornamental.
We now see these temples as blindingly white, but the Greeks decorated them and the statues with bright colors.
In the Hellenistic period, the calm coolness of classicism is often replaced by a vibrant energy and emotionalism. Artistic subjects become more dramatic.
Sculptors turned away from the proportions of classical poses and made larger, exciting set pieces.
One of the most famous Hellenistic statue groups is the Laocoon, portraying a Trojan and his sons being killed by giant snakes.
ArchitectureHellenistic architecture also becomes gigantic in scale. Many of the so-called famous Seven Wonders of the ancient world come from the Hellenistic period. These structures served the growing urban civilization.