Design Review: Volume 4, Issue 1 (July-August 1951)
Design in Greek Art
Design in Greek Art
During the last seventy-five years an increasing proportion of classical scholars have turned their attention to the study of archaeology and the sorting of the mass of material that has been recovered by excavation. On the basis of evidence both literary and archaeological they have succeeded in identifying with reasonable certainty schools, workshops and even individual artists, so that it is possible to see from a relatively small collection the main trends in the history of Greek art and to appreciate the problems which the Greek craftsmen faced and the extent of their achievement.
New Zealand has one such collection in the Otago Museum. It is mainly associated with the name of the late Willi Fels. With fine discrimination he collected some two thousand Greek and Roman coins which he bequeathed to the Museum, and in his memory members of his family acquired for the Museum the collection of Greek vases and sculpture which had been built up in Cambridge during a lifetime of teaching and research by Professor A. B. Cook. The few objects which I have selected for publication here are not by any means the gems of the collection. Their choice has been governed rather by the exigencies of photography and their suitability for illustrating certain features of Greek art.
The first is a cup (fig. 1) belonging to the Geometric Period, which lasts roughly from the tenth to the eighth century B.C. It is the period following the last and greatest of the waves of migration from the north which had accompanied the gradual extinction of the Mycenaean civilisation. The geometric pottery of Greece is similar to pottery found throughout the Balkans and Central Europe, and represents the first contribution of the new invaders to Greek art. At first there is only one horizontal band of simple rectilinear patterns, the rest of the vase being covered in black. In time the number of bands increases and the main band is enlarged and divided into two or three rectangular panels. The decoration of these panels is now no longer confined to strictly geometric patterns. Animals and birds are introduced, strongly stylised in solid black silhouette. The space around them is crowded with zig-zags, swastikas and other geometrical figures. The reason for this horror vacui, or dread of an empty space, becomes clear if we think of the artist who made our cup as aiming not at depicting three horses (which would stand out better if there were clear space around them), but at covering the vase with decoration of which the horses form only a part. Towards the end of the Geometric Period the human figure is introduced, still heavily stylized, but now as part of a scene — a funeral scene, for example, or the representation of a sea — battle — which has its own narrative interest. At the same time the interest is concentrated on the main panel by a greater allowance of space and by the use of a lighter glaze for the subsidiary ornament.
By the end of the eighth century colonisation had begun, and with it an expansion of maritime trade which, in the two succeeding centuries was to develop communications throughout the Mediterranean to an extent unknown even at the zenith of Cretan power in the second millennium. The immediate effect on Greek art was a new inspiration from the east, both in subject and in technique. New animals appear on Greek vases–the lions, griffins and sphinxes which are familiar in the art of Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia. Purely geometric decoration is replaced by palmettes, rosettes and a variety of floral motifs. Animal figures are no longer elongated and distorted to provide a merely formal decoration: The full mass of the body is presented with the anatomical detail picked out by means of incised lines. And instead of merely a black or at the most a black and a brown we now find a number of shades from light brown to black together with touches of white and purple-red.
2. A broad bottomed oenochoe or wine jug with a trefoil lip belonging to the Middle Corinthian Period, Height, 15 centimetres.
By the middle of the sixth century. Athens was a serious commercial rival to Corinth, and the Athenian potters and painters were driving the Corin thians from the markets. A characteristice of late Corinthian ware is that the pale buff of the clay background is over ladi with a red wash in an attempt to imitate the natural colour of the Attic clay, which owing to the superior craftsmanship of Athenian potters and painters has now become more fashionable. The second half of the sixth century marks the zenith of Attic black-figure ware, one of the supreme achievements of Greek art. The technique differed littel from that of Corinthian — a design in black on the bare background of the clay with incised lines and applied colours. But the variety and grce of the shapes turned out by the Athenian potters, the originality of the painters both in deisgn and in choice of subject, and the exquisfe finish which resulted from generations of accumulated skill and keen rivalry between workshops, made Attic vases supreme both in the black-figure phase and in the long succeeding period of the red-figure style which lasted into the fourth century. A characteristic of Athenian ware is the lustrous black glaze, the secret of which has been re-discovered only within the last ten years. (Its prevalence on black-figure ware creates a serious proble for the photographer as it is almost impossible to eliminate shine without obscuring detail.)
We have in our collection no master pieces of Attic black-figure, but the two vases I have selected will serve to illustrate the main characteristics of the stle. The first is a neck-amphora (fig. 3), so called because the neek of the vase, instead of forming with the body a continuous curve, is set off from it. In vases of the amhora: or two-handled type the handles naturally divide the surface into two halves and in time the artist tends to devote his main attention to one side (the obverse), depicting there a trecognisable scence from daily life or from mythology, and filling the reverse side with a group of figures often unrelated to the main scence. Thus on our vase we have on the obverse Heracles with a lyre mounting a platform. To the left is thena and to the right Hermes. Different painters show a consistent attachment to differet gods or heroes, but Athena, Hermes and Heracles are among the favourites. There are certain distinctive attributes by which they can be recognised. Athena, besides having the conventional white flesh reserved for women, wears a high-plumed helmet and breastplate girded with snakes and carries a spear. Heracles almost invariably wears or has just laid down besie him the familiar lionskin. Hermes, messenger of the gods, wears winged sandals and the traveller's cap and carries the caduceus, which is associated with his function as conductor of souls to the underworld. On the reverse of this vase is a warrior, armed with helmet, greaves, shield and two spears, between an old man (white hair and staff) and a woman. A comparison with many similar but more detailed scenes susggests that he is taking leave of his father and his wife as he sets out on a campaign. It is characteristic of these scenes of departure that although the departure might be more vividly portrayed by placing the warrior on one side of the picture and his relatives on the other, the warrior, as the most important person present, is given the central position.
The other black figure vase, a small oenochoe or wine jug (fig. 4), i some what later than the neck-amphora, and belongs to about the year 500. The use of a panel reserved in the colour of the clay, possibly–under the nfluence of wall painting or paintng on clay plaques, is already found in the seventh century, in the earliest period of black-figure. Although the motive is clearly to present a picture rather than merely to decorate a vase, the best black-figure artists successfully conceal this motive by a skilful adaptation of the position and shape of the panel to the shape of the body of the vase. Here the panel has been covered with a thin white slip before the application of the black glaze. The effect of contrast is further enhanced by a sparing use of ncised lnes and the restriction of applied colour to a single band of red above the panel. The drawing has not the freedom page 18 of the finest black-figure masters, but a reluctance to allow a galloping quadruped to life its hind feet as well as its forefeet from the ground is common to most black-figure painters of horses and centaurs. At the same time our artist has added to the sense of movement as well as to the interest of the design as a whole by making the branch at the centaur's feet pont in the opposite direction to that of the branch held over his shoulder.
Athenian workshops continued to turn out black-figure vses until about 480 B.C., but by 525 B.C. a new technique had been invented. Briefly, it consisted in using black for the background and leaving the figures reserved in the colour of the clay. A black line was first drawn round the spaces to be reserved, details of the figures were then drawn in, and finally the backgrond was filled in with lack. The double thickness of the black around the figures can often be seen even in photographs. The best painters quickly adopted the new technique. Sometimes they combined both black-figure and red-figure in two pictures on the same vase, but the remainder of the history of Greek vase-painting is almost entirely the hisotry of red-figure, until late in the fourth century relief ware becae popular. Red-figure vases have been attributed to more than five hundred different artists. Their main nterest is in the rendering of the human figure, which, with the discovery of the use of shading and perspective, becomes more realistic.
Our example of red-figure is a calyxkrater (fig. 5), a mixing bowl in the shape of the ealyx of a flower. It was used for mixing wine with water and from it the mixture was served with a ladle into cups. The Greeks rarely drank wine neat. We show only the obverse, which represents the departure of Triptolemus in a winged chariot. Behind him stands persephone holding a staff and in front Demeter (there has been some repainting on her head and shoulders) with a wine jug from which she pours the parting libation. Tripto lemus holds a staff in his left hand, and in his right a bunch of whear sheaves which he has received from Demeter. These were the three principal deities worshipped in the Mysteries celebrated at Eleusis, a ew miles from Athens. The ritual, which symbolished the storng of the grain underground until it was brought out for the spring sowing, no doubt incuded an enactment of the rape of Persephone and the search for her by Demeter, which ended at Eleusis. In return for the establishment of a festival in her honour Demeter is said to have promised to send the young Triptolemus to teach mankind the art of agriculture. Here we see him setting out on his journey. The vase is roughly contemporary with the sculptures of the Parthenon. It is ascribed to the school of Polygnotus who is to be distinguished from his more famous namesake and elder contemporary, the mural painter Polygnotus of Thasos. In contrast with the preceding generation of vase-painters, who had experimented in the expression of freedom of movement. Polygnotus represents a return to a more restrained classicism. Standing and seated figures similar to those on the Parthenon frieze are common. On our vase the advantage of red-figure over black-figure is well illustrated by the varied detail of the chariot, which could hardly have been represented by the use of incised lines on blakc. On the reverse, which is not so finely executed, three women are engaged in conversation.
For the last vase I have chosen a white-ground funeral lekythos or oil-flask (fig. 6). There are innumerable small lekythoi of varying shapes from the black-figure and red-figure periods. They were used mainly for carrying the olive oil which served so many purposes in daily life at Athens. Lekythoi such as this, however, covered with a thin coating of white, were reserved in the second half of the fifth century for a special purpose. They were used in ceremonies connected with the dead. Filled with sweet smelting oil they were plaed by the body as it lay in state, or, after cremation, placed with the ashes in the grave or hung on the tombstone. For such purposes it mattered little that the white surface offered no resistance to wear, and although the white ground is common on cups and other vases early in the fifth century it survives to the end of the century only on lekython. The subjects are naturally in some way connected with death or mourning, and the technique is entirely the technique of line drawing, at first in a lustrous golden-brown to yellow, later in matt black or red.
Our example belongs to the school of the Achilles painter, who was a contemporary of Polygnotus. He takes his name from an amphora in the Varican depicting Achilles and Briseis, but more than a hundred and eighty vases of all kinds have been atributed to him, apart from many more attributed to his school. This one is in a better state of preservation than most white lekythoi. The scence is a tombstone: on one side is a woman, o the other a warrior in full arthour, while above the tombstone is a small statue, possibly of their dead son. The father looks slightly downward in the attitude commonly used to a express grief (as on the famour ‘Mourning Athena’ relief) and the mother points to the offerings at the base of the pillar, a woolen fillet and a wreath. The artist has clearly had diffieulty with the frontal view of the knees in both figures, but he has bestowed meticulous care on the details of the warrior's armour, and, as on som many of these vases, the standing figures and the vertical lines of the tombstone are well adapted to the slender shape of the vase.
Although this selection of vases includes examples from earth of the main periods of Greek vase paintng I have attempted only to place each vase in its setting. The account given is not a comprehensive survey, which would have to include the work of many of the great masters who are unrepresented here.