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The Image of the Artist in Archaic and Classical Greece: Art, Poetry, and Subjectivity

April 2017 (121.2)

Book Review

The Image of the Artist in Archaic and Classical Greece: Art, Poetry, and Subjectivity

By Guy Hedreen. Pp. xv + 362, figs. 65, color pls. 25. Cambridge University Press, New York 2016. $120. ISBN 978-1-107-11825-6 (cloth).

Reviewed by

This long and leisurely book is significant for its insistence that one must understand the imagery on Greek painted pottery against the background of Greek literature, and for its strong case for the imaginative playfulness of painters of black- and particularly red-figure pottery at Athens rendering problematic the assumption that images on pots illustrate life. These points are well worth making, but Hedreen’s methodology raises serious questions. The overall argument—that pot painters can invent fictional identities for themselves that may be influenced by the literary figure of the marginalized artist—is relatively easily stated. But although the book is helpfully broken down by ample subheadings into bite-sized chunks, its detailed arguments are less easily summarized without making them sound farfetched.

The introduction is unfortunately misleading. It equates the symposiast labeled “Smikros” on the Brussels stamnos signed “Smikros egrapsen” to Velázquez’s self-portrait in Las Meninas and Odysseus’ self-identification as he begins his story to the Phaiakians. Hedreen claims that the book is about “the conception of the artist or poet as a socially marginal, sometimes physically imperfect, prevaricator, who triumphs artistically through an ability to fictionalize—lie about—the self” (9). But he does not think that Smikros is lying about Smikros; he thinks Smikros was invented by Euphronios. His analogies work only if Velázquez is an alias of Zurbarán or Homer lies about himself through the character Odysseus.

Better to start with chapter 1, which discusses pots signed by or attributed to Smikros and the figure labeled “Smikros” on a krater attributed to Euphronios. Hedreen points out scholars’ uncertainties about attributing pots to Euphronios and their inadequacies in describing Smikros’ style and what distinguishes it from that of Euphronios. Hedreen tentatively suggests that “Smikros” is Euphronios’ alias.

To show that this suggestion is reasonable, Hedreen turns to literature. In chapter 1 he invokes the seal of Theognis to explain Euphronios’ use of Smikros (58): “The poem and the vase painting share a riddle-like quality that may well have appealed to the symposiasts who were the primary audience for both works.” Chapter 2 traces why one might want to read Archilochos’ poems not as an autobiography but as “the construction of the fictitious first-person narrators” (100). Chapter 3 explores Hipponax’s construction of a fictional identity for himself and invention of rivals Boupalos and Athenis. Hedreen argues that later tradition, reflected in Pliny, constructed a real-life feud out of Hipponax’s invention and turned Boupalos and Athenis into sculptors to whom anonymous archaic or archaizing works were then ascribed (as seen in Pausanias); he uses claims about Boupalos and Athenis elaborately to reconstruct some possible dimensions of Hipponax’s poetic conceit.

Chapter 4 is devoted to Hephaistos and other “ugly” figures in epic. Hedreen stresses what Hephaistos has in common with Archilochos, Hipponax, Smikros, and Euphronios: unattractive physical features and marginalization (things not obviously true of Smikros and Euphronios) combined with virtuoso creativity and self-mocking (162). Self-mocking links the other elements: “Technical virtuosity is possible and necessary thanks to infirmity and disrespect” (148). Hedreen builds on Nagy’s suggestion that Thersites’ ugliness is “a metaphor of the character of blame poetry” to argue that ugliness is “an instrumental part of a complex strategy of claiming a marginal status from which to assert one’s superiority, originality, creativity, and, ultimately, praise-worthiness” (158), a contention he then explores in the case of Odysseus himself.

Chapter 5 returns to painted pottery to examine the François Vase. Hedreen unleashes a series of more or less independent arguments to assert that hierarchy among the gods is visually signaled, that Dionysos carries the amphora in which Achilles’ ashes will be deposited, that “Stesichore” alludes to the poet Stesichoros, that the pygmies at the base link to the rest of the vase because they are children of Hephaistos, that Dionysos looks out of the vase to find Hephaistos, that Odysseus’ victory in the chariot race is an allusion to metis being “the most important theme” of the race in Iliad 23, that the pygmy and crane fight connects to Theseus and Ariadne and crane dances and hence to Daidalos’ manufacture of a dance scene in the Shield of Achilles, and that the presence of cranes makes the foot of the vase like the crane’s winter world and hence “invite one to see the vase as the world itself” (193).

Chapter 6 takes up three themes that have emerged in earlier material—frontality, self-reference, and social hierarchy—and explores them on a range of other pots, including the Foundry Painter’s name vase. Hedreen makes little explicit use of texts in this chapter, but his methods are similar, as he argues, for example, that the presence of a decorated column krater on a fragment by the Amasis Painter from Samos showing silens and nymphs means that the krater must be thought of as having been decorated by Hephaistos, or that because a fragment of a black-figure krater showing Hephaistos carrying a large kantharos was found under the lapis niger at Rome it must signal the Etruscan origins of the kantharos and associate Hephaistos with Etruscan craftsmanship.

Chapter 7 returns to Euphronios and the use of writing in his circle to argue against historical names and the role Webster gave to “special commissions,” on the plausible grounds that both suggestions rest on the small number of pots where one painter appears to depict or address another painter. Hedreen offers instances of pots apparently from the same hand bearing different signatures and also of signatures he thinks constitute invented names (e.g., Priapos). An epilogue suggests that the cup signed “Peithinos egrapsen,” showing persuasive courtship, is another instance of Euphronios creating a fictional signature.

Three of Hedreen’s propositions—that artists are capable of inventing humorous names for themselves and their characters, that there was a thorough knowledge of the Homeric poems among pot painters and viewers, and that there is more instability in attributions of pots to individual hands than it is common to admit (the discussion on 26–52 should be on the reading list of all students of Greek painted pottery)—to me are incontestable. But Hedreen’s elaborations, though ingenious, seem arbitrary. The author assumes that the invention by a poet of a fictional character, into whose mouth words may be put, is parallel to a painter’s attribution of his pot to another name or inclusion of other names on his pot. But whereas archaic poets wrote expecting to be performed (they always put words into other people’s mouths and the question of who is speaking is unavoidable), no such intermediary came between pots and those who viewed them. Nor do pots share with poems a temporality that allows character development, teasing, suspense, and unveiling. Poets can develop characters and tease the listener with questions of fiction and lies; pots have to comment on already-known figures, whether literary characters, real characters, or characters who have appeared elsewhere on pots (think Leagros, or satyrs). “Peithinos” and “Priapos” refer sufficiently to the pot’s form or content to make sense as fictions. Euphronios’ real-life nickname might mark “Smikros” as a joke name, but that “Smikros” is marked courtesy of the tradition that all craftsmen are ugly seems implausible. Archilochos’ fictionalized characters or Odysseus’ lies are an issue for every audience because the poems make them so; the pots Hedreen discusses seem to me rarely to flag up the issues he explores. Hedreen reads both texts and art as a series of riddles, reducing images to a collection of significant details. For some of us, that is to leave out precisely what makes art art.

Robin Osborne
Faculty of Classics
University of Cambridge

Book Review of The Image of the Artist in Archaic and Classical Greece: Art, Poetry, and Subjectivity, by Guy Hedreen

Reviewed by Robin Osborne

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 2 (April 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1212.Osborne

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