Friday, October 22, 2010

Reasoning: Sophistocation and Idiots in Greek Art

In my first year of college I took an interdisciplinary survey course on the classical world. The class had a lecture component, in which professors gave lectures, primarily in their own field, one some aspect of the Greek or Roman world in vaguely chronological order. One of the early lectures was by an Art History professor who I will call William, since I cannot come up with an adequate late Republican pseudonym, and it concerned one of the most famous works in early Greek art: the Dipylon Vase (750-700 BCE).
Dipylon Vase from this website [1].
After the lecture, I thought to myself what an ugly vase and what a stupid lecture. Little did I know that not only would I ultimately grudgingly vindicate the ideas in this lecture that I initially excoriated, but I would also write a chapter of my thesis on the funerary images like that prominently figured on the Dipylon Vase (close up below).
A close-up of the burial scene from this website [2].

Willaim's Claim: In his lecture William claimed (almost verbatim) was that the Greeks had perspective, they just were not employing it because it was not the proper means to the end they were trying to achieve. More infuriated by the wording of the claim than anything, but specifically incensed that a tenured art history professor was allowed to make such a bogus claim.

It was not until now that I realized what he meant. He was not making the claim that the Dipylon Master [3] could achieve Renaissance-style perspective, but rather that the art of this time period had it's own particular style of representation and visual formula that it employed to depict certain recognizable images to its audience. This pottery conveyed the events in a recognizable and stylized manner because it effectively communicated to the audience, possibly more effectively than a more realistic attempt. For evidence of this, when I decided to write this blogpost, I was scouring the internet for images and happened upon the Dipylon Krater (below) and it took me about half-an-hour before I realized that this was not the Dipylon Vase which I was seeking.
Dipylon Krater (700-750 BCE) from this website [5].
Obviously I am not saying that any attempt at an accurate depiction would have been particularly life-like, especially given the almost complete absence of figure drawing in Submycenean and Protogeometric art (Hurwit 53-59) [4]. My contention is that the oddities of representation, such as the three-quarter legs, the full-frontal torso, and the profile head on the mourners, has a stylistic purpose rather than evidence of crude, "bad" art.

The tropes and stylization in this art is actually something of a bonus for scholars/students like me who are looking not for artistic sophistication, but rather evidence of burial practices. In a future blogpost, I will show images of the geometric vase that I found on display at the end of a hallway at the Getty that provides incredible evidence for early differentiation of the genders in mourning practices which is not shown in either of the Dipylon vases in this blogpost.

  1. This picture is from the University of Texas Webpage. Because there are two Dipylon Vases, this one is sometimes known as the Dipylon Amphora.
  2. I found a clean, but rather small close-up from a humanities blog. Below is a much clearer close up of a similar scene from the Dipylon Krater.
  3. Close up of burial on Dipylon Krater from this website [5].
  4. The Dipylon Master is the name given to the artist who painted the Dipylon Amphora.
  5. For a more in-depth but still succinct description of the evolution of art from the collapse of the Mycanean Palace system through the Geometric period, see Jeffrey Hurwit's The Art and Culture of Early Greece, pages 53-70.
  6. Both pictures of the Dipylon Krater are from the Glendale Community College webpage.

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