Substantive Education

Greek Vase Painting Part 1

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted information for my Art History Class, but here is what we’ve been covering in class the last few weeks on the Ancient Greeks. Today I’ll post about Greek Vases, hopefully tomorrow on architecture. (For those of you unfamiliar with my site, this is a class of Jr. High and High School Homeschool students.)

Following the Mycean and Minoan civilizations the next period of Greek art is the Geometric Period. During this time artist decorated with a complex form of decoration where human and animal body parts were reduced to simple geometric solids. They were characterized by linear motifs, spirals, diamonds and cross-hatching. You will notice a marked difference from the sea creatures, birds and plants that were common in Minoan vase painting.

greece-1This figure, a centaur, is unusual because it is more than a foot tall and because it has a hollow body that was formed much like a vase on a potter’s wheel and then the artist added solid lines and a tail. The design was painted onto the body using slip. Slip is a mixture of water and clay that fires a different color than the clay it is painted onto. This centaur was discovered in a cemetery broken in half, with half on one persons grave and the second half on the one next to it.

This next piece is a funerary vase and it shows the complex decoration typical of thegreece-2 Geometric style. In the bands, or registers of the vase we see the process of a funeral. The body of the deceased is placed on its side on a funeral bier, Greeks had begun the new practice of cremation. We can see the mourners standing with their arms raised to their heads, an ancient expression of anguish as the mourners literally tore out their hair. The bodies have been reduced to triangles and rectangles. No attempt has been made to show the forms in three-dimensional space. Despite this we feel through the rigidity and strong accents a sense of human loss.

Egyptian art, when dealing with death, explored the activities the deceased would enjoy in the afterlife, the Greeks focused on the emotions of those who survive in this life. According to the Greeks the deceased entered a place of mystery that we can not know about. There was very little hope offered to the living. This led to an emphasis on the suffering of those left behind by the deceased.

greece-6By the seventh century BC vase painters were beginning to move away from the Geometric style. Painters were influenced by the arts of the Near East, Asia Minor, and Egypt. The Greeks were a sea-faring people and were re-establishing contact and trade with nations in these areas. They now began to use more large and open motifs that included both real and imaginary animals, plants, and humans. This came to be known as the Orientalizing style and it began in Corinth, a port city that imported wares from the East. This pitcher is an Olpe, or a wide-mouthed pitcher which dates to 600 BC. You can see creatures painted in horizontal bands against a light background of stylized flowers. These flowers came to be know as rosettes. This is an example of black-figure pottery. It is decorated with dark shapes against a pale background which is the natural color of Corinthian clay. The artist has then incised the details inside the silhouetted shapes with a sharp tool and added touches of gloss, or clay slip to enhance his design.

The following description of Greek Painted Vase Techniques is from Art History by Stokstad. The three main techniques for decorating Greek painted vases were black-figure, red-figure and white-ground. The painters used a complex procedure that involved preparing a slip (a mixture of clay and water), applying the slip to the vessel, and carefully manipulating the firing process in a kiln (a closed oven) to control the amount of oxygen reaching the ceramics. This firing process involved three stages. In the first stage, oxygen was allowed into the kiln, which ‘fixed’ the whole vessel in one overall shade of red depending on the composition of the clay. Then, in the second (reduction) stage, the oxygen in the kiln was cut back (reduced) to a minimum, turning the vessel black, and the temperature was raised to the point at which the slip partially vitrified (became glasslike). Finally, in the third stage, oxygen was allowed back into the kiln, turning the unslipped areas back to a shade of red. The areas where slip had been applied, which were sealed against the oxygen, remained black. The ‘reds’ varied from dark terra-cotta to pale yellow.

In the black-figure technique, artists painted designs -figures, objects, or abstract motifs – with slip in silhouette on the clay vessels. Then using a sharp tool (a stylus) they cut through the slip to the body of the vessel, incising linear details within the silhouette. In the red-figure technique the approach was reversed. Artists painted the background around the figures with the slip and drew details within the figures with the same slip using a brush. In both techniques artists often enhanced their work with touches of white and reddish-purple gloss, pigments mixed with slip. Firing produced the distinctive black images.

White ground vases became popular in the Classical period. A highly refined clay slip produced the white ground on which the design elements were painted. After firing the vessel, the artists frequently added details and areas of bright and pastel hues using tempera, a paint made from egg yolks, water, and pigments. Because the tempera paints were fragile, these colors flaked off easily and few perfect examples have survived.

francois-vaseThe Greek Potters created only a few vessel shapes. During the 6th Century BC Athens became the dominant center for pottery and trade. The Athenians adopted the Corinthian black-figure techniques and at first they continued to decorate the vases with the traditional bands. An important transitional piece is this vase which dates to about 570BC. It is a volute krater, or a large vessel with a scroll-shaped or volute handles and was used for mixing the traditional Greek drink of wine and water. This was one of the earliest known vessels signed by both it’s potter (Ergotimos) and it’s painter. (Kleitias)

Kleitias was a great storyteller and this vase has over 200 figures that have been identified with inscriptions providing an important literary record. The main scene is the marriage of King Peleus to Thetis, a sea nymph. Together they would be the parents of Achilles. The different bands continue to tell more of the story. Even the footed base of thegreek-vase1 vase, which shows small warriors battling cranes is the retelling of a story dating back to Homer.

Over time the Athenian painters decreased the number of bands and started making the figures larger, until generally one scene dominated the vase. A mid sixth century BC Amphora (a large, all purpose storage jar) illustrates this development. The depiction on this is the wine god Dionysos with maenads, his female worshipers. This has been attributed to a painter called the Amasis Painter, because his work has  such a distinctive style. Most of the Amasis Painter’s work is found on small vessels, so this is an exception. You can see the maenads arms around each other coming forward to present their offerings – a long eared rabbit and a small deer. These signify power over nature.

One of the finest of all of the Athenian artists is Exekias. He signed many of his vessels as both the artist and the painter, the inscription would read, Exekias made me. He was an expert of the Black figure method of vase painting and we can only be amazed at the details he was able to bring to life using this method.

greek-vase-21Exekias took his subjects from Greek history. On this amphora he recounts an episode from the Trojan War. Ajax was a fearless Greek warrior, second only to Achilles in braverly. After Achilles died, however, the Greeks choose Odysseus to be his successor over Ajax. Along with his sorrow over losing his cousin Achilles and humiliation in being passed over Ajax prepared to commit suicide. Other artists frequently showed warriors after they had died, but Exekias choose to show Ajax as he prepared to die. He has set aside his helmet, shield, and spear and is crouching beneath a tree, planting his sword upright in the dirt so that he can fall upon it. There is balance in how Exekias has designed his work with two upright elements, the tree on the left and the shield on the right, framing and balancing Ajax in the center. The lines of the tree and the shield curve gently inward following the graceful line of the vase. The entire composition focuses our attention onto Ajax and his concentration on his work. It is a sad and greek-vase-31poignant moment.

On this next vase, also created by Exekias, we see another unusual scene.   When portraying gods and heroes, most Greek painters showed them either in battle, victory, or death.  Here we have a Achilles and Ajax taking a break in their tent for a game of dice.  Notice that Ajax’s shield is the same one as in the vase above.  While they have set their shields aside they each still hold their weapons.  The symmetry on this vase is also very graceful, reflecting the lines of the amphora.  The details on the clothing is delicate and intricate.  The two shields provide a frame for our heroes intent on their game.  neither Ajax or Achilles would survive the Trojan War.


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