I think when most people think of Ancient Greece, their minds default to one of two things: mythological tales of gods and mortals, or Disney’s Hercules. One could argue that these are one in the same. And to a certain extent, the animated film is a nice, brief introduction to a society that garnered so much progress for human kind, literally laying the foundation for general knowledge, society and government that we still use today. And fine art played a massive role in that evolution as well.
Ancient Greece consisted of a group of islands and city states in the Mediterranean Sea between Turkey and Spain. The era spans from around 1100-300 BCE, in which artistic depictions changed rapidly along with the new thinking and teachings that continued to grow within the culture. While painting was present, ancient Greece held more of its artistic focus on potter, sculpture and architecture, as they were also greatly influenced by Ancient Egyptian culture at the time.
The growth of Grecian art was marked by four major eras of style, beginning with the Geometric style that was shown mainly on the iconic pottery of the culture. Various mythological stories and portrayals of citizen life are shown in stiff, calculated and measured stanzas, similar to the style of ancient Egyptian figure painting. There were two kinds of techniques: red-figure and black-figure. Red-figure technique shows red characters on a black background; black-figure shows the opposite, with a red background and black figures. Repeating geometric patterns frame the stories of Hercules, Achilles, Jason and more on pottery often used to hold water or wine during rambling dinner celebrations. Grecian pottery is one of the hallmarks of the culture, widely recognized by non-historians for their iconic style and storytelling.
The Archaic era overlaps considerably with the Geometric style and continues to show the influence of Egypt on the Mediterranean artists. Statuary mimics the simple, idealistic forms — you can see hair plastered to shoulders in a very organized and controlled way while bodies stand stiff and firm in their simplistic perfection. Poses of the statues also mimic those seen in pharaonic statuary, although there is some variance in gesture and the often addition of animals or foliage. The statues of this time are easily identified by what is known as the “archaic smile,” a small, smirk-like expression that graced nearly every statue made during the time. The smile was an attempt to imbue human-like qualities into the figures, despite the context.
Statuary began to take on a new life when it was used in friezes to be placed along buildings. Various scenes of both prosperity and war were shown in the friezes that were meant to denote the power or purpose of the building they decorated. Even in what seems to be a bloody fight, the figures don their smiles.
Around 500 BCE, artists began to test the limits of their mediums. These are the statues often thought of (and photographed) as symbols of the bygone Grecian age, where sculpture depicts anatomically correct, yet extremely idealistic, young men in action. Faces found more identifying details and the figures are shown in movement, some often throwing spears or a discus, or offering a hand or fruit to an unseen companion. The primary focus of this shift in style was to discover the true form of human. Sculptors chose positions where nearly all of the muscles were flexed or poised to release. They showed each curve and line around every muscle or bone.
Yet, they also experimented with more relaxed postures. The use of contrapposto — the shifting of weight — became a favorite pose. Where figures in both sculpture and painting had shown a stiff, even distribution of weight in the characters, now they were leaning against walls or balancing their weight more on one foot than the other. Here, they achieved the humanness they sought. But while individualism in facial features began to show itself, the figures were still idealized to have perfect abs, strong jaw-lines, perfectly sculpted muscles — youth even when there was no youth left.
As artists continued to push their sculptures into humanity, they tested the limits of emotion as well. Sculptures from the Hellenistic age can often be confused with those of the Classical age because they are so similar in their realism. However, Hellenistic
sculpture shows its individuality in the experimentation with context. Sculptors, while still concerned with anatomy and idealism, sought to imbue their figures with the emotion of a scene playing out around them. Maybe one of the most popular examples of this era is the statue “Laocoon and His Sons,” which shows the Trojan priest Laocoon and his sons being attacked by sea serpents. One can see the agony and fear in their faces as their muscles fight and struggle against the writing serpents. They seem to be frozen in a moment of pain, as we wait for them to come alive and continue to fight.
Not all Hellenistic sculpture went this far in portraying emotion. More so, realism was shown through grander gestures, expressive faces and the ripple of fabrics. The “Venus de Milo” hails from this era, with her soft, mysterious expression and the sheath of rippling fabric covering her legs. Both the Classical and Hellenistic eras have been held up as the pinnacle of sculpture for their experimentation and ultimate success in breathing life into lifeless stone.
This was also the era in which the iconic Greek architectural styles came into their own. During the Archaic period, buildings were constructed out of rather perishable materials and more sturdy structures didn’t start to appear until much later. They began with a post-and-lintel system, which is comprised of two posts (columns) and a lintel that sits above them, relying on gravity to keep the building together.
However, in the Hellenistic era, formal stone building techniques came into play, and grand public structures were created throughout the cities, including temples, theaters, gymnasiums, and more. Architects established three different styles of columns with varying decoration, and imbued the practical practice with more artistic qualities by utilizing frieze decoration. From here, they built the Parthenon, the Temple of Hephaestus and the theater of Epidauros. The Greeks’ advancement in architecture laid the groundwork for the imposing and widespread development of the Roman world later, which drew much influence from its styles and techniques.
While there is so much more we could talk about with ancient Greece, I feel this is a good primer on the level of experimentation and growth that occurred in the society, and its art world. Next week, we will look at the contemporary art of the Mediterranean islands to see how their ancient roots may influence their art in an even more progressive world.
What differences or evolutions can you see between ancient Egyptian and ancient Greek art? Why do you think artists focused so much on idealism, when their guiding principle was anatomy? How has this growth in sculpture influenced contemporary sculptors? Do you think Greek artists today draw inspiration from their roots? Let’s talk.