Figures of Speech: Men and Maidens in Ancient Greece
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. 352 pp.; 147 b/w ills. $60.00
RICHARD T. NEER
Style and Politics in Athenian
Vase-Painting: The Craft of Democracy, ca. 530-460 B.C.E.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 306 pp., 101 b/w ills. $80.00
Greek Vases in New Contexts: The Collecting and Trading of Greek Vases--An Aspect of the Modern Reception of Antiquity
Arhus: Arhus University Press, 2002. 407 pp., 87 ills. $52.95
Although the role of ceramics in ancient Greece has been called considerably overrated, and in spite of the fact that an Athenian red-figure vase by a "name" painter (what we today would consider a museum-quality objet d'art) sold for less than four liters (just under a gallon) of grain in antiquity, the output of both scholarly and popular books on this subject has not abated. In particular Athenian--or Attic, as they are more often called--painted vases have garnered the lion's share of attention by collectors as well as scholars, in large part because of the pioneering work of Oxford University professor and connoisseur Sir John Beazley (1885-1970), who in the course of his long career attributed more than thirty thousand vases to anonymous artists. But the appreciation of the drawings on Greek ceramics predates Beazley by over a century; in his influential Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (1764), Johann Joachim Winckelmann stated, "The drawing on most vases is so constituted that the figures could have a place of honor in a drawing by Raphael." These "pots," as some scholars would prefer to call them, have fetched as much as $3.3 million at auction, and their allure remains undiminished despite increasing moral pressure on collectors and museums to refrain from buying unprovenanced antiquities and despite international treaties designed to stem the flow of illicitly exported vases onto the art market.
Like other areas of art history, scholarship on Greek ceramics in the last quarter century has expanded the range of approaches from that of connoisseurship and attribution to include the investigation of social and political contexts, gender issues, semiotics, and structuralism. One of the most significant publications has been La cite des images by Claude Berard and others (1988), which examines the imagery of a wide range of Greek vases through the lens of iconography in an attempt to decipher the visual codes used by painters in communicating with their ancient Greek audience. Influencing a generation of scholars, the main thesis of this study, as articulated by J.-P. Vernant, is that
no figurative system is constituted as a simple illustration of discourse, oral or written, nor as an exact photographic reproduction of reality. The imagery is a construct ... it is a work of culture, the creation of a language that like all other languages contains an element of arbitrariness. The repertoire of figural forms that each civilization elaborates and organizes after its own fashion, in its own style, wherever it chooses, seems always to be the product of a filtering, framing, or encoding of reality according to the modes of thought native to that civilization. It is this social arbitrariness that explains the difficulties of deciphering the images, and at the same time justifies their use as a means to grasp the specific traits of that culture. (1) In the three books under review one can see the influence of this so-called French school approach most clearly in the work of Gloria Ferrari, who considers how constructs of gender in Greek society are reflected in vase paintings and sculpture. Richard Neer takes a more limited approach to the political role of painted vases among a small circle of interrelated vase painters of late Archaic and early Classical Athens. The expansion of the repertoire of vases on which such studies are based is the subject of Vinnie Norskov's book, where she explores the ways in which collecting and exhibiting vases have changed since World War II. Many of the more recent installations of collections of Greek art have been directly affected by the changing methodologies of scholars writing about vases and sculpture. How objects like Greek vases are displayed in turn shapes our approaches to the material in subtle ways and can lead to new modes of interpretation.
Because nearly all mural paintings from...