An important and unusual exhibition of ancient Greek works of art is currently on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., it will travel to four other museums in the United States through late 1989. Under the title The Human Figure in Early Greek Art, the exhibition explores the changing depiction of the human figure from the late tenth to early fifth century B.C. This era was one of tremendous cultural advancement. Its artistic achievements, culminating in the ancient artists' mastery of lifelike figures, laid the foundation for all Western art to come.
The vase paintings and marble, bronze, and terra-cotta sculptures in the exhibit come from the permanent collections of many Greek museums, such as the Greek National Archaeological Museum and the Acropolis Museum. Many of these works are known throughout the world from reproductions in art books. Organized by the National Gallery and the Greek Ministry of Culture, this cooperative undertaking marks the first time that most of these artworks have traveled to the United States. More significantly, it also marks the first time some of the most important works have ever left Greece.
Memorials to the Dead
Any study of the human figure in ancient Greek art reveals the strong link between skilled representation of the figure and the idealization of youth and beauty. This connection is most apparent in the lifesize sixth-century B.C. marble statues of young men, kouroi, and young women, korai, from the Acropolis in Athens. As monuments dedicated to the gods or memorials to dead youths, these statues convey a remarkable sense of the human body's mass and potential for movement. These works, which appeared near the end of the period covered by the exhibition, represent Greek art as it approached its apogee.
The earliest object exhibited is actually only half-human--a painted clay centaur from the late tenth century, found in Lefkandi, north of Athens. The piece shows considerable ingenuity in the way the solid, hand-formed human torso and four legs have been attached to the hollow horselike body, made on a potter's wheel. Its surface decoration is purely geometric, contrasting curiously with the lively, intense expression of the face. The object was likely a prized possession, as the head and body were found separately in the graves of two members of the same family.
The only other work featuring a nonhuman subject is a Proto-Geometric skyphos, or footed cup. It exemplifies the abstract, linear style of Greek art that was the immediate precursor of the first style after 1100 B.C. to include human figures--the Geometric style.
Proto-Geometric and Geometric art arose in a poorly understood three-hundred-year period following the sudden end of the prosperous Bronze Age civilizations of Crete and Mycenae around 1100 B.C. Greek civilization and society regressed into poverty and isolation during this period, sometimes called the Dark Ages, which may have been triggered by some natural disaster. Whatever its cause, the effects of these Dark Ages were devastating in all areas of the ancient society and economy. Greeks ceased to trade with other Mediterranean peoples, the skill of writing was forgotten, and cultural and artistic life suffered.
Athens, not as deeply
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