History of Greek Sculpture

IN history every crescendo is followed by a diminuendo. Time, mighty organist, weaves the pattern of his impromptu composition, harsh and soft by turns, gradually achieving a series of splendid chords. A great moment, alas too brief. The crescendo is gone. Comes the diminuendo. The musical volume is lessened and with it the quality. It is as if the musician had spent all his force on his momentary achievement.

Sculpture from the eighth century, B. C. on shows a very gradual development. By the fourth century it achieves beauty unsurpassed. And the secret of this high perfection lies in the fact that the Greek sculptor stayed true to type. Progress was slow, but each generation added something to its predecessor, each sought to improve.

Witness the struggle to portray anatomy. The nude figure of the youthful athlete, by some said to represent Apollo and by others called a mere offering to the gods, is a good example. At first rigid, a bit of action is introduced by placing one leg slightly forward. Gradually comes muscular movement. The unnatural face in due course loses its stereotyped smile. It achieves expression, intelligence.

The Greek goddess goes through similar stages of development. Likewise another figure often met with, a young girl fully draped with curls hanging down her shoulders. In the early examples this figure is stiff, the waist tightly laced in pre-Hellenic fashion, the curls rudely carved, the face expressionless. Yet with all their crudity these figures have frankness, grace, charm.

The chief characteristics of the two most popular figures of archaic Greece are very much alike. Skulls both of men and women are small and round, the forehead is shortened, eyes are almond-shaped and somewhat slanted. In both the fixed or archaic smile invariably appears as an attempt at expression. As they advance to-ward the close of the archaic period each shows ever increasing grace and individuality.

Another figure not uncommon in this period is that of a man carrying a calf or a lamb over his shoulders. A splendid example of the Moschophorus or calf-carrier is in the Museum of Athens. Another is a small bronze in which a lamb is used, from Crete, now in the Museum of Berlin. The young shepherd with his pet lamb on his shoulder is quite frequently met with in the Greek art of Alexandria. This shepherd theme lay dormant for some centuries. Long after the days of Athenian glory the founders of Christian art in search of a type to illustrate a famous biblical parable found what they wanted in the charming figure of the young shepherd of Alexandria. This pagan Greek product thus came to represent the Good Shepherd of Christianity.

On the pediment of the Temple of Jupiter at Olympia are two beautiful sculptural groups, made about the fifth century B.C. One shows Pelops, Jupiter and OEnomaus about to start in a chariot race, with lovely Hippodamia the victor’s prize. The other group depicts the battle after the wedding of Peirithous, when centaur guests attempted to carry off the bride and her girl companions. Apollo is in the center. Invisible to the combatants, he is deciding the victory.

The chariot race group includes a number of minor figures, creeping forward, crouching, eager and curious. In the opposite group there are scenes of monsters struggling with maidens, or slaves cowering in corners. The action is spirited. Sculpture had emerged from archaic struggle to real achievement. It is now forceful, daring, full of vitality, with characteristic Greek beauty and symmetry.

Needed art for the temples gave rise to a school of sculpture at Athens and to classic types. Funeral stelae were in great demand. These portrayed the deceased in some typical attitude or important moment in his career. Here the late departed is seen petting his dog or offering him a piece of meat. There a soldier fully armed stands at attention. Or, again, a child is playing with a dove or a rabbit.

The beautiful legends of Greece play a great part in its sculpture. One of the best examples was found at Eleusis. It is a relief telling the story of young Triptolemus who made a pilgrimage to the lower regions in search of the grain of wheat. He is shown taking leave from the earth goddesses Ceres and Proserpina. One of them is placing a crown on his head. Splendid execution and fine interpretation are in the boy’s form. The drapery on the goddesses is delicately treated. In spite of archaic deficiencies of eyes and heads, the entire composition is admirable.

An outstanding work of the archaic era is the Ludovici Throne, a block of marble carved into a seat with reliefs on three sides. In one of these we see Venus rising from the sea. Her delicate form fresh, moist, vibrant with youth, the new-born goddess is received by two nymphs on the rocky shore. On one side of this charming group is a figure of a veiled wife before a lamp, while on the other is a nude courtezan enjoying her music.

Toward the end of the archaic period two great masters stand out. They are Myron and Polycleitus. Myron is the artist of movement. He makes his figures move, run and leap. The Greeks said of him that he neglected the feelings of the soul, but cared only to give expression to the body. For the portrayal of unusual movement Myron found in bronze casting his best medium. The Discobolus, or discus thrower, is an example of violent movement in bronze. As the body inclines forward one feels the approach in an instant of the discus hurled from the right hand. The left hand holds the right knee for balance and to add force to the throw. All the bodily action is concentrated on the coming throw of the discus.

With its round skull and curly hair, the head of the Discobolus is the only part showing archaic features. But there is little of the archaic in the athlete’s concentration upon the discus, his focused attention on that which he is about to throw. One feels this to be the great moment in his life, his very soul to be at stake on the outcome of the game.

Myron is the first artist known to rise away and above his school and time. He is noted for the personality which he puts into his work. His treatment of life, action and physical sensation were not only individual, they were revolutionary.

Polycleitus of Sicyon was a Dorian artist who achieved unusual beauty and elegance with his athletic figures. Coming at a time when the technical difficulties of the early types had been overcome, he set about to perfect the beauty of these types. A famous figure by this artist is the Diadumenos. It represents a young athlete in the act of winding a fillet about his head to tie the veins of his temples. It has the tranquil expression of youth and all the joy of conscious strength. Another famous figure by this artist is of an Amazon. Standing, dressed in scanty tunic, left arm raised above the head, with a sad look on the beautiful face, this work is a great contribution to archaic Greek sculpture.

This brings us to the time of the Peloponnesian War. The ancient antagonism between the Dorians and Ionians had flared up anew. Jealous of the glories of Athens, Sparta stirred the other states to action. There came the siege of Syracuse, the naval disaster of AEgospotami and the final defeat of Athens. A great monument was set up by the victorious cities at Delphi. It consisted of the statues of the naval commander Lysander and the Peloponnesian generals.

Ictinus, who designed the Parthenon, and other Athenian architects were soon attracted to the Peloponnesus. In the various Dorian cities they directed the construction of great temples. Through them Athens really triumphed over her enemies. For they were spreading the influence of her culture. Defeated in war, Athens was spiritually triumphant. All Greece was receiving its inspiration from the Acropolis.

Sculptors meanwhile continued with their draped maidens and nude male athletes. They were also quite busy with stories of mythology. A favorite subject was the story of Niobe, who saw her children killed with the arrows of the angry god. There are a number of statues of Niobids crouching, praying or dying. Discovered in excavation for a modern commercial building was a most beautiful figure of a semi-nude young woman kneeling and painfully struggling with an arrow in her back.

In the second generation after Phidias there came the great Praxiteles, sculptor of elegance and love, master-portrayer of the beauty of the human form. Praxiteles revolutionized Greek sculpture. His Satyr was widely copied in Rome and is represented by duplicates in every art museum today. It is a great departure from the athletic Apollo of the previous century. This marble youth leans idly against a tree-trunk. His feet are crossed, one hand rests on his hip—a charming picture of sensuous abandon. No longer is athletic development the ideal. Not a muscle stands out. All is roundness; arms, legs and even body possess a softness almost feminine. The expression of eyes and mouth, the startled glance, instinctive animal alertness combined with elfin abandon give this statue an incomparable charm. One almost sees this blithe creature move forward with light, graceful, bounding step.

Praxiteles was the first sculptor to make a nude Venus. The goddess of love had always been portrayed draped, though as time went on the draping became thinner and more transparent. Pliny tells how the cities of Cnidus and Cos sent to Praxiteles for the purchase of a Venus. He had but two. One of them was draped. The other, done for his own pleasure with no intention of selling, was undraped. The representatives of Cos having first choice picked the clothed one. There was nothing for the emissaries of Cnidus to do but accept the other. But lo and behold, Cnidus soon became the mecca of art lovers, who sailed thither for a view of the beautiful nude Venus.

Lucian speaks of the great admiration for this statue, made “under the direct inspiration of the goddess.” Pliny called it the finest statue in the world. There is a remark-able feeling of personality in this chaste figure. There is unsurpassed modeling of shoulders, body and legs. The goddess bends slightly forward with ease and grace. Her every line is a study in elegance. One feels the pulsing veins under fine soft skin.

Many other great figures and groups were the work of Praxiteles and his pupils. Of the latter I might mention Euphranor of Corinth, reputed creator of the famous Apollo Belvedere. The Apollo, head erect, one foot slightly forward, has just shot an arrow from the bow in his hand. What a proud and angry god he is—a perfect male figure.

It was long before the nude Venus was done by the followers of Praxiteles. Draping was used for the lower part of the figure. Of this type the three most famous examples are the Venus of Milo, the Venus of Arles and the Venus of Capua. The Venus of Arles is full of womanly charm. Her cheeks are rounded, youthful; her face beautiful in contour and expression. Her head slightly inclined suggests delicacy of feeling. The Venus of Milo is noted for unusual posture. She stands with one foot on the ground and the other on a step. In the original one hand lightly held the drape at her limbs while in the other was the apple awarded her by the judgment of Paris. This figure is still considered the acme of perfection of the female form. The Venus of Capua follows the same general treatment as her marble sisters.

One of the followers of Praxiteles to achieve great renown is Scopas. He was the portrayer of sorrow, of human tragedy. In his hands gods and heroes alike be-come more human. Homer’s characters are by him treated as examples of the trials and sorrows of mankind.

Scopas together with three other Athenian sculptors worked on the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the tomb of Mausolus, king of Caria, built by his wife Artemisia. “This,” says Pliny, “was one of the seven wonders of the world. Upon it there were thirty-six columns. The east facade was ornamented by Scopas, the north by Bryaxis, the south by Timotheus and the west by Leochares. Queen Artemisia died before the Mausoleum was completed, but the artists went on with the work for the sake of their own fame. The monument is surmounted by a pyramid of twenty-four steps upon the apex of which is the marble quadriga by Pythis, at a height of one hundred and forty feet.”

Athenian architects as well as sculptors worked on this immense monument on the coast of Asia in honor of a Persian satrap. Which shows how Athenian culture was reaching out. Subjects in the reliefs were mainly those familiar in Athens.

The last great sculptor of the fourth century B.C. was Lysippus. He was the favorite of Alexander, who would not permit anyone else to make portrait statues of him. Lysippus was not an Athenian, and unlike most of his predecessors was not descended from a line of sculptors. He had no school but that of life. It is said that when a young man he asked the painter Eupompus which master to follow. The latter replied by pointing to the crowd in the street. This meant, study humanity at large.

To the magnificent idealism of Phidias, the delicate elegance of Praxiteles, the tragic ideal of Scopas, Lysippus added a lofty naturalism. He was the first sculptor to bring out all the personal and characteristic features of his subject. Besides his many busts of Alexander, the exploits of Hercules were favorite subjects with him. Alexander so admired his statue of Hercules feasting with the gods that he carried it with him on all his campaigns. Lysippus took all manner of subjects from early paintings or bas-reliefs and carved them in the full round.

His figure of an athlete, called the Apoxyomenos, is one of the outstanding Greek sculptures. It represents a young athlete scraping the oil and dust from his arms. Here is an entirely new type. No ordinary athlete or common pugilist is this lithe and nervous youth. He is refined. His head is small, his face expressive. There is a wrinkle in his forehead and a shadow in his eye. He can be seen to advantage from all sides, whereas his marble predecessors, with the exception of the Discobolus, were meant to be viewed only from the front.

Funeral statues, or stelae, furnished a highly important field for art during the fourth century B.C. In the ancient cemetery at Athens were stelae by the greatest masters of the time, including Scopas and Praxiteles. Idealized portraits of the Athenian cultured aristocracy may be seen in profusion. Here the family, gently sad, takes leave of the dying one. There a lady sits up on her death-bed and from a casket held up by a maid distributes her jewels among the dear ones she is about to leave. These subjects are repeated quite frequently. Greek art seeks not to spread to every possible subject, but to achieve perfection with a limited number of types.

Yet some stelae do get away from the usual run. We see, for instance, a girl holding a jar of perfume. A young man in the quiet of the tomb is reading a book. Or two sisters draw the veils from their beautiful faces. The scenes are mostly acts of everyday life. No longer do we find the heroic subjects of the century before.

The next two centuries saw great changes in the arts of Greece. Gone was faith in the old gods. Gone was political liberty. Ideals were changed. Art sought new subjects to express. It was a period of luxury. Sensual subjects appear, and trivial, and ugly. Yet many of these are dignified by the aesthetic manner in which they are treated.

The conquests of Alexander, and the even greater con-quests of Greek art, caused a great spread of Hellenic culture. A wave of Hellenistic art spread through Egypt, Asia and Italy as well as Greece itself. Magnificent buildings were everywhere being erected. Flourishing cities grew up around some of the famous sanctuaries.

Sculpture of this period grows in character and vividness, but not in ideals. The Victory of Samothrace, said to have been carved for Demetrius of Syria to commemorate his defeat of Ptolemy, is an unusual example of technique. On a prow of a ship stands the goddess, her body leaning forward with wings outspread, shimmery garment whipped about her limbs by the wind, one hand raised aloft bearing an immense trophy. The beautiful figure fairly flies through the air.

Other works show an increasing tendency towards sensuality. Alexandrian and western Asiatic orientalism leans to representations of Venus of increasing voluptuousness. Even the abnormal comes in for recognition, as in the case of the Hermaphrodite. Old gods give way to the sensual Bacchus. Heroic adventure is replaced by the myth of Daphne and Apollo. Fauns and Satyrs become favorite themes. Likewise muses and giants. Frivolity is the vogue. Quite popular is a sculptured representation of a little boy struggling with a goose. It is a plastic parody on the ideal type of athletic youth of a better day.

To be sure, religion is not entirely overlooked. Worship of many gods is gradually giving way to mono-theism, the intellectual worship of a Supreme Ruler of the universe. Something of this is seen in the exquisite statue of the praying youth by Boethus. There is a prevalence of allegorical representation in marble of cities and rivers. Women’s heads personify Alexandria and Rome. The river Nile is represented as an old man with ears of grain for flowing beard and hair, resting against a sphinx and a Cornucopia; with sixteen little children, indicative of the number of cubits of the Nile’s yearly rise, swarming about his body.

A school of realism now sprang up, often leaning over on the side of exaggeration. Yet some fine portrait sculpture was being done at Athens. A statue of Sophocles is a perfect representation of the mental and physical powers of the man. There is complete repose in this figure. Both feet rest firmly on the ground. The body leans slightly back, the arms are drawn up with grace and freedom. Demosthenes is seen as the orator-statesman fighting for a people’s freedom. His face is lined with care, his hands are folded, his mantle is disordered as from nervous gestures.

Striving for realism often brought subjects ugly, decrepit and even vicious. Quite different this from the former worship of physical perfection and sheer beauty. An example, of which a number of copies have come down, is the figure of a drunken old woman. Flabby flesh hangs in loose wrinkles on the neck and breasts of this creature, who has lost all the dignity of her sex and age. The excessive fat, the hump-backed, the abnormal in body and mind become favorite themes for the over-realist artists. In justice to this school it must be said that it included some very fine craftsmen. There was mastery of the art of sculpture in abundance. Subject-matter was changed: ideals. Enough.

The little Greek state of Pergamum, ruled by a long line of art lovers, produced some noteworthy sculpture. Having earned recognition by stopping an invasion of barbarian Gauls, its people proceeded to spread their tale in marble. Episodes of the struggle formed the basis for many sculptural works. Perhaps the most famous of these is one which has long been misnamed the Dying Gladiator. Byron in one of his poems speaks so of this figure. It is now known as one of a Pergamum Gaul. With clotted blood on his wounds and curly hair, dying eyes fixed on the ground as he weakly supports himself on one arm, this figure portrays a degree of anguish never before seen in Greek art.

The city of Rhodes became the haven of a number of the pupils of Lysippus. Here was set up the renowned Colossus of Rhodes. Here, too, was made the equally renowned Laocoon group. The latter, done by Ages-sander of Rhodes and his sons, is said to have been the result of consultation among a large number of artists. It is an example of extreme realism. One might almost say of unreal realism. Pliny called the Laocoon “a work superior to all the other works of sculpture and painting.” This it may well be, even though the three figures struggling in the serpents’ grip show greatly exaggerated swelling of breasts and tightening of muscles and veins. Faces as well as bodies are distorted beyond human possibility. Yet this work is allegorical. Story-telling is the business of allegory. The Laocoon tells its story well.