The progression of Greek art does not simply begin with the Olympics in 776 BCE, but finds its origins in all of the civilizations that gave rise to the Greeks – the remnants of the besieged Mycenaeans, and all who conquered (and traded) with them. The loss of great civilizations often leads to dark periods, but from the ashes of Greece’s dark age emerged a civilization that revered humanity and went to great lengths to incorporate the idea of philosophy into all aspects of their empire – including art. City states joined forces, democracy was established, and skills lost during times of turmoil (reading, writing, painting, sculpting, architecture) were not only rediscovered, but reinvented. From the eastern inspired geometrics of earliest Greece, to stylize humanism in the Archaic, the mathematical perfection of the Classical periods, and the flowery realism of the Hellenistic - Greek art remains the standard by which all future art will be judged. This article will mainly focus on changes in Greek sculpture as an analogy for the changes in all of Greek art, simply because an attempt to chronicle all of the changes in the historical period would require much more than a short essay, and it’s my belief that sculpture most thoroughly reflected how art reflected the greater changes in the society. Regardless of historical argument about whether or not Greek culture and society were as great or as evil as either extreme proclaims, the fact remains that incredible works of art were spawned by great thinkers. Sure, maybe there was slavery, and maybe women were treated poorly, but that doesn’t negate the artistic value of the truly innovative art forms, starting with the very earliest pieces attributed to the Greeks, those in the period of the first Olympics, which also marks the point when the Greeks themselves considered their various city states united as one people, citizens of “Hellas” – distinct in that they spoke a similar language. Athens was the cultural center of this new society, not only of trade and democracy, but of education and art. Homer wrote epic poems and the gods formalized in familiar myths. As Athens became an important cultural destination, for trade and political means, diplomatic visits to and from other cultures would expose Greek artists to new styles and techniques. The first art work associated with this period is termed geometric. It is characterized by a return to figure painting and the use of a decorative motif termed a “meander”, which commonly bordered the rim of bowls and large bottomless burial pots called Kraters. The paintings on these kraters were set in registers, not unlike artwork from early Mesopotamia or Egypt. The figures and designs were highly stylized, bordering on abstract, barely recognizable as human or specific animal. Early sculpture had an equally unrealistic form, bringing to mind early Cycladic works. It is almost as if the artists, in searching for their own styles, wish to “harken back” to their own Aegean roots.
Greek Horse 850 BC
Lyre Player, Minoan 2600 BC
With the increase in exposure to other cultures, a shift in art quickly developed. The “Orientalizing” of art brought new ideas, probably influenced by travel. Artists discovered new ceramic techniques, most notably, the black-figure style invented by the Corinthians, which involved carving out delicate details and infusing them with contrasting colors. This style, while still set in registers, was one of the first unique processes brought forth by Greek artisans. In addition, artists displayed a new talent for realism, one that showed a great interest in human anatomy. One artist in particular, Daedalus, known to have worked in Egypt, was instrumental in impacting the style of the time, so much so that his Daedalic style, evident in The Lady of Auxerre became the new “canon” that would lead into the next...
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