Statuarische Gruppen in der frühen griechischen Kunst
By Helga Bumke (JDI Ergänzungsheft 32). Pp. x + 204, figs. 13, pls. 36. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 2004. €74. ISBN 3-11-018179-7 (cloth).
It is not difficult to find studies of individual sculptural groups, but studies of freestanding sculptural groups as a genre are rare. A handful of German scholars of the 19th century relied, necessarily, almost entirely on literary sources. In the 1930s, Technau (Die Statuarische Gruppe in der griechischen Kunst, Die Antike 15 [Berlin and Leipzig 1939]) limited his study to narrative groups that were unified in a single, dramatic moment—a criterion that excluded many archaic freestanding groups. This study is, therefore, a welcome one, since its goal is to analyze the form and content of freestanding sculptural groups from the Geometric period to the Early Classical period—in other words, to offer us some sense of period style and contexts for all of the known sculptural groups that were produced during this span of time.
Bumke’s analysis of freestanding Geometric groups—all miniatures, of course, and most of them bronze—develops ideas that have long been applied to individual figures of the period. She argues that, just as the Geometric aesthetic does not integrate body parts but conceives of each part separately, the figures in a Geometric group are conceived of as essentially separate and only demonstrate their relationship to one another by a very limited sort of contact and by the fact that they stand on the same plinth. Thus, a suckling mother animal does not look significantly different from an animal that is not suckling. She does not stand differently, nor is there any explicit depiction of her teat. The only way we know that she is a suckling mother is that her offspring stands beneath her with its mouth tilted up toward its mother. Similarly, two Geometric figures doing battle with each other are joined at the hands or at some other point of contact, but their bodies are not otherwise involved in the conflict. Human beings do not lean into their fights and animals do not tend to lunge.
These formal observations are both helpful and interesting, but the argument seems to go a bit too far when Bumke tries to explain them as part of a typically Homeric mindset. This is an approach adopted and adapted from Himmelman (Bemerkungen zur geometrischen Plastik [Berlin 1964]), who saw the Homeric world as one where individual body parts had discrete functions and on occasion even their own epithets, so that in battle scenes, for example, the hands and arms were the object of the closest attention in the poetry. This mindset is, in turn, supposed to explain why in sculptural groups from this period, battling figures often possess arms that are unnaturally long and positioned in such a way as to draw the viewer’s eye. The Homeric poems do not, however, focus on only one body part in the heat of battle; nor does familiarity with Homeric poetry seem like it should be required of bronze artisans living in the eighth century B.C.E.—though it might be required of artists in later periods.
In the second chapter, we learn that archaic sculptural groups, until about the last quarter of the sixth century B.C.E., tended to consist of statues that were arranged in a row and did not interact with one another in any narrative way. The Geneleos base is an excellent example and represents trends that Bumke is able to trace in large and small scale throughout this period. Careful attention to the circumstances in which archaic groups were found produces a number of interesting observations. Bumke reminds us that the two kouroi we know as Kleobis and Biton were not found in the same deposit. Indeed, they were found about 10 m away from each other and stood on separate bases, so that archaeological context offers no sure proof of their original placement and arrangement. That these two kouroi belong together at all, therefore, requires a different sort of argument.
Bumke offers such an argument by considering other, contemporary replicas. So, for example, two young, female figures from the Geneleos base are difficult to distinguish from each other, presumably because they are related. The author also examines vase paintings of the period to argue that identical appearance is a sort of code for shared status within a group. Thus, in depictions of the Judgment of Paris, the three goddesses are often represented as identical in appearance—though this, for us, seems counterintuitive or even ironic, since Paris is supposed to select the most beautiful from among them. If Bumke is right, though, the message of their identical appearance is that they enjoy the same status within their group, as Olympian goddesses. According to this argument, Kleobis and Biton can be argued to belong together because their appearance and measurements are nearly identical.
Toward the end of the Archaic period, in the last quarter of the sixth century B.C.E., and into the Classical period, the figures in sculptural groups begin to interact with one another again, but this time they engage with one another more thoroughly. When Athena battles her opponent in the Gigantomachy, the two figures are in contact with each other at several points, and both of their bodies participate fully in the struggle. Beyond that, we find the same sorts of stylistic trends in groups that have long been observed in individual sculptures—an increasing emphasis on observed, anatomical detail, an interest in the effects of gravity, and a physical response to any effort that echoes throughout the body.
Much of Bumke’s study is carefully argued and circumspect in its claims. She does not, for example, attempt to date Geometric groups too precisely, since the system of stylistic dating for this period is contested, and stylistic differences are as likely to be a product of workshop or skill as they are indicators of date. For each of the periods in Bumke’s study, the evidence does present its difficulties. In the Geometric period, the figures (all statuettes) are few in number and rarely come with the archaeological contexts that would help us make full sense of them. In the Archaic period, sculptural groups that have an archaeological context are often missing the attributes, gestures, and inscriptions that we would like. And for the Late Archaic and Early Classical periods, Bumke finds herself in some cases dependent on sculptures that she cannot be certain were freestanding. Perhaps more problematically, she finds herself using a few Roman statues whose relationship to Greek works is, at best, unknown.
On the whole, however, this study does precisely what a good analysis of ancient art should do: it helps us to see familiar works in a new light, and it encourages us to find value in works that are less familiar.
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Book Review of Statuarische Gruppen in der frühen griechischen Kunst, by Helga Bumke
Reviewed by Ellen Perry
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 111, No. 2 (April 2007)
Published online at www.ajaonline.org/online-review-book/496