Geometrical Styling and Archaic Restraint in Ancient Greek Art
Writing about art from a period in history which has long since past is only really possible when there are sufficient examples which remain after all the vicissitudes of time. Luckily, fragments of artifacts and architecture can give experts clues from which deductions can be made after research and comparison with other examples. Whilst there is a tragic destruction and loss of architectural sites of historic importance due to conflicts in ideology which plague civilization even now, there are also sometimes discoveries in other areas, which can yield more information and wonderful examples to further our knowledge and understanding of past cultures.
The most ancient examples of human art are splendid cave paintings of animals or symbols of spiritual or physical elements important to those people from those remote times. We can surmise just so much about them in the same way perhaps that one can appreciate a sketch but not marvel to the same extent as with the finished work. The most obviously enduring marks of past civilizations are usually those on a more monumental scale, such as architecture, with examples of sculpture and decorated pottery in good condition if extremely lucky.
Clearly geometrical styling and archaic restraint can be observed in other cultures and countries, such as, the Ancient Egyptians and Chinese, and although they are noteworthy, this article will focus specifically on the Ancient Greek art scene.
European art historian critic Charles Wentinck, was reported to have said ‘A work of art never speaks alone; it carries on a new dialogue, every time anew, with each generation.’ Geometrical styling and archaic restraint are just one disciplinary section of art that can be distinguished in Europe and that, even today, have a bearing on society.
Beginning with the prehistoric art of the Stone and Bronze Ages, one moves on specifically to focus on the decline of the Mycenaean world, which coincides with the invasion by the Doric Tribes that settled in the various Mycenaean Centres. The art that appeared, especially vase painting, was geometrical and at first without any figurative representation.
However, early in the seventh century BC representation creeps in, still in its archaic formal style, as shown on a vase, known as ‘Attica’, decorated with chariots and drivers and accredited to the painter Analatos.
From the Mycenaean period, only the ‘Lion Gate’ remains and there is little evidence of monumental sculpture from the early Doric period. However, quantities of small bronze and terracotta figurines do exist.
Of the small bronzes, the ‘Mare Suckling Her Foal’ from the second part of the eighth century is a typical example. Most of the little horse bronzes of that time have short cylindrical heads, long legs and well-developed hindquarters. The human figures, which begin to appear around that time, such as the small bronze ‘Apollo from Boston’, are also characterized by a strong geometrical styling. The nude figure features a triangular shaped face with prominent eyes, a long neck framed by strands of hair, the body likewise having a triangular form tapering to narrow waist with well-developed thighs below.
The roots of Classical Greece lie in the geometric period of about 900-700 BC and is a time of dramatic transformation that led to the establishment of primary Greek institutions. However, it was during the course of the seventh century BC that monumental sculptures came to the fore although it was still characterized by the same geometric form that characterized the small bronzes.
The Ancient Greeks had a new history, economic and social perspective and the time was characterized by feverish activity and a creative urge both old and new. The society stood on the threshold then of a grandiose development and clearly passed that threshold towards the end of the sixth century. A time in which Greek activity spreads out over a number of areas of human activities, a time which art showed a series of new developments.
In the first place, their strong geographic expansion with which internal social and economic difficulties was conquered.
Further the contacts with the old civilizations of the Near East, which strongly multiplied and created in Greece itself a market for foreign technical refinement for new modes in many fields, for new colours and new ornamentation. Not forgetting that the travel was generated and Greek towns opened up further to yet more prospects of new trade possibilities, new ways of life and, simultaneously for the Greek artists, the prospect of new expressions.
The human figures, the main theme of Greek art, even the Gods had human forms, had at the beginning of the fifth century, two main subjects. These were the ‘Kouros’ a naked figure of the boy and ’Kore’ the draped figure of a girl.
The archaic restraint persisted but it was no longer rigidly formal. Anatomy began to play amore important part as more mobility was imparted to the poses. Thus, human experiences became more important than the geometrical abstract concept, and bronze took its place alongside marble as a sculptural material.
Geometric Greece experienced a cultural revival of its historical past through epic poetry and the visual arts. For example, both Hesiod and Homer through to Pindar and Aeschylus are believed by Ancient Greeks to have been the first and the greatest of the epic poets central to Western Canon Literature as the Archaic Period underwent a vast development in the field of Greek literature and language with the first Greek alphabet being developed.
This aristocracy distinguished itself with material wealth and through references to the Homeric past and furnished their graves with metal objects depositing the linings with copper, tin and gold, all three of which were scarcity.
The discovery of bronze casting had a tremendous influence on the development of Greek sculpture and the encounter with such creations of primitive and tribal art at the beginning of the twentieth century had a profound significance for European and American artists. The art in whatever format it is in from this period provides a fascinating juxtaposition and continues to further inspire newer generations of designers.
Evidence for the geometric culture has come from epic poetry and the archaeological record demonstrates this artistic representation is unsubstantiated. For example, from the Hesiod (Erga 639-640) showcases that most eighth century Greeks lived off the land and that it was a difficult life.
As cited earlier, the art and architecture of the Archaic Period has also undergone various overhauls; the earlier geometric style was replaced with the oriental style, which in turn was then replaced by the Black Figure Pottery and later Red Figure Pottery. One example, of Red Figure Pottery that I like is a cup that depicts an owl and is attributed to the painter Marlay from the third quarter fifth century BCE.
In conclusion, the Archaic Period is therefore, a highly important time in its own right due to its politics and law, but also by having important events of the Classical Period into context. For example, the creation of the four major panhellenic games of Greece were founded and as such the geometrical styling and archaic restraint can be considered by Mr. Wentinck perhaps as being ‘the richest and most complicated in Greek history.’