Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Review of the Artwork that I Liked

            Ancient art gives you impressions and details into the lives of people that lived so long ago.  I gained knowledge about the different artistic periods, about the symbolisms and different reasons for the artwork, about the wonderful sculptures and paintings that were made, and the amazing architecture that still endure into the present.  I appreciated the art for both its visual details and for their historical content.

One of the most interesting aspects about much of the art that was covered in my art history class was the use of art for political propaganda.  It can be seen in many of the different artistic and historical periods.  Often, it was rulers and leaders, through the use of symbolism and the associations with the divine, that used the art to convey their right to rule and their power and strength to the people that they ruled over and to their enemies.  The “Stele of Naram-Sin” is rich in symbolism and shows different stylistic techniques.  It shows the Akadian ruler Naran-Sin and his victory over a group of mountain people.  The stele uses the hierarchy of scale to show the importance of Naram-Sin by making him the largest figure in the scene, which is seen prominently in Egyptian art as well.  They also show his importance by making him similar in size to the mountain that is seen in the background.  His connection to the divine is made through the symbolisms of the bull’s horns on his head, his well formed and tone body, and the stars in the sky that represents the presence of the gods.  What’s also interesting about this stele, is that the fact that it was not only used by Naram-Sin to promote himself, but that it was also used after his lifetime by another ruler, Shutruk-Nahunte.  He used it for his own propagandistic purposes and tried to draw an association with Naram-Sin.  Other artwork rich in political propaganda included the Babylonian “Stele of Hammurabi”, which contain the written legal codes of Hammurabi and depicts the support of the gods through the offering of the staff, and the Narmer Palette from the early dynastic period in Egypt.

            Architecture was widespread and diverse throughout the ancient civilizations and cultures and throughout time.  The Ishtar gates are a beautiful example of the New Babylonian period.  The blue glazed brick make a dramatic background for the stylized dragons and lions.  I like the repetition of the decorative elements, the stylized plants and palm trees, and how the colors contrast with the background and form interesting lines for the eye to follow.  I think this would have made a wonderful ceremonial visually and I enjoy how it represents the rebirth and the rejuvenation of the Babylonian culture. 

The Great pyramids of Giza are still an impressive feat of architecture.  It’s amazing the precision of the calculations that would have been needed to form a perfect pyramid.  The other Egyptian architecture that I thought was amazing was the Hypostle Hall of the Great Temple of Amuk.  Most of the columns, walls, and cross-beams were decorated with painted pictoral relief and inscriptions.  Visually, the eye is drawn up and down the column with the different registers of relief and hieroglyphs, and the many columns create a sense of being in a forest of trees, or in the case with the Egyptians, a swamp of papyrus.  The amount of work needed to decorate the columns would have required many skilled artists and a lot of time and resources.  It was interesting to learn of the symbolism of the papyrus and lotus shaped columns, and the symbolism of the swamps, which was closely tied into the Egyptian’s religious belief in creationism. 

The Parthenon is an amazing building that gives insight into Greeks’ desire for perfectionism and order.  Iktinos’s treatise on the Parthenon was meant to use optical illusion to create perfectionism.  Some of his methods involved include: the swelling of the columns so that they appeared straight, making the columns on the corner thicker, curving the base of the entablatures to give the impression of a straight horizontal line, and using the ration 4:9 for the relationship of breadth and length and column diameter to the space in between columns.

Based on the use of domes and the basilica plans of the Romans, the Byzantines created a beautiful centrally and longitudinal planned dome called the Church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.  The ring of windows around the dome, which lets in light, creates an aura and halo of light that isn’t seen in the Roman Pantheon. The dome and the light represent spirituality and the heavens.  The light and the stylized patterns that decorate the inside of the dome make Hagia Sophia an interesting and beautiful church.

Some of my favorite paintings were the frescoes of the ancient Aegean culture.  I enjoyed the bright use of colors in the landscapes, and with the figures, and the whimsical stylization of the hills and the animals.  The bright colors and the telling of an important event in Aegean culture, the coming into womanhood, can be seen in the “Girl Gathering Saffron”.  The whimsical and stylized animals can be seen in the “Flotilla Frescoe”.  The deer leaping in the background over the hills and the dolphins leaping out of the water, in between the flotilla of boats, lends energy to the scene, and the multi colored hills lend a colorful backdrop to the scene.

I learned a lot about the people and the different cultures of ancient civilizations through their art and architecture.  It gives me a better understanding of their artwork and an understanding of how much influence cultures had on each other, even our own.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Stylization in Byzantine Art

Stylization in two works of art, the mosaic of “ Justinian, Archbishop Maximianus of Ravenna and Attendants in San Vitale” and the “Virgin and Child with Saints and Angels” during the Byzantine period.

           There is a shift to more stylization and a movement away from the naturalism that was seen in ancient Roman art.  Stylization of the figure and the landscape is very prevalent in Byzantine art.  While there are still some aspects of naturalism that are present, such as the use of some mottling, realism becomes less of a focus for Byzantine artists.  Instead, there is a focus on spirituality and the use of icons, which are representations of holy figures and events.  Icons were important to the Byzantines, except to the iconoclasts, and they thought that by honoring an icon of a spiritual figure that honor was then passed on to the actual figure itself.  These icons, along with the artwork found in churches, give a representation of the stylization in artwork produced during the Byzantine era.

            There is a rigid styles that is noticeable in Byzantine art and can be seen in the representation of the figures and by looking at the landscape behind the figures.  Looking at the human front figures in the “Virgin and Child with Saints and Angels” (Stokstad p. 245), they appear stiff and rigid.  Mary is holding her body very upright in her throne and her posture is a very frontal pose.  Both the saints flanking her on both sides, share her same stiff straight posture and frontal view.  The angels behind the frontal figures seem to breaking away from this view, adding a contrast from the main figures in front, and seem to be looking at the hand, or the representation of God, coming from the sky.  The same stiffness in the body can be seen in the figures of Justinian with the bishop, attendants, and soldiers (Stokstad p. 240).  There is a slight suggestion of the contropposto stance with Justinian and the other figures.  We can see one foot is in front of the other and one foot is turned to the side.  The stance can be seen even better in the bent knee of the saints next to Mary.  Even with so much stylization done with the figures, there are still some visible attempts at realism, and Roman influence, but it is no longer the main focus for Byzantine art.

The elongated figures is a stylization found throughout much of the Byzantine art.  In the figure of Justinian, we can see that his body is very long in comparison to the size of his head and his shoulders.  His face along with the other figures in the scene share a long narrow face with long narrow noses.  The hands holding the dish are also elongated unnaturally along with the feet.  This same elongation in the face can be seen in the icon of Mary and in the faces of the saints and angels.  The faces also show a two-dimensional quality that can be seen in the outline of the eyes and the dark eyebrows.  The cheeks on all the figures of Justinian and his attendants are unnaturally pink and flush.  There is some individualization of the faces in both sets of artwork.  We can see a change in hair and the appearance of beards in some figures, but overall the features of eyes and eyebrows remain similar in the different faces.  The robes of that Justinian wears, along with his other attendants, are very much stylized.  There is no longer the interest in the verism and naturalism that was seen in the Roman art, where the garment was a vehichle to show the outline of the figure beneath the clothing, without actually having them the figure be nude, instead, the cloth and the garments are more of a focus than the body underneath.  The emphasis is more on the lavish quality of the material and using it as a symbolism of wealth and/or royalty.  The purple robe of Justinian symbolizes wealth, because it was so expensive to make the dye, and we know he is a royal figure because of the purple robe and his red shoes.  The possibility that the robe Mary is wearing in the iconograh is purple, instead of blue, symbolizes Mary as the veil for Christ and the red shoes proclaim her status as empress.

The mixture of two-dimensional quality and three-dimensional characteristics can be seen in the landscape and the backgrounds.  In the mosaic of Justinian, the ground is suggested by the expanse of green that is mostly one color.  The background is filled in with one solid tone of gold, which is a stylization that is very prominent in many works of art from the Byzantines.  There are only slight hints of naturalism with the pillars in the background, which show some mottling, but overall the affect is of a two-dimensional world, where the figures don’t seem to be quite standing on solid ground.  Gold backgrounds symbolized divinity and spirituality, along with reflecting wealth, status, and prestige.  These backgrounds were not meant to show depth or realism, but instead seem to focus on creating a two-dimensional other worldly realm not of this world.  Gold is also used for the halos around the faces of Mary and the saints, and of Justinian.  They are of a solid color and symbolize the holiness and spirituality of the figures, and the association with royalty.

The Byzantine artists were more focused on the naturalism of their art but instead they were interested in the symbolism and spirituality of their subject matter, and less on trying to create a naturalistic world.  They did use some slight mottling and some shading and the use of the contropposto stance in some figures, but for the most part their figures were kept two dimensional with the outlining of the bodies, around the eyes, and the unnatural positioning of the feet that give the figures the appearance of floating in space.  The two-dimensional aspect is brought into the landscape and the background with the use of a solid gold sky, which has rich symbolism but no depth. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A comparison of the “Bust of Commodus as Hercules” and the “Portrait Head of Caracalla

The two portraitures, done during the ancient Roman times, promote two types of propagandistic statements and show the values and characteristics that each Emperor wanted to be associated during their separate rules.  One uses youth and an association with the divine as his right to rule, and the other uses the artistic medium to create a face that creates a powerful stare that conveys strength and seriousness.

The stylization of the facial features, the regalia associated with an iconic hero, and the style of the hair and beard, show two very different statements that the busts are trying to make. Commodus was an Emperor of Rome who ruled in 180-192 CE, and liked to represent himself as Hercules.  According to historians, he claimed that he was a reincarnation of Hercules, a legendary hero from Greek mythology, and an incarnation of the Roman god Jupiter.  By creating this association with Hercules through this bust, he wants people to associate him with godliness and strength.  The association with the gods also infers a divine right to rule as well. 

His idealized likeness is represented in the face, which portrays a young man in his prime, wearing and holding the imagery associated with Hercules, the lion head, the club, and the golden apple of Hesperides.  The idealization can be seen in the face and the upper part of the body that can be seen.  The face is without wrinkles or lines of age, and his beard and hair are represented in very detailed tight curls that were drilled.  The shoulders and arms convey a strong muscular body, every muscle is very well defined and show no scars or flaws.  The arms are balance, one bent back holding a club, which draws the eye back to the face, and the other arm is open and reaching away from the body holding an apple.  The perfect body and the balanced arms is a reflection back to the ancient Greek style of idealism.  So, he is also forming an association with the Greek art, which was much revered by the ancient Romans.

The “Portrait head of Caracalla”, makes a very different statement and promotes a view of very different characteristics from the Hercules bust.  The marble head shows a very stern and serious face, which was considered a Roman virtue for males during the time of the Republic rule, and conveyed a strength of character.  There are also lines that can be seen between the brows, the forehead, and around the mouth.  The lines help to show a man who is no longer in his youth, and according to some of the ancient Romans, gave an appearance of a man who has lived life well and “confers a sense of wisdom and purpose”.  The lines on the face and the very forward penetrating stare from the eyes, show a sternness and rigidity and a strong sense of will, a “no-nonsense ruler of iron-fisted determination” (Stokstad 2011).  The deep penetrating eyes also command the viewer’s attention and demand respect while giving the feeling of leadership.  The penetrating stare is emphasized by the artist’s use of deep shadowing under the eyebrows that contrasts with the whiteness of the forehead.  Unlike Commodus who, through his vanity, tries to get respect as a leader by associating himself with the gods and the son of a god and his association with Greek stylization, Caracalla instead demands leadership simply through the power of his stare. 

Another large differences between the two works of art is the hair.  While Commodus’s hair might represent the fashion of the times, Caracalla’s short hair and short, almost shaved, beard show his strong military association and the growing importance of the military with Roman rule.

The differences between the “Bust of Commodus as Hercules” and the “Portrait Head of Caracalla” show different ways that the rulers wanted to represent themselves to the public and their audience.  Commodus wanted to associate himself with gods and Greek heroes, and show his divine right to rule.  He also wanted to convey strength and youthfulness.  Caracalla, instead uses deep penetrating stare and the lines on the face to convey a strength of will and character, a courageous and no-nonsense ruler through the power of his gaze.  His bust also conveys a man who has aged and thus gained wisdom and knowledge.  Both works of art show idealized representation of those characteristics.  One is the idealized perfect body and the sign of youth, and the other is the idealization of a strict and powerful ruler.  

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Painted Sculptures of the Ancient Greeks

Winkelmann was an art historian in the 18th century who helped to shape our current ideas of art and “good taste”.  He thought that art should be “pure and simple” like the Greeks and that “pure” white marble was the ideal for beauty.  Color according to Winkelmann, was to be used sparingly and “ought to have a minor consideration in the role of beauty”.  Wouldn’t he be surprised to know that the Greeks actually painted some of their marble sculptures?  Scholars have been able to use visual and scientific analysis and modern day tools and technology to study the traces of paintings that remain on the Greek sculpture.

            I think that Winkelmann’s idea of Greek art has portrayed an incorrect image of Greek art and sculpture.  By promoting the idea that Greek art is the ideal for beauty and “good taste” because of its simplicity and use of white, it is ignoring all the other works of art that the Greeks created that were painted or colorful.  It has created misrepresentation and caused a bias away from painted sculpture and favoritism for pure white marble sculptures.  I think it has affected modern day art.  When we look at the Neo Classical period when there was a revitalization of Greek art, the sculptures were made to look white and weren’t painted.  Although it can be said that they were just representing what they could see, why is it then that there aren’t more reconstructions of painted sculpture?  Even most marble statues made today are not painted.  There seems to be this idea that once it has been sculpted and polished that it is the end of the process, the finished product, and that there is no need to go further. 

                        I was surprised when I first saw the reproductions of the “Archer” from the Temple of Aphaia and the “Peplos Kore”.  I had been under the impression, as well, that Greek sculptors had meant for their works of art to be viewed as the plain white marble that we see today.  The paintings seem so bright at first and out of place.  The musculature isn’t as visible and we lose the monotone value of the statue.  From the findings of different scholars, an analysis of the “Archer” reveals that the Greeks actually favored bright colors, such as yellows and reds, made from different minerals and materials.  The artists also painted complicated patterns, such as the diamond pattern, that can be seen on the arms and legs of the archer.  The lines of the patterns draw attention to the legs and the arms, which are both poised in a moment of action.  The left arm is holding a bow and arrow and the left leg is extended out part way to brace the archer while he draws the bow back.  Upon closer inspection of the pattern on the left leg, the viewer will notice that the pattern changes according to where it is on the position of the leg.  It widens at the bulge of the thigh muscle, narrows at the knee, widens again at the bulge of the calf, and narrows again at the ankle.  It is an accurate representation to show how the pattern on a stretchy material would change according to how much stretching was put on the material. 

According to ancient authors, the Greeks painted their sculptures to make them more life like and naturalistic.  The Greeks were interested in naturalism, but they didn’t make their art completely realistic as can be seen with the archaic smile found on the dying warriors from the Temple of Aphaia.  The attempt at naturalism with the painting on the “Archer” shows how much Greek sculptures paid attention to detail.  By just seeing the Greek sculptures without any painting, we can admire the form, and the details in musculature, which are not as noticeable when painted, but we are only seeing a partly finished piece.  We are missing out on the naturalistic detail and artwork and knowledge that can be gained from the paintings.  From the paintings we could get a better idea of what colors the ancient Greeks favored and what style of clothing they may have worn.  I still appreciate and like the white unpainted Greek sculpture, but I also like the detail and the attempt at naturalism of the painted sculpture and the potential information that can be gained from the paintings.  I now think of them as beautiful works of art that are just missing their “clothing”.