Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.11.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.11.35

Annette Haug, Bild und Ornament im frühen Athen.   Regensburg:  Schell & Stenier, 2015.  Pp. 224.  ISBN 9783795430047.  €39.95.  


Reviewed by Nathan T. Arrington, Princeton University (nta@princeton.edu)

Table of Contents

The body in Greek art looms large. The idealizing depiction of humans and gods made the study of Greek art legitimate in the first place, and the evolution of the representation of the (male) body generated narratives of naturalism that persist. Formalists are not the only ones responsible. Iconographic and anthropological approaches, for example, often depend on figural scenes. No doubt there have been exceptions, such as the work of Alois Riegl, Hans Möbius, or Nikolaus Himmelmann-Wildschütz.1 But it is difficult to escape the shadow of the Apollo Belvedere. Geometric vases and their abstract designs entered the corpus slowly. Those found in Athens were first thought Phoenician, and for many years no less an authority than Adolf Furtwängler was unsure they were Hellenic. Today, Geometric and Archaic art enjoy attention, but the figural scenes continue to dominate discussion. Annette Haug's book, therefore, offers a welcome opportunity to look more closely at the relationship of ornament to the construction of images before the Classical period.

Studies of Greek ornament fall into two broad categories: typological or symbolic. Haug adopts a different approach. Instead of isolating ornamental elements as such and either creating typologies or searching for symbolic interpretations, she examines the "syntactic" quality of ornaments. She surveys Attic vase-painting from the 10th to the mid-7th century, from the first tentative introduction of figures through the clear depiction of myths. She includes some discussion of terracotta figurines, but focuses above all on vase- painting. Over the centuries, rigid Geometric patterns loosen and narratives develop. The book seems to aim to describe the variability in the treatment of the image/ornament relationship from the Protogeometric through the Orientalizing period and to demonstrate the value of analyzing ornament in its broader visual field. For Haug, the variation in the production of pictorial and decorative qualities shows that ornament was a subject of interest in early Athens.

Haug's approach to ornament emerges from her understanding of an image itself: it is constituted through its relationship to its frame and ground and has semantic weight (i.e., it signifies more than a mere assemblage of lines and abstract shapes). Ornament, in Haug's view, both contributes to the constitution of the image and problematizes its status. Ornament in the book is thus treated relationally and often obliquely, in connection with the construction of an image. Haug explores the role of the frame, the interrelation of image elements (figures, representational ornament, non-representational ornament) to background and ground line and one another, subject matter, and ambience and mood. The concept of ornament at work here is broad. Haug avoids sharp definitions because of the ambivalence and ambiguity of signs, and because she seeks to prevent the construction of a figure/ornament dichotomy. The discussion concerns ornament and image; not, as one might expect, ornament and figure.

The book proceeds chronologically. Figures first appear in Athenian vase-painting in the Protogeometric period, as animals hesitantly emerge within decorative fields. Haug argues that the contrast in the 10th and then in the 9th and early 8th centuries between figure and ornament is weak. Depending on their relationship to one another and to their frame, elements of the image field can oscillate between figure and ornament. Different types of framing devices and pictorial strategies might alternately integrate animals into the visual field or isolate them from the rest of the decoration.

In the mid-8th century, the development of complex figural scenes related to funerals opens a new relationship between image and ornament. Figures now are imbued with a potential for action that distinguishes them from passive ornament. Figure comes to the foreground; ornament recedes into the background. Yet ornament maintains several critical functions: it can tie figures to surface, emphasize aspects of the image and figures, and provide structure and order to the scene. She also shows that this application of ornament co-exists with scenes in which the distinction between image and ornament continues to be weak, such as chariot processions. And figures are themselves formally composed of elements—triangles, lozenges, circles—shared with ornament. In a variety of ways, ornament is integral to image, and ornament and figure constitute one other.

Haug's sensitive analysis of several vase-paintings demonstrates that the choice and placement of ornament was never haphazard. For example, on Athens NM 990 (Figure 19) she notes how the mourners who flank either side of the ekphora are separated from one another by chevrons. The chevrons surrounding the women rise to the level of the head, at which point they turn into a short vertical row of dots, whereas they rise up to the level of mens' hips, and a long row of dots appears in front of their heads. So the ornaments unite the mourners as a group and also distinguish the sexes, highlighting men. The longer chevrons for the figure holding the reigns of the horse subtly mark him out from the other males. In the chariot procession on the lower frieze, rows of dots again unite the figures, but here also convey a sense of motion.

In the later 8th century, a greater variety of subject matter appears. Haug identifies two contrasting image types: those with thick linear ornament and those without ornament. These alternatives can co-exist on the same vase. When applied, ornaments are more loose and curvilinear than before, and more flexible in their orientation and placement. Sometimes they are so dense that they lose their own autonomy and dramatically emphasize the ground from which figures emerge. In contrast to the cohesion found in LG I, the interchangeability of specific ornamental forms in LG II can risk shattering the coherence of the vessel. Ornament continues to draw viewers' attention, to accent figures, and to provide surface variation, but its role as a structuring and ordering force has diminished.

More natural plants appear at this time, rooted to the ground line of an image or, like rosettes, hovering in the air. They occupy figural space but neither interfere with narrative action nor create a coherent landscape. Haug describes the role of these vegetal ornaments, along with animals such as birds, as attributive and "ambiental" (e.g., 109, 141). They usually serve to characterize an outdoor setting for the activity of males.

The 7th century ushers in a greater diversity of ornaments, which are more vegetal and rendered with increasingly curvilinear forms. They endow the images with greater liveliness and naturalism. Representational ornaments are placed on the ground line and closely integrated with the action in the figural scenes. Haug refers to an "additive" quality in these images. As ornament continues to structure the image, qualify a scene and its actors, emphasize the ground, and provide visual interest, contradictions and ambiguities persist. Moreover, ornament's relation to the image frame has changed. With the development of more complex scenes, frames are no longer necessary for marking transitions. Elements of the image field can be placed side-by-side or separated through elaborate ornamental dividers.

In the second quarter of the 7th century, narratives continue to develop in terms of intensity, expressiveness, and complexity. Increasingly vases renounce symmetrical compositions and the use of ornament as a structuring device. New ornamental forms and functions accompany the new content. Curvilinear and vegetal ornaments are deployed with a freer license, both floating and rooted to the ground, where they occupy space, engage actors, and create nature scenes. Ornaments also can become monumentalized into "quasi-images." Frames contribute to the flexibility of the image: they can be emphasized, transgressed, or omitted.

The discussion over the course of these chapters is at times contradictory, but it successfully shows how image and ornament are mutually constituted. Haug highlights aspects of vase-painting that are often neglected. The name-vase of the Polyphemus Painter, for example, appears in many textbooks, but only in part. We tend to focus on the front: Odysseus, the Cyclops, the Gorgons. Haug draws our attention to the back of the vase and its spectacular floral ornament, and then helps us turn the vessel around with a fresh awareness of the way that the artist is manipulating the frames of the image fields and stretching the boundary between figure and ornament, as when Odysseus and his men use the painted edge of the panel as a spear.

There is a limit for Haug to the range of meanings scholars can hope to recover. She concedes that triangles resting on a ground line can connote nature and that chevrons in some contexts can create the impression of vegetal life, but generally she is skeptical about the symbolic possibilities of form. So while many scholars have argued that the depiction of birds and the plastic application of snakes relate in some way to the funeral content of vase-paintings, Haug hesitates. Yet a bird perched on the head of a man (god?) suggests that more is at work than Haug allows (Berlin V.I. 3374; fig. 44). In discussions of the decoration of clothing and shields on vase-paintings, Haug similarly stresses the pictorial function rather than the representational content of the ornament. There is a lot at stake here for how we understand the function of signs in Greek art, and Haug's observations would benefit from a more sustained discussion together with a more comprehensive historiography of the topic. Readers also could evaluate her claims more effectively with complete references to common corpora, especially when a vase she discusses is not illustrated.2

The formalist approach of this book offers a refreshing counterpoint to studies that (over)emphasize the social and cultural dimensions of ancient art. Haug foregrounds the objects and their problems. She elucidates the pictorial qualities of early vase-painting and the extensive possibilities of formulating and integrating the elements of an image field. Lack of attention to cultural and physical context provides focus, but may lead to opportunities missed. One suspects, for example, that the use of the Polyphemus Amphora as a burial jar affected the way it was perceived.

Haug provides an interesting analysis of Protogeometric and Geometric terracottas within some of her chapters but not all. For some reason she ignores 7th-century figurines. (The absence of the group from Vari of an ekphora with richly ornamented cloth is notable.) And it would be useful to expand the scope to include other media as well. Gold bands, metal vases, stone seals, and wall paintings all find echoes in the decoration, iconography, and technique of vases, and they offered different conceptions of ornament. Some of these media are manifestly non-Attic, but the author treats Athenian vase-painting in terms of isolated internal development. So although the 7th century appears in the book, there is no place for an Orientalizing phenomenon. Nor is there room for Euboea, Corinth, or Argos. Yet some of the first painted figures emerged on Euboean vases, Corinthian artists were well ahead of Athens in the late 8th century, and Argive ornament has enjoyed spirited debate.3 Integrating Athenian vase-painting into regional and Aegean developments across media might help explain some of the variability in the ornament/image relationship that Haug describes.


Notes:


1.   A. Riegl, Stilfragen: Grundlegungen zu einer Geschichte der Ornamentik (Berlin 1893); H. Möbius, Die Ornamente der griechischen Grabstelen klassischer und nachklassischer Zeit (Munich 1968); N. Himmelmann-Wildschütz, "Der Mäander auf geometrischen Gefäßen," MarbWPr 1962, 10–43; Idem, Über einige gegenständliche Bedeutungsmöglichkeiten des frühgriechischen Ornaments (Wiesbaden 1968); Idem, Grundlagen der griechischen Pflanzendarstellung (Paderborn 2005).
2.   There are also some notable omissions from the bibliography, e.g. C. Marconi, "Kosmos: The Imagery of the Archaic Greek Temple," RES45 (2004), 211–224; S. Langdon, Art and Identity in Dark Age Greece, 1100–700 B.C.E. (Cambridge 2008).
3.   A. Roes, Greek Geometric Art: Its Symbolism and Its Origin (Haarlem 1933); P. Courbin, La céramique géometrique de l'Argolide (Paris 1966); J. Boardman, "Symbol and Story in Geometric Art," in W.G. Moon, ed., Ancient Greek Art and Iconography, 15–36 (Madison, Wis. 1983).

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