The Human Form in Greek Vase Paintings

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The Human Form in Greek Vase Paintings

by Izi Sin

Human figures featured almost universally in Athenian vase painting during the Archaic and Classical Ages. Between early black figure in the first half of the sixth century B.C.E. and the mannerist works at the close of the fifth century, the treatment of the human figure on Athenian vases underwent enormous developmental and stylistic changes in its path to perfection and beyond. Figures on early black figure vases were rigid, angular and as symbolic as realistic. From there, the depiction of the human form progressed to the limits of realism black figure allowed. The invention of the red figure technique opened new avenues of advance for artists, and figures achieved a level of realism previously unattainable. The development of the white ground technique in the late sixth century B.C.E. allowed figures to become more delicate and naturalistic. Not long after, the mannerists, continuing with the red figure style, went past the pursuit of perfectly realistic figures, instead emphasising and exaggerating aspects of the human form for the sake of beauty and art. By the time other art forms superseded vase painting in Athens, the elaborate, naturalistic human figures being depicted held little resemblance to the simple geometric depictions of human figures painted less than two centuries previously.

The earliest human figures on Athenian black figure vases were rigid, angular and strictly two dimensional. They were depicted in full profile, frontally or, around the age of the Fran├žois Vase, with a frontal chest and profile legs. Sometimes the head was also turned, but there were no signs of the twisting of the body or neck. The musculature of males was depicted by basic curved lines incised into the black slip. This gave a carved, stone-like effect, lacking in naturalism. Both males and females appeared on the vases. Males were either depicted clothed in flat, straight-edged garments, or heroically naked. Females wore the long, shapeless peplos, often painted over with a chequered or striped pattern. The edges were straight lines, and no hint of the shape of the female form showed. Hair was generally depicted by parallel wavy lines, as were the pointy beards of the males. Even on profile figures, eyes were depicted as dotted circles, as if the figures were frontal. Faces were expressionless, wide-eyed and wore the strange smiles known as "archaic".

As the middle of the sixth century B.C.E. was reached and passed, changes in these forms began to appear. The proportions of human figures began to improve, although their shapes were still fairly stylised. More natural poses began to appear. While figures were still mostly in full profile, early attempts at torsion, such as that of Castor on the belly amphora by Exekias, were evident. While these were not very successful, they were steps in the direction figure painting would soon move. During this period, muscles on naked or partially clothed males became increasingly detailed. However, many males as well as virtually all females were fully dressed. Females still wore the straight, flat peplos, plain or patterned. The drapery of males was either elaborately patterned, such as the cloaks of Ajax and Achilles on the belly amphora by Exekias, or beginning to fall in folds with zig-zag edges, such as the drapery of Tyndareus on the same vase. Faces were depicted less linearly, though they were still expressionless, with wide frontal eyes on profile figures.

The development of the red figure technique in around 530 B.C.E. allowed painters to exceed the realism of Exekias in whose vases black figure is said to have peaked. While the figures of Andokides, a painter of both black and red figure vases, appeared angular and tapered towards the extremities such as the legs, fingers, beards, noses and knees, Euphronios and Euthymides, other early red figure artists, achieved greater degrees of realism as well as improvements in proportion and shape. At this stage, poses became more innovative, a good example being the wrestling positions of Herakles and Antaios on the calyx krater by Euphronios. Antaios also showed an obvious example of early foreshortening in the foot twisted under him. The use of torsion was improving, though still extreme to the point of bordering on unnatural. The central of the three revellers on Euthymides' belly amphora is one extreme example. In general, figures also showed freer movement, and more combined elements of frontal and profile poses. Musculature was of great importance in this era. It began to show tension and strain when in use, such as on the legs and body of Euphronios' Herakles. The depiction of drapery also showed significant improvements. Women wore the folded chiton and himation, rather than the straight peplos. The first hints of the female shape began to appear through clothing at this stage, obvious on Hecuba on Euthymides' belly amphora. Male clothing also showed numerous folds, and these tended to be freer. Most still had zig-zag edges, but some such as those of the drapery worn by Hector on the same vase had rounded edges. Here also appeared the first real signs of expression. There is pain in the face of Antaios the giant on Euphronios' calyx krater.

Later red figure depictions of the human form show further improvements. Because artists were now reaching the stage of making figures look fairly natural, they each began to concentrate on different aspects of the human form, such as the delicate, graceful side, the restless energy of people, or the drama that could be portrayed through them. In nearly all cases of the major artists, proportions improved and figures often were very naturalistic. Figures began to show the full range of frontal, profile and three quarter poses, as well as many odd combinations of these. Interesting poses such as the lounging warrior on the calyx krater by the Niobid painter were made to look natural and easy. Natural-looking torsion was achieved, such as the twist in the figure Paris on the skyphos by Makron. Foreshortening was also commonly used, but not so exaggeratedly as to appear unnatural. By this stage, most human figures by leading artists were natural, innovative and artistically as well as physically balanced. Well-defined musculature in naked males was still common. This was depicted by either black relief lines, dilute glaze or a combination of both. These three dimensional muscle forms accentuated the beauty of the "perfect Greek athlete's body", achieved by painters such as the Berlin Painter in his volute krater. The warriors are balanced, their muscles tense as if in suspended action. Males in this period were either depicted naked or clothed, and female figures often showed through transparent items of clothing. In both male and female drapery, edges were becoming wavy rather than sharp edged, with multitudinous folds. They often moved with the movement of the figures, or in a breeze. Faces now commonly took on some degree of expression, the details of which vary greatly between artists. Profile eyes were more realistic and hair sometimes followed the movement of a figure.

From this state of near perfection, red figure painting moved in a new direction. Certain artists began to exaggerate some aspects of the human figure for the sake of beauty and art. The new style is known as mannerism. Figures were refined. Women were tall, elegant and slender with gentle hands. Mannerists deliberately exaggerated the poses of the humans on their vases, making them appear calm and beautiful. A common pose for women was plucking at their drapery and many made small, elegant hand gestures. While naked men appeared and were still well muscled, their muscles were less angular, and they were of less importance. The emphasis was on the women. Their drapery fell in numerous folds, transparent and revealing, or clinging to their bodies to accentuate their shapes. It often churned around its wearer's feet or flowed with movement or from the wind. The drapery of males was often heavily patterned, such as that of Castor on the hydria by the Meidias Painter. The expressions appearing on the faces of the women were gentle, serene and sometimes coy, even in the face of drama such as an abduction. Profile faces were drawn with the brow to the nose a straight line. Female hair was not compact, but rather loosely coiled up on the head, often with a few loose coils.

Even before the mannerists worked in their unique red figure style, other artists were experimenting with the white ground technique. Because all lines were put on top of a white background, delicate yet striking figures could be created. Women on white ground vases were often tall and slender, as well as very naturalistic. Musculature on any bare male parts was not overdone, and sometimes even omitted entirely. The poses of figures were generally simple, ordinary and casual. For this reason they looked very natural, and perhaps this made them even more striking. Both males and females featured on these vases, and both were generally clothed. Drapery was sometimes made of clothing hanging in many folds, such as on the woman in the cup tondo by the Villa Giulia Painter, or simple and hanging fairly straight, but curved naturally around the body, as in the case of the woman on the lekythos by the Achilles Painter. The faces of the figures, which could now be portrayed with extreme accuracy, were serene and mildly expressive. Faces were a straight line from brow to nose tip. Female hair was mostly coiled on top of the head, with just a few stray coils. Males' hair was generally curly. In this style, the profile eye was perfected. It had a forward facing pupil and a single curved line for eyelashes. Although white ground decoration did not last as well as black or red figure and so was not practical for everyday use, it nevertheless became very popular for funerary lekythoi because it was so visually striking and allowed the artist to reach these great levels of realism in the portrayal of human figures.

In its less than two hundred years as a major art form in Archaic and Classical Athens, vase painting made tremendous leaps forward in artistic style. After emerging into the early black figure era, vase painting rushed on to the invention of the red figure technique and then the white ground technique. The human figure played a prominent part in most of this, moving from a stiff, stylised shape to a beautiful, very realistic figure on a red figure or white ground vase, and on to an artistically exaggerated form in the mannerist vases. Had other art forms not superseded vase painting around the opening of the fourth century B.C.E., the history of art may have taken a very different course.

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