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The Art of Vase-Painting in Classical Athens.

A book of this nature and with this title would have been inconceivable 10 years ago. In this eloquent volume Robertson restates the privileged position of Greek, and in particular Attic, figure-decorated pottery as a high art. His gentle and reasoned manner contrasts with other protagonists in the debate who have chosen to describe their opponents in personal terms (Boardman 1987; Johnston 1992). There are two stated purposes for this volume. First, to write a companion to Sir John Beazley's Development of Attic black-figure (Beazley 1951), and second, to deal with 'serious attacks' on Beazley's work by 'demonstrating the essential rightness and importance of what Beazley did'.

Yet this book is not The development of Attic red-figure. It is a book on Art. For Robertson, Greek art lies 'at the root of the European tradition' (Robertson 1975: xi), to be traced largely through the visual images which may be found on the products of the Attic pottery workshops. It is important to identify high quality pots in an approach which accepts 'vase-painting as a fine art'.

Utility and quality

There is nowhere a clear statement of what Robertson calls 'art'. He rightly observes that 'ancient statues and pictures' were 'not made primarily as "works of art" but to serve some other purpose, generally religious'. Pots, he argues, are essentially 'utilitarian'; if 'workers in a utilitarian craft' produced work which aspired to 'artistry' then it should be considered as art. If context and viewing help to define art, then more attention should have been paid to these areas. When English gentlemen began to place their Greek pots on the mantelpieces of their country houses, they took an important role in the visual imagery of 18th- and 19th-century elite life. When these same gentlemen fell on hard times, their collections came to be displayed in museums (effectively) alongside works by Rubens and Titian. Yet Robertson is aware of context and this appears through this book; for example, he notes pots found in graves on Rhodes, in Scythian tumuli in southern Russia and in the cemeteries of Athens itself. Indeed, the very appearance of complete, or near complete, pots in the display cases of museums attests that many of these objects had a specific funerary role: they survived in death when they would have been broken in life. I do not understand the special pleading that somehow pots are more 'utilitarian' than, say, funerary or sanctuary sculpture. Indeed, pots, like marble sculptures of kouroi and korai, could be dedicated in sanctuaries; they, too, can serve a religious function and can thus be excluded from Robertson's own definition of a 'work of art'. Of course, if context was important in antiquity, then the imagery needs to be 'read' in context. This is why there has been more emphasis in recent years in identifying the 'viewer' (e.g. Beard 1991) and interpreting some iconography in terms of death (e.g. Hoffmann 1988).

Robertson sees 'the best Greek vase-painters as artists; but the majority were craftsmen producing pottery vessels with more or less mechanical decoration; and even the artists spent much of their time doing just that; they too were primarily workers in a utilitarian craft'. He wisely adds, 'a failure to recognise this has sometimes confused the study of the subject'. All will feel uncomfortable at this very subjective and modern view of what constitutes 'art'. Vasologists are all too well aware that ancient sources are virtually silent on Attic pottery; certainly these sources would not support the privileged position given to pots in modern scholarship. It is quite apparent that there are some pots which display a higher level of skill or craft than others; there are some which demonstrate a better level of draughtsmanship; but we should not confuse skill with art, or indeed skill with high status for the craft. Nowhere does Robertson really grapple with the issue that the modern perception of Greek pottery has more to do with the intellectual and cultural background of the protagonists, especially that of Sir John Beazley: it seems likely that clay pots ('fictile vases' in the mid 19th century) moved from the domain of craft to that of art through the intellectual influences, especially those of the Arts and Crafts movement, which came to bear on Beazley.

There is a very genuine problem in that the art collectors of the 1990s do consider that Greek pots are art. The first pot to cost $1 million (in 1972) was the red-figured calyx-krater now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, 'a masterpiece of potting and painting' which 'ranks in importance with the acknowledged masterpieces of Greek art' (von Bothmer 1987: 3). The status of Greek painted pottery is such that even wealthy collectors wish to acquire and sometimes present them as the Wealth of the Ancient World (von Bothmer 1983). Yet we should not allow modern taste to cloud our reading of the past (cf. Vickers 1990: 456), as it does in the case of marble Cycladic figures, also elevated to high art because a simplicity of form happens to coincide with the fashion in 20th-century sculpture (Gill & Chippindale in press). Yet there is no authority, either from our particular knowledge of classical or prehistoric Greece or from some universals of art, which justifies projecting our aesthetic values back this way.

In the case of Attic pottery I am unable to see how the corpus may be divided between 'good' and 'bad' products in the total absence of ancient aesthetic judgements. What may be considered as 'works of art' today, may have been utilitarian objects in the 5th century BC. One line worth pursuing, although cautiously, is that of ancient monetary values. Robertson clearly equates poor quality draughtsmanship with cheapness. In his discussion of 4th-century red-figured pottery from Olynthos he notes the 'demand' for 'almost exclusively . . . cheap lines'. Clearly the inference is that good quality was expensive. Yet the available evidence derived from ancient commercial graffiti does not support this view (Johnston 1979 (a work missing from Robertson's bibliography); Gill 1991). For example, there is an amphora attributed to the Berlin painter which has a mark of 7 obols. A value of just over one drachma for a large pot, however well decorated in our eyes, is minuscule when compared to the values of gold and silver plate. The silver phiale with gold-figured decoration from a grave mound at Duvanli in Thrace is worth 100 drachmae in terms of bullion. We can only guess at what a silver amphora would have been worth. If we follow Robertson's argument, then pottery, however fine its draughtsmanship, is undeniably cheap and therefore not of good quality. If Robertson feels it necessary to give over 17 pages to the Berlin painter, why does it appear that in antiquity his work was little valued in monetary terms? Robertson might argue that it was valued in aesthetic terms but we will never know.

The status of Greek pottery

This comparison of pottery and silver values leads directly into the current debate over the status of Greek pottery, the debate which seems to have drawn Robertson into writing this book. Both Michael Vickers and this reviewer have been challenging the present privileged status given to Greek figure-decorated pottery (e.g. Gill & Vickers 1989; 1990; Vickers 1985; Vickers & Gill forthcoming). There is good literary evidence that the social elites of Athens would have been familiar with the use of gold and silver plate. Not only was there a considerable mount of booty available following the victories over the Persians, but Athens herself had access to the wealth of the silver mines at Laurion. It strikes us that certain effects and shapes associated with Attic pottery may be a deliberate attempt by the potters to evoke more expensive sympotic vessels. In itself there is nothing controversial in looking to other media for influence (see Vitelli 1992: 552). However, the implication for the study of pottery is such that the very foundations of the subject have been shaken. It seems to us that pottery can no longer be viewed as a high-status medium in antiquity; and that is the reason, I suspect, why, in response, this is a book about the art of vase-painting.

In such an Art book, I would have expected to see some dialogue with the views that Vickers and I have expressed about art and quality in response to Robertson's own (Robertson 1985; 1987; Gill & Vickers 1990: 23-7, 'Art and Quality'). There we stated that we did not dispute Robertson's observation that there is some 'very high quality' work associated with painted pottery. But we continued that 'such excellence of design was a by-product of work of high standards achieved in more noble materials, and in more difficult techniques than ceramic'. For us high-quality plate 'would have set standards which potters had of necessity to emulate if they were to continue to furnish Etruscan tombs or the tables of those unable to afford precious metal'. There we make a point of discussing and illustrating the high quality of some of the extant gold-figured silver plate. For us the Duvanli phiale is 'Athenian craftsmanship and design of the highest order' (Gill & Vickers 1990: 26). Robertson has yet to express his views on the artistic quality of this category of ancient material culture, and which finds no place in his History of Greek art.

Beazley and attributions

Of course, this book is only in part a dialogue with Vickers. Much of it is a straight-forward discussion of Beazley's work in classifying the thousands of extant red-figured pots. In a series of nine chapters the reader is led through the most artistic of the output of the Athenian potters' quarters: The beginning of red-figure; A time of ferment: the red-figure Pioneers and their contemporaries; After the Pioneers: red-figure mastery; the beginning of white-ground; Archaic into classical; Early classical; High classical; Developments from the high classical; The later fifth century; developments into the fourth; and The fourth century. Of course such a study will mean an imbalance, as 4th-century material is considered rarely to be worthy of the title Art. As such it does not provide an overview of red-figure but only of artistic red-figure in the modern sense of the word. Even so the text describes the imagery of possibly thousands of pots (and illustrates 300).

The text itself must raise questions about attribution (see also Elsner 1990; Chippindale & Gill in press). Robertson, keen to defend the validity of Beazley's method, rejects the view that 'the features of drawing which Beazley took for the evidence of an individual's touch are . . . common formulae of the period, so that his painters are not to be believed in or believed in only a very limited degree'. He cites the work of Stahler who reduced over 90 pots attributed to the Eucharides painter to three certain, two possibles and two related (Stahler 1967). Robertson rejects this approach but it is a reminder that these attributions are not certain. Robertson wisely notes that 'there is no place for a Bible in scholarship' and so in rejecting Stahler he says 'I simply disagree'; and that is what it is, a personal disagreement between two scholars.

Throughout the book we find that scholars are in disagreement about attributions, sometimes even with Beazley. So much that can be said about the relationships between painters is subjective. This is illustrated by a discussion of the relationships between some early red-figured painters: 'One cannot say that Euphronios was a pupil of Oltos. I see them rather as companions for a time and feel that Oltos, though surely the elder, was more influenced by Euphronios than an influence on him'. There is no treatise discussing the relationship. We know neither the ages of Oltos and Euphronios nor what they felt for each other. Robertson himself notes, 'it is essential to remind ourselves that the reconstruction of an artistic personality on purely stylistic evidence must have a subjective element which rules out certainty'. Beazley himself went beyond the 'signed' pots and added new painters defined purely by style. Yet how comfortable do we feel when a cup with an inscription Douris egrapsen ('Douris painted it' |to use the orthodox terminology~) does not correspond stylistically with other pots bearing this signature? Beazley resolved the problem by creating the Triptolemos painter. The problem is explained by Robertson as follows: 'the inscription could have been added as a deliberate fake, or by a third party in spite or fun or error; or there is some other explanation'. Robertson gives a theoretical discussion of the problems of attribution for a cup now in Athens. It bears an inscription Phintias epoiesen ('Phintias made it' (to use the orthodox terminology)). Several attributions have been suggested:

'it is universally agreed that it was not painted by Phintias. Beazley never ascribed it; Hoppin gave it to Euthymides; I to the young Berlin Painter.'

Another cup bearing the inscription Gorgos epoiesen has been attributed to the Berlin painter but is now doubted and it is said to lie in

'a small group . . . collected by Beazley round a "Salting Painter" and a "Carpenter Painter". All this forms a terrain vague, which may be set in the neighbourhood of late Phintias and the early Berlin Painter, but it is probably a mistake to ascribe any of these vases to either artist'

Robertson concludes, 'I have dwelt on this because it is a good example of the fuzzy edges necessarily found in a field which depends entirely on stylistic judgement'. Without a living Beazley, a supreme connoisseur, there is no final arbitrator. All opinions are valid. And yet one remembers the value of attributions when pots come up for auction. In one recent sale (and it would be invidious of me to specify the sale or the scholars) I noticed that several different attributions by named scholars were given; the one that gave the attribution to the 'best' painter was the one emphasized in bold type. It helped to sell the pot. Are scholars to take these attributions seriously and these judgements as to the relative worth of attributions?

What is the subject of this book? The evidence is lacking that vase-painting was an art in the classical world. It is the world of connoisseurs, collectors, market-makers and archaeologists which has created the art of vase-painting. The strain shows in this and any other book which pretends that the painting of finely-crafted pots in classical Greece was, is and will be 'the art of vase painting'.


BEARD, M. 1991. Adopting an approach, II, in T. Rasmussen & N. Spivey (ed.), Looking at Greek vases: 12-35. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

BEAZLEY, J.D. 1951. The development of Attic black-figure. Berkeley (CA): University of California Press.

BOARDMAN, J. 1987. Silver is white, Revue Archeologique: 279-95.

VON BOTHMER, D. (ed.) 1983. Wealth of the Ancient World, the Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt Collections. Fort Worth (TX): Kimbell Art Museum.

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CHIPPINDALE, C. & D.W.J. GILL. In press. Commentary on C. Morris' 'Hands up for the individual! The role of attribution studies in Aegean prehistory', Cambridge Archaeological Journal 3.

ELSNER, J. 1990. Significant details: systems, certainties and the art-historian as detective, Antiquity 64: 950-52.

GILL, D.W.J. 1991. Pots and trade: spacefillers or objets d'art?, Journal of Hellenic Studies 111: 29-47.

GILL, D.W.J. & C. CHIPPINDALE. In press. Material and intellectual consequences of esteem for Cycladic figures, American Journal of Archaeology 97.

GILL, D.W.J. & M. VICKERS. 1989. Pots and kettles, Revue Archeologique 297-303.

1990. Reflected glory: pottery and precious metal in classical Greece, Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archaologischen Instituts 105: 1-30.

HOFFMANN, H. 1988. Why did the Greeks need imagery? An anthropological approach to the study of Greek vase painting, Hephaistos 9: 143-62.

JOHNSTON, A.W. 1979. Trademarks on Greek vases. Warminster: Aris & Phillips.

1992. The vase trade: a point of order, Acta Hyperborea 3: 403-9.

ROBERTSON, M. 1975. A history of Greek art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

1985. Beazley and Attic vase painting, in D.C. Kurtz (ed.), Beazley and Oxford: 19-30. Oxford: Oxford University Committee for Archaeology.

1988. The state of Attic vase-painting in the mid sixth century, in M. True (ed.), Papers on the Amasis Painter and his world: 13-28. Malibu: J. Paul Getty Museum.

STAHLER, K.P. 1967. Eine unbekannte Pelike des Eucharidesmalers. Koln/Graz.

VICKERS, M. 1985. Artful crafts: the influence of metal-work on Athenian painted pottery, Journal of Hellenic Studies 105: 108-28.

1990. The impoverishment of the past: the case of classical Greece, Antiquity 64: 455-63.

VICKERS, M. & D.W.J. GILL. Forthcoming. Artful crafts: ancient Greek silverware and pottery. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

VITELLI, K.D. 1992. Pots vs. vases, Antiquity 66: 550-53.
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Author:Gill, David
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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