October 17, 2018
Ancient Greek Art and Architecture
Classical Greek art and architecture have left its mark throughout the ages and across the world. The Greeks displayed life, beauty, love, war, tragedy, tradition, and strength in their artwork. Some of their greatest architecture still stands to this day. There are four different periods in which Greek art can be categorized: the Geometric period, the Archaic period, the Classical period, and the Hellenistic period.
To understand how classical Greek style evolved and what made Greek art so impressive; it is helpful to know what was happening in Greece culturally and politically. Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle began teaching during the Golden age of Greek art. It was also when Greek dramatists and play writers like Sophocles and Aristophanes first showcased their theater. The first step towards the world’s first democratic government in Athens was Draco’s Law, published in 621 BC. With Athens gaining domination of Greece in every way, it’s not surprising that Athenian influence is plain to see in their art.
Around 450 BC, Athenian general Pericles began an advertising campaign of sorts to win the populace. He commissioned several temples and building in Athens, all on a magnificent scale, hoping that this would draw tourism to the city and make him and the Athenian way of life more popular than ever. As part of Pericles campaign, he commissioned the Parthenon, which housed the legendary Athena Parthenos. A statue was said to be made of gold and ivory. Other prime examples of classical Greek art and sculptures were created in the Parthenon as well, such as the Birth of Athena and a battle between Poseidon and Athena.
In the early Geometric period, around 900 BC, ceramic vessels were primarily used as funerary items. Repetitive geometric shapes and stick figures were common features on these vessels. These crude stick figures were some of the first depiction of people in Greek art. Later on pottery became more utilitarian and decorative, and the human depictions became more rounded and realistic (Hodge 2006).
From around 700-480 BC, during the Archaic period, vase painting was an important art form. It involved scratching incisions to reveal black silhouette designs and backgrounds of orange clay. Details were then painted in red or white. This technique that the Greeks used was known as the black-figure technique. Around 530 BC, a new technique called red-figure painting replaced chisels with paint brushes. A black background was painted on with brushes, instead of scratching the pottery to reveal a background. Ancient Greeks actually used a complex firing process that used oxygen and created a chemical reaction to seal the color (Britannica 2018).
During the Classical period, from approximately 480-323 BC, the creation and decoration of Greek pottery changed dramatically. The scenes show on the pottery like a window to the past. They included pictures of Greek Mythology, everyday life, and even 5th century comedians, who wore grotesque masks and padding to exaggerate body parts. These artists took pride in the work, as some ancient Greek pottery is signed.
Some of the world’s most impressive bronze sculptures were created during the Classical period. Mastering the technique of making the sculptures look natural did not come easily to the early sculptors at first. However, over time, they began to understand the importance of proportion. During the Classical period, artists veered from the tradition of sculpting their interpretation of how men and women should look, and began sculpting more realistic figures. This is evident when you look at their beautiful recreations of the human form. For the first time, expressive faces decorated these sculptures. The Aphrodite of Knidos was one of the most innovative and influential sculptures and popularized the Contrapposto pose. This pose puts most of the figures weight on one leg, and turning the torso slightly, making the subject seem both dynamic and relaxed.
The Classical period introduced architectural structure changes as well. Corinthian columns, more decorative than Doric and Ionic columns, were popularized and spread natural motifs around Greece. Frieze, carvings, and relief were also incorporated into temple design. Frieze sculptures featured mythological and historical scenes, and sometimes animals. The Parthenon’s frieze includes illustrations of gods, musicians, soldiers, weavers, elders, heroes, and other scenes. Art in the 5th century BC was profoundly influenced by the sculpture of the Parthenon and it continues to influence artists today (Hemingway & Hemingway 2008).
During the last period of ancient Greek art around 323-30 BC, the Hellenistic period, unflattering features were included into sculpture, though they retained their idealized portions and symmetry. Hellenistic art was increasingly used for propaganda purposes. It was at this time that the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace, a couple of the most famous Greek sculptures in history, were created. The Venus de Milo, with her now missing arms, illustrates the Greek idealized style. The Winged Victory of Samothrace shows the goddess, Nike, in a dynamic pose about to take off in flight. Although decades of battles eventually took their toll on the city and Athens lost its sheen as a political capital, its artistic supremacy remained unshaken until the 4th century BC Greek artists developed new techniques and styles, despite the contact threat of war. It was at this time that art was being recognized as a career and artists were traveling long distances to do their work. As a consequence, formal education and several art schools were established, including the Sicyon Art School in Peloponnesus (Ancient Greek Art and Architecture).
Classical Greek art proved its endurance beyond a doubt. Influencing neighboring cultures substantially enough to bring about subtle changes in the indigenous styles. The Classical art style spread far and wide. Many of the modern day art techniques that we still use today are derived from the Greek arts, from the representation of the human figure to the techniques used in pottery and painting. More importantly, their societal influence on the arts remains.
“Ancient Greek Art and Architecture.” Ancient Greek Art and Architecture | Scholastic ART | Scholastic.com, Scholastic Inc, www.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3753872.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Archaic Period.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 11 May 2018, www.britannica.com/art/Archaic-period.
Hemingway, Colette, and Seán Hemingway. “The Art of Classical Greece (Ca. 480–323 B.C.).” Metmuseum.org, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jan. 2008, www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tacg/hd_tacg.htm.
Hodge, Susie. Art In History: Ancient Greek Art. Heinemann, 2006.