Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.02.06

François Lissarrague, Greek Vases: The Athenians and their Images. trans. by K. Allen.   New York:  Riverside Book Company, 2001.  Pp. 240, 140 color pls., 40 b+w illustrations.  ISBN 1-878351-57-5.  $75.00.  

Reviewed by Judith M. Barringer, Departments of Classics and History of Art, Yale University
Word count: 1279 words

This lavishly illustrated volume, a translation of the French edition published in 1999, presents the world of Greek vase painting imagery to the general reader. Handsomely produced in large 10 1/4" x 13 1/4" format on thick glossy paper, this book qualifies as a coffee-table book, one to be read in snatches, the illustrations--many of them full page color--pored over with appreciation. Lissarrague's work is familiar to scholars of ancient Greek vases; here, the lack of footnotes save for literary citations, the scale and sumptuous presentation, and the short chapters averaging about 20 uncluttered pages each announce that this book aims to bring Lissarrague's readings of Greek imagery to the layman. A forward briskly sets forth the importance of Greek vases to the Classical archaeologist, offers a brief history of vases, and outlines the thematic organization of the volume. The chapters are framed by a prologue devoted to the earliest vase discussed here, the François Vase, including the intriguing story of its discovery and modern history, and an epilogue, which takes up the Pronomos krater, the latest object under consideration in this text. The nine chapters touch on various themes found painted on Athenian vases: symposion, Eros, athletics and competition, warriors and heroes (both everyday and mythical figures), rites of passage, the relationship between men and gods, Herakles, the mythic identity of Athens and its citizens, and Dionysos. Appendices designed to introduce the general reader to the study of vases follow the text, and a glossary, list of illustrations, bibliography, subject index, and index of objects conclude the volume.

Lissarrague's study of Greek vases is thematically based and focuses on the images themselves. As he addresses the reader in the Forward, "This anthology, composed to please the eye, seeks to make perceptible and intelligible these objects which were not made to illustrate Athenian life but which convey the visual way of thinking and experiencing through which many aspects of this society were aestheticized, as though the painters held a mirror to the Athenians themselves" (p. 9). In other words, the images don't mirror reality but mirror the Athenians' mode of thinking and perceiving the world. He looks at vases, object by object, image by image, highlighting certain aspects of each vase that seem to illustrate a facet of Athenian thought. The author is able to seize upon details and draw cultural associations from them, often with great insight. Typical of Lissarrague's work, this latest product is an intelligent and imaginative study and makes the reader feel as if he or she were in Lissarrague's presence, examining a vase together, turning it around and discussing its imagery. Dionysos, god of wine, is "Feminized, animalized, and motion; he comes from elsewhere, he is the other, even within the city of Athens." His iconographic characteristics are enumerated, his birth recounted, his retinue of satyrs and maenads described and illustrated, and his qualities and worship as revealed by images and myth noted. Scholarly controversies are omitted, and the author instead opens up the image to the general reader, inviting him or her to look, reflect, and move on. The use of vase shape is sometimes correlated with its image, and the interaction between viewer and object is intriguingly taken up from time to time; Lissarrague occasionally offers a unified reading of the images on a single vase, and elsewhere focuses on only one detail. Moving swiftly and smoothly, the scrutiny is not exhaustive, nor is it meant to be.

Scholars will find much to argue with in this book, and critics of Lissarrague's method will discover confirmation of their objections. The author's observations are largely detached from chronology, connoisseurship, or social or political context. Although nearly all the objects examined in this text are Attic vases (with a generous dose of the Kleophrades Painter), no distinction is made between Laconian, Caeretan, Chalcidian, or Attic vases in interpretations. While occasional notice is taken of iconographic distinctions between Attic black-figure and Attic red-figure, the author often treats all the images as a single body of evidence with the only chronological markers being the vases treated in prologue and epilogue. The world that Lissarrague describes exists outside history or specificity so the reader is left to fill in the historical context of the vases, which span the archaic and first half of the classical period. Familiar works, such as the Vivenzo hydria and the Kleophrades Painter's pointed amphora in Munich are here but so are far lesser known works. The choice of images is not explained nor is the selection of themes, which indeed touch on many aspects of Athenian culture but are not exhaustive. Lissarrague's methodology is not explicit though it apparently is counter to that of the nineteenth-century scholar Eduard Gerhard, whose belief is articulated in Lissarrague's Appendix on collecting and museums: "Historical interpretation can only be founded on the study of series and the comparison of objects among themselves within each class." At the more picayune level, Lissarrague's conclusions sometimes leave the reader guessing. For example, in his discussion of the François vase, Lissarrague rightly notes the abundance of inscriptions on the krater. Krene or fountain is inscribed in the Troilos episode, thus "giving to this building a status equal to that of a person. The fountain is the key place in the episode portrayed; not just a simple decoration, but a point of articulation in the story." Fair enough but then one wonders if the inscribed hydria and the thakos (chair) on which Priam sits share the same status. Peculiarities of Attic vases, such as Leagros inscriptions, are mentioned quickly without elaboration; greater explanation of such features would be of interest and benefit to the general reader. A few errors intrude: Panathenaic amphorae were produced not only up to the fourth century (pp. 75-76) but through it, the Hellenistic period, and well into the Roman imperial period; and Attic black-figure vessels are mislabeled Attic red-figure in a few captions (e.g., figs. 126-127). The explanation for nonsense inscriptions, that they "have nothing to do with naming the figures, but rather with urging the viewer to verbally formulate their name," that they function "not as a key explaining the image, but as an opening mechanism of the story, activating the memory of the viewer" (p. 84) fails to convince.

But the book is not aimed at the scholarly audience so it is petty and unfair to demand such a standard. Generalizations that make the scholar uneasy get the point across to, and are perfectly suitable for, the lay reader. What then does the general reader gain from this beautiful, easy-to-read book? First and foremost, the layman learns about certain themes in Athenian culture as evinced from Athenian vases and occasional forays into Greek literature (from varying periods and locales, more fodder for critics). The reader is encouraged to see vases one by one, not as a corpus, nor as a blur of similar-looking objects all too often jammed together in museum display cases. The brief Appendices contain factual information of great use to the reader, including the history of the interest in Greek vase painting, the development of various collections, the process of attribution, and a table of vase shapes and names. If I wanted the uninitiated to learn and study Greek vases--their history and range of imagery, as well as their production, technique, distribution, use, and how they inform our picture of Greek culture--I would send them elsewhere. But if I wanted the uninitiated to discover, and fall in love with, the beauty and magic of Greek vases, to clearly see details of painting and relief line on specific vases in superlative illustrations, I would unhesitatingly direct them to this inviting book.

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