Thursday, 22 March 2007

Another Greek Archaeology Essay


Is sculpture in the Hellenistic period radically different than in the Classical one?

In comparing Classical and Hellenistic sculpture, it is necessary first to establish what we mean when using these terms. The Classical period is generally the term used for 480 – 323 B.C., and the Hellenistic period for 323 – 31 B.C. Pollitt writes that the Classical period began when the Greeks were invaded by the Persians in 481/480 B.C. and the Hellenistic when Alexander the Great invaded the Persian Empire. Both instances of military success inspired confidence in the Greeks, and also anxiety: Aeschylus, Herodotus and others wrote how hybris (arrogance), leads to ate (folly) which leads to nemesis (retribution)[1], a sentiment similar to that expressed by the English phrase “pride comes before a fall.”

It is necessary to examine the features of both Classical and Hellenistic sculpture in order to compare them. The Classical period includes a wide range of quality and of style, as is evident in the Parthenon’s metopes.[2] Several common features have been identified, however. Biers writes of the sculptors, Polykleitos in particular, whose human forms were idealised, with close-knit musculature, close-cropped hair and the body’s major divisions clearly shown.[3] Pollitt identifies several a further characteristic: a tendency to borrow from dramatists,[4] with statues depicting a scene in a series of events.[5] There was a new interest in the idea of expressing motion, with the arrival of the concept of the rhythmos, which is a “freeze-frame,” a pause within movement which conveys the whole motion. According to Diogenes Laertios, it was first attempted by Pythagoras of Rhegion.[6] Another new development was the style known as “severe” because it had few ornaments or unnecessarily embellishments, being austere to match its solemn subject matter.[7] The faces characteristically have a heavy jaw, heavy eyelids and full lips, with the hair hanging over the forehead.[8]

Hellenistic sculpture is essentially is a development of that of the Classical period, and both similarities and differences can be seen. The diversity increased still further. Biers attributes this to the new cities, which created a demand for a greater quantity and range of sculpture.[9] Stewart, however, believes it to be due to Greek occupation of Macedonia which brought in new impressions and influences.[10] The idealism of the Classical period gave way to realism, in which real models were closely adhered to, even in dramatic presentations.[11] As Aristotle wrote in his Poetics, dramatic tragedy must blur art and real in order for audience to be moved and for the drama to have the desired effect.[12] Sculptors also frequently depicted everyday life and real people, particularly children. Two of the most famous surviving examples of these are the boy with the goose and the drunken old woman[13] (see picture). In the middle phase of the Hellenistic period, a stronger dramatic quality came in. Both ornate and flamboyant, it has been termed “Hellenistic Baroque” and originated in Pergamon. Biers attributes its development to the defeat of the invading Gauls in the second half of the third century B.C.[14] and describes the statues as gigantic, bordering on exaggeration, with deep set eyes and expressions of agony on their faces.[15]

It can, then, be argued that Hellenistic sculpture is radically different from that of the Classical period. There is a sharp contrast between the “severe” Classical style and the elaborate Hellenistic one, and similarly between Classical idealism and Hellenistic realism. In order to understand this, it might be helpful to consider the link between sculpture and religion. As Spivney writes, statues were often of deities and in temples or sanctuaries. In anthropomorphising their gods, the Greeks were faced with the task of reconciling the ideal and the natural,[16] and of portraying the combination of humanity and divinity that characterised the Greek pantheon. Similarly, solemnity of appearance and impressive decoration are two different ways of conveying the majesty of a god or a hero. It seems that the Greeks switched between these from the Classical to the Hellenistic period, but had the same intention in mind.

There are also more obvious ways in which Hellenistic sculpture is not a radical departure from that of the Classical period. Biers writes that Hellenistic sculpture bore the strong influence of the fifth and fourth centuries, and works in the Classical style were still being produced. [17] The Hellenistic sculptors considered themselves to be heirs of the Classical sculptors. They were, in a sense, right to do so, as many were their pupils and were often descended in the same family.[18] Diversity of sculpture also continued and increased. Pollitt adds a strong final point, which links not only Classical and Hellenistic sculpture, but all of Greek art: the need to impose order on chaos. This is a universal human need, but Pollitt believes the Greeks felt it especially. His reasons for this include the anxiety caused by the break-up of the Mycenean world and the importance of order in the Greek religion. This drive to find order in experience, he claims, led to two key aspects of Greek art: the breaking up of the subject into elemental shapes, and the quest to express Plato’s idea of Form or essence.[19] We can see both of these aspects in Classical and Hellenistic sculpture, the former with the representation of the body in the Classical period and the latter with the facial expressions depicting abstractions such as terror or agony in the Hellenistic period. It is wisest, then, not to view Greek sculpture as chopped up into various periods, but as a developing phenomenon and part of Greek art and culture as a whole.



Bibliography

Biers, W. R. (1996) The Archaeology of Greece, Ithaca and London.
Pollitt, J. J. (1972) Art and Experience in Classical Greece, Cambridge.
Spivney, N. (1996) Understanding Greek Sculpture: Ancient Meanings, Modern Readings, London.
Stewart, A. (1990) Greek Sculpture: An Exploration, New Haven, Conn. and London.


[1] Pollitt, Art and Experience in Classical Greece, p. 9
[2] Biers, The Archaeology of Greece, p. 226
[3] Biers, The Archaeology of Greece, p.222-3
[4] Pollitt, Art and Experience in Classical Greece, p. 27
[5] Pollitt, Art and Experience in Classical Greece, p. 15
[6] Pollitt, Art and Experience in Classical Greece, p. 56-8
[7] Pollitt, Art and Experience in Classical Greece, p. 36
[8] Pollitt, Art and Experience in Classical Greece, p. 39
[9] Biers, The Archaeology of Greece, p. 295
[10] Stewart, Greek Sculpture: An Exploration, p. 136
[11] Biers, The Archaeology of Greece, p. 296
[12] Spivney, Understanding Greek Sculpture: Ancient Meanings, Modern Readings, p. 34
[13] Biers, The Archaeology of Greece, p. 303
[14] Biers, The Archaeology of Greece, p. 298
[15] Biers, The Archaeology of Greece, p. 300
[16] Spivney, Understanding Greek Sculpture: Ancient Meanings, Modern Readings, p. 52
[17] Biers, The Archaeology of Greece, p. 296
[18] Stewart, Greek Sculpture: An Exploration, p. 101-103
[19] Pollitt, Art and Experience in Classical Greece, p. 3-6

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