De Griekse Beeldhouwkunst

ouzo on the rocks

apartment, excursions and art historical guide

Peloponnese, Greece

Greek Sculpture

 

To get a good picture of the five major Greek sculptors (which we also meet in the Peloponnese) I start with a brief general introduction.

Long before the Minoan civilization (around 2500 BC) people made marble figurines on the islands of the Aegean Sea (since about 3200 BC.). These mainly female figurines with arms crossed are found in grave tombs. There are also male figures found in a sitting position, but not as many as the female.

The statuette on the picture is an example of a female figure with arms crossed, from one of the Cyclades islands. For further details I advise you to check other websites on the internet or specific books, as they are for us - on the Peloponnese - of no further interest. For us the architectural sculptures (such as the Lion Gate at Mycenae in 1250 BC) and the phi and psi sculptures from the Mycenaean civilization (pictured right) are more important. These terracotta female figurines have the shape of the Greek letters Φ (phi) and Ψ (psi).

 

At the same moment that people started the geometric decorations on pottery (around 900 BC) they also made bronze statuettes of humans and animals. They were meant to accompany the dead or to woreship the gods. These statuettes are also not very important for the study of the five sculptors that we will see below. They mainly made life sized marble or bronze statues.

So let's go to the oldest big statues that were made at the end of the 7th century BC. Nearly all these statues were derived from or based upon the statues the Greek had seen in Egypt. You have to know that the Greek (Minoans and Mycenaeans) were regular visitors of Egypt from 1800 BC. Later they also had their contacts in the Middle East.

 

However, there was soon a specific Greek style, which we have called archaic. The life-size (or sometimes even bigger) male figure is called kouros (youth) and the female figure korè (maiden). The kouros is almost always depicted naked and korè always dressed. They resemble their Egyptian brothers and sisters as we will see.

At the end of the 6th century BC a molding technique is used which made it possible to make bronze sculptures life-sized. Bronze is a material that could be recycled, in the course of time, so few original Greek bronze statues have survived. Fortunately for us, the Romans have copied many of those bronze statues in marble, and so we know a lot about some great Greek artists.

 

Phidias in the 5th century BC was best known for his statues of gods such as Athena Parthenos and the Olympian Zeus. His contemporary and fellow sculptor Polykleitos made more sculptures of ordinary mortals, ie athletes with the ideal body. In the 4th century BC Praxiteles made an image of a female nude, which turned the world of art upside down. And a little later Lysippos and Skopas gave their statues individual facial features and body postures. This made it possible to create the Hellenistic statues with even stronger emotions and the last decades of the 4th century. The description of the sculptors starts with Phidias and ends with Lysippos.

But before I do this a brief explanation of the kouros and kore is necessary because these statues have been very important for the general development of the art of sculpturing.

 

Beside the fact that we can study the Roman copies of the Greek originals, Pliny and Pausanias give us a lot of information. Furthermore also the inscriptions on the sockets of the sculptures tell us something of the depicted, or of the creator, or of the customer or client who wanted the statue to be made.

Pliny (the Elder) lived from 23 untill 79 AD. He was a Roman philosopher, writer and navy officer and studied nature and geography in his spare time. He wrote the very first encyclopedia and named it "Historia Naturalis". In this book he collected contemporary knowledge on all kinds of things, among others on sculptoring and other art forms. He died during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD (probably by natural cause) while he was trying to rescue a friend of his.

Pausanias was a Roman geographer and writer who lived between 115 and 180 AD. In his "Description of Greece" he summens and descibes the sanctuaries of Greece which he had visited. His book is reckoned to be the very first travel guide.

 

The kouros and kore were made for several purposes. Some had a religious purpose like the statues of the gods or half-gods, some were for decoration, for instance the architectural sculpture groups, and other were to commemorate a victory of a certain war or just a deceased.

Cycladic figurine (2600-2500 BC)

Benaki museum, Athens

photo: willem van leeuwen

Phi- en Psi-sculptures (1400-1200BC)

Benaki Museum, Athens

photo: willem van leeuwen

running Niké, 550 BC

Nat. Arch. Museum, Athens

photo: willem van leeuwen

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