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Master of Attic Black-Figure Painting: The Art and Legacy of Exekias

Master of Attic Black-Figure Painting: The Art and Legacy of Exekias

By Elizabeth Moignard (Library of Classical Studies). Pp. xxi + 177, figs. 65, color pls. 8. I.B. Tauris, New York 2015. £68. ISBN 978-1-78076-141-1 (cloth).

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In Master of Attic Black-Figure Painting: The Art and Legacy of Exekias, Moignard has given us a refreshing new and personal approach to Attic figure-decorated pottery and a new appreciation of Exekias, the best of the black-figure painters. While recently much has been written about reading Attic images, Moignard rather wants the images to speak—and in such a way that they provoke intense aesthetic and emotional experiences. At the same time, she has not abandoned the rigor of, to use her words, “the academic house I grew up in” (xx).

Each of the five chapters provides a case study of a vase attributed to Exekias. In each, Moignard places the vase in its cultural and artistic context and explores wider issues raised by the images. The chapters, which are essentially self-contained, are free of scholarly apparatus. They read well and are easily accessible to a general audience. A glossary at the end of the book defines unfamiliar terms, and 24 pages of annotated bibliography, arranged by chapter, provide the scholar with up-to-date research and useful discussions of different interpretations of the works.

Moignard rightly notes that there is no way we can ever know how sixth-century audiences responded to the imagery on vases by Exekias; rather, her principal interest is in what the images can mean to us today as viewers. She insists that the satisfying aesthetic experience provoked by the images is the hook that can pull us in to deeper examination of the stories told. Further examination of details and an understanding of the historical contexts can only increase the pleasure, but at the same time we need to be willing to respond emotionally to the content of the images. She argues that we should not be intimidated by assertions that there are only limited academically respectable ways of understanding imagery. Each chapter provides an example of the range of approaches we might take in viewing the imagery of Exekias.

While acknowledging that everything we know about Exekias comes from his pots, Moignard argues that from those works we can get a sense of a unifying artistic personality for which the making and unmaking of heroes is a thematic constant. She insists that both the painter and his sixth-century audience had a familiarity with the Homeric poems, which gave them an understanding of the dimensions of heroism. The thorough discussions of heroic themes in the first three chapters illustrate this well.

The first chapter, “Portrait of a Loser,” with its focus on Ajax as a failure, is particularly effective in establishing the theme by concentrating on the unmaking of a hero. By painting Ajax seven times, Exekias created a collective portrait through linked images, which ends with the hero’s suicide. In the second chapter, “Homecomings and Departures,” Moignard demonstrates how Exekias can use a stock image to produce a multivalent, emotionally wrenching scene. The use of inscriptions raises a standard scene of a warrior departing to a mythic level, with Polydeukes leaving from home in the presence of his parents and his brother, Kastor. Moignard shows how close attention to details of the scene—such as weaving, hints of a garden, and the behavior of a dog—enriches its domestic context and personal impact, though here as elsewhere the accompanying image (fig. 6) is too small to do justice to her fine description. Achilles and Penthesilea are the central figures in the third chapter, “The Eye of the Beholder,” where the discussion leads the viewer to see the relationship between image and shape and, through that, the way the painter is able to direct our gaze and increase the emotional intensity of the image.

The fourth chapter, “The Long Goodbye,” with funerary plaques by Exekias at its center, explores the ways the painter took traditional funerary scenes that appear on vases by the mid eighth century and manipulated the form to increase the intensity of their impact. Though photographs of the Exekias fragments are included, a drawing of a reconstruction of the tomb would have made the descriptions more accessible.

The final chapter, “Masks,” discussing the famous cup in Munich with Dionysos at its center, shows how images from different parts of the cup come together to produce a powerful message for the viewer. We have to imagine the experience of the symposiast who picks up the cup and drinks from it. Eyes stare at his companions from the outside of the cup as he raises it to his mouth, while on the inside he sees the calm and elegant scene of Dionysos reclining in a ship with vines growing from its mast, sailing on a coral red sea with dolphins swimming about. But under the handles are two scenes of warriors fighting over the corpse of a fallen comrade. Moignard looks to Homeric heroes in her creative attempt to connect the brutal fighting with the serene Dionysiac scene, presenting fighting and feasting as complementary aspects of heroism.

In an epilogue, Moignard considers attempts to link images with political events or to see them as conscious efforts to convey Athenian identity to foreigners, but she takes a moderate position, suggesting that myth is used, as later in tragedy, to think about Athenian achievements and social issues. She concludes by emphasizing the breadth and variety of possible approaches to Exekias’ images, from the emotional to the purely intellectual.

It is ironic that for a book devoted to images, Moignard is not well served by the organization and quality of the illustrations. Many of the black-and-white photographs are disappointingly muddy, and several are inappropriately small, requiring a magnifying glass to see details (e.g., figs. 6, 34, 65). But these are minor flaws when put in the context of the work as a whole.

Specialists and neophytes alike will benefit from Moignard’s years of looking at and thinking about Exekias’ images. She is, indeed, an effective guide here in helping us hear the objects speak in ways we may not have heard them before.

T.H. Carpenter
Department of Classics and World Religions
Ohio University

Book Review of Master of Attic Black-Figure Painting: The Art and Legacy of Exekias, by Elizabeth Moignard

Reviewed by T.H. Carpenter

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 1 (January 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1211.Carpenter

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