As promised by the title, Tonio Hölscher’s little gem of a book conjures up the lives of ancient images, from sculpture to pottery, wall paintings to mosaics. The chapters are based on a series of lectures given in 2015 within the Louvre Chair series, and were originally published as La vie des images grecques: sociétés de statues, rôles des artistes et notions esthétiques dans l’art grec ancien (Paris: 2015). The aim of these lectures is to allow scholars to present new hypotheses that stimulate transdisciplinary thinking about objects from all over the world, to an academic as well as to a wider audience. In this case the emphasis is on the role that images played in the lives of the inhabitants of Greek cities from the early Iron Age until Roman times.
The introduction immediately points out the exceptional ‘density and intensity’ of the culture of images prevalent in ancient Greece, that ‘may go beyond any other culture in world history’ (13). To study, and even to simply look at Greek art from this extraordinary context, in order to do justice to its special status requires us to forgo the modern habit of experiencing art in a purpose-made environment such as a museum that isolates it from its intended milieu. Instead, we must explore the original setting and activity of which such art was a key element. Considering the great outlay in means, energy, and cultural focus, Hölscher argues, this ‘unparalleled wealth of imagery’ (‘unvergleichlich reiche Bilderwelt’) cannot simply have been an aesthetic game but must have fulfilled a societal need of some urgency (14). Thus, the book aims to uncover how images functioned as agents that contributed to ancient societies.
The first step in this endeavor is one of definition. Images were part of what Hölscher presents as ‘conceptual communities’. Not only did the living inhabitants of a Greek city belong to it, but also ancestors as well as heroes and deities; the interaction among these three social groups created the parameters of life for those who were part of the community. Since the actual presence of ancestors or deities at ritual events was not possible, statues could act in their place, representing those who were absent. As such, statues were imbued with life (‘Belebung’), by being treated as fully capable agents in community gatherings. Their agency could focus on the statue itself (e.g. in rituals involving a cult image) or elsewhere. In the latter case the statues would be emphatically included into the setting of the activity, for example, the Tyrannicides in the Athenian Agora participating in the city’s political life.
Representation is one of the main functions of works of art, alongside the aspects of artefact, décor and ornament. Under the header ‘Artefact’, Hölscher summarily explores the meaning of materiality and the encounters between humans and objects that determine not only the appearance and use of objects, but also the character and behavior of human agents. Under ‘Dekor’ he considers the relation between function and shape, and the role of decoration in generating its object’s cultural meaning and worth. Ornament may seem at first glance to overlap with décor, but here Hölscher stresses the dual function of ornament: visually informing the shape of the object and, by so doing, enlivening it (33). The final category, ‘Figurative Decoration’, ranked the highest, is elucidated by examples like the Vix krater and architectural sculpture (33-36). Regarding the latter, Hölscher points out that temples are quite unsuitable for the perception of figurative imagery, a point which seems somewhat exaggerated. Although the frieze on the Vix krater can be viewed at close quarters, surely an architectural frieze at a considerable distance, but brightly colored and a meter tall, would be quite visible. The impact of ritual or leisurely processions that would have aided in considering such friezes or series of metopes is not mentioned.
The rest of the first chapter is dedicated to a thoughtful analysis of the meaning of realism in Greek art and the value judgements that have historically been attached to it. Hölscher observes that the development of natural sciences in the nineteenth century has given realism connotations that do not apply to ancient art (45; cf. 82-83). Instead, it is the cultural sphere of the ancient Greeks that should inform our view of what realism meant —in other words, ancient Greek realism is a product of ancient Greek cultural values. The problem arises in analyzing these values. Hölscher treads with considerable elegance the tightrope between critique of anachronistic approaches and the impossibility of being ancient Greeks (i.e., having internalized the values necessary for authentic interpretation of these images). Nonetheless, there are unavoidable pitfalls. One is that practically all the images cited in the book were undoubtedly created for those with wealth and power. While this is often explicitly mentioned —for example, with regard to the symposium, Macedonian grave gifts, official building projects, athletics and politics— the implicit surmise seems to be that the disenfranchised had no impact on these cultural values.
Admittedly whatever influence they had is extremely difficult to prove, as history does not record such processes, as a rule. But for an analysis that justly highlights the importance of contemporary cultural life and the conceptual community, it seems curious to populate both with the rich and famous alone. Even if upper classes played a leading role (52), the contribution of the very large group of ‘others’ at least warrants some investigation. A case in point are the large votive and grave monuments erected by wealthy Athenians: Hölscher mentions that all passers-by were addressed on an equal footing, by monuments advertising the status of their elite patrons. But the issue of small monuments possibly in perishable materials that could have been commissioned by non-elite patrons is not raised.
In chapter 2 Hölscher explores the historical development of images in Greek art organized roughly by context of use, i.e. sanctuaries, graves, and daily life (pottery). The manifold ways in which images spun the threads holding together the community are beautifully presented here. One example is Hölscher’s analysis of how depictions of Achilles on vases tapped into and bridged different generations of viewers and users of this pottery; a second is the use of images of Herakles’ various labors to raise the discourse about Greek selves and barbarian others (86-90). He concludes the chapter with some thoughts on the human form in art and the role of craftsmanship. The latter’s nature (‘Künstlertum’) is outlined with equally careful consideration. The only criticism, if any, would be that the analysis leaves little room for the constitutive agency of craftsmen, in particular regarding the sculpting of archaic kouroi and korai: ‘something that does not play any part is originality and individual expression’(98). I can agree that ‘The uniqueness of such works lies in the wisdom and knowledge of the world, not in creative innovation’ (98) as it applies to examples such as the Shield of Achilles or the Chest of Kypselos. But to extend this view, emphatically based on literary mentions of wonders of craftsmanship in an ancient past, to the more mundane practice of archaic sculpture would seem to require some justification. Craft learning is characterized by innovation, or at least development, by default; recent works on the sociology of craft1 and on the way in which materiality influences the development of craft skill 2 set out the inner workings of such processes in detail.
Chapter 3 delves into political and civic identities, and argues for the increasing impact of politics in all public domains of polis culture, from religion to tragedy (103). Increasing subordination of religion to politics from Kleisthenes onwards is a classic topos in scholarship, and Hölscher comprehensively lists the political uses of (religious) imagery. Yet more recent studies have suggested that religion was in fact far deeper engrained in life, and thus at the root of political and civic identity.3 While Hölscher expands the community of those who influenced imagery in Athens through the growth of democracy, the large group of the politically disenfranchised under the democracy continued to have no visible cultural impact on the values that are the basis of imagery. In some cases this is completely justified. The Tyrannicides (104-110), honorific statues of public figures, from athletes to political leaders (110-120), and polis representations at major sanctuaries (120-132) were obviously determined by governments and assemblies of citizens. But no examples of female honorary statues are mentioned. The examples that Hölscher provides contrast with Sheila Dillon’s work on female portrait statues 4. It would perhaps have been insightful to include public images whose honorands were not publicly politically active.
The section on the anthropological self and other in vase painting revolves around a wonderfully evocative narrative of the role of Theseus in vase paintings, the emotions conjured up by the Persian wars, and the murky promises hidden in Orphic iconography. The book is at its best in these parts, where Hölscher’s scholarship meets with understanding of the condition humaine. He argues that the anxiety of the Persian wars and the subsequent euphoria effectively constituted the East/West dichotomy that persists to this day (142). The imagery that highlighted these emotions became more charged, and thus more important to communities. This, Hölscher holds, might explain why in the late classical period artists appear more often as leading figures in the political institutions of their cities. With the increasing importance of images came increased importance of their makers. He traces this development from Pheidias and Polykleitos to Praxiteles and Zeuxis (145-150).
In contrast to earlier chapters that move back and forth between the geometric and late-classical eras, the final chapter regards the Hellenistic period alone The opening conveys rather wonderfully the thrill and excitement of the completely new style of rulership, even of being, of Alexander the Great. The heightened drama of his actions and behavior put him beyond comparison with the living: analogies with the menos of Greek heroes come to mind. An impressive range of portraits of Alexander’s successors follows, as well as the public monuments that exemplify display practice in the Hellenistic period, as for example the funerary ritual that Alexander laid out for Hephaistion (158-159). Hölscher connects this event and its use of images to the funeral of Ptolemy II (162) and points out that an inordinate amount of imagery was designed and produced according to a comprehensive iconographic program, only to be consumed by fire shortly after. He describes this as a material and intellectual form of conspicuous consumption. Large numbers of actors performing at Ptolemy’s funeral blurred reality and the world of images by acting out selected mythical events. The ephemeral nature of these images brings to mind the often-heard complaint that in our times, people do not really contemplate imagery any longer because of the advent of social media and technology. While there obviously is a large difference in scale for this phenomenon, the idea that imagery, even when crafted along sophisticated intellectual lines, always requires long-term attention is perhaps not as ubiquitous in antiquity as we often assume.
Such musings are what Hölscher generates with this book. It is a thoughtful, evocative, beautifully crafted contemplation on the circumstances from which sprang Greek art. It would not do its job if there were no points of disagreement, for it makes its readers think. Hölscher fulfills his self-professed goal admirably: a starting point for new discussions on Greek art in and of itself, and its key importance to the present day.
1. E. g., R. Sennett, The Craftsman (London: 2008).
2. T. Ingold, Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture (London: 2013).
3. J. Blok, Citizenship in Classical Athens (Cambridge: 2017).
4. S. Dillon, The Female Portrait Statue in the Greek World Cambridge: 2010).