The Classical Moment and Beyond

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The Classical Moment and Beyond

The excitement in Greek art often comes in the classical moment of the natural depiction of human form in monumental sculpture. Right around 480 BCE Greek figural art took a dramatic shift from the stylized Kouros to the contrapposto and life-like Doryphorous. This tendency to have sculpture imitate human experience would continue to more free-flowing models like Lysippus’ Apoxyomenos in the Late-Classical period. The periods of Greek art are often easy to discern because each period has a characteristic style which is readily identifiable. In Greek art we see an emphasis on Man, or as Protagoras stated “Man is the measure of all things.” Humanity is celebrated in the triumph of individuals, not just rulers and Gods.

who died heroically in battle. The connection to earlier funerary art in Ancient Egypt is obvious in the stance and rigidity of the heroic youth and both exist as a stylized type rather than an accurate portrait. Yet the Archaic Greek sculpture looks less like it is part of a block of stone and seems to exist completely in the round. There is greater attention to musculature and detail in the Kouros and it is fully nude, depicting not a ruler, but a person elevated because of his individual actions. Archaic sculpture is noted for its characteristic smile, thought to denote life, and was heavily pigmented.

In 480 BCE the Greeks suffered the sack of Athens by the Persians and subsequently avenged in the same year with the defeat of the Persians from the Greek Peninsula. The victory resulted in a prolific period of artistic production and a dramatic shift from the Kouros prototype. Freestanding sculpture was manufactured in Bronze which allowed greater expression because of the properties of metal. Most of the Greek bronze originals are only available in Roman marble copies. Polykleitos created the Doryphorous in bronze around 450-440 BCE to showcase a set of ideal proportions and principles that he set down in writing in a treatise titled the Canon, which became the standard for its period. This sculpture is lost and is only know through Roman marble copies derived from the bronze original. Note the clumsy post that supports the right leg and the piece of marble which holds the right arm in place. Note the shift in the hips as the weight resides on the right foot and the left foot lifts up. The face shows a figure with calm emotions, believable features and the hint of movement. Polykleitos also paid even more attention to anatomy and ideal musculature and replaced the archaic smile with a severe expression that exemplified the Greek ideal of mind over emotion.

The Late Classical Period is defined as the era after the Peloponnesian war ended in 404 BCE through the Macedonian invasion of Phillip and the subsequent spread of Greek culture by his son Alexander the Great. Lysippus was one of the great sculptors of this period and he introduced a new set of proportions evidenced in his Apoxyomenos . Like the Doryphorous it is only known through Roman marble copies, but must have been an incredible expression of human form in its original bronze without the clunky marble attachments. The fig leaf was added later to comply with the modest values of the Vatican and the Catholic Church. We see an athlete scraping off the grime acquired on his oiled body during competition. The scraper is halfway through the length of his extended arm, suggesting greater movement than the more static Doryphorous. Lysippus retains the contrapposto of earlier statuary but accentuates it and he changes the canon by elongating and thining the human form. There is also greater emotional depth with a less austere facial expression, hinting at the real exhaustion at the end of strenuous exercise, instead of an ideal moment of stature.

In all three statues we see the emphasis on human form, a way to celebrate humanity while also calling attention to individual achievement. In the Kroisos we see the beginning of this trend with a monumental nude statue achieving truer naturalism in the Doryphorous. With Lysippus we see the greater potential of the expressive human form with more complex gestures and figures that act more “real” than “ideal”.

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