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Striking attitudes on the sides of ancient Greek vases

25 February 2017

From the February issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

The red-figure pots painted in Athens in the first decades of the 5th century BC are full of life. They show figures – sometimes mythical figures, often figures in real-life scenarios – doing things. All sorts of things. They revel, they fight, they party, they dance, they engage in athletics and in sex, they run after each other. Painters show shaming acts that they perhaps viewed all too often, as when the inebriated throw up, and fantasise about acts they can never have seen, sometimes in ways that modern museums have chosen to obscure by painting over, as when the painter Douris has that man-horse hybrid, the satyr, balance a drinking-cup on his erect penis. These pots conjure up a competitive and exhibitionist world, which is full of challenges, enticements, and humour.

Different painters were attracted to different sorts of scene, just as they were attracted to, or employed in workshops responsible for, different shapes of pot. Those who painted the shallow drinking cups fashionable at the symposium tended to paint subjects at the racier end of the scale; those who painted closed shapes (amphoras, water jugs) to the more sober end. But closed pots could be racy, too. The painter known from his association with the potter Kleophrades as ‘the Kleophrades Painter’ was not only responsible for a water jug showing an extraordinary scene of the sack of Troy with all the atrocities happening simultaneously, but for another water jug showing a satyr masturbating and ejaculating while his fellow satyr tries to rape a sleeping maenad.

Red-figure amphora, (c. 500–490 BC), Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; photo: © bpk/Antikensammlung, SMB/Johannes Laurentius

Red-figure amphora, (c. 500–490 BC), Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; photo: © bpk/Antikensammlung, SMB/Johannes Laurentius

In the midst of all the frenzy, the work of one painter in particular stands out – a painter who has left us neither his own name, nor the name of any potter with whom he collaborated. This painter was conceived in 1911, by the recently graduated John Davidson Beazley. In homage to Giovanni Morelli’s work on Renaissance painters, whose methods of attribution he adopted, Beazley gave the name ‘Master of the Berlin amphora’ to the artist responsible for what he considered to be a consistent set of graphic traits, ‘a coherent and comprehensive system of representing the forms of the human body naked and clothed’. For Beazley, a ‘system so definite, coherent, distinctive, and in some respects so wilful, is most easily intelligible as a personal system: inspired and in part determined by tradition, and communicable or prescribable to others; but the child, above all else, of one man’s brain and will’. That personal system is the subject of an upcoming exhibition, ‘The Berlin Painter and his World’, at Princeton University Art Museum (4 March–11 June).

Fundamental to Beazley’s distinguishing of this painter from others is that ‘This system of renderings cannot be said to be the system universal at the period.’ But Beazley had little interest in whether the same was true of the choice and treatment of scenes. In 1911, after four closely written pages listing the Berlin Painter’s graphic traits, he spent just eight lines listing Subjects, classifying all the scenes on the pots he had attributed to him under the headings ‘Heroic-historical’, ‘Gods’, ‘Dionysiac’, ‘Athletic’, ‘Fighting and Warriors’, ‘Komos’, or ‘Erotic’. The only indication that the subjects might be anything unusual comes in the list of stylistic features, between such statements as ‘Fat bellies are rendered by parallel curved brown lines’ and ‘The open flat hand is particularly common: there is usually a single curving black line at the root of the fingers’; when he states that ‘Silens [his word for satyrs] are not ithyphallic.’

What is particular about the Berlin Painter’s treatment of the world does not emerge at all from the high-level descriptions given by Beazley in 1911. It emerges only from the closest of readings of the short characterisations that Beazley offers in his massive catalogue Attic Red-Figure Vase-Painters, where the scenes on each side are afforded the briefest of descriptions (e.g. ‘A, citharode; B, man’). Those descriptions do show, however, that this painter had something of a penchant for scenes that had been loved by earlier generations of painters but had gone or were going out of fashion. Surprisingly detailed knowledge of scenes painted by an earlier generation of painters is sometimes shown by Athenian pot painters, despite the fact that the pots in question had been shipped off to Italy or elsewhere. This suggests that painters took a very intense interest in each other’s work, talking about it in detail. The Berlin Painter’s pots include scenes of Perseus and the Gorgon, Peleus and Thetis, Peleus and Chiron, Ajax carrying from the battlefield the corpse of Achilles, Heracles fighting a centaur, and Heracles and Apollo struggling for the Delphic tripod. Such scenes had a long history in Athenian painted pottery, but a very limited future, effectively dead by the end of the first quarter of the 5th century, even before the end of the Berlin Painter’s career. With some more recent iconographies too, such as Achilles and Ajax dicing, first represented by Exekias in around 540 BC, the Berlin Painter was one of the last exponents. But Beazley’s brief descriptions also show that the Berlin Painter took on new iconographies altogether, in particular sexual pursuit scenes, which came very much into vogue at the start of the 5th century, and the representation of the winged figure of Nike (Victory) who appears more than 50 times in his work, where the Berlin Painter was a particular pioneer.

That an artist should both explore old themes and pioneer new ones is not in itself surprising – it is a peculiarity of the great black-figure painter Exekias that so much of his iconography was unprecedented. What is remarkable about the Berlin Painter is the way in which his treatment of old themes was such as to transform them, and in doing so effectively kill them off. And crucial here was his use of the single figure. Painting a single figure on each side of an amphora had been tried occasionally by the earlier red-figure painters in whose workshops the Berlin Painter was trained. The Kleophrades Painter, trained in the same context, also took up the idea, but it is the Berlin Painter who saw its revolutionary possibilities most fully and extended it from closed to open vessels, in particular to a new shape of wine-mixing bowl, the bell-krater, which he seems to have been the first to paint.

Traditionally, scenes on Athenian pots had been either completed on a single side or continued around the pot. Some painters offered complementary scenes on the front and back (or in the case of cups, inside and outside) of a vessel, but they had not split a scene between two sides. This is what both the Kleophrades Painter and the Berlin Painter do in works that show knowledge of each other. An amphora by the Kleophrades Painter at Harrow shows on one side a youthful satyr carrying greaves and a helmet, on the other a balding satyr with shield and spear (the Kleophrades Painter had originally planned to have him holding a corslet instead of a spear). The way in which a full set of infantry equipment has been shared between the two guarantees their relationship. But the thing about infantry equipment is that if you do not have it all, you may as well have none – helmet and greaves are pretty useless without shield and spear. The proverbial uselessness of satyrs, who never get their act together, is highlighted.

There is not much doubt that this piece is in dialogue with, and later than, the amphora from which Beazley named the Berlin Painter. Here on one side a single outline contains two juxtaposed figures (plus a deer): the god Hermes, carrying a jug and a cup known as a kantharos (particularly associated with Dionysus), and a satyr, named Oreimachos, with lyre and plectrum. On the other, another satyr, Orochares, carries both a lyre and a kantharos. A lot is going on here (Hermes invented the lyre), but part of what is depicted is the uselessness of a lyre if you don’t have both hands free to play it, or a cup if you have no jug of wine to fill it from.

The Berlin Painter clearly liked this trope, for he repeated it on several occasions, using human revellers as his subjects rather than satyrs. He shows, for instance, a bearded musician on one side of a pot, a youthful partygoer with a cup or amphora on the other.13 Each figure has part of what a good party needs, but only if music and wine are brought together will the pleasure be complete. In one case, having the lyre-player look backwards links the sides; in the other, the musician throws his head back, absorbed in song, and only if they happen to turn the pot around do viewers find (the youth bringing) the wine.

Red-figure Panathenaic amphora, c. 500–409 BC, Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter. Red-figure Panathenaic amphora, c. 500–409 BC, Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter. Martin von Wagner Museum, University of Würzburg

Red-figure Panathenaic amphora, c. 500–409 BC, Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter. Martin von Wagner Museum, University of Würzburg

In both these cases, the viewer has to construct the narrative. When the scene depicted has a known story, the impact of splitting it between two sides is even greater. Take another dialogue between the Kleophrades Painter and the Berlin Painter, involving scenes of Heracles and Apollo struggling for the Delphic tripod. The Berlin Painter paints a naked Apollo striding across one side of an amphora in Würzburg, holding his bow out in front of him and an arrow in his trailing hand. On the other side, Heracles braces himself for conflict, his club poised for a backhanded swipe and the tripod rose behind his head for a smash. Should we see these figures as distant, and Apollo as the better armed to strike from afar? Or as so close that Heracles will beat Apollo before the god can even string his bow? Apollo holds his head proudly high, as if to claim the moral high ground – ‘That’s my tripod!’; Heracles cowers slightly in surly fashion, challenging even this god to take on his strength. The Kleophrades Painter responds by having his clothed Apollo walk across one side of an amphora with his bow down by his side and an empty hand held out in a gesture that seems to be asking to talk. Parallel to Apollo’s body is written kalos ei – ‘You are handsome’. On the other side, Heracles stands looking backwards with slightly sheepish gaze, the tripod held out behind him and the club held across his body. It is not conflict that is foreshadowed here, but negotiation. The differences between these pots should not mask what they share as a result of distributing the action between the sides of the amphora. By removing the encounter from either view, this way of representing the story puts the focus not on action but on attitude. Viewers are made to contemplate each of the actors individually, and to ask themselves about the stance that each has taken. What exactly is Apollo thinking? Or Heracles? Is resolution possible?

 

Red-figure bell krater, (c. 500–490 BC), Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The Berlin Painter even adopted the one-figure-a-side approach for the newly fashionable scenes of sexual pursuit. He uses it for Zeus in pursuit of a woman but in particular he uses it for what is the first preserved image of Zeus in pursuit of Ganymede, a theme he tackled at least twice. On a bell krater now in the Louvre, he has Ganymede on one side, marked out by his long fair hair, roll a very large hoop with his trailing right hand, while holding out and up in front of him a cockerel – a classic love-gift. He turns his head back, apparently watching intently his hand on the hoop. On the other side we see Zeus in three-quarter view from the rear, pacing across the pot, his right arm stretched in front of him and his sceptre levelled, pointing the way. The ambiguity of Zeus’s gesture and the affected nonchalance of Ganymede’s downcast gaze combine with the separation of the figures to make the viewer work hard to achieve closure. Is Zeus reluctantly giving up, as Ganymede goes off with his love-gift? Or is he merely hesitating in admiration at the display Ganymede is putting on? What would it be like to be loved by the king of the gods? Or to be king of the gods and desperately want to pursue young men as if one weren’t?

These single-figure-a-side scenes mark the emergence of a new agenda in art, indeed they mark the birth of the agenda of classical art. The busy action that the Berlin Painter himself captures on other pots – the amphora, for instance, where seven figures crowd in upon one another to present Heracles’ battle with the Amazons – was left behind as old-fashioned. Led in part by the Achilles Painter and Phiale Painter, who were trained in the Berlin Painter’s own workshop, contemplative figures come to dominate classical art – think of Polyclitus’s Doryphoros or Diadoumenos. What individuals have or have not achieved is not now the focus of attention, but what they have been or are now facing up to, and how they face up to it.

Red-figure neck amphora, (c. 490–480 BC), Greek, Attic, attributed to the Kleophrades Painter. Photos: © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Red-figure neck amphora, (c. 490–480 BC), Greek, Attic, attributed to the Kleophrades Painter. Photos: © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Placing the Berlin Painter in his world is no easy task. There were intense relationships within the Potters’ Quarter at Athens, and to do justice to what the Berlin Painter learned and taught one would have to show what all the other painters had been and were doing. But to show how the Berlin Painter was both a child of his times and also an artist whose innovations shaped the future, not just of pot-painting or of ‘art’ but of how individuals related to each other, would demand casting the net more widely again. If we are truly to resurrect the value of the individual painter of pots and not merely to place a painter in his workshop, which is what the Princeton exhibition does very successfully, we need to hear the full conversation in which the painter takes part. That conversation must start with the echoes of past masters and end with the squeals of those – poets and philosophers, citizens, and slaves – whose experience would be differently constructed precisely because they were born only after this painter had reorganised and enriched the way in which art makes the world.

‘The Berlin Painter and his World: Athenian Vase-Painting in the Early Fifth Century BC’ is at Princeton University Art Museum from 4 March–11 June.

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