The Dark Age of Greece refers to a period of time where all knowledge of Mycenae construction, painting, sculpture, reading and writing disintegrated due to Dorian invasion. One form of art that continued through the period of the Mycenaean downfall was the art of pottery. Pottery, more specifically vase painting, was the beginning of an illustrative development in Greek art and was considered a durable form of art because it ensured the survival of artifacts for long periods of time unlike other forms of art.
The emergence of independent city-states within Greece took place around the 8th century, which in turn led to the formation of colonies to facilitate trade activities between Greece, the near East and Egypt. The integration with different cultures was vital to Greek art and the transformation in art styles and techniques became apparent and noticeable in pottery made throughout the different time periods. In this paper, I will be analyzing the similarities and differences in certain pieces of art from the Geometric, Orientalizing, Archaic, and Classical periods with emphasis on how different styles and techniques used such as black and red figure technique were developed due to cultural interaction with neighboring civilizations.
The first style of vase painting to come about started in the Geometric period (c.750 BCE). The name of this period virtually represents the style used in early vase paintings. The “Heron Class Olla” pictured on the left is a food storage jar that was made in Eutruria by Greek artists who settled there to work for wealthy Eutruscan patrons. Although it is very simple, you can recognize Greek culture within the schematic design and patterns utilized on the vase. There are distinct lines running as bands around the vase in different widths, with the thicker lines at the neck and base of the vase. This is a very apparent style in the geometric period because it implemented the use of registers to dividing the vase into different sections. In-addition, the equal spacing between the lines suggests a geometric style, along with the checkered squares on the top register. Besides being decorative, another prominent feature in the style of early geometric work is the use of silhouettes to depict animal life.
You begin to see a shift from the Greek culture to the Etruscan culture with the bird-like silhouettes painted in the middle register which I figure to be herons, a particularly unique characteristic of Etruscan pottery decor. The decorative short vertical lines presented right below the herons could be symbolic of plant life, playing with two- dimensional representations. On the top register you see a horse-like silhouette feeding on what I believe could be shrubbery, but what is interesting about the horse is its very thin torso area. The same technique was used on a sculpture in the geometric period called the “Bronze Horse” pictured on the right. As you can see, this horse was also sculpted with a very thin torso showing the relationship between artists and sculptors in their similar ideology. One way the geometric period stood out was the use of bright hues in their painting and more importantly, the use of human form did not show up till later in the geometric period.
The first use of human form in paintings was very geometric in shape, almost like stick figures with triangular bodies. You can see this in the Geometric funerary amphora pictured on the left which was discovered in the Dipylon cemetery. The scene in the middle register portrays humans mourning a deceased man who is laid out on his resting bed. Although humans are shown on this vase, it is still considered a geometric piece because their bodies are triangular in shape and the artist still utilizes the use of registers and lines/bands around the vase, and within those lines are random key patterns and more fine decorative lines and shapes. This piece is still schematically oriented and silhouettes are still used to represent human figures showing artists at this period of time paid less attention to anatomical accuracy.
One last piece of art that shows a significant transformation in the geometric period is the sculpture of Hero and Centaur pictured on the right. It is considered geometric because it is small in scale and the figures have simple stylized shapes. You see again the small torso on the animal-like figure and on the human figure that is shown nude and anatomically correct. The animal figure is actually human in the front and horse in the back with legs on both ends belonging to a different species. This was an animal-human monster the Greek invented called the centaur and the sculpture reveals the scene of a hero battling a centaur depicting an early example of the mythical narrative (Herakles and Nessos). The significance of the earlier mentioned style of painting and this sculpture design is that it marked a turning point from the geometric period into the oriental period because now mythical creatures/monsters are introduced, the natural beauty of the human figure is reintroduced, and the art of storytelling is revived.
The Orientalizing Period (c. 700-600 BCE), marked an increase in population and Greek trade and colonization. Since an increase in cultural interchange w/ the Assyrians and the Egyptians was taking place, Greek artists began to be inspired by their style of art and incorporated some of their ideas and motifs into their own work. At this time the invention of the Greek alphabet was introduced making it possible to record oral traditions of Greek epic novels using Egyptian papyrus. The Eleusis Amphora depicted on the right is a grave monument which shows the distinct movement from geometric to orientalizing art. The major areas of the body are now used to show narrative and the geometric ornaments are left to the peripheral areas and carved into the handles. The human silhouettes on the neck of the vase become a bit more detailed as now they are showing a chest and calf muscles and illustrate movement.
The neck is portraying the mythical story of Odysseus blinding the one eyed Cyclops and the body shows another narrative of Perseus fleeing Gorgons after beheading medusa. Now we see humans, animals, and monsters all on one vase. Also, you start to notice a darker hue being used rather than the light beige colors used in the geometric vases. Advanced human characteristics begin to be drawn with the example of this deep, wide-mouthed Skyphos shown on the left whose function is being a wine vessel used for drinking. This piece still shows many of the characteristics of geometric art such as lines/bands, triangle shapes on the base, and equal spacing; however, within the register you see the change from geometric silhouette art, and to Orientalizing two dimensional figures.
There is a bird-like figure with a human head which in my opinion could have originated from the mythical creature known as the siren but the gender is not eminent. However, you do see the figure has a nose, eyes, a mouth and even hair. Although the figure itself is less realistically human and more a mythical creature, you can now distinguish that it is a human head attached and not just an animal. Composite monsters were extremely popular in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and with this piece you begin to see the foreign cultural exchange of ideologies between Greeks and their neighbors and how it is adapted into their art.
As the merchant class continued to gradually progress, Greek artists began to be recognized by their work and proceeded to think of new ways to enhance their pieces. A new method of firing clay was produced in the Orientalizing period called the black figure method. This technique is a three phase firing technique silhouetting dark figures against a light background of reddish clay with red linear details incised through the black silhouettes like on the picture shown to the left of a Corinthian black-figure Amphora. This vase, although made through a new technique, still holds qualities from the geometric period and early orientalizing period. It is actually very similar to the skyphos drinking vessel discussed above. Both vessels have isosceles triangles at the base that are equally spaced apart. Both vessels also contain the half-bird, half-human creature but the difference with the black figure technique is that you can actually tell that it’s a woman, probably confirming the idea that it is a siren.
There are also bands on both vessels, but this one has distinct registers separating rows of different animals such as boars, lions, panthers, and Eastern inspired monsters like the sphinx and Iamassu. The white and purplish-red detail that is carved into the black silhouettes makes these images stand out more for what they really are which shows a progressive development in the artists creativity with the help of cultural immersion. More storytelling and human forms later emerged in the late Archaic Period which differed tremendously from the works previously shown.
The Rycroft Column Krater depicted on the left shows this distinction from early archaic to late archaic pieces. In these pieces you begin to see racial tones and ethnicity appear in the human figures. You also begin to see gender specific details emerge. There are still mythical creatures involved since you see one of the men has a tail and although we are way passed the geometric period, the artist still incorporates them on the mouth and base of the piece which is also shown on the piece below to the right.
By the end of the Archaic period into the Classical period, another technique was adopted that was the inverse of the black technique. This was called the red figure technique. This meant that the pot was painted black and the silhouettes were red with black linear details incised through them. This technique made it easier for the artist to be very articulate in the forms they painted and also made the forms very 3 dimensional. This calyx krater shown on the right was painted in the classical period using the red-figure technique. In this painting you again see very clear and detailed images of the male and female form along with a very lucid cat-like figure with dots suggesting that it may be a panther/cheetah of some sort. The use of red, white, and black pigments brought distinction between characters and almost makes the image come to life.
The artist used contrast by making one side red and the other side black, similar to what is later developed by some artists and known as bilingual painting as shown on the left. This is the front and back of a bilingual amphora where both sides are portraying the same scene but one side is using black figure(left) and the other is using red-figure(right). This use of contrast is amazing because you get to see how even though the images are exactly the same, they are still distinguishable by the color pigmentation, skin tone is different, details within the silhouettes even look different. I would say this technique helped revolutionize the art of figure drawing.
In conclusion, we learn that Greek art went through many phases, or shall I say time periods, and transformed/adapted to foreign cultures due to economic uprising and in turn created more advanced art through realism and narration of epic Greek history. The geometric period was the start of using other culture symbolism while keeping the style and technique of basic geometric shapes for motif and decoration. As we move to the Orientalizing period, Greece starts to be more active with neighboring civilizations and gradually adapts and integrates their form of art into their own. They learn more about the human figure and use mythical creatures to form narratives based on both Greek and foreign cultures. The paintings get more detailed and new techniques were adopted such as the black figure and red figure technique (which later appears in the classical period), to give way to realism using color pigments and modern intrinsic detail such as clothing.