BMCR 2004.08.10

The Poetics of Appearance in the Attic Korai

, The poetics of appearance in the Attic korai. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004. 1 online resource (xiv, 230 pages, 32 unnumbered pages of plates) : illustrations. ISBN 029279763X $45.00.

Among the spate of recent publications on the archaic korai, the work of Mary Stieber (hereafter S.) is conspicuous for its emphasis on formal analysis.1 Despite the title, the author does not subscribe to the current theoretical approach of cultural poetics. Rather, she argues that the mimetic realism of the sculptures reflects a concern for individualization; hence the korai must represent real women, as opposed to generic, idealizing figures, heroic or mythological characters, or divinities. In many ways, S.’s study, which is derived from her doctoral dissertation, represents a kind of continuity with the fundamental monograph by Gisela Richter in terms of its analytical approach and basic assumptions.2 But while S. privileges the visual evidence, at the same time she aims to contextualize her conclusions within archaic Athenian society by considering the relationship between the sculptures and literature, especially archaic poetry. Although some of her interpretations are speculative, the author’s attention to detail illuminates many hitherto unnoticed features that will be of interest to students of Greek sculpture and iconography.

The book is divided into five chapters plus an introduction (but no conclusion, which makes for an abrupt ending). The author’s basic premise, outlined in the Introduction, is that “the essence of realism in any work of art lies in the accretion of information and meaning provided by accumulating layers of detail” (her italics) (p. 7). The development of the archaic sculptural style allowed for ever-increasing detail and therefore expanded potential for individualization. The author’s adherence to formal analysis is defended in Chapter 1, a historiography of the kore as a sculptural type and its various interpretations. As she rightly notes, few Athenians were literate during the archaic period, so that visual imagery was an essential means of conveying information. Hence, she argues, the inscriptions that accompanied the korai are of little value in their interpretation.3

In Chapter 2, tellingly named “The Reality of Appearances,” the author attempts what she calls “a semiotics of physical appearances” (p. 43), analyzing the statues according to categories largely borrowed from Richter: eyes, noses, mouths, skin tones, composite physiognomies, hair, garments, accoutrements (headdress, footgear, jewelry), and general body structures. But whereas Richter interpreted differences in the rendering of such features as indicators of regional and personal sculptural styles, S. identifies them as reflecting a desire on the part of the sculptor to render the actual physical appearance of the “sitter.” Whether the same can be argued for the kouroi is not addressed. This section is useful for its careful attention to the broad range of dress practices reflected among the korai. But, the author rightly warns: “[a]s mimetically realistic as the garments of the korai are, they remain artists’ renderings of reality, and as with any work of art, to whatever degree it aims or does not aim at mimetic accuracy, artifice is to be expected and respected; it is art’s prerogative, after all, to be artificial” (p. 69). This warning could also be applied to the other categories of analysis. In the end, this section does not provide “a semiotics of physical appearances” — the author assumes mimesis of actual appearances with little consideration of potential social meanings.

Chapter 3 considers the ancient evidence for the concepts of mimetic realism and portraiture. The literary evidence spans a broad chronological range, from Homer to Pliny, with an unfortunate emphasis on the Roman sources, when the tradition of portraiture is well established. The author assumes a correlation between literature and the visual arts, as with her assertion that “genre-type verbal ‘portraits’ may represent a legitimate reflection of the capabilities and intentions of contemporary visual artists” (p. 87). She is on firmer ground with the monumental evidence, although her identification of the twin kouroi Kleobis and Biton as “cognitive likenesses” and not true portraits is somewhat baffling: can we be confident that such a distinction was made in antiquity? One also wonders whether the conventions of male portraiture are appropriate to the female korai, given the general reticence towards public commemoration of women in archaic Athens.

Literature is central to the author’s interpretations of the sculptures in Chapter 4, “ConTEXTualizing the Korai.” Although the emphasis here is on lyric poetry, S. cites freely from Homer, tragedy, even Athenaeus (although she acknowledges the anachronism). Parallels between art and text are not overly sophisticated but demonstrate concordances in thought and, perhaps, individual behavior. S. notes, for example, that the korai appear to be frozen in “decorous movement,” stepping forward with the left foot while clenching the skirt in one hand. Sappho fr. 57 is the usual literary analogy, but S. has pursued others, including multiple references to beautiful feet and shoes. The implied movement of the figures, combined with what S. believes to be festival garments, leads the author to identify the korai as portraits of participants in the Panathenaia, or perhaps the ergastinai who wove the Panathenaic peplos; alternatively, they could be parthenoi dressed in wedding attire. S. is right to leave the specific identification of the korai open, especially as the human identity of the figures is still contested.4

The final chapter, on the Attic funerary kore of Phrasikleia, was originally published as an article in Boreas (vol. 19, 1996: 69-99). Although it has undergone substantial revision, it seems incongruous here. The author proposes that since Phrasikleia is neither from the Acropolis nor a votive, it provides “a unique opportunity to test the theory of the semiotics of appearance as a symptom of realism in Archaic Greek art in a case in which a statue is actually named” (p. 141). While the attempted comparison is to be applauded, in the end the treatment of Phrasikleia elucidates little about the Acropolis korai. The emphasis is on the iconography of flowers, specifically lotuses, which S. plausibly proposes are borrowed from Egyptian tradition. (Other purported links between the dress of the korai and Egyptian dress are less convincing.) The lotus, together with the red color of the peplos (chiton?), reflects the Phrasikleia’s virgin death and her unrealized marriage, confirming the information provided by the epitaph.

On the whole, this book is well presented, with few editorial errors (although “dying” for “dyeing” in one footnote is an unfortunate typo). The quality of the photographs is generally high, though some of the author’s own, often details or lesser-known statues, are unfortunately out of focus or overexposed.

In the inevitable comparisons with other recent publications on the same topic, this book stands out for its broad contextual framework and attention to formal detail. While some may quibble with the author’s identification of the korai as realistic portraits, the breadth and depth of her analysis is admirable. This volume will be fodder for a fresh debate on well-known materials.


1. K. Karakasi, Archaische Koren (Munich, 2001; English translation Los Angeles, 2003); C.M. Keesling, The Votive Statues of the Athenian Acropolis (Cambridge, 2003).

2. G. Richter, Korai, Archaic Greek Maidens: A Study of the Development of the Kore Type in Greek Sculpture (London, 1968).

3. Contra Keesling (2003), whose 1995 dissertation came to S.’s attention after the manuscript was accepted for publication.

4. Keesling, following Ridgway, identifies the korai as images of Athena.