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A Companion to Greek Art

A Companion to Greek Art

Edited by Tyler Jo Smith and Dimitris Plantzos (Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World 90). 2 vols. Vol. 1. Pp. xxviii + 396, figs. 123, color pls. 12, maps 6; vol. 2. Pp. xx + 439, figs. 82. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, England 2012. $400. ISBN 978-1-4051-8604-9 (cloth).

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Blackwell’s Companion to Greek Art (hereafter Companion) had already received some mixed reviews (E.A. Dumser, CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries 50[4] [2012] 649; BMCR 2013.02.27) when the AJA book review editors invited me to review it. I imagine that putting together a tool like this is a daunting and tedious process. Readers of the AJA may easily comprehend the practical and philosophical challenges Smith and Plantzos had to cope with, not to mention the need to conform to the overarching scheme of the Blackwell Companion series. In addition to striking the right tone for its content and structure, a “companion” has to be like an effective teacher: approachable, informed, engaging, even humorous—we all appreciate a good joke or anecdote when boredom starts kicking in. You expect your companion to have answers to nearly all questions. Most importantly, you expect your companion to be able to raise stimulating questions herself or at least to direct you to appropriate spaces of debate and exploration.

With these considerations in mind, I decided to accept the invitation, and I put this plan to work: I lived with the Companion for a semester of teaching and learning, using it as it was meant to be used—as a reference tool for teachers, researchers, and undergraduate and graduate students; I also expected it to be a compendium that takes the temperature of its field even as it provides a panoptic overview of evidence, questions, theories, methods, and trends. In the remainder of this review, I distill from my semester-long experience applying this method. The Companion has served me well in some respects, but in others it did leave me wanting. I therefore cast this review by presenting merits but also deficiencies—the latter in the form of suggestions for improvement in future reiterations. There is no need or space for summarizing individual articles here.

I start with merits. In terms of contributing authors, the Companion is polyphonic and multifaceted. Texts of very young authors exist side-by-side with contributions of older and established scholars. The gender ratio is balanced as well. No single school of thought or methodology prevails. The concise articles are well written and accompanied by paragraphs of suggestions for further reading, with annotated bibliographical commentaries. A good number of articles are sufficiently illustrated, although the mostly black-and-white photographs do not do justice to what they represent. The thematic structure is clear and elegant. Volume 1 contains the introduction, essays on the archaeological categories that fall under the umbrella of Greek art (e.g., pottery, sculpture, architecture, architectural sculpture, painting, mosaics, luxury arts, terracottas), and an overview of developments outside Greece proper (“Contacts and Colonies”). Substantive articles on workshops and technology (Hasaki) and ancient writing on art (Lapatin) rightly find their place here. Volume 2 is equally well structured. The first part (“Images and Meanings” [pt. 4]) offers thematic essays on iconographical themes, objects, and contexts. The second part (“Greek Art: Ancient to Antique” [pt. 5]) deals with issues of afterlife, transmission, response, and scholarship from the end of antiquity to today. I found this part refreshing. All in all, the Companion covers a lot of ground and sometimes it does so in an original and inviting way.

Turning now to the weaknesses, first I stress that the title of the volume is a rather disorienting one, especially for users accustomed to post-Renaissance views of “art.” Broadly speaking, the Companion addresses the “visual and material cultures” of the Greeks and their contacts, with the visual often relegated to the margins (e.g., the otherwise comprehensive article by Hodos, “Cyprus and the Near East,” is certainly not an overview of the visual culture of Cyprus and the Near East in the first millenium). In general, a lot of what we include under the rubric of “art” had complex functions—the aesthetic often being incidental or irrelevant—but the volume does not address the necessary distinctions adequately.

Second, the volume is rather unbalanced in terms of focus and coverage. One wonders, for example, why Sicily and South Italy, an area as instrumental and worthy of focus as any other, is compressed into a telegraphically written chapter. There is no coverage of South Italian and Sicilian ceramic production. This is especially regrettable now that, for example, Taplin (Pots and Plays: Interactions Between Tragedy and Greek Vaseā€Painting of the Fourth Century BC [Los Angeles 2007]) has given a new impetus in the study of vases related to the productions of drama in South Italy (the discussion in vol. 2 [557–59] is rudimentary). I also note absences, many and unsettling: the volume needs a self-standing chapter on Crete, an area that in the Early Iron Age witnessed an idiosyncratic visual/material culture that still awaits illumination. Equally absent is the Cyrenaic—surely a worthy antipode to the Black Sea area, after the early 1990s, a new horizon in the field of classical archaeology, as the chapter by Bouzek makes clear (vol. 1, pt. 3, ch. 18). Moreover, the presence of Hellenism in Afghanistan and Pakistan needs to be addressed in this volume—scholars discuss anew monuments and problems (e.g., L. Martinez-Sève, “The Spatial Organization of Ai Khanoum, a Greek City in Afghanistan,” AJA 118 [2014] 267–83)—and it is precisely the function of a tool like a companion to open portals to unconventional areas and questions.

Third, the Companion has a penchant for the encyclopedic/descriptive—not always an attractive hook for readers. This is understandable to a certain extent. More problematic is what I perceive as the misplacement of a critical or questioning stance both in the conception of the volume as a whole and in individual contributions. From the very beginning I felt the lack of clear units or chapters on current analytical/critical categories (e.g., figuration, narrative, representation, imagery, iconography, performance, memory, hybridity) and the theoretical frameworks within which these categories have been used as tools of analysis. The good stuff is there, but one has to work hard to get to it. To give an example, what McNiven discusses under the inviting subtitle “The Seeming Transparency of Greek Art” inside a fine chapter on “Sex, Gender, and Sexuality” (2:512–13) has wider implications and should have been foregrounded in a more approachable and self-contained context. Likewise, a concise treatment of “agency” by Whitley is placed, like an afterthought, in the end of the section on “Images and Meanings” (vol. 2, pt. 4). In a few chapters, I felt that users have been underserved—most notably in the case of the chapter on architecture, an unappealing fossil in terms of method and presentation. I understand that Barletta’s useful State of the Discipline article (“Greek Architecture,” AJA 115 [2011] 611–40) may have appeared too late to have been included in the suggestions for further reading; yet, how is one to explain the absence from the bibliographic suggestions of Barletta’s works dealing with the origins of architectural orders or the architecture of western Greece? Equally marked is the absence of Mertens' work on western urbanism (Städte und Bauten der Westgriechen: Von der Kolonisationszeit bis zur Krise um 400 vor Christus [Munich 2006]).

Aside from these considerations, I offer here a few suggestions that could easily be improved in future editions. Regarding illustrations, I point to the prevalent absence of dimensions in the legends accompanying illustrated artifacts. The spread of color illustrations in the middle of volume 1 is pointless. It also contains an outdated picture of the Parthenon with no indication of the date of the photograph—here a hint at the Acropolis restorations that have resulted in a radically new appearance of the building is necessary (fig. 6.5 [1:143] has a view of the Erechtheion with five columns in the east porch; unsuspecting readers need explanations about the missing sixth column and the current postrestoration appearance of the building with a replica of the missing column). Stylianopoulos’ fine chapter on the nuts and bolts of publication of knowledge in traditional media and on the Internet is tucked in at the very end of volume 2, but I think it should be more prominent. The lack of an index and a glossary of terms will be limiting for many users—I recommend that in addition to the bibliographic apparatus, each chapter is supplemented by an appendix explaining basic terminology with visual aids.

A companion to a fast-evolving field always runs the danger of becoming outdated very fast; I therefore expect that the Companion will keep pace with developments. At least it should be given the chance to undergo a few castings and recastings before it settles into a more permanent format (like OCD3). To this end, the publication of the Companion as an e-book (not accessible in my institution at the moment of writing) may point in the right direction.

Nassos Papalexandrou
Department of Art and Art History
The University of Texas at Austin

Book Review of A Companion to Greek Art, edited by Tyler Jo Smith and Dimitris Plantzos

Reviewed by Nassos Papalexandrou

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 1 (January 2015)

Published online at


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