Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Ancient Greek Warriors

Classical Greek sculpture shows a progression of art aided by science. It gives us the centuries-long effort to depict how anatomy really worked on a living person.

Once the Greeks figured it out, the work was mostly lost in successive waves of invasion, rediscovered in the Renaissance. Now it is available to civilization, but it's still continually rediscovered--by individuals. Frequently their steps follow, in the course of study, the same trip that the Greeks first forged over the centuries. That's one real miracle of Greek sculpture.

New artists see in one statue what what had been missing in their own work all along: an understanding of the way muscles and bones lever cooperatively, create balance, give readiness or agility. The improvements in anatomical rendering allowed a god, goddess, or warrior to dominate space, convey physicality, and hold ground.

I'll give you three examples. All three are nudes, so they come after the jump. Just in case you're at work or otherwise surrounded by Philistines.

1. Kouros Figure--terra cotta--c. 600 or 530 B.C., depending on reference
This is a figure of a young man, and you see an effort toward accurate modeling. The sculptor is paying attention to details, such as the hair and shape of a calf. But even though the figure is depicted as walking, nothing about his body looks like it's moving. A walking man does not have two feet flat on the ground and equal weight distribution. He also looks like a cross-wind would bowl him over. Still he's beautiful, still an advance: just there's more road to go.

2. The Riace Warriors--bronze--460-430 B.C.
There's actually two. This is Warrior A, which is a distinctly prosaic kind of title for something so beautiful.
Sometimes attributed to the sculptor Pheidias. This statue shows a man who can swivel to throw a discus, slap somebody on the shoulder, or do the rumba, no sweat.
The two warriors were taken away on ship, which foundered in ancient times. Both of them were pulled out of the sea around 1972, and were in restoration until 1981. The eyes were made of bone and glass.

Notice how the hips slant down from his right to his left. Then note how the shoulders slant down from the left to the right. The shoulders should, in a more relaxed contrapposto position (that's the official art history term for the pose) be at a same degree of slope as the hips, only opposite. However, this warrior is getting ready to do something, which changes the shoulder slope somewhat. And maybe the sculptor didn't quite have it down yet. Yet it's a perfectly believable, natural pose. Cool, eh?

3. The Dying Gaul, marble copy of original bronze, c. 220 B.C.
Once contrapposto was discovered, the Greek culture never went back. In time, the depiction of warriors developed still more variety. Below, the Dying Gaul depicts an enemy of the state. Therefore it's acceptable to show him bleeding to death, staving off the inevitable with a weakening hand.

By extension, the warrior of any culture is now shown as vulnerable, rather than as an all-powerful being. Because when you look at the statue, you don't care whether he's a Gaul or not. That may be a message for the ages--the progression of the view of the warrior within a civilization.

Going by this set of examples, as a civilization capable of supporting monumental art, we come into our power. We then depict our warriors as all-powerful winners before we begin to depict the vanquished. And by depicting the vanquished, we lay open the idea that our champions can be vanquished too. Does that mean we are more uncertain later, in the 'decline' of our civilization? Or does it mean we have always been uncertain, but as our civilization 'progresses',  we have more to lose?

Maybe we develop compassion when we can afford it. Or maybe it means nothing whatever of the kind. We could just as easily call these three a different cycle altogether: one of a warrior's knowledge. First innocence, then power, and then frailty. Or anything else that speaks.

Whatever we decide, the art here shows a striving for accuracy, a love of humanity, and worlds of meaning. These works are a wealth of dedication and emotion, served by science and a clear eye.

Credits: Riace Warrior A, head, from Bob & Wendy's Picasa page; The Kouros, W.W. Norton Publishers; Riace Warrior F & B, Georgette's Picasa page; The Dying Gaul, mlahanas in Germany.
Further Reading; Dying Gaul entry, Riace Bronzes entry, Kouros entry, all at Wikipedia.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful interperation.

Ann T. said...

Dear Warrior Poet,
Oh, thank you. The cool thing is that the art presentation was the only part I planned.

Anybody can interpret. We all have a basis for that. I think people are afraid someone pompous will pop them for it. But it's the connection we make that counts the most.

Ann T.

Greek Warriors said...

I'm always amazed by the ancient greeks abilities in the fields of arts and science. I'm a trained 21st century sculpture yet, I still can't match the ancient greeks mastery of the human form. Great post, thanks!

Ann T. said...

Dear Greek Warriors,
I'm so gratified that an artist enjoyed this post! I also draw and paint, and know what you mean.

Still I think maybe we see things a little differently than the Ancient Greeks, and sometimes that's okay.

Thanks for commenting!
Ann T.

Justinus said...

Excellent read. I found your touch with words and poetic and philosophical details quite well received.