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Classical Art: A Portal To The Past

21 Jul

During a Sunday house clean-up my parents found my copy of Classical Art: From Greece to Rome by Mary Beard and John Henderson (2001), a lovely introductory book on art (including architecture, portraiture, and sculpture) from the classical ages of ancient Greece and Rome, sitting somewhat unloved on a bookshelf.

The book contextualises the main masterpieces of the periods, their form, origin and meaning, and explores their influence on the history of art within Western culture, and the origins of art history more generally.  Further to this the publication manages to present an impressive array of information from the archaeological, historical and geographical contexts of the art works, and provides a thorough grounding on the various examinations and interpretations of the motives and representations of why and how the art was produced.  It is, if I may borrow one more review trope, also a thought-provoking piece, not content to provide an overview of the art context and the constant cannibalization and exploration of those forms that went before (Roman of Greek art, Renaissance of Classical, etc.), but one that questions the reader’s understanding of what they think they knew of Western culture and the differences in social structure and expression.

mummy of artemidorus2

The well decorated mummy case and detail of the portrait of Artemidorus, from Roman-period Haware, Egypt, AD 100-120. Artemidorus was a male individual who was aged between 18-21 years old at the time of death, based on CT scans of his skeletal remains in the coffin. His impressive funerary artefacts and context helps to highlight the mix of cultural styles present during this period and location – the coffin details traditional Egyptian funerary motifs and symbols, the individual has a Greek name, and the portrait is Roman-style in style. As Beard & Henderson (2001: 232) highlight, the rituals of death and burial have preserved a wonderful collection of  personal portraits in funerary contexts (on coffins, etc.) from Fayum and other areas of the Roman province of Egypt, where this style of commemoration was practiced. However, it is debated whether these portraits, as a whole, capture the person at the age at death or, as in some cases, represent the individual at a different point in their life. The face, and the head, are strong focuses of artwork, both sculpture and portraiture, in the ancient Roman world.  The Roman period Egyptian tradition of painting portraits on linen and wood echoes vibrantly across the centuries due to the vitality and likeness of the person’s image. As Beard & Henderson comment, ‘the challenge to figurative art is to metaphorize human beings convincingly’ by using whichever medium (marble, wood, or pigment on wood and linen, etc.), and that ‘the ideology of the portrait depends on this ability to carry (the) conviction’ of its representation (2001: 233). Image credit: the British Museum (main) and Invision Free (inset).

 

I got a copy of the book for a module I studied in my first year at undergraduate level, one entitled cities and civilizations if I remember correctly, that studied the origin and influence of art at certain periods in European history (the Geek and Roman classical worlds, Gothic architecture in Western Europe in the Medieval period, the art of the Italian Renaissance, etc.).  It was an enlightening module, one that made me think deeper on the artistic expression of society within a cultural milieu.

Towards the end of the publication there is a fascinating discussion on the use of the portrait in forming an image of an individual, in this case the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates as described in a series of pen portraits and dialogues by his pupil Plato.  Socrates, who died (in the words of Plato) a ‘martyr for the truth’ in Athens in 399 BCE, has become of the most sought after face of Antiquity when, after comparing the many statues of him that survive (which include the ‘type A’ and ‘type B’ heads from Italy and the damaged statues from Athens), that at least one of these portraits ‘taps into first hand acquaintance with the fifth-century guru’ (Beard & Henderson 201: 236).

Socrates pupil Plato posits, in a pen portrait that emphasizes each aspect of his master throughout his dialogues that, ‘feature by feature’, sets him apart from humanity and creates the paradox of Socrates, the ‘wisest of men’, compared with the bestial nature of his physical representation.  The last point concerns the nature of reality and its images; that Plato encourages us to ‘imagine what Socrates was like, but at the same time radically undermines the status of anything in our visual world‘ (Beard & Henderson 2001: 237, emphasis mine).  The authors indicate that this is the paradox on coming face to face with one of the most ‘individual physiognomies of them all, yet also being confronted with a portrait  that was designed to remind us just how contested the relationship is between how people look (or are made to look) and how they ‘really’ are’ (Beard & Henderson 2001: 237).

Necessarily this raises the question of what is captured by art, how and why?  What are these representations of and in what context are they represented?  These are basic questions that a researcher must always bear in mind when dealing with both the artistic artefacts and documents of the past.  For the archaeological researcher they too are fine guiding questions to consider when analyzing the physical material remains of the historic and prehistoric past.  How are they represented and why?

24/07/15 Update

By happenstance I have come across a lovely cheap paperback book of Socrates’ Defence by Plato in the Penguin Little Black Classics series earlier today, in which Plato recreates the dialogue of Socrates defending himself at trial in 399 BC.  Socrates’ Defence is taken from Plato’s The Last Days of Socrates.

The Little Black Classics series covers many renowned writers, bringing their fiction or non-fiction work, or extracts of their work, together in small volumes at affordable prices (in the UK they retail at only 80p or $2 CAN.  I shall update this entry as soon as I’ve read it and had time to digest it.  Perhaps unwitting the above fits quite nicely into my current long read (books that I am taking my time with), which include Albert Camus’s The Rebel and The Myth of Sisyphus.

Bibliography

Beard, M. & Henderson, J. 2001. Classical Art: From Greece to Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Plato. 2015. Socrates’ Defence. St Ives: Penguin Classics.

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