Saturday, October 22, 2011

Vase Painting. I. Athens First: no accident

It is my purpose here only to discuss what may escape notice in most books and most courses in colleges and universities.  Thanks above all others to Sir John Boardman we have easy access in several languages to affordable books of the highest quality.  I must assume that others will gratefully acquire these books and, of course, any others that appeal to them, though the presence of full-color illustrations and exciting suggestions in other books only make Boardman's books more necessary.  From these one can go on to magisterial tomes and specialized monographs and articles.  Acquiring real knowledge of the world Greek vase-painting opens up is sufficient to enrich and engage a lifetime.
Athens, Kerameikos Museum.  Two proto-geometric amphoras with belly handles, datable not far from 1,000 BCE.

Tradition told the truth: Athens was not taken by the Dorians.  Oh, there is archaeological proof that they knew them, but (just to cite two things) continuity of burials and pottery-making techniques and the Attic dialect attest to that claim.  Burial in the area that became the Agora was uninterrupted, and the  great cemetery by the Dipylon (one of the later gates in the city wall) and the later, Classical cemetery of the Kerameikos provides, with graves partly overlying one another, the framework of history in the centuries still (strictly speaking) pre-historical, though Athens had strong traditions, too.
After a generation that was impoverished, when the pots were poorly made but continuous in fabric and many elements of form from the end of Mycenaean, we now see well prepared clay, deliberately designed and proportioned pots, purposeful change—very evident pride in what they were doing.  They not only get a passing grade in Basic Design, they have invented it, as the West ever since has understood it.  These amphoras are still less than a meter tall, but in an age that did not yet use drafted stone or carve limestone or marble or use bronze for things larger than the long pins that were worn in the shoulders of a peplos, they held the ashes and bone fragments of the deceased.  For the moment, ceramics engaged the most esteemed craftsmen.  I omitted armor, because we know of very little datable this early, and votive vessels for the same reason; even the plain ones that I know of are later.  There was no money as such, and it would be a century  before they had adapted the alphabet that we know from Aramaean monuments.  The Late Mycenaean foundation settlements on the west coast of Asia Minor did, of course, trade with other Greeks, but during recovery from the collapse of the 12th century, trade seems to have been a luxury for all.  Here, though, we see Athens, at least, emerging from hand-to-mouth survival.  Athens had had, of course, a Mycenaean palace on the Acropolis and kings and therefore (besides that boast about the Dorians) something to be proud of, and good land, too.  This mere paragraph should tempt the reader to get a good history, if he hasn't done so before.

The pair of amphoras we begin with not only have structural clarity, but (plain as they may seem) characteristic innovations.  Where sub-Mycenaean decorators drew freehand messy half-circles, these have managed to invent a compass that lets them draw perfectly even complete circles; it may even be a comb compass.  Then someone discovers that if you paint the ground around the half-circles on the shoulder with glaze-paint (which occasionally, even on large pots, they manage to fire evenly and black), you have in effect light half-circles where you'd drawn them dark.  And, though very soon, they will sometimes put plus-designs in the center of concentric circles, they quite evidently do not mean wheels, especially not at first, and certainly nothing like banal symbols, stars or suns.  They are done per se.  Everything points the way to all of Greek art, where technique and pleasure in form underlie all else.
Athens, Kerameikos Museum.  Two Middle Geometric neck-handled amphoras
By the 9th century, as we calculate, the ornament that is the mark of fully Geometric decoration, the hatched maeander, is often joined for a generation or so by the expansion of the dark grounds to make the vases predominantly black, and the circles often, but not always, disappear.  Also the necks are taller and straighter, the bodies taller and more ovoid.  The strap handle to the neck, also, used this way,becomes commoner.
A 1959 snapshot to emphasize the size of the Great Dipylon Amphora
(and its less well preserved twin)

By the middle of the 8th century, Geometric decoration had reached its classic stage; there is nothing more to do in this direction, and those double belly handles (abstracted bull's heads, which go back to Mycenaean pottery) will soon disappear.  The funerary scenes in the handle zones also, in this artist's work, reach perfection: go any further with anecdotal subject matter and it will be at odds with the bands of non-representational patterns.
The prothesis in the handle zone of the Great Dipylon Amphora.
Prothesis is the word for the laying out of the corpse.  Already we see the women differentiated by their long skirts and a bereaved child at the head of the bier.  As Ernst Gombrich would emphasize in Art and Illusion, this is conceptual representation, to show what is happening, not how it looks.  The checker pattern over the corpse was indeed over the corpse, but it is not shown as a covering.  The zigzags in rows and the asterisks serve to prevent the figures' standing out too emphatically, to keep them in the surface design that embraces the whole pot.  They are not signifiers.  The greatest mistake, one easily corrected, is to suppose that the artist could not have drawn differently.  Introductory books commonly call the figures childish.  The corrective is either (a) to try to copy these figures or (b) to ask a child to draw a figure like these.  Suddenly you notice that The Dipylon Painter (and we give all the major painters these easily remembered names, just as good-sized moons of major planets get names) has managed without any detail at all to make us believe that these figures are mourners singing dirges at a wake.  And no two are actually alike.
The other Great Dipylon Amphora, a bit later, and showing the next stage
of the funeral, the ekphora, transporting the corpse to the cemetery
The figures are slightly livelier, some of them may have dots in circles for eyes in their heads, and the birds have feathered wings.  It's just a little looser.  The severe classic discipline of Geometric, as of many other stylistic movements, was too hard to maintain.  What with writing and Olympic games and even the first colonies, the Athenian world was becoming more exciting—and probably richer.
Sometimes, too (already in the 9th century with the granary and the granulated gold dangle earrings from the tomb of a wealthy woman in the Agora, illustrated in Boardman) we have found tomb groups of vases that are hard to look at otherwise than whimsically:
Berlin, St. Museen, Tomb group of fancy vases.  Beautifully fired black glaze-paint
(but also waxed to shine).  The hanging vases are in the shape of a basket and an ostrich egg.
Basic book:
John Boardman, Early Greek Vase Painting.  World of Art, 1998.  It is richly provided not only with annotated illustrations and excellent, essential chapters, but with charts, maps, notes, and bibliographies in the back.  There are translations, if needed, in half a dozen other languages.

In the next post I'll look at some less familiar pieces.
I've decided that pots are not exactly opera nobilia.  They aren't studied the same way, and they're all originals, and they are much more varied.