Sunday, October 17, 2010

Notes on Ancient Greek Sculpture

Ancient Greece made an immediate and lasting impact on Western culture.

Archaic Style (c. 600-450 BC)
Monumental sculpture of human figures began in Greece during the Archaic period.

In creating life-size human figures, the Greeks learned from the Egyptians how to carve blocks of stone but adapted new techniques  

A comparison of the New York Kouros or around 600 BC with the statue of Menkaure highlights the similarities and differences between Egyptian and Greek life-size statues of standing males. 

The Kouros maintains the standard Egyptian frontal pose. His left leg extends forward, with no bend at the knee, hips or waist, and his arms at his sides. The fists are clenched and the elbows are turned back. Nevertheless, the sculptor has changes made changes to emphasize human anatomy. The Kouros is cut away from the original block of marble, leaving spaces in between the arms and the body and between the legs. The openness and the muscularity increase the tension and liveliness of the New York Kouros.

Early Classical (c. 480-450 BC)
The Early Classical style sometimes called Severe or Transitional, produced radical changes in the approach of the human figure.

Stylization has decreased, remaining primarily in the smooth, wavy hair and circle of curls around the head. The face and body has become idealized, the expression neutral.

 (Attributed to Kritios, Kritios Boy, from Athens, c. 480 BC)
The most important development is that head is slightly turned, and the right leg bends forward at the knee, so that the left leg appears to hold the body’s weight. The torso shifts, and the right hip and shoulder are lowered, a pose referred to as contrapposto (from the Latin positus, ‘positioned’, and contra, ‘against’). For the first time, a contrast between the rigid and relaxed elements allows the viewer to feel the inner working of the human body. 

Another Early Classical development was the widespread change from marble to bronze. Hollow statues were cast by the ‘lost-wax’ process. Of the few Greek over-life-size bronzes that have survived, the bronze statue representing—either Zeus hurling his thunderbolt or Poseidon his trident—is one of the most impressive. By virtue of the pose, the god seems to command space. He focuses his aim, tenses his body, and positions himself as if ready to shift his weight, perfectly balanced between the ball of his right foot and his left heel. His slightest bend knees create the impression that he will spring at any moment. The intensity of his concentration and the force of an imminent thrust extend the viewer’s experience of the sculpture to the weapon’s destination.

Classical Style (c. 450-400 BC)

The fifty year span of Greek history from c. 450 to 400 BC is referred to as the Classical, or High Classical, period and corresponds to the high point, or ‘golden age’, of Greek art.

Polykleitos of Argos was esteemed by his contemporaries, and his work is still thought of as the embodiment of Classical style. Most of his sculptures was cast in bronze and is known today only through later Roman copies in marble. Ancient records document the fact that the Doryphoros (Spear Bearer) was originally bronze.

The figure held a spear in his left hand and stands in a slightly increased contrapposto and in the inclination in the head. The gradual S-motion of the body is more pronounced, and there is a greater sense of the body’s conviction in the body’s underlying organic structure—notably the bulging kneecaps, the rib cage, and the veins in the arms. The head is dome-shaped as in the Kritios boy but the circle of curls has been eliminated.

Late Classical Style (c. 400-323 BC)
The leading Athenian sculptor of the Late Classical statue was Praxiteles. A gentle S-shape, sometimes called ‘Praxitelean curve’, outlines the stance of his most famous statue, the Aphrodite of Knidos, which is known only from Roman copies. The eastern Greek city of Kos originally commissioned Aphrodite but rejected the finished work because it was schocked by its nudity, and the statue was then accepted by another Greek city, Knidos.

Compared with Classical sculptures, the Aphrodite has slightly fleshier proportions and a heavier, fuller face. 

Lysippos of Sikyon, who was famous for his portrayals of athletes and his portraits of great men, was among the important sculptors of the fourth century BC, whose works survives mainly in Roman copies. He introduced a more naturalistic approach to representing the human figure. In so doing, he became the key artist in the transition from Late Classical to Hellenistic style.

(Apoxyomenos, c. 320 BC)
Hellenistic Period (323-31 BC)
Hellenistic style continues the developments introduced by Lysippos and further expands the diversity of sculpture formally and iconographically, as well as psychologically. There is an increase in portrait types; children and old people are represented; theatrically and melodrama express extremes of emotions; and the inner character of figures is conveyed through an emphasis on formal realism.

The Winged Nike from Samthrace (c. 190 BC) and the Old Market Woman (c. 2nd century BC) exemplify the contrast between the vigor of youth and the weight of old age. The Nike is represented as if alighting on the prow of a ship to commemorate a naval victory. The wind whips her garments more actively than those in the Classical sculpture, and her wings are outspread in triumph. The forward diagonal of her torso twists against the elements, and the position of her wing suggest that they have not yet settled. Adding to the complexity of the movement are the massive folds sweeping across the front of the body, which are contrasted with the seeming transparency at the torso.

By contrast, the clothes of the Old Market Woman seem heavy; her garments hangs in drooping folds as she bends forward, bearing the weight of her basket. For the first time in Greek art, artists began to depict the qualities of old age—a bent bony frame, wrinkled skin, sunken cheeks, and sagging breasts.

Hellenistic sculptors also explored the nature of childhood. In Sleeping Eros, the god is depicted as a naturalistic toddler with baby fat and childlike proportions. He is shown in a state of sleep, relaxed and unaware of the waking world.
The Hellenistic interest in melodramatic pathos is evident in the sculptural group of Laocoon and His Two Sons, a Roman adaptation of a Hellenistic work. It depicts an incident form the end of the Trojan War in which Laocoon and his sons are devoured by a pair of serpents. Such moment lends itself to the Hellenistic taste for the violent movements. The zigzags and strenuous exertion of the human figures are bound by the snakes winding them.

In the Laocoon, Classical restraint and the symmetry of the Parthenon sculptures have been abandoned. There is extra weight to his right as Laocoon’s powerful frame pulls away from the serpent biting his left hip. A counterbalancing diagonal is produced by the sharp turn of his head and is repeated by the leg, torso, and head of the boy on the right. The Laocoon expresses pain through facial contortion and physical struggle—bulging muscles, veins, flesh pulled taut against the rib cage. 

Reference:  Adams, L.S., A History of Western Art (3rd Ed). McGraw Hill. New York: 2001.

1 comment:

Brittany Proffitt said...

Hi, I really liked your blog entry, it was very informative. However, I want to point out that the image you have for the New York Kouros is not, in fact, the New York Kouros. It is in fact the Anavysos Kouros. A simple mix up, but I thought I'd mention it for visual aid purposes. Keep up the wonderful work!