Greek sculpture “evolved” throughout, and paralleled the historical significances of this ancient civilization through three major historical periods. We see how for the Greeks, art and the events of the day were significantly entwined.
Each of the three main periods of Greek sculpture presented its own unique contributions in the art of sculpting the human form. Ancient Greeks were skilled craftsmen and incorporated the human appearance into every aspect of their art from the earliest period the Archaic, through the middle Classical period, into the Hellenistic period. Although today we view sculpting as an art form, in early ancient times the Greeks viewed it as a learned trade or skill.
Due to the Greek’s unique appreciation for sculpture, this art form was nurtured by the city of Athens, then the sculptural hub of Greece, as it grew through various periods. This ‘financial support’ is why the Ancient Greeks created vast amounts of sculpture. Art was not so prolific in areas of the world where it wasn’t profitable. During the Archaic period, from 650 B.C. to 480 B.C., dictators ruled the most powerful Greek cities. Despite tyrannical rule and political and social unrest, the arts flourished. The Greek’s victory at Persia’s attempt to conquer them in Asia Minor, ushered in a celebration in Greek Art, “symbolizing the triumph of civilized peoples over the forces of barbarism”. “The origins of democracy can be traced to Athens in the years following the fall of the tyrannical Peisistratids (560-510 BC)”.
The earliest full size stone Greek sculptures were one dimensional nude males and females (kouroi and draped korai). As beautiful as every sculpture was, they were being created as grave markers, cult images, and as dedications for sanctuaries rather than works of art. Obvious differences in the male and female sculptures of this period are that males stand nude, forward facing, one leg forward and arms to the side with clenched fists, where the females stand with feet together, always fully clothed with nothing more than their feet and arms bare. “The difference between the sexes is striking”. Many human sculptures displayed ‘the Archaic smile’, which was not created to display emotion, but rather as a simple, easy solution for the artist creating the “face”. Heavy Egyptian influence is evidenced by the similarities found in many sculptures during this period. Some art historians believe Egyptian artists used a grid system, with spacing between each line to define their proportions. “Using this same grid system, artists of the Greek Archaic period produced the simple and limiting style that led to the creation of the rigid sculptural forms of that period.” Although bronze casting to create sculptures was discovered in the middle of this period, it wasn’t commonly used until the 5th century. It’s important to note that each stone sculpture of the Archaic period was richly painted, enhancing features such as the lips and eyes. Today most consider them quite beautiful works of art.
Marked by the end of the Persian wars, the second period in Greek art, the Classical period, spanned from 480 B.C. to 323 B.C. and brought about great changes in Greek sculpting. This period saw the full development of the Greek democratic system of government, however by the late 5th century wars raged between Athens and Sparta, and the Carthaginians and the Greeks of Sicily and Italy. Again in the 4th century, Athens, Sparta and Thebes were warring over control of Greece. Under Spartan rule, Greece divided and the Macedonian state rose under Phillip II and his son, Alexander the Great. The wars occurring during this period influenced the more life-like, realistic anatomical appearances taken on by sculptures. Statues with slender athletic torsos were often posed with war-like stances or grimaced faces. “Characteristic examples of this trend are two slightly later works by Praxiteles, the Hermes and the Conidian Aphrodite. They were considered of unparalleled beauty by the ancient authors and were copied repeatedly in later periods.”
This classical style is also reflected in two of the earliest bronze sculptures Tyrannicides Harmodius and Aristogiton. “Early Classical statues tend to be dramatic, and to carry with them the impression that they represent one distinct stage in a series of events”. “In the period from 430 – 400 B.C. sculptors in particular devoted a great part of their attention to exploiting the decorative potentialities of the ‘wind-blown’ style of rendering drapery which had been developed by the sculptors of the Parthenon pediments”. By the 4th century, nude female sculptures began to emerge. The Greek female nude sculpture of Aphrodite, the embodiment of perfect beauty, set the standard for other nude female sculptures. Later we see “Athena, the daughter of Zeus, patroness of the arts, promoter of wisdom, goddess of war, and guardian of cities, always clothed and sometimes even armed.” The two most commonly used materials in sculpting during this period were bronze and marble. “But a number of ostentatious works, largely cult statues, were ordered in a technique known as chryselephantine: upon a wooden frame the flesh was overlaid with ivory, the drapery with gold”. It was during this period that artists became recognized for their works.
The death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. ushered in the Hellenistic period (323 B.C to 31 B.C.). Due to their changing cultural environments, the influx of peoples of varying societies and ethnicities, and the changing and merging of ruling nations, artists began to examine the world in a whole new way, which was reflected in their work. Portrait statuary became a popular form of art and there were many wonderful works created in this genre. One of the most famous was Polyeuctus’ figure of Demosthenes (a copy can be found in Copenhagen and Oxford). Hellenistic sculptors delved deep into the expression of human emotions in their sculptures. “The fullest dramatic use is made of swirling drapery, but the main force is lent by the vigorous carving of muscles and the writhing, tense bodies. If this alone were not enough to convey the horror of the struggle the faces too were carved with expressions of extreme anguish. “Hellenistic sculptors had other standards. In work of traditional character they kept the old impassivity, but where the aim was naturalistic or dramatic they enjoyed their virtuosity. Pain, fear, pleasure amusement, drunkenness, lassitude, sleep and death were within their range by the second century so too were all the graduations of age and, when they wanted they could produce plausibly differentiated racial types”.
Viewing the figurine of Aphrodite Anadyomene created of clay, it’s “clear that the erotic dimension of Aphrodite was only enhanced in art in the Hellenistic period, when her nude statues flourish and the word ‘Aphrodisia’ becomes synonymous with sexual intercourse. This fact is possibly associated with the improved social position of women and their liberation from the conservatism of the male-dominated cities of the Classical period. It certainly demonstrates a departure from the aesthetic of Classical art, which was based on adulation of the male body.” Nude sculptures of males remained prominent in the Hellenistic period, and became much more anatomically correct than those of previous periods. Unlike the more rigid “Classical” poses, women were sculpted in a variety of poses such as bending or laying. Two of the most famous female sculptures of the time are The Nike of Samothrace and the Venus di Milo. Another new form emerged in the Hellenistic period, the sculpting of groups. “We have so far dealt mainly with single-figure studies but far more characteristic of the age are the groups – narrative groups we might almost call them – which tell a story and study the emotions of the protagonists”.
Warring adversaries destroyed the majority of the Greek statues from these periods, however the Romans greatly valued Greek art, and created copies of many of their statues. We would know little about the ancient Greeks and their rich world of art if not for these Roman admirers. We see a profound evolution in Greek sculpture throughout the three major periods discussed here, and we acknowledge particularly the influence of Greek art in the development of Western art through the centuries. The magnificence of ancient Greek sculpture remains an influence in today’s world of art and sculpture, and their weight can be seen in many modern works.