BMCR 2011.07.42

The Emergence of the Classical Style in Greek Sculpture

, The Emergence of the Classical Style in Greek Sculpture. Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 2010. xiv, 262. ISBN 9780226570631. $65.00.

In modern scholarly writing, satisfactory explanations of why the sculptural styles of the Archaic period were largely given up in preference for those of the Classical age of Greece are hard to come by. As Ernst Gombrich pointed out in “Reflections on the Greek Revolution” and elsewhere in his landmark 1961 book, Art and Illusion, existing explanations of the development of the Classical style had serious drawbacks. Some theories lack explanatory power because they are essentially teleological, ascribing a certain inexorability to the stylistic developments. Other theories attribute the development of the Classical style to forces outside of artistic production, such as changes in Greek attitudes after the Persian Wars, the rise of democracy at Athens, or the development of science and rhetoric, which leaves unexplained precisely how change in artistic self-understanding, practice, and reception came about. Gombrich’s own explanation has failed to convince many scholars, largely because it overemphasized the relationship between the creation and reception of a work of representational art, on the one hand, and some putative model in the real world that the art seeks to reproduce.1 Recent discussions of the development of the Classical style have focused on changes in the relationship between representation and beholder. It is noteworthy, however, that major disagreement remains over the basic question of which style, the Archaic or the Classical, tended to encourage interaction between represented figure and beholder.2

Richard Neer’s highly original book takes up the thread of this long-running debate and offers a new way forward. Its principal thesis is that the Classical style of Greek sculpture does not represent a fundamental break with the values embodied in Archaic sculpture. The development of the Classical style was rather an intensification of the Archaic style in terms of its effects. Methodologically, the book primarily makes its case on the basis of two forms of inquiry and argumentation. One is a highly effective use of careful description and visual analysis of individual works of sculpture. Neer is concerned to reorient our attention from a traditional but problematic interest in the relationship between sculptural representation and its hypothetical real-world models. Like other recent writing about the rise of the Classical style, he argues in favor of forms of analysis that are attentive to what the work does to or invites from the beholder. The second form of inquiry examines ancient Greek texts in order to reconstruct the expectations or assumptions shaping the response to the image in early Greece. The textual analyses focus on the Greek term thauma, “wonder,” which frequently occurs in descriptions of the experience of art or cunningly wrought artifacts. The experience of thauma is related, in the texts, to several specific qualities of the works, the most important of which, for the argument of the book, are radiance and doubleness. By doubleness is meant the twofold recognition of a representation as both a material thing as well as an immaterial object of representation. Related to doubleness is another Greek term that occurs in discussions of the sources of aesthetic wonder, namely paralogismos or “false inference.”

The body of the book exemplifies the ways in which the effects of early Greek art, as concretized in early Greek statues and descriptions of thaumata, continue to manifest themselves in Classical sculpture. Chapter Two takes up the development of extended poses. The material out of which key Early Classical statues were created, bronze, made possible the extension of the limbs of human figures. But extended poses were not necessarily the primary reason why bronze was valued as a sculptural medium. In the Archaic period, white marble was prized not merely because it was handy but, more significantly, for its reflective qualities. The sparkle of marble produced just the sort of radiance traditionally associated with thauma. For the creation of radiance, polished bronze was even more effective. Its development as a sculptural medium can thus be understood as an attempt at intensifying a traditional Archaic value. The extended poses of the Tyrannicides and the Zeus from Artemision intensified the light effects that arguably were a primary desideratum. The Zeus and Tyrannicides, like bursts of light, appear to charge the space of the beholder. The apogee of the development of this sculptural interest is seen in the sparkling chryselephantine statues manufactured by Pheidias.

Chapter Three takes up statues of draped, female figures in relationship to the quality of doubleness. Statues were traditionally understood to be containers, the contents of which diaphainei, “shine through,” in the surface of the statue. The recognition of the twofold character of sculptural drapery, which encourages the beholder to engage in paralogismos, to perceive something beneath it, while, concurrently, acknowledging that there is nothing to the sculpture but its surface, is a significant source of the thauma that is the traditional, desirable effect of sculpture. The point is exemplified in perceptive visual analyses of the carved female figures on the so-called Ludovisi throne, and, in the subsequent chapter, the charioteer from Mozia. On the charioteer, the vertical striations of the tunic, which is so snug as to defy attempts to understand it in terms of realism, reveal the contours of an underlying body more effectively than naked skin while, simultaneously, calling attention insistently to the carved surface of the stone.

Chapter Four continues the examination of surface-effects of sculpture in relation to representations of male figures. Two widely held assumptions are addressed. One is a belief in the anatomical accuracy of Classical sculpture, the other, the idea that the revelation of ēthos or “character” is one of sculpture’s most important aims. Neer calls attention to the subtle but real distortions in statues of the highest quality, such as the unrealistic iliac indentations on the Riace bronzes. They are less well accounted for in terms of idealism, and better understood as highlighting the ways in which the surfaces of the statues create impressions of invisible features beneath. With respect to how sculpture conveys ēthos, the argument emphasizes the beholder’s role in paralogismos, in projecting character onto a sculptural representation based on what is marked on its surface. In an illuminating analysis of the Prokne and Itys, Neer suggests that the relationship of sculptural surface to psychological depth became a self-conscious element of some Classical sculpture. The manner in which Itys, in his anxiety, sinks into his mother’s clothing—a marvel of carving, seemingly transforming stone into something malleable—directs our attention, like waking us from a dream, to the material fact that there is nothing beneath the surface.

Chapter Five is concerned with Classical Athenian funerary relief sculpture of the late fifth and early fourth centuries. It argues that Classical relief makes reference to, or mobilizes, earlier modes of sculptural representation, including Archaic grave stelai, to achieve its effects. The argument is exemplified in a compelling formal analysis of the so-called Cat Stele.

Richard Neer has read widelyand not afraid to make intellectual connections. Given the amount of learning fitted into this book, and its argumentative character, it is inevitable, as the author foresaw, that readers will find things to quibble with. I mention three specific points:

First, problematic in the analyses of thauma in early Greek literature are the claims regarding the centrality of doublenessto its stated effects and the divine origins of many of the relevant works of art. The two aspects are often related. Representational art or artifacts produced by the gods are often appreciated for their cunning deception, rather than the twofold character of the work, because gods and mortals are often fully deceived by the representations. One worries, additionally, that in epic ekphrastic writing the emphasis is on the superiority of poetic narrative to visual representation, on the capacity of a poet to effect twofoldness in ways that a visual artist cannot.

Second, the analysis in Chapter Two of pedimental composition in the Archaic and Classical periods is in part problematic. It is true that there is continuity from the earliest extant pedimental compositions to Classical ones, in a predilection for featuring a central, often epiphanic divine figure, who engages the viewer visually, and subsidiary figures who engage with each other in narrative interactions. Where the argument becomes more difficult to accept is in the claim that conceptual or narrative discontinuities between central and subsidiary figures remain even in many Classical temple pediments.3

Third and most significantly, many visual analyses of Classical grave reliefs in Chapter Five rest on a theory according to which freestanding kouroi and Archaic funerary reliefs correspond to two fundamentally different social and political orientations within aristocratic Archaic Greek culture, a Panhellenic, “elite” orientation, and a pro-polis, “middling” one. As several scholars have recently pointed out, there are serious weaknesses to the methodological underpinnings and specific interpretations associated with the theory that Archaic Greek culture was polarized into such discrete ideologies.4 The argument that different formats of Archaic sculptural production had fundamentally different political connotations is, to me, not persuasive. It also gets in the way of other, more productive interpretations. The overemphasis on veiled allusions to a pre-democratic and ostentatious practice of privately setting up freestanding statues results in an underemphasis on the specific semantic value of each particular sculptural allusion.

The book’s most productive arguments are two: that the visual analysis of sculpture is incomplete unless a beholder is factored into it; and that the salient characteristic of sculpture is its invitation to see both a manipulated material object and an immaterial represented object. The utility of those arguments is abundantly evidenced in many perceptive visual analyses in this book. The genealogy of those arguments, however, is less clear. Sophisticated accounts of image-beholder relationships are neither a recent innovation nor distinct from “formalism” (p. 11), but go back to early-twentieth-century art-historical writings such as Alois Riegl’s 1902 Das höllandische Gruppenporträt and continue in more recent rigorous formalist writing about art, such as that of Richard Wollheim, whose accounts of “seeing-in” and “twofoldness” dovetail with the argument of this book.5 Instead, Neer cites Jean-Pierre Vernant, whose work on early Greek language and conceptions of the image is prominent both in the introduction and in the first half of Chapter One.6 Yet the language of Vernant unhelpfully suggests that the sculptural objects themselves possess the qualities of absence-in-presence, which Neer understands as, properly speaking, the beholder’s share. Also, Vernant’s approach privileges literary testimonia over sculptural objects themselves as informants, whereas, as Neer rightly put it, to understand the ways in which images structure understanding, “the images themselves must be the best evidence” (p. 13).

The “formalist” thinking about art that began over one hundred years ago in the writings of Riegl among others is arguably one of the very distinctive and consequential features of the history of art as a discipline. A significant part of the importance of Neer’s book, in my opinion, consists in the imaginative ways in which he has brought that intellectual tradition, with which he is thoroughly familiar, to bear on the question of the emergence of the Classical style.


1. E. g., Guy Hedreen, Capturing Troy: The Narrative Functions of Landscape in Archaic and Early Classical Greek Art (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), 226-233; Jaś Elsner, “Reflections on the ‘Greek Revolution’ in Art: From Changes in Viewing to the Transformation of Subjectivity,” in Rethinking Revolutions Through Ancient Greece, ed. Simon Goldhill and Robin Osborne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 68-95.

2. Compare Elsner, cited above, and Jeremy Tanner, The Invention of Art History in Ancient Greece: Religion, Society and Artistic Rationalisation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 31-96.

3. On this problem, see Hedreen, “The Trojan War, Theoxenia, and Aigina in Pindar’s Sixth Paian and the Aphaia Sculptures,” in Songs for Aigina: Contextual Studies of Pindar and Bacchylides, ed. David Fearn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 354-367.

4. E. g., Dean Hammer, “Ideology, the Symposium, and Archaic Politics,” AJP 125 (2004): 479-512.

5. Richard Wollheim, Painting as an Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 46-59.

6. The importance of doubleness appears to ground itself differently in the second half of Chapter One, in an analysis of early Greek texts that provide a set of terms that inform the analyses in the remaining chapters.