BMCR 2010.04.32

Classical Greece and the Birth of Western Art

, Classical Greece and the Birth of Western Art. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xviii, 358. ISBN 9780521618359. $28.99 (pb).

Cambridge University Press published J. J. Pollitt’s Art and Experience in Classical Greece in 1972. The premise of that innovative and thought-provoking book was to accept as fact the formal development of Greek sculpture and painting toward “more naturalistic representation of anatomy, drapery and the like”, and to question whether increased naturalism was the aim of Greek artists. Pollitt’s goal was to “suggest some of the basic cultural experiences which the arts were used to express and to analyze how they were used to express them”, and to facilitate clearer comprehension of how ancient viewers experienced and understood the content in the visual arts of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. Brief summaries of the political and historical backgrounds for the various periods were presented, but the emphasis was more on studying influences of literature on art, for Pollitt saw “the same motivating forces” shaping both. “To what experiences, or reactions to experience, do they both give expression?”(Pollitt, xiii-xiv) The book has been important in encouraging scholars to broaden their approach in studying the development and function of Greek art.

After nearly forty years, Cambridge asked Pollitt if he would consider creating a new edition of his book. This certainly would have been a worthy project, for one can assume that he would have updated his references and provided any new analyses or conclusions he had arrived at in the ensuing years. Pollitt, however, declined. Cambridge turned to Andrew Stewart to take on the task. Stewart decided not to write a replacement for Pollitt’s book, but “to do something different”. He has removed the words “art” and “experience” from the title, and sets aside what he refers to as Pollitt’s broad-brush, impressionistic approach. The subject has been expanded to cover the “history, society, culture, in macrocosm and microcosm, as appropriate” of Classical Greece and the birth of western art. (Stewart, xvii, 23-25) Stewart is writing for a broad audience, but, as with Pollitt, the reader is expected to possess some basic information about Greek archaeology. For example, when Stewart opens his discussion of the Parthenon sculptures, he presents technical details regarding the temple’s proportions and uses sophisticated architectural vocabulary (regula, guttae); while there are a number of illustrations, there is no comprehensive description of the building. He does supply a good deal of information that is useful for introductory readers, however, including four maps, a glossary, a chronological list of important events and dates, and biographical sketches of politicians, artists, philosophers, and military leaders who are discussed in the text. Stewart’s book is more than one-third larger than Pollitt’s, with twice the number of illustrations.1 Since all spheres of the public and private lives of ancient Greeks (especially Athenians) are given prominence, far more space (ca. 50 of the 300+ pages) is dedicated to political and historical persons and episodes. Specific topics and events receive special attention in highlighted text boxes. The scope of both books is similar in that the chapters present, as one would expect, the chronological periods of Greek art and history (Archaic through the late Classical periods). Stewart has two additional chapters (“Interlude: City, Household, and Individual in Classical Greece”; and “The Shadow of Macedonia”, an excellent overview of the rise of Macedonia under Philip II), while Pollitt includes a very brief “Epilogue”.

Stewart describes the goal of his book as challenging the idea that “art merely reflects the events, concerns, and ideas of its time”. Rather his intent is to examine Classical Greek art (along with poetry, drama, philosophy, religion, mythology, music, sport, politics) as a participant in civic discourse. Greek art was a creature of the polis. “[I]t engages in an ongoing debate about the city … and its relation to its past, present, and future, to its own inhabitants, and to the outside world.”(p. 24) His focus is squarely Athenocentric, but one cannot fault Stewart for it since so much important evidence derives from that city, although east and west Greece merit more than the few sentences they receive. The emphasis in this volume, however, frequently is less on art and more on how historical occurrences shaped Greek culture and society. With such a great amount of historical detail, important comments related specifically to the arts are often overwhelmed by the profusion of political and military persons and episodes.

Stewart’s parallel presentation of contemporary life and literature intersperses history with Greek drama to great effect (pp. 38-45, 92-93, 218-20).

He explores how the philosophers, poets, and playwrights often responded directly to historical, political, or social situations in their works. And he demonstrates how these (by comparison) more ephemeral arts were produced specifically for a contemporary audience.

Stewart provides detailed descriptions of technical innovations that were important to the development of Greek art. Balance, chiasmos, and proportion in art, math, and the sciences are illustrated for the human body and for music. There is a comprehensive explanation of optics in Greek painting illustrated by an elegant description of a vase by the Brygos Painter. Foreshortening, orthogonals, diminution, shadowing, and color gradation in painting are defined, described, and discussed in their philosophical contexts (pp. 38-40, fig. 17; 47-50, fig. 22; 144-46, fig. 23; 202-06).

The study of influences from contemporary culture on architecture can be more problematic since monuments often had a religious association and were intended to be on permanent display over time and across generations. Large building programs were complex projects involving planning, funding, commissioning, and construction that could require a good deal of time. Thus, it is more difficult to make specific connections between current events and the production of public architecture. Stewart does present a number of examples where he thinks this is possible. For example, he is inclined to accept an interpretation of the Parthenon frieze in which the large number of cavalry are seen to reflect Perikles’ reform of the corps from the aristocracy to a much larger democratized unit with archers.2 He does not answer, however, which are the archers in the frieze? For the sake of general readers, it would have been helpful if this hypothesis had been presented along with other scholarly opinions.

There is much commentary regarding the effects of sexuality, specifically influences resulting from the male-dominated society, on Greek art and culture. Stewart believes that Greek sculpture is fundamentally erotic.3 Thus, the Parthenon frieze is described as a homoerotic device.(140-41) The Nike parapet is characterized as intended to be sexually inviting to male observers (as is the Nike of Paionios), and he refers to it as the ancient equivalent of a wet T-shirt contest.4 “A culture that instinctively gendered the spectator as male, shielded its women from strangers’ prying eyes, and regarded vision as long-distance touch would see these gorgeous, scantily clad young females as ravishingly sexy and inviting. Victory teasingly presents itself in the flesh — and what flesh!” (198-200). Whether one agrees with all of his ideas regarding the sexual content in and the sexual reaction to Greek art, one must be grateful that his studies in this area lead Stewart to include interesting and thoughtful discussions about ancient Greek girls and women, both free and slave, in peacetime and during war (pp. 12, 73-74, 174-81, 190, 222-26, figs 92-95).

Debate regarding whether certain figures in Greek art should be described as nude while others are naked is broached in the Introduction, and this discussion influences the descriptions of figures throughout the text. Stewart rejects the linguistic use of nudity as denoting a kind of costume (as proposed by Larissa Bonfante and others) and characterizes all unclothed figures as naked. For the Athenians on one red-figured lekythos, however, he does describe their “collective nudity and heroic-style”. Choosing to use a single adjective for all unclothed figures can obscure the idea that there are different messages conveyed by different figures, such as the Artemision Zeus, the Aphrodite of Knidos, the Doryphoros, and figures in homoerotic scenes (pp. 12, 17 and n. 4; 195, 197, figs. 8, 36, 103).

Another concept with which Stewart sees a problem is analysis of style because, as he points out, the Greeks did not develop a sophisticated stylistic vocabulary until quite late. He refers to the study of composition and style as a “typically modern obsession”. In discussing statues from the Severe period, he chooses to describe them in somewhat unspecific terms as having “…simplicity, strength, vigor, rationality, and intelligence. Much of this is conveyed via proportion and contrapposto; by dynamic postures and robust modeling; and by sober facial expressions…”5 In dismissing stylistic analysis in the examination of the pediments from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia and the Parthenon, he identifies posture and gesture as indicators of character or ethos at Olympia, whereas for the Parthenon figures it is anatomy and drapery as well. The Master sculptor chose (for the Parthenon) “…expressive effect over stylistic consistency (so much for one of classicism’s supposedly key components!)”(p. 140). Stewart does not explore the usefulness of stylistic differences in anatomy, drapery, pose, facial features, and other elements in sculpture for establishing chronology, nor does he discuss how scenes and figures on pots would be classified and dated without analysis of style.

Certain basic information important to the analysis of Greek sculpture receives little or no attention. In the Introduction, the examples are extant primarily as Roman copies, yet there is no mention of the problems created by studying Greek statues through copies. In descriptions of architectural sculpture, such as from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia6 and the Parthenon, there is scant mention of different interpretations of the scenes depicted. Stewart does suggest, however, certain societal attitudes that may have inspired the Parthenon frieze.(138-39)

The title notwithstanding, this volume includes little discussion about art created after the Hellenistic period. And the few important comments concerning Medieval, Renaissance, and later art do not receive the stress they warrant. For example, regarding the paintings of the battles at Marathon and Oinoe in the Painted Stoa at Athens, Stewart says: Such monumental public pictorial display of “…contemporary events was quite new, inaugurating the great Western tradition of history painting and its successor, the documentary photograph.” This perceptive statement is just dropped into the brief section “Art and Drama” at the end of Chapter 2.7

A major problem with both Stewart’s and Pollitt’s books is the method of citing sources. Both use a smattering of footnotes supplemented by unnumbered references for each chapter at the rear of the book, which one must find by searching for an identifying word or phrase. (Stewart also has a selected bibliography divided among topics such as sculpture, literature, warfare, etc.). This method, which can be found in other books published by Cambridge and other academic presses, is annoyingly inefficient and unduly incomplete. Many important comments in Stewart’s text are not referenced. When one considers the wealth of information in these pages, it is a shame that so many sources are not identified for the reader. For example, in his discussion of the Doryphoros, Stewart states that Classical statues always had precise subjects, and says: “Indeed, there are hints in the sources that it represented Achilles, the greatest of all warriors”(p. 144). Those sources, however, are not identified. This idea would have made an interesting addition to Stewart’s argument regarding the concept of heroic nudity in art.

Citations are restricted primarily to the English language. Pollitt does include more than a dozen references in his supplementary sources in German, French, and Italian, and has a significant number of non-English references in his footnotes. All but three of Stewart’s footnotes and references are in English, however, and for those he is apologetic.8 His Selected Bibliography is entirely in English. Thus, some very important sources are omitted. Cambridge University Press expects its readers to absorb and understand a great deal of complex and detailed material, but apparently it is thought they would be too intellectually challenged by the use of comprehensive references and footnotes.

Stewart’s volume is intended for a broad audience, but it is not a general handbook. This is a discussion of Greek history, the cultural and political elements that made up Greek society in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., and their influences on the visual arts and literature. Since most books on ancient art provide a rather paltry amount of historical and cultural context, and books on ancient history usually give little room to the arts, this book will be a useful supplementary text to complement readings on specific topics in ancient Greek civilization, archaeology, and the history of art.


1. According to the publisher, more than half the illustrations are new and many are published here for the first time. The information in the captions is comprehensive, including date, material, size, and location. It would have been more convenient to have the illustrations grouped at the end of the book. Specific figures that are referenced more than once are time-consuming to locate inside the text. Some of the color photographs are crisp, but the overall quality of the illustrations is merely adequate. The drawings are excellent, but many of the color and gray-scale images needed to have the contrast adjusted, which is easily done in modern computer programs (e.g., figs. 21 and 44). Some of the details mentioned in the text are not visible in the photograph (e.g., fig. 17 and p. 39, “song”).

2. 116-18. For the remarks about the frieze, Stewart says he is indebted to an unpublished paper by Richard Neer; see References, 335.

3. For a more expansive discussion of the topic, see Andrew Stewart, Art, Desire, and the Body in Ancient Greece (Cambridge 1997), passim.

4. Stewart employs a significant number of colloquial terms and phrases. For example, “people-power” (demokratia), “Wise guys” (Sophists), “dynamic duo”, “How did [the Spartans] manage at the ATM?”. But such informal language is, at times, a distraction from the scholarly content.

5. 60, 99. Stewart identifies the Charioteer of Delphi as the first well-dated extant Greek original in this style; 60 n 8. Apparently this volume was already in press when Gianfranco Adornato raised questions about the dedicator and the dates of the sculpture and the inscription on Base 3517 in “Delphic Enigmas? The γελας ανασσον, Polyzalos, and the Charioteer statue,” AJA 112 (2008) 29-55. Stewart does cite this article in “The Beginning of the Classical Style, Parts 2 and 3,” AJA 112 (2008), 602 and n 116.

6. Stewart, 90, refers to the Temple of Hera at Olympia as originally having been the archaic Temple of Zeus. Since this is not a commonly held assumption, a reference for his evidence would have been useful.

7. 104. See also: 79-80, 147-48, 202-06, 207 n 4, 216-17; and Stewart’s comment: “[These] presage the text-and-image compositions of the Hellenistic period and, eventually, the entire tradition of western book illustration…But all this lies well beyond our horizons;” 264-72. Yet the birth of Western Art is promised by the title!

8. 146 n 10, 336, 339. On page 60, n 8, a German journal is described as formidably entitled; yet on page 67, fig. 32, the parts of Greek houses are labeled in German.