Hellenistic Statues and Reliefs (c.323-27 BCE)
How representative our remains are of Hellenistic Greek sculpture is hard to guess. We have a fair number of original statues, mostly mediocre in quality and concentrated in the later part of the period, but copies - some themselves Hellenistic - make a useful supplement. Portraits too are numerous and include important originals, but the copies mostly show the philosophers popular in later times. Reliefs of high quality are rare, perhaps less because they were not produced than because they were not copied, and of pedimental sculpture almost nothing important has survived.
Though still in demand for commemorative statues and images of gods, the standing male statue did not have as much interest for Hellenistic sculptors. Poses might be rather more informal, but the old four-square construction remained regular, except for such undignified subjects as Satyrs and representations of low life. The standing draped female offered at least the drapery to play with, though here the new formula soon degenerated into a mannerism. The Baker statuette, an original bronze sculpture just over eight inches high, is a fairly early example, if (as dated terracottas suggest) it was made around 230 BCE. The figure is almost completely enveloped by its dress, which flares out to cover the feet, and imprisons the arms. And the bodily forms of the new feminine canon are only implied, though evidently understood. In full-size statues with this kind of drapery the pose is usually designed for a frontal view and so does not twist; it is also usually more upright and compact, often with one arm folded across the. breasts and the other bent above it with the hand near the neck, so further narrowing the distance across the shoulders. Such statues were still being made for portraits in the late second century. By then Classical types, of which modified versions had never disappeared, were coming back into favour.
The stone sculpture Nike of Samothrace exemplifies the selective use of forms from Early Classical Greek sculpture. This extraordinary work, an original of Parian marble and about six feet eight inches high, was set up on the prow of a ship carved in an inferior stone and projecting obliquely into an artificial pool among carefully disposed rocks. Because of its situation the Nike could be seen well, though at some distance, from in front and more closely along the left side, but the right side and the back were reckoned to be out of sight and so never finished: this explains the special care given to the appearance of the statue in the quadrant between the front and the left lateral view. The transition between these two views is made by a spiralling twist, though this spiral is in the drapery - in the heavy folds between the legs and the opposite system around the left hip - but the figure, if stripped, has a four-square construction. The forms of the body are fairly Classical, except for the breadth of the hips, and even in the drapery the High Classical devices of transparency, modelling lines and motion lines are used with skilful if in part only decorative purpose. A detailed comparison of the Samothracian Nike with the Nike of Paionios is worth making and does credit to both statues. On style it would be hard to date the Nike of Samothrace, but the context of the monument puts it near 200 BCE. In a generic way, it may be classed as Pergamene.
The standing female nude or semi-nude did
not offer much scope for novelty. The proportions might be made more feminine
and the surface be treated more softly, but the range of action was small.
The Aphrodite of Melos or, as it is better known, the Venus
de Milo, has become the most familiar example of the type. Of Parian
marble and six feet seven inches high, it is an original in a Classicizing
style and for stylistic reasons is usually dated towards the end of the
second century. The anatomy is that of Late
Classical Greek sculpture - the face, for instance, may be compared
with that of the Leconfield head - and so too is the drapery, though there
are discordances in detail; but the pose has a marked spiralling below
the hips and the statue offers satisfactory views from almost all round.
Though a mixture of Classical and Hellenistic occurs also in the Nike
of Samothrace, the two figures are essentially different in style; one
might put it that in the Nike, Classical forms are applied to an original
Hellenistic conception, but in the Aphrodite a Classical conception has
been modernized by the use of Hellenistic novelties. Even so, it is a
confident work of sculpture and to dismiss it offhand as an academic concoction
It is useless to generalize about the poses of Hellenistic statues, many of them twisting or contorted and unsuited to the Classical four-square construction. For instance the sitting Boy with a Goose has an obvious front view, but because of the outstretched arm and leg and the compactness of the whole most of the other views are satisfactory. This piece, a copy in marble, is about twenty-two inches high and shows, perhaps too well, the sculptor's intimate understanding of the anatomy and expression of a small child. Here, where the Classical tradition offered no useful precedent, Hellenistic art must have made an initial study of living models, though once established the special forms no doubt passed into the sculptor's stock. The date of this piece, which looks very remote from Classical, may be surprising, since Herondas, who was writing in the first half of the third century, described the original or a very similar marble statue as set up in some sanctuary of Asklepios. It was presumably a thank-offering for the recovery of a sick baby.
There is a very different spirit in Epigonus' Dying Gaul, once celebrated as the Dying Gladiator, and a marble copy of a bronze original rather larger than life. It is usually dated just after 228 BCE, since in that year the kingdom of Pergamum finished one of its successful wars against those Gauls who invaded Anatolia and gave their name to Galatia, but other occasions are quite possible. The figure is a careful blend of naturalism and artifice. The pose of the dying man, wounded under the right breast, is twisted enough for good views most of the way round and even from above and yet is credible as an expression of physical exhaustion. The anatomical forms too have an ideal nobility, though in the modelling of the body the old linear divisions have been blurred by smooth transitions, perhaps less because the sculptor was an exponent of naturalism than to make the lassitude of collapse apparent in detail too. In much the same way the Gaul's nationality is shown by conventional features - the matted hair, the deep bridge of the nose, the moustache (which Greeks and Romans never wore without a beard), and more pedantically by such accessories as the torque round his neck and the trumpet between his legs, rendered faithfully enough for Celtic specialists to use as illustrations. But the nudity belongs to the ideal tradition of Greek sculpture and, as the sculptor must have known, was not regular Gallic behaviour. The Dying Gaul belongs to the early stage of the so-called Pergamene style, which is the most independently original branch of Hellenistic sculpture. How this style arose we do not know, whether by continuous evolution from the Late Classical style or as the invention of some gifted and studious master of the mid third century. Its subjects were not only heroic, but included for instance, dancing and sleeping Satyrs, treated with a competent grandeur; and in a broad sense the Nike of Samothrace may also be reckoned as Pergamene.
In the second century, the Pergamene style, or one strand of it, became more impassioned and more eclectic. For this stage the main frieze of the Great Altar of Pergamum is the show-piece. The altar itself stood on a big square platform and the frieze, of a bluish, presumably local marble and seven feet six inches high, ran round the outside wall, reinterpreting through a couple of hundred figures the old subject of the battle between the Gods and the Giants. This is a very high relief sculpture and deeply undercut, so that the figures have almost the effect of statues in the round. This evidently was the designer's intention, since where the wall returns to flank the entrance to the staircase some of the wounded Giants support themselves on the steps, so projecting from the frame of the frieze into the field of the spectator. The style is fuller, more florid and less consistent than early Pergamene. The anatomical forms, while soundly observed, are often reminiscent of High Classical, but in a more decorative way; this can be seen in the details of the chest and the hair of the Giant attacked by a dog, though the modelling of his belly owes more to nature. This frieze is usually dated between 180 and 160 BCE. Laocoon and His Sons (c.42-20 BCE) represents a further development from this style.
Groups, as distinct from sets of independent statues, had been rare in Classical sculpture, though (if one looks at the pediments of the Parthenon) not beyond its capacity. In Hellenistic, with its wider range of poses and subjects and its willingness to abandon four-square construction, closely unified compositions of two or more free-standing figures became regular. Some are designed to be viewed from all round and are usually more or less pyramidal in structure. A good example, probably from the same dedication as the Dying Gaul, is the early Pergamene group known as the Ludovisi Gauls. Here the man turns round defiantly as he stabs himself, while his wife (whom, to save from captivity, he has stabbed first) slips down below him. This gives not only a logically and aesthetically adequate composition, but also an effective contrast in forms and attitudes between vigour and limpness. Such ingenious arrangements are, though, much less frequent than one-sided groups. Most one-sided groups are of playful or decorative subjects, such as the familiar Three Graces, a trio of female nudes who stand elegantly with their arms round one another, alternately in front and back view. But a few are in a grander style, notably the Laocoon, unless - as has been suggested - the elder son should be turned ninety degrees on his axis so as to have his back to his father. In style, this group is related to the main frieze of the Pergamum Altar, though looser and wilder in its principles. Laocoon himself is anatomically a creation of the late Pergamene stage, but his two sons, disproportionately small, seem to he adapted from athletic or youthful types of the later fourth century; and while the appearance of strain and agony is convincing, perhaps there is some preciosity in the curves of the contours and the median line of the principal figure. The Laocoon group, which is of marble and - curiously for its effectiveness - not more than life size, should be the masterpiece mentioned by Pliny as the joint work of three Roman sculptors, who - to judge by inscriptions - were active about the third quarter of the first century. And though some art researchers believe that the style of the central figure requires a date a full century earlier, we know too little of Hellenistic sculpture to assert that the Pergamene manner did not continue or could not be revived after that time.
Portraits range from the idealized to the
realistic, from the fluently modelled to those where detail is emphasized
by hard lines, and though some show the qualities of the Pergamene or
Classicizing schools most of them cannot easily be dated by style. Hellenistic
portraitists were much more ready than Classical to reproduce individual
abnormalities of feature, but even in their most realistic pieces they
tried to show the character of the sitter, emphasized the structure of
the face and rearranged natural irregularities to form an artistically
pleasing pattern. By 50 BCE or so, as finds on Delos show, Romans and
Italians were commissioning portraits in Greece and, since their native
tradition was for a faithful if superficial likeness, this may have influenced
some late Hellenistic sculptors.
Hellenistic sculpture has not much to show in the way of reliefs and the main frieze of the Pergamum Altar remains exceptional, perhaps better classed with free-standing statuary. In lesser reliefs landscape elements became more frequent; and though most of these had occurred sporadically during the Classical period, especially on votive plaques, they were used now with more regular skill. The effect, with trees in leaf and foreshortened buildings, is like a simple or simplified painting in low projection. The most imposing Hellenistic landscape relief that we have is the Telephus frieze, which ran round the inside of the Pergamon Altar and should be of much the same date as the main frieze, that is perhaps about 180-160 BCE. Here the figures are set at varying levels and some of them reappear in different parts of the frieze. This 'narrative' system has been claimed as an important innovation, but from at least the beginning of the fifth century it had been used in sets of metopes for episodes in the careers of Heracles and Theseus, only now the divisions are - sometimes at least - marked by landscape features instead of triglyphs. The other notable class of Hellenistic reliefs is the Neo-Attic, so-called because the main place of their production was probably Athens. The Neo-Attic reliefs are often carved on ornamental objects, such as marble bowls, and the subjects are meaningless processions of stock figures, some of them copied from Classical reliefs of the late fifth or early fourth century, and others Archaistic creations with the mincing gait and swallow-tail drapery which even High Classical artists had somehow thought characteristic of Archaic Greek sculpture. This purely decorative line of work must have begun by the early first century, since specimens have been salvaged from a ship which. as other contents prove, was wrecked at that time off Mahdia. As for pedimental sculpture, too little has been recovered to allow useful opinions on Hellenistic composition and aims.
In the Hellenistic period, Greek art had a far wider geographical range than before and even less competition, since after Alexander's conquest of the Persian Empire the official culture of those regions became Greek and native forms of art, especially such expensive forms as sculpture, receded or disappeared. The one exception was Egypt, where the new kings - the Ptolemies - needed the support of the local upper class and let them keep up their old traditions: here Greek sculpture gradually affected Egyptian art, but in return borrowed occasionally and for external features, such as ceremonial dress. In Asia, though the kingdom of the Seleucids lost ground, Greek art was still admired by Persian art and was a more or less important constituent of the sculpture of the Parthians, who conquered Iran in the late third century and expanded into Mesopotamia; and the Greek element in the Gandhara style, which appeared in Pakistan in the first century CE, may have come from a Hellenistic tradition in the region of Afghanistan. At the other end of the world Carthage and Spain continued their clumsy use of Greek models, and perhaps there were some very dilute influences on the natives of southern France. Central Italy is much more important. Here the Etruscans welcomed Hellenistic sculpture, with which they became acquainted probably through the Greeks of South Italy, and imitated it with varying competence. Their most original development was in portraiture, where in a dry and usually superficial way they aimed at a strongly personal if not exact likeness of the subject's features. Meanwhile Rome, which though politically dominant had in art been an Etruscan dependency, was making direct contact with Greek civilization. During the third century the Greek cities of South Italy and Sicily came under Roman rule and in the second century Greece and Western Asia Minor. Large stocks of Greek statues and pictures were brought to Rome as the booty of war and peace. By the late second century too, some upper-class Romans were finding Greek culture attractive and even travelling for higher education to Greece, while middle-class Romans and Italians were making their fortunes round the Aegean, notably in Delos. So Rome became the principal customer for Hellenistic art and workshops in Greece began to look to the Roman market, without at first any perceptible effect on their style, though probably the production of copies and Classicizing works was boosted.
When at the end of the Hellenistic period Augustus established centralized autocracy and order throughout the Roman Empire, which now included all the countries round the Mediterranean, sculpture became one of the instruments of imperial propaganda and Rome the centre of a new Imperial style. This style of Roman art was, of course, based on Greek models and executed by Greek artists, and beside it there continued a purer Hellenistic tradition, especially in Greece and Greek Asia, where most of the leading sculptors still trained. Most of our copies too are of the Roman period. It was not till about 300 CE, whether because of lower technical standards or for some more positive reason, that any significant change of artistic direction becomes apparent; nor had it much effect on statuary, since in the fifth century in the Latin West, and in the sixth or seventh in Greek lands, sculpture as an art petered out. The Byzantine Empire, partly for religious reasons, turned to other media and elsewhere ancient civilization disintegrated.
Though the continuous tradition of Greek (or Greco-Roman) sculpture had been broken, many examples of it were still to be seen throughout the Middle Ages. In Constantinople we read of Classical masterpieces set up in public places till one by one they were destroyed in rioting and only the horses now on St Mark's in Venice survived, but though admired by a few scholars these works had no effect on the rigid canons of Byzantine art. In the West, mainly in France and Italy, pieces of ancient sculpture, especially of the carved sarcophagi of the late Roman period, were occasionally reused and even more occasionally imitated, but without much aesthetic understanding. It was not till the fifteenth century that the artists of the Italian Renaissance, with their new interest in the perfect human body, were able to appreciate the intentions of the art of antiquity and to find in it answers to some of their problems.
Greek figurative drawing had been dominated by an ideal approach to the human form, modifying observation of nature by theoretical rules of proportion, and it was this quality even more than its technical skill which now compelled attention. So the search began for examples of that art, especially in and around Rome, and since paintings perish easily it was mostly sculpture that was found and studied, by painters as much as by sculptors. Painters now learnt their art by copying the pictures of others and drawing ancient statues or casts of them before they drew from life, since (as was constantly repeated) this gave the pupil a standard by which to correct the inevitable irregularities of nature. And though the doctrine has been abandoned in the last century, the practice still persists in some Academic Schools of Art.
Such study of ancient sculpture was bound to have an influence on style, through adaptation or imitation according to the originality of the artist, and the taste for Greek and Roman mythology helped with its appetite for nudes. This reliance on the antique lasted for nearly four hundred years. In the fifteenth century the choice of models was eclectic; in the sixteenth a new ideal detachment came nearer to the Classical spirit; in the seventeenth the Baroque artists still made familiar if casual use of ancient forms and details, and in the later eighteenth the Neoclassical sculptors (encouraged by the discoveries at Herculaneum and Pompeii) attempted a superficially closer revival of antique forms. All this had been based on finds made in Italy, of which the finest were Hellenistic, and despite comments by Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68) in the mid eighteenth century even he had very little notion of earlier Greek art.
When at last, in 1807, the sculptures of the Parthenon were presented to the Western world the artists of the time admired but did not imitate them and, though it may have helped to kill off Neo-classicism, High Classical statuary did not even begin to inspire a new Renaissance style. Art took another course and, while some sculptors have made use of the Archaic and Early Classical styles, the rare reminiscences of later and particularly of Hellenistic sculpture cannot be reckoned as more than whimsical.
of Ancient Greece (Introduction)
For the origins and development
of 3-D art, see: Sculpture History.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART