There is a famous story in Plutarch’s Life of Aristides, telling how this virtuous Athenian was asked by an illiterate voter to scratch the name of Aristides on a potsherd because he wanted him banished. “But what harm has he done you?” asked the statesman. “None,” said the man, “but I am tired of hearing him everywhere called the Just.” Needless to say, Aristides complied and went into exile.
For several generations now Greek art has labored under a similar handicap. It was all but ostracized for having been called perfect too often. The plaster casts of famous antiques which were used in the academic tradition for the training of artists became the all too vulnerable symbols of cramping authority. Small wonder that most of them have now been shoved into attics if they were not actually smashed in an orgy of iconoclastic glee. Even the civilization which had given rise to these images did not fare better. Dubuffet, the spokesman of l’art brut, summed up this attitude conveniently in an interview he gave some time ago: “If I am right that what is called ‘civilization’ consists in the degeneracy of the values of savagery I consider it harmful. Long live savagery…. As to classical art which is so much revered, I am sorry, but I find it poor and devoid of tension…. It lacks depth…it is a parlor game.”
The large crop of books on Greek art which have been published in the last few years suggests that this reaction may be ebbing. But the source of this new interest is probably neither the art school nor the museum. It is Greece itself. Until recently it was a remote and inaccessible country, but now an ever increasing stream of tourists traveling with organized tours under expert guidance or singly under their own steam are visiting the mainland and the islands. If they have heard of M. Dubuffet’s strictures and have ever suffered by being made to draw from plaster casts—which is doubtful—such memories will soon fade away on the Akropolis or in Delphi. They will come home with the desire to learn more about Greek art and to revive and fortify the impressions they gained during their brief trip.
In most respects the five large picture books published here by Messrs. Abrams will admirably meet this demand. They all follow an identical plan, skillfully designed to appeal to a large public without alienating the specialist. In the aggregate they provide well over a thousand plates of monochrome and nearly two hundred color photographs by Max Hirmer, who is a master of his craft. Each volume contains an informative Introduction by a specialist and an appendix of detailed notes on the plates complete with bibliography, ground plans, reconstructions, and all the apparatus of learning. The fact that these texts are translated inevitably impairs their readability slightly but care has obviously been taken, so that in one case the translator of the text on Greek vases, B. Shefton, himself a specialist, has also revised the original. It should not imply a lack of gratitude for this achievement if the question is here asked about the limits of the information imparted by this type of book. There are really two questions here. What do the objects themselves tell us in their present state of preservation, and what can the illustrations convey about the objects? Both of these questions obtrude themselves with particular insistence when one looks at the fine book on Greek Temples, Theatres, and Shrines by Helmut Berve and Gottfried Gruben. The sight of ruins is invariably moving, particularly if we approach them with the right associations. But how much do they tell us? Any room looks larger when furnished than empty, any house which is lived in acquires a different scale from that of its bare foundations. The shelter provided by an enclosure, the meaning connected with a room and its function, all this transforms our perception. The scattered bones of a building may yield a certain amount of information to the archaeologist. For the layman they are probably more misleading than evocative. This applies least of all to the great temple structures that are reasonably intact, but even here we should not deceive ourselves. The appearance of these shrines in antiquity must have been radically different.
Mr. Berve’s Introduction provides excellent factual information about the main religious centers of Greece, but if anywhere it is here that this information has to be supplemented by imagination. The simple fact that animal sacrifices were the center of the ritual suggests how the senses must have been assailed by the stench of burning flesh and fur and by the lowing of cattle or the squealing of kids. How little we actually know of this aspect of ancient life of which the memory was so thoroughly eradicated by victorious Christianity! But one thing we do know. Where we see majestic isolation there were crowds and clutters of monuments and offerings. In this respect the text of the ancient guide book to these shrines by Pausanias assists the imagination more than any photograph of their present condition. No modern traveler to Greece should neglect this source. The list of monuments he gives—and sometimes he gives little more than lists—suggests a traffic jam of statues inside and outside the temples which must have been overwhelming in its variety and confusion. A visit to one of the great centers of pilgrimage in the modern world may here help the traveler more than a walk around the deserted sites of Delphi or Olympia. How much can the photographs tell us of these sites? Some of Mr. Hirmer’s plates of Crete and of Greece are beautiful indeed. His color plate of the Palace of Phaistos, for instance, with the fertile plains and the mountain range in the background is convincing and so is his color plate of verdent Olympia from the high ground above Druwa. Where he fails is where the camera must fail; in the attempt to record and convey the unique setting of Delphi. No single view nor any succession of such views can succeed here, for on that sun-drenched sloping terrace beneath the rocky peak of Parnassus we are not only aware of the wide vistas extending from the mountains to the distant sea, but also of the deep and inaccessible valley far down with its half-hidden river wending through the dense vegetation.
Clearly the camera had an easier task in recording decorative detail and works of sculpture. Once more, though, it may be useful to remind ourselves that few works of Greek sculpture have come down to us as they were intended to look. It is well known by now that stone sculpture was tinted and that eyes were either painted in or made of different material. Mr. Hirmer deserves our special gratitude for a number of informative color plates showing painted statuary and bronzes with seeing eyes. He has also succeeded in many monochrome plates in conveying something of the magic of marble surfaces. It is obvious that the information the camera can give with a single shot of a sculpture in the round is limited. What is a little less obvious perhaps is that such a series of plates has altogether a certain leveling effect. Precisely because these photographs are to some extent works of art in their own right, they make us look at the illustration of a humble terracotta figurine in a similar frame of mind as at the picture of a towering masterpiece. The inevitable assimilation of scale that reduces the monumental and blows up the small object adds to this drawback, which is not shared by the much maligned plaster cast.
Looked upon as objects, Greek vases, the subject of Mr. Arias’s book, are undoubtedly among the best preserved of Greek relics. Some of them surely look today as they looked when they left the workshop. The reason for their durability and the secrets of their workmanship, by the way, are well set out in a recent publication by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the learned book by Joseph Veach Noble on The Techniques of Painted Attic Pottery. Its most engaging illustrations show Greek potters as they are represented on vases or Greek pottery in the context in which it was used. Unfortunately these well-preserved products of an industry that frequently reflected the discoveries of the major arts present a compensating difficulty to the photographer which is not even fully discussed in Mr. Veach Noble’s brief section on the photographer’s problems. The paintings on the rounded bodies of these vessels can never be reproduced without some distortion. Those on the bottom of bowls fare relatively best, because they are nearly flat, but there are many illustrations in both these volumes in which the heads of the figures are squashed and foreshortened because they lie on the shoulder of the vase. Some beautiful details in Greek Vase Painting partly make up for this shortcoming but here the problem of scale begins to obtrude once more.
Moreover, to return to the Abrams series as a whole, it is the inevitable fate of any anthology that the information it can provide is discontinuous. Every lover of Greek art will miss some of his special favorites. There are only two vases from Boston here and none from Vienna. The number of Greek original statues being more limited, Mr. Lullies’s Greek Sculpture is more representative. That of Mr. Langlotz on Ancient Greek Sculpture of South Italy and Sicily is particularly welcome because it covers a smaller body of less famous material more fully. Paradoxically, a special word of thanks is due to Spyridon Marinatos, the author of the volume on Crete and Mycenae, for his omissions. He has largely excluded from the plates the heavily restored and partly invented murals which the discoverer of Knossos, Sir Arthur Evans, presented to the world with such enthusiasm and conviction. Instead we are given some delightful color plates illustrating the incomparable taste and craftsmanship of Cretan potters.
There are two sources of information about Greek art which are not tapped in these beautiful anthologies—the two in fact which loom largest in traditional accounts of this subject—Roman copies and the literary sources that allow us to spot among these copies the reflections of some of the most famous lost masterpieces of the ancient world. One can understand the reaction against this traditional approach in which so much erudition frequently yielded so little solid evidence. And yet a valid history of Greek art can scarcely be written without taking cognizance of such works as Myron’s Discobolos or Praxiteles’ Apollo Sauroktonos, both of which are preserved in so many copies that we can claim to know pretty well what the originals must have looked like.
In this respect the scholarly work by G. M. A. Richter on The Portraits of the Greeks provides a radical contrast to the volumes discussed above. Miss Richter treats her great subject in the traditional way, collecting literary evidence and assembling the copies of portraits, basing her identification on descriptions and inscriptions. Moreover she aims at completeness, at least in her catalogues, and at very full coverage in the illustrations. Consequently the plates of these three volumes are less appealing than Mr. Hirmer’s photographs (there are only a few full-page illustrations) but they are more soberly informative. Most busts are shown enface and in two profiles and though this arrangement sometimes recalls the police record it also brings home to the student how different the same piece of sculpture may look in expression and even in quality when viewed from different angles. Miss Richter’s book also allows us to form our own opinion about the value of Roman copies. Though unfortunately we have no work among the portraits where the original as well as Roman replicas are preserved, the degree of variety among the copies gives a good measure of their general reliability. They do not come off too badly. Who would want to miss that incomparable evocation of Demosthenes of which the catalogue lists forty-seven certain and twelve doubtful examples in the round and which she documents with 103 illustrations? Miss Richter describes the technique of these copyists with their pointing apparatus and makes it appear likely that plaster casts of the originals were used in the Roman workshops.
How much information do these portraits give us about the real appearance of famous Greeks? The question of what constitutes a good likeness is one of the most elusive of all questions connected with art. There is no doubt that statues were erected to public figures ever since the end of the sixth century. It is usual to say that these early monuments must have been mere types, but surely this is a matter of degree. Even the faces that smile at us from the windows of a suburban photographer may strike us as types and so they are, because we all unconsciously try to mould our appearance according to some standard of decorum. Greek culture was certainly pervaded by this ideal of conformity. It is true that an author of the late fourth century, Theophrastus, includes among the tiresome features of the obsequious flatterer his habit of praising the likeness of his host’s portrait, but would we also find it a likeness? Miss Richter is optimistic. She would like to think that the actual features of great men were often handed down in sketches from the life, and many years later embodied in the statues erected in their honor. It may be useless to speculate here. Even the reference to literary descriptions of their appearance may be deceptively circular, since some of these may be based on the imaginary portraits. But is this not a case where ignorance is bliss? Some great men look disappointing, either because physiognomics is fallacious or, as Socrates is said to have maintained, commenting on his own ugly face, because their mind overcame the base physical dispositions which their features truly reveal. Hence the conviction that has been current at least since the Italian Renaissance, that a portrait can be more like the sitter than he is himself. Hence, also, the desire and the skill of ancient artists to visualise the features of poets, thinkers, and lawgivers whose outward appearance was certainly beyond recall—notably those of Homer, who may or may not have been a real personage. There is a beautiful passage in the Encyclopedia of the Elder Pliny where he discusses the ancient custom of placing the portraits of authors in libraries—the custom to which we owe so many of the replicas illustrated in Miss Richter’s book. “Our desire,” he says, “brings forth even the images of those whose features have not come down to us; for it seems to me that there is no greater kind of happiness than always to wish to know what someone was like.”
These are words that should be pondered. For in a sense they may serve as a motto not only to any book on ancient portraiture (an opportunity missed by Miss Richter, who does not quote them); they point beyond the portrait to the mainspring of ancient art, the desire for visualization. It is this desire that informs the miraculously vivid descriptions of Homer no less than the mythological narratives on black-figured vases, as early as the François Vase of c. 750. Mr. Arias’s commentary on the relevant plate keeps closely to the fact when he describes, for instance, the scene of the Athenians liberated by Theseus returning by boat to their homeland: “There is great commotion amongst the crew, much gesticulation and joy, and a number of them have risen and let go their oars. Indeed one of them has jumped into the water and with rapid strokes is making for land. On land there is a dance of seven maidens and seven youths, each with their name against them.” Lively as are the pictorial chronicles of the ancient Orient recording campaigns and proclaiming victories, none of them exhibit this “noble desire of wanting to know what it was like” when the Gods and Heroes mixed with the mortals. The Greek evocation of a myth or of a genre scene demands to be interpreted and dwelt upon, it asks for our collaboration and our empathy which will bring it to life. At least from the sixth century onwards Greek art appeals to our imagination, by implying more than it can show. Every genuinely narrative illustration must be thus supplemented by us along several dimensions—by extending that of time we can see the figures move, by supplying that of space we can relate them to each other, and by projecting life into them we give their gestures and their expression meaning. It was to aid the beholder in this vital act of projection and reconstruction that the Greek artists embarked on that momentous campaign of conquest that enabled them to embody more and more cues in their paintings and statues. How keen competition must have been in this race towards a new perfection is shown by a famous inscription on a vase of Euthymides in Munich of c. 510, illustrated in the book of Arias and also quoted by Veach Noble: “Never did Euphronios do anything like this.” It was a proud boast, for Euphronios is still regarded as one of the greatest pioneers of that generation; but Euthymides’ picture of dancing revelers with the complex torsions of their bodies, one of them seen half from the back, obviously filled the artist with justified pride. The joy and movement of the dance is indeed most vividly conveyed.
It was at the same time that the sculptors’ statues were also seen to “come to life.” We sense the tension of the muscles under the surface, we see the play of the body under the garment, we feel the presence of a mind behind the smile. In discussing the illusions created by art, art historians (including this writer) have concentrated too much on the pictorial inventions of foreshortening, perspective, or light and shade, and failed to analyze the illusion of life that a Greek statue can give. It is not a delusion, of course. We are not “taken in,” as we may be by a wax figure in suitable setting. And yet it is hard to remain conscious of the fact that we look at an opaque block of stone rather than at a breathing body beneath the clinging drapery. There is an illusion of transparency, created by such masterpieces as the sculptures from the Parthenon, the Caryatides of the Erechtheion, or the ballustrade of the Temple of Nike in Athens: the vivid illusion of a figure underneath the folds and of pulsating life underneath the skin.
In art the ends shape the means, but the means also shape the ends. There is no doubt that the discovery how to evoke such figures of dream-like beauty must have spurred the artists to further efforts. “Never did Phidias do anything like this.” They were working for a public used to discussing physical beauty and perfection particularly of the young male body. The glorification of victors in sacred athletic contests demanded that step into fantasy we call misleadingly “idealization.” What art could offer here is a dream image of flawless perfection that was not lifeless but animated and convincing. The illusion was created that such a being could exist and that its fair body reflected a captivating mind. If the relics of that art would not proclaim this aim, we could read about it in contemporary sources. For this is precisely what Xenophon conveys in two little dialogues in which he introduces Socrates talking to artists. Stripped of their rather mechanical question-and-answer form they tell us that artists can imitate nature, but that when creating beautiful images they select the best features of different bodies so as to make their figures look beautiful. Moreover, as Socrates insists, they create the semblance of life, “the flesh wrinkled or tense, the muscles taut or loose” and by token of this same skill they can, through the study of expression, represent “the activities of the soul.” “The most pleasing sight of all,” we read, “is that of a human being who looks beautiful, good and lovable.”
One cannot glance through the plates of Mr. Hirmer’s photographs without being convinced of the importance of this testimony (which none of the authors quotes). It is important because it explains both the world-wide influence of the Greek discovery of an art of beautiful illusions, and of the revulsion against it. To the sixteenth and seventeenth century it was a matter of course that the laws of beauty had been discovered once and for all and were enshrined in the famous statues of antiquity. But it was Winckelmann in the eighteenth century who stripped this assertion of its metaphysical armature and openly praised the erotic charm of Greek statues. Like his contemporary Edmund Burke he took it for granted that the feeling of beauty has its instinctual roots in our reaction to a healthy youthful body. It is a theory bound to mobilize resistance, and Winckelmann made this resistance easier by overstating his case. To him there was only one such perfection, the Greek canon of beauty. Put in these naturalistic and anthropological terms, it was easy for the Romantic reaction to dislodge the Greek ideal by pointing to the variations which the ideal of human beauty has undergone at different times and places. The gothic ideal notoriously contrasts with that of Rubens and the features praised in Indian love poetry would not win a beauty contest in the West. The argument appeared to be so convincing that art historians and archaeologists have long since expunged the word beauty from their vocabulary. It sounds so much safer to talk of “plastic values” or “closed forms” than to use the language Socrates used in his talk to artists. Nobody wants to revive the gush, not even that of Winckelmann. But a fear of M. Dubuffet’s strictures should not prevent us from breaking this taboo and admitting that Greek art tries to place us face to face with the illusion of beauty at its most enthralling, most human and most unreal. The relativity of this illusion can surely be overstated. Granted that the canon varies, to deny the common core in this experience would mean to deny the unity of mankind. We know far too little about these things, less than ever perhaps, since talk of sex has replaced talk of beauty.
Is it true that members of other cultures and traditions would not be charmed by some of the plates in these books? It would be worth trying out. Put them on your coffee table by all means, but whether your visitors will come from the North, South, East, or West, I bet that once they have opened one of them, the coffee will get cold.
January 6, 1966