Almost every stylistic and aesthetic innovation bases its roots on the works of the earlier days, for example, the ancient Greek art. It is not hard to find traces of Greek art in modern art and Western aesthetic tradition. Mathematical proportion (e.g., the golden ratio), realism, and humanism are among the elements of Greek art that have inspired us. Ancient Greek art places significant value on the importance and accomplishments of human beings. That’s why the Greeks only portray perfection in their art. You can hardly spot any flaw in ancient Greek art. This ancient art did not flourish for no reason. Let us go through some major forms of this awe-inspiring ancient Greek art.
Plastered walls are a common medium for painting in ancient Greece. Known as frescos, this painting technique involves the application of water-based colour pigments on wet lime plaster. As the wet plaster dries out, the colour pigment soaks into the plaster and merge with it. With the setting of the plaster, the painting becomes a part of the wall. The entire process does not involve any binding agent. This ancient painting style later gets its way into medieval art, Byzantine art, Roman art, and Italian Renaissance art. Painters from all over Europe turned to fresco, and Leonardo Da Vinci was one of them. Unlike traditional fresco, he painted The Last Supper on dry plaster instead of wet plaster.
Most of these ancient Greek paintings did not stand the test of time well. The Tomb of the Diver at Paestum (ancient Greek city), Italy is among the surviving examples of ancient Greek frescoes. In fact, it is probably the only complete Greek fresco.
Other than walls, the Greeks also painted on wood panels. Many panel paintings no longer exist due to their organic nature. But we are fortunate enough to have some left. The earliest of these survivors are the Pitsa panels (a total of four tablets). Discovered inside a cave at Ano Pitsa, Corinthia, these panels dated to the Archaic period between 540 and 530 BC approximately. The panels were covered with a white layer of gesso (calcium sulfate) and painted with a variety of colour pigments. These panels owed their preservation to the stable microclimatic conditions of the cave, along with a low oxygen circulation and total absence of light.
Pottery, on the other hand, is one of the great archaeological survivors that shed light on the development of Greek pictorial art. Black-figure pottery and red-figure pottery are the two most famous pottery styles back then.
Unlike today’s pottery, ancient Greek pottery is only fired once. But this firing technique has three phases – oxidation, reduction, and re-oxidation. The first phase involves heating the ceramic kiln with all the vents open to let air in. This leads to the formation of red hematite (Fe2O3) as the iron inside the clay undergoes oxidation. The entire pottery (both painted and bare areas) is now reddish-brown.
The next phase involves closing the vents to reduce oxygen content, coupled with the addition of moisture (e.g., green wood). The red hematite then reduces to black magnetite (Fe3O4), and everything is in black now. The last phase involves opening of vents again to let oxygen in while allowing the kiln to cool down. The painted area remains black since the slip (paint) is sintered during the earlier reduction phase. Thus, it is no longer porous to react with oxygen. This is the part that forms the glossy surface. Meanwhile, the bare area turns back to red.
Initially, the Greeks learned the art of life-sized or large stone sculptures from the Egyptians. Early figures were more rigid and stiffed with stylized walking gaits. These sculptures later went on the journey of evolution toward the ideal of naturalism. The sculptures became more life-like and natural as the bodies were more relaxed, muscular, sensual, and flexible. This is what we knew as contrapposto (relaxed natural stance), an important development in Greek sculptures.
In terms of material, the Greeks used limestones, marble, wood, bronze, terracotta (fired clay), chryselephantine (gold and ivory), and iron for their sculptures. Nevertheless, other than stone sculptures, the rest were too valuable or too susceptible to survive until today. Take chryselephantine sculptures as an example, they were huge works of art by any standards. Being one of the most luxurious combinations, the Greeks reserved this sculpturing technique for their precious cult statues.
The statue of Zeus at Olympus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was a famous chryselephantine sculpture. Unfortunately, this masterpiece no longer exists. We were left with nothing but limited documentary sources from the coins and some ancient Greek descriptions. Another chryselephantine sculpture that has been lost in the fog of history is the statue of Athena Parthenos. But we do have a full-scale replica of the original statue located at Centennial Park in Nashville, Tennessee. Unveiled 30 years ago, this replica of Athena stands almost 42 ft tall, making it the largest indoor statue in the United States.
All these forms of Greek art developed at different speeds in different parts of the Greek culture. These artistic productions during ancient Greece offer us a glimpse into the glory days of this country with a rich heritage. The Greeks’ passion for art has taught the world to recognize and appreciate the beauty of art as the cornerstone of civilization and intellectualism.
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