BMCR 2013.02.27

A Companion to Greek Art (2 vols.). Blackwell companions to the ancient world. Literature and culture

, , A Companion to Greek Art (2 vols.). Blackwell companions to the ancient world. Literature and culture. Oxford; Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. 888. ISBN 9781405186049. $400.00.


As the editors suggest in their introduction, since the time of Martin Robertson’s monumental History of Greek Art (1975), the field has become simply too large for any one individual to be able to produce an authoritative survey. A companion, drawing on an international team of scholars, offers the possibility of up-to-date accounts of key materials, issues and debates in the history of Greek art. Ideally essays should afford newcomers a clear and engaging account of the state of play in particular areas, and also offer something to experts in the field, through a critical synthesis that takes debates further or opens up new directions for exploration. Smith’s and Plantzos’s volume only partly fulfils its promise, since it mixes work of real excellence with too many contributions which fall below the standards which ought to have been required for a publication of this character.

Overall, the Companion is well conceived and sensibly organised. Following a general introduction by the editors, Part II (Forms, Times and Places) focusses on broad categories of material: painted pottery, sculpture, architecture, painting, mosaics, luxury arts, terracottas and so on. Part III (Contacts and Colonies) addresses the character and transformation of Greek art in the context of the broader Mediterranean world, with essays on Egypt and North Africa, Cyprus and the Near East, Asia Minor, the Black Sea and Sicily and South Italy. Part IV (Images and Meanings) is broadly iconographical in orientation, with essays on religious iconography, personification, gender and sexuality, social transitions (birth, marriage, death), and competition and performance (athletics and drama) amongst others. Part V (Greek Art: Ancient to Antique) acknowledges the increasing importance of the history of reception, with essays on the Roman appropriation of Greek art, late antique attitudes, the Grand Tour, museums and debates over cultural heritage, bringing reception up to the contemporary period. The scholarly team is genuinely international, drawing on contributors from the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Greece and Turkey, amongst others. This means that in many cases we have some of the foremost experts in particular fields as the authors of the essays, some of which will be indispensable reading for everyone in the field.

In Part II, a number of essays stand out as offering exactly the kind of contribution that a Companion requires. Stavros Paspalas gives a wonderfully succinct and critical discussion of our rapidly changing knowledge of regional (i.e. non-attic) traditions and workshops of Greek painted pottery, covering Corinthian, Boeotian, Euboean, Lakonian, Elean, Cycladic (esp. the identification of so-called ‘Melian’ ware as actually Parian), Cretan and East Greek (as informed by the results of recent excavations at Miletus). Ruth Westgate offers an excellent synthetic review of work on mosaics, based on and referencing all the latest research, giving a good sense of where the action is in current debates about the history of mosaics, and concluding with an excellent bibliographic essay guiding the reader towards key resources for the study of mosaics (classic articles, regional collections, major publication series, associations for mosaic studies). Eleni Hasaki addresses recent research on workshops and technology, and combines a lucid account of our current knowledge on the workshops of potters, smiths and stoneworkers with interesting critical reflections on issues not yet adequately explored: the distinctive suites of skills required by both potters and painters when working on vases of different scales; the complementary character of the skills sets of different crafts, and their implications for collaboration across crafts. Also very much worth reading in this section are Lucilla Burn’s judicious account of terracottas; François de Callataÿ’s eloquent and stimulating plea for the more systematic integration of coins into the history of Greek art; and Kenneth Lapatin’s excellent survey of ‘Ancient writers on art’, offering a critical, up-to-date and fully referenced discussion of the major categories of written evidence of relevance to the history of Greek art, and the specific problems and possibilities which they present – his discussions of Pliny and Pausanias are particularly incisive.

In practice, our standard histories of Greek art are still too much concentrated on the Greek mainland, although it is in the more far-flung parts of the Mediterranean and beyond that our knowledge has most changed in the last generation, and integrating this new material into the broader picture is surely one of the most pressing tasks for our field. Against this background, the set of essays in part III (Contacts and Colonies) is very welcome, and three are particularly noteworthy. Sabine Weber’s account of the Greeks in Egypt and North Africa, is particularly strong on contacts with Egypt in the archaic period, making excellent use of recent collaborative projects on the finds from Naukratis. Tamar Hodos re-evaluates the role of Near Eastern connections in the history of early Greek art in the context of recent criticisms of colonial and ethnic models of cultural affiliation and cultural borrowing. Clemente Marconi gives a magisterial synthesis of recent research on Greek art in Sicily and Southern Italy, discussing what the colonial situation might entail in relation to art, and with a particular focus on questions of acculturation, transmission and hybridisation.

Part IV (Images and meanings) offers a series of essays on iconographic issues. Most of these are very useful and workmanlike surveys: H.A. Shapiro on the Olympian gods; Amy Smith on personifications; Beth Cohen on representations of others; John Oakley on iconography of rites of passage; Tyler Jo Smith on competition and performance, in athletics and drama, as evidenced in Greek art. A couple stand out as exceptionally valuable. Timothy McNiven’s contribution on “Sex, gender and sexuality” is an ideal introduction to iconographies of sex and gender. Niven unpacks the cultural rhetorics of a series of well-chosen vases as the basis of a critical engagement with issues of three genders, the problematic character of modern concepts of homosexuality and heterosexuality in relation to ancient evidence, and issues of realism, the “seeming transparency” of Greek art. Francois Lissarague sketches the history of iconographic approaches to Greek religion, from Montfaucon to the Cambridge Ritualists, before offering a succinct demonstration of modern structural iconography as a method for understanding the articulations of Greek religious culture, with three case studies of: sacrifice, procession and consumption; space, gestures and time (in depictions of libation and supplication) and Dionysian imagery. The section concludes with a counterblast against iconography (and meaning) by James Whitley, entitled ‘Agency in Greek Art’. Unfortunately the theoretical and the empirical argumentation is overdetermined by Whitley’s polemical agenda, namely an insistence that the only proper approach to Greek material culture (the term ‘art’ he considers inadmissible) is that of the social archaeology. Unlike Whitley, Gell argues that the concept of art is one which can be applied cross-culturally, since even if a concept of art as such does not exist, the use of certain forms of material culture in ways which bear close family resemblance to the domain that we call art does. Assimilating Gell’s analytic framework to the somewhat reductive social archaeology espoused by Whitley seems to entail ignoring the focus on material agency, the “technologies of enchantment”, that is to say the artist’s contribution, which is absolutely central to Gell’s account of art as agency. Consequently, the analysis offered does not take us in any very fruitful directions.

The final section of the Companion, ‘Greek Art Ancient to Antique’ explores the ways in which contemporary understanding of Greek art has been shaped by cultural and social contexts of the reception of Greek art from the Roman period to today. This section also contains some essays which should quickly become standards in our course bibliographies. In “Greek Art through Roman eyes” Michael Squire explores the difficulty of separating our understanding of Greek art from the Roman imperial appropriations of it, in such objects as the Iliac Tablets, the Sperlonga sculptures and the paintings of the Villa Farnesina, offering a wonderful exemplification in (epigrammatic) miniature of the styles of argument he has developed at rather greater length in his recent (epic) books. Sue Blundell gives an interesting account of some of the ways in which the Grand Tour shaped encounters with ancient Greek art, beautifully framed with an account of the 1802 board game, Tour of Europe: a New Geographical Pastime. Lucie Wall Stylianopoulos concludes the volume by “Surveying the Scholarship”, a really useful essay offering a guide to key databases, websites and content portals for classical art historians as well as to publications in more traditional media, encyclopaedias like LIMC, excavation reports and the national archaeological schools’ key journals.

Clearly, there are many examples of really excellent work in this Companion. But there is also, sadly, a quite substantial number of essays which seem not of a sufficiently high standard to have merited inclusion. Some essays seem to have been written by contributors who simply lacked the requisite level of knowledge of their specific area to produce a competent account of it. Dimitris Plantzos, in his contribution on “Wall- and Panel Painting”, complains there is no up-to-date synthetic approach to Greek painting since Martin Robertson’s Greek Painting (1959). But this is largely a function of reviewing only scholarship in English and Greek, and thus ignoring the most important monographs published in the last generation, in French and German, as well as the considerable body of important Italian scholarship. Delia Tzortzaki’s account of museums and classical art (pp. 667-682) – comparing the place of classical art in the Louvre, the Met, the BM, and the National Museum in Athens – is based on rather superficial analysis of a handful of museum guides and histories. It falls far short of the standards of quality set by a growing corpus recent research on classical art and museums grounded in careful archival or ethnographic research, of which she seems to be unaware. Confidence is not enhanced by her statement that Lysippus and Praxiteles, as exemplars of Winckelmann’s beautiful style, were contemporaries of Perikles in the 5 th century BC (669, repeated 670), and that the classicism first emerged “in Hadrian’s time in the second century BC” (680).

Other contributors seem to have little sense of the character of a useful companion essay. Thomas Mannack’s essay on Athenian vase painting simply describes a series of styles which “evolved seamlessly”(40) or “naturally” (44) into one another, on occasion “not without outside influences” (44). His account of red-figure is little more than a list of painters with randomly associated facts: “The pioneers painted the beauty of Leagros and introduced the neck amphora with twisted handles” (54). There is no critical reflection on concepts of workshops, on attribution, or on how one might conceptualise and explain change in more sophisticated ways, despite the fact that some of the most interesting recent work in the field has addressed such issues. Dimitris Damaskos offers a similarly bland survey of “Free-standing and relief sculpture”, describing features of style and typology period by period. Very little recent research is cited or discussed; most references are to the Thames and Hudson handbooks on Greek sculpture by Boardman and Smith.

A third group of contributors simply ignores the ostensible theme of the volume, A Companion to Greek Art, and seem to have chosen to produce general surveys of their own area of interest, without making the effort to tailor the selection and discussion of the material to the purpose of the volume. Jan Bouzek offers a broad review of recent research in the archaeology of the Greeks in the Black Sea, much of which, like the section on “Agriculture, handicrafts and fishing”, has no relevance to understanding Greek art in the Black Sea. Stelios Lekakis’s essay on “The cultural property debate” addresses a very worthwhile topic to have in a Companion to Greek Art, but sadly it offers a confused survey of changing ideas about cultural heritage in the West with next to no discussion of their entailments for the collection and preservation of Greek art and for classical art history as a discipline. Stephen Dyson’s essay ostensibly on “Greek art at university in the 19th and 20th centuries” is actually a general survey of the history of classical archaeology, in which the history of the study of ancient art plays a vanishingly small role.

A Companion to Greek Art is generally well-produced: well designed and printed, excellent sewn-bindings so that they will have reasonably long life in university libraries, and pretty generously illustrated. That said, some of the contributions do not seem to have been properly edited, in particular those of contributors whose first language is not English. There are also some issues of missing bibliographical references, which is particularly tiresome in a volume such as this, most notably in Jill Johnson Deupi’s essay on “The antique legacy from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment”, where roughly one third of the items mentioned in the bibliographical essay at the end are not to be found in the volume’s bibliography, leaving the interested reader at a loss to track down Bull 2005 or Bolgar 1977, for example.

Overall, Tyler’s and Plantzos’s Companion to Greek Art offers a great many useful essays, which will, I am sure, be a regular point of reference for students and scholars in the field. Sadly, it is significantly marred by some very second rate contributions. It is much to be hoped that these will either be rewritten or replaced in a second edition, in order to bring the whole volume up to the impressively high standard set by the best chapters.