Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.10.55 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.10.55

Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe, Eye and Art in Ancient Greece: A Study in Archaeoaesthetics.   Turnhout:  Brepols, 2018.  Pp. 256.  ISBN 9781909400030.  €95,00.  


Reviewed by Ross Brendle, Converse College (ross.brendle@gmail.com)

Table of Contents

The intent of the volume under review is “an investigation of the dynamic inter-relationship of vision and perception,” “with the aim of reconstructing how the ancient Greeks visually encountered and perceptually responded to the products of their own visual culture” (3). This is the first in a series of books based on the new methodology of archaeoaesthetics, in which “past modes of vision and perception are recovered…with the purpose of identifying the visual and perceptual contexts within which the aesthetics of a culture emerge” (3). Witcombe offers a diachronic survey of Greek visual culture based primarily on ancient literary sources, focusing on how the ancient Greeks conceptualized the art of their time—in particular Late Classical and Hellenistic art—in relation to art of earlier periods.

The first two chapters evaluate ancient literary evidence on visual culture and questions of vision and perception. While some aspects of vision are intrinsic to the mechanisms of the eye, something extrinsic leads to perception—the turning of something we see into something we know. Witcombe notes that while today “perception” encompasses sensation and conception of objects, until the 19th century “perception” only covered the function and products of the faculty of sensation, while conception was regarded as a function of the soul or the mind. Ancient philosophers do not seem to have broached the question of how perception works, thus also neglecting the issue of misperception, though they were well aware of the many ways in which vision could deceive.

Ch. 3, “Continuity and Change in Ancient Greece,” addresses developments in Greek art as discussed in ancient sources. They note monumental changes in sculpture initiated by the sculptors Daedalus and Phidias. According to Witcombe, most of the gods seem to have been represented by xoana somewhere before these images were replaced or supplemented by more figural and usually much larger images. The numerous korai discovered on the Athenian Acropolis are taken to be figures in the guise of the xoanon of Athena Parthenos, matching her pose by lifting their garments with their left hands while holding out an offering in their right hands.

In Ch. 4, “Nudity in Greek Art and Culture,” Witcombe argues that nudity was not inherently shameful in ancient Greece but that being nude or seen nude against one’s will did evoke shame. Thus clothing did not primarily serve to cover the body or shameful parts of the body, but rather helped to establish a figure’s identity and to remove the threat of shame. Athletes competed in the nude, and Witcombe argues that in doing so, they took on the guise of Apollo. Likewise, he suggests that votive kouroi represent the dedicator in the guise of a god, often Apollo but potentially also Herakles or Hermes. Attributes mark kouroi as athletic victors and thus not the deities themselves. These statues of mortals in the guise of a deity, Witcombe believes, are not meant to imitate the god himself but rather a statue of the god which is understood to be the god in human form and not his true, inexpressible form. The deity assimilated could be one other than the deity to whom the statue is dedicated, as in the kore of Nikandre—a woman in the guise of Artemis dedicated to Apollo. Likewise, the figure in the guise of the deity need not be the dedicator, as in the kore by Antenor—a woman in the guise of Athena dedicated by the male potter Nearchos. Witcombe suggests the kore could represent a female relative of Nearchos in the guise of Athena.

Ch. 5, “Imitation and Lifelikeness,” discusses the style and innovations of the sculptor Daedalus, noting that he is a mythical figure, but attempting to tease out the kernel of historical truth from the legend. Witcombe argues that a shift in perception must come before a shift in the appearance of sculpture. New perceptions had to be in place before Daedalus or Phidias was spurred to change how their statues looked. The sculptor had to have the Aristotelian Final aitia in mind before the Formal aitia could be changed. Sculptors must have become dissatisfied, Witcombe maintains, with the perceptual richness of the work of their predecessors and sought ways to enhance this quality. The cause of this approach in early Archaic art (Daedalus’ time) was the encounter with Egyptian art and recognition of the potential to enhance the perceptual richness of Greek statues.

Mimesis (imitation) serves to represent character and action, which are animated by personation and enactment, balanced in convincing symmetria. Sculptures can be personated through first-person inscriptions, the kore of Phrasikleia being a well-known example. The inscription is read as if spoken by the statue, bringing the deceased into the here-and-now. Numerous other statues bear first-person inscriptions, including Phidias’ chryselephantine Zeus at Olympia. Witcombe also notes that personation through inscription extended to non-figural things, like various objects with dedicatory inscriptions and painted pottery with artists’ signatures.

In the final chapter, “Classical Greek Aesthetics,” Witcombe discusses symmetria—the means, not the cause of why Greek art looks the way it does. Athenaeus claims that sculpture was the relic of ancient ways of dancing; the rhythm and harmony of dance turned xoana into kouroi and korai and refined these forms over time. The shapes, forms, and gestures of dance carried significance, and Witcombe also finds their translation in visual art in funerary scenes on Geometric vases. Viewers would recognize the threnodes in the mourners’ gestures, see the dance, and hear the song. Korai dedicated on the Acropolis reproduced a processional dance from a festival in honor of the goddess. Sculptures, then, can represent dancers in the guise of gods, warriors, celebrants, etc. Statues like Riace warrior A, in this interpretation, do not represent warriors, but rather someone (a dancer or actor) in the guise of a warrior. The aesthetics of these statues derived from the aesthetics of dance. They are realistic, that is to say lifelike, but not naturalistic in that they are not a mirror of nature. Witcombe notes that discussions of Greek art since the Renaissance have centered on idealism, the notion that Classical Greek artists strived after Plato’s idea or pure Form. He argues that Classical artists did not idealize, but rather worked in an aesthetic deeply influenced by dance and its visual experience.

Witcombe draws parallels between musical modes and visual media. Different media (colors and shapes), like different musical modes, are associated with different emotions, but do not contain or represent emotions. Until the mid-fifth century, musical compositions were composed in a single mode and thus were clear and focused, which he compares to the realistic but not naturalistic Riace warrior. This singular emotion, without internal complexity, was a defining characteristic of the Severe and High Classical styles of the fifth century.

Witcombe points out that from the Greek and Roman point of view, the art of the fifth century was not a high point but a moment of transition to the “supreme accomplishments” of the fourth century. Literary sources tell us Lysippus surpassed all fifth-century sculptors, and that the “true luminaries” of painting all worked in the fourth century. Interest in the expression of feelings and emotions in the fourth century is the culmination of the pursuit of lifelikeness begun by Daedalus at the beginning of the Archaic period. Natural lifelikeness—the quality of humanness in terms of enactment and personation according to symmetria—was finally achieved in the fourth century with the shift from heroic to human representations. In this respect, Witcombe’s study is really about Late Classical and Hellenistic aesthetics, even though it is presented as a diachronic view. Developments in Archaic and Early Classical sculpture are viewed as developments toward High Classical and Hellenistic art. Witcombe concludes his study with the observation that in the fifth and fourth centuries, from Phidias to Lysippus, “the aesthetics of Greek visual culture were established for all time. All the elements are present and all subsequent art … for the most part merely reproduces, repeats with different emphases, and occasionally exaggerates either form or content or both by adjusting the proportional relationships of the component variables governing symmetria” (217). This is not an especially sympathetic assessment of Archaic and Early Classical art, and implies both that everything before Phidias was somehow immature or incompletely formed and that Late Hellenistic and Roman art were essentially derivative of earlier work. Artists of the Archaic period (the hypothetical Daedalus) did not judge their own work in terms of what came after it, but rather by the idiosyncratic aesthetic standards of their own time.

Nevertheless, Witcombe’s collection and analysis of written sources on the visual arts provide meaningful insights into the contemporary aesthetic values of the makers and beholders of ancient art. His suggestion that statues represent individuals in the guise of gods or warriors rather than literal warriors is perceptive of the stylized nature of ancient Greek art. The implication is, I believe, that even when an image is meant to represent a specific, historical individual, aspects like pose, attributes, and costume are carefully selected to emphasize the desired habitus of the individual rather than his or her literal appearance. However, I think at times Witcombe overstates sculpture’s dependence on other art forms. It is useful to consider how music and dance influenced the work of sculptors, but the influence was certainly not unidirectional, and sculptors were undoubtedly able to invent forms on their own. They need not have been limited to depicting images of dancers inhabiting various roles.

The aims of this book and of archaeoaesthetics are intriguing, but in a book claiming to introduce a new methodology, specific methods and approaches are never laid out. The evidence presented in the book comes primarily from ancient literary sources, and Witcombe demonstrates familiarity with most of the important recent scholarship, but for the most part only discusses secondary sources as they relate to ancient sources. He draws heavily, as can be expected, on J.J. Pollitt’s The Ancient View of Greek Art, and though he occasionally departs from Pollitt’s views (15 n. 53), Witcombe does not make it clear how his approach differs substantially from Pollitt’s. Since archaeoaesthetics is presented as a wholly new methodology, it is perhaps not surprising that Witcombe does not devote much space to responding to other scholars’ claims. Nevertheless, I feel it would have been helpful to better situate his approach into a broader scholarly context.

These criticisms notwithstanding, Witcombe offers an interesting and insightful collation of ancient aesthetic values in visual art, poetry, music, and dance that will be of interest to anyone working on the overlap of any of these media. One hopes that the coming volumes in the series will provide further understanding of the method of archaeoaesthetics and its potential applications.

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