Online Review: Book

Tradition and Originality: A Study of Exekias


By E. Anne Mackay (BAR-IS 2092). Pp. xiii + 413, figs. 6, b&w pls. 84, color pls. 2, charts 10. Archaeopress, Oxford 2010. £75. ISBN 978-1-4073-0568-4 (paper).

It is surprising, as Mackay notes in the preface to this book, that Exekias’ vases have until now not been the subject of a major monograph, for he is widely regarded as one of the most skilled vase painters of archaic Athens. The small size of his extant corpus and certain inconsistencies in style are partly responsible for this state of affairs, since they have impeded the development of an accepted chronology for his work. Mackay thus approaches her study with two goals: to establish a relative chronology of Exekias’ surviving vases and to offer a detailed analysis of each piece, considering both its relationship to the rest of the Exekian corpus and the ways in which its imagery would be received by Athenian viewers. The result is a clearly presented, in-depth study that will become the standard work on Exekias. It will be of interest mainly to specialists in Greek art, although nonspecialist readers wishing to acquire further background will find helpful starting points in the footnotes.

The book is organized as a catalogue: following a general introduction, individual chapters are devoted to the 32 vases, the attributions of which the author accepts; these are followed by a chapter on four “disattributed” vases (353), a discussion of chronology, conclusions, and three appendices. Except in passing, Mackay does not treat Exekias’ funerary plaques, which have been published by Mommsen (Exekias I: Die Grabtafeln. Kerameus 11 [Mainz 1997]). Nor does she provide exhaustive bibliographies for individual vases, instead referring readers to the Beazley Archive database; her general bibliography is dominated by works that are most relevant to the technical and interpretive issues she raises. The bibliography is extensive, and I noticed only a few significant omissions. (I missed, for example, any reference to Hedreen’s treatment of Ajax and Achilles at the gaming table [Capturing Troy: The Narrative Functions of Landscape in Archaic and Early Classical Greek Art (Ann Arbor 2001) 91–119], although Mackay devotes several pages to interpretations of this theme on the Vatican amphora [334–36].) The book contains a handful of typographical and other minor errors, only a few of which are misleading: plates 74–6 illustrate London B 210 (not B 209), and the catalogue on pages 11–13 should list BAD numbers 310388 and 8492 for entries 2 and 12, respectively. (Both appear correctly in the chapters on these vases.) The illustrations are generally legible and provide multiple views of most vases.

The catalogue entries, which compose the bulk of the volume, consist of detailed descriptions followed by analyses of the imagery, and each concludes with a section on chronology. Analyses frequently draw on evidence from archaic ritual and poetry; while Mackay’s Athenocentric perspective will trouble readers who prefer to emphasize the Etruscan findspots of many of the vases, she is certainly correct to insist that Athenian art reflects Athenian values, even if foreign consumers found their own meanings in the imagery. On the whole, Mackay is concerned not only with offering stylistic and iconographic analyses but with determining where the vases enter current scholarly debates. The pairing of images on a vase, the relationship of image to cult, and the influence of oral traditions on vase painting are all at various points discussed. Because the book touches on so many complex issues, readers will inevitably find themselves wishing at times to see a question treated more thoroughly; for example, the frequent comments about narrative imagery would probably benefit from greater engagement with the significant body of literature classical scholarship has produced on that topic. Yet as Mackay notes in the introduction, her interpretations “are offered in the hope either of stimulating the publishing of corroboratory information by others, or of provoking a refutation with a better-founded interpretation” (4), and overall this approach has generated analyses that are frequently more thought provoking than one might expect from a typical catalogue.

The main chapter on chronology follows the catalogue; it is supplemented by discussions in appendix A and at the end of each chapter. The vases are divided into four chronological phases stretching from the 540s to the early 520s B.C.E.; detailed sequencing within phases is often impossible. While Mackay’s reluctance to provide absolute dates for individual vases will no doubt frustrate some readers, those who worry about a tendency toward false precision in the dating of vases should find the choice refreshing. Mackay is admirably clear about her methods of determining relative dates, and I suspect that even readers who disagree with the finer points of her arguments will find the discussions of chronology extremely useful.

Mackay’s book certainly succeeds in meeting its stated goals; however, I had hoped to find more discussion of its basic premises. Ideas about the importance of studying individual vase painters have changed a great deal since the genre of the painter monograph was conceived, and Mackay herself cautions against studying vases “according to an unquestioned post-Renaissance set of categories” (5), noting the unlikelihood that Exekias was celebrated as a master painter in his time. What, then, is the value of the painter monograph in a field that increasingly de-emphasizes the individual artist? One potential answer emerging from Mackay’s discussion is that it provides a means to examine how artistic changes occur; she observes that “[a]lmost every one of [Exekias’] extant vases … seems to challenge his contemporaries’ horizon of expectations as established by the tradition within which he worked” (6). This formulation, borrowed from reception theory, may prove a useful weapon against the persistent tendency to treat the development of Greek art as a relentless march toward realism, although it is itself a risky venture, since so little of Exekias’ output (not to mention other sixth-century art) has survived. Given the thoughtfulness with which Mackay treats so much of her subject, however, I would have liked to see a more direct statement of how she envisions the study of individual artists fitting into the landscape of contemporary vase painting studies. Yet this concern hardly diminishes the usefulness of the volume, which should attract the attention of scholars interested in a wide range of questions in archaic art.

Kathryn Topper
Department of Classics
University of Washington
Seattle, Washington 98195

Book Review of Tradition and Originality: A Study of Exekias, by E. Anne Mackay

Reviewed by Kathryn Topper

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 1 (January 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1151.Topper

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