A brief history of ancient Greek art

From its beginnings in the Minoan Civilization to the era of Hellenistic art, ancient Greek art remains an important period in the advancement of artistic techniques and approaches. Each new century brought significant changes to the Egyptian art that preceded it. From the Bronze Age to the birth of the Roman Empire, Greece dominated the art world, and its influence continues to this day.

Minoan Art

The oldest Greek art, in fact in Europe, dates back to the Bronze Age. On the small Aegean island of Crete (now part of Greece), the Minoan civilization developed, mostly in parallel with that of ancient Egypt. For example, Minoan art was based on a schematic style (repetition of human figures, for example) that was also commonly found in Egyptian art. The art was supplemented by sculptures and painted pottery until 1500 BC, when what is often called the “Palace Period” emerged, and wall painting first appeared in Europe, although only fragments survive today.

Unlike Egyptian art, however, Minoan art reveals a naturalism and subtlety not seen in Egyptian art. Its marine orientation lent a natural theme, which is reflected in Minoan painting. “Fresco with dolphins” (1500-1450 BC) that still hangs today in the remains of the palace of Knossos, Crete, shows an incredible knowledge of the oceans and marine animals, such as dolphins.

Another fragment of painting that remains from the Minoan Civilization is “Toreador Fresco” (1500 BC). Encapsulated in this work of art is one of the recurring themes of Minoan culture and art, the jumping of bulls. Thought in some way to be connected to Minoan religious practices, the painting depicts 3 acrobats jumping on the horns of a bull. The fresco is very unusual in that it represents a time-lapse sequence, in which we see the acrobats grasping the bull’s horns, then another half vault, and the acrobat’s final landing with outstretched arms.

Mycenaean art

Triumphing in the Minoan civilization, in mainland Greece, the Mycenaean civilization of the Bronze Age was in full bloom. Its history and legends were captured by Homer in his epic poems, “Iliad” and “Odyssey”, reflecting the end of the Mycenaean period (“the heroic era”). One of the most enduring works of art of the time is a “Funerary Mask” (1500 BC) believed to be that of King Agamemnon, who led the Greeks to victory in the Trojan wars. All that is really known is that the golden mask of death is from a royal grave.

Fragments of Mycenaean paintings were found in two places: Tirinto and Pilo, with scenes from everyday life. In contrast to Minoan art, the Mycenaean was much more serious in nature. The Mycenaean civilization collapsed around 1100 BC, marking the end of the Bronze Age and the end of prehistory (that is, the period of history prior to the exhaustion of written records). By 650 BC, Greece had emerged as the most advanced civilization in Europe.

Emergence of Greek pottery

After the Mycenaean and Mycenaean civilizations, the record of painting is almost lost in Greek art. Where the Egyptians, Minoans, and Mycenaeans used frescoes, the Greeks later painted on wooden panels that disintegrated over time, and the main artistic record is found instead on the ceramic remains. Ceramics have always served a specific use (storage jars, drinking containers, perfume containers, etc.). In this pottery, a new trend was foreshadowed: the Greek fixation on the human figure, something that would become a central motif of ancient Greek art.

Exekias, one of the most famous potters known, signed at least two of his works (pots of black figures) that are still preserved. His most famous, “Dyonysos in His Boat” (540 BC) is important not only for its perfect balance, but also because it points out the new direction the representation would take: from symbols to a style that shows the world more as it does in reality is.

Another change can be seen in the development of ceramics in the “red figure” technique, in which human images were not painted but formed when a black background was applied around, letting the red clay show through. “Palas Athena” (480 BC) and “The End of the Party” (490 BC) are two important examples of this style.

Portraying the human form

The focus on the human figure is first seen in Greek pottery and later in sculpture. The portal of the human body by the Greeks in their art had a direct impact on its inclusion and development in Roman art, and later in Western art in general. The earliest Greek statues, such as “Kouros” (late 6th century BC) were based on the Egyptian grid system. Little by little the body lines lost their rigidity, as seen in “Kritios Boy” (480 BC), and finally they emerge in sculptures that capture the musculature of a natural human form, as in “Disco Thrower” (450 BC).

Etruscan painting

With the expansion of the Ancient Greek Civilization came a new artistic development, found on the Italian peninsula in the 8th century BC. Influenced by the Greek artistic changes, but totally proper, the Etruscan style was highly motivated by the Greeks. Early Etruscan art was typified by mural painting, and an important example remains in the “Tomb of the Leopards” (470 BC) in Tarquinia. The mural shows a happy group of revelers, drinking and playing instruments.

Much of Etruscan work, however, had a sinister edge, obsessed with the fleeting nature of life. In “Mourning Women” (late 5th century BC), a fresco from a tomb in Rivo di Puglia, the scene depicts brightly colored mourners lamenting the inescapable advance of time.

Classical period

The most important painter of the Classical Period of ancient Greek art (475-450 BC) was Polyanotos, however, nothing remains of his work. We know of his most famous painting, “Disc Launcher,” only from the writings of the ancient Greeks. The most important painting that survived from the 4th century BC is “The Rape of Persephone” (340 BC), which is found in a tomb complex that also contained the remains of Philip II of Macedonia.

Full of wealth and life, this naturalistic painting is the explanation of the Greeks of the seasons. Persephone is the daughter of Demeter, goddess of fertility, who is transported to the underworld and will re-emerge as Spring.

Hellenistic art

After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, the rise of the city-state emerged, and also Hellenistic art in ancient Greece. Alexander’s cosmopolitan influence had already taken place and was flourishing through a mix of eastern and western styles. Hellenistic culture prevailed in the region until well after the Roman Empire took hold.

The oriental influence meant a flourishing of art by itself, with more decorative ornaments and religion relegated to the background. Instead of religious subjects, art focused on gardens, still life, portraits, and capturing the everyday life of the Greeks. Art was also much more widespread. Paintings can be found at barbers & # 39; and shoemakers & # 39; shops as well as palaces (as recorded in ancient writings).

Art during the Hellenistic era was also more focused on “truth”, even when this meant the representation of violent and dramatic scenes. The definitive example of this philosophy can be seen in “Laocoon and his two sons” (1st century AD), a sculpture representing a horrible scene. Taken from Virgil’s “Aeneid”, the sculpture depicts a Trojan priest and his two sons in the process of being stranded by sea monsters, a vengeance from the gods.

Rediscovered in 1506, sculpture had a major effect on Renaissance artists, such as Michelangelo, who called “Laocoon and his two sons” a “miracle of unique art”. The influence of sculpture continued, and El Greco later painted three works based on Laocoon’s history as well.

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