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The Frame in Classical Art: A Cultural History

The Frame in Classical Art: A Cultural History

Edited by Verity Platt and Michael Squire. Pp. xxxviii + 697. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2017. $135. ISBN 978-1-107-16236-5 (cloth).

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This book claims to be about “frames” in ancient Greek and Roman art. It is that—but it is also much more. Part archaeological taxonomy, part theoretical treatise, part topical case study, part intellectual game, the book reaches across disciplinary boundaries, integrates practical and philosophical concerns, and explores the possibilities of what ancient art history can be. The model that this book represents—both in form and content—is one to be studied, enjoyed, and perhaps even emulated. (But only if you have a passion for Derrida. Either way, it’s a blast.)

The volume is divided into five parts: “Framing the Frame,” “Framing Pictorial Space,” “Framing Bodies,” “Framing the Sacred,” and “Framing Texts.” Each of these parts is, in turn, composed of two or three chapters written by contributors and introduced with a short essay by one of the editors. The concluding chapter bookends this structure and serves as a response to the whole.

While the individual chapters are all interesting to varying degrees, the opening chapter, by editors Platt and Squire, “Framing the Visual in Greek and Roman Antiquity: An Introduction,” is worth considering in detail. Here, the editors lay out their project, one that blends traditional art historical and archaeological concerns with a diverse range of tools and tricks more typically deployed by literary theorists, aestheticians, cultural anthropologists, and philosophers. It is superb. Building on, then going beyond, a foundation first constructed by Jeffrey Hurwit, the editors walk us through a series of responses to a single question: “What do frames do in ancient art?” The seven interrelated answers given here are intriguing, complex, nuanced, and real; they also serve as deliberate framing devices—in multiple senses—for the chapters that follow. At the center of this, of course, is “the frame” itself. Platt and Squire see frames as both physical and conceptual boundaries within and around works of ancient Greek and Roman art—concrete visual and archaeological things that can be critically engaged as important objects in their own right—and as phenomenological tools for understanding, subverting, and reveling in the traditional processes of writing art history. The frame, in other words, becomes an ideal vehicle for talking about art history as a discipline, for erasing false divides between “classical archaeology” and “the history of art,” and for thinking deeply about the relevance of visual culture as a generator and reflector of societies and individuals across time and space. Compelling, articulate, and fun—the chapter is essential reading.

Marconi, in the first case study, chapter 2, treats frames in Greek painted pottery, exploring the boundaries that exist between figural scenes and their borders in Athenian vases of the Late Archaic and Early Classical periods. Marconi suggests that the frames seen on these objects served to mediate and complicate the relationships between “figure” and “decoration” and that they also act as playgrounds for artists who were intent on exploring the assumptions and conventions of their craft.

Hedreen’s chapter 3 treats the trope of the “frontal face” in Greek vase painting, a representational convention that can serve to disrupt and elide drawn frames for both apotropaic and emphatic purposes. Like Marconi, Hedreen sees frames, at least in part, as devices employed by convention to focus attention and demarcate interest. But what happens when there is a “spectator within the picture?” When the framed figure tacitly acknowledges the existence of others, outside the frame?

Squire examines “still-life” motifs in Roman wall painting in chapter 4. Here, the representation of fruit and vegetables within (and without) frames becomes an ideal locus for painterly play and argument regarding the nature of representation and the consumption of the same. Frames in Roman wall painting do not necessarily serve to separate represented “aesthetic objects” from the “real world” like they might in a modern gallery, although the modes of display have much more in common than might be assumed. Rather, the objects and their frames engage broader narrative concerns: illusion, trompe-l’oeil, and fantasy.

The earliest monumental sculpture from the Greek islands and mainland forms the topic of chapter 5 by Dietrich. He argues that archaic sculpture melds dichotomies of surface/core and outside/inside, and demonstrates how radically different these objects were framed by their makers and audiences, when juxtaposed against modern gallery practices.

In chapter 6, Trimble deals with the framing typologies of Roman imperial honorific sculpture, most importantly the so-called Small Herculaneum Woman type, exemplified by the famous portraits of Anita Julia Polla from Ephesus and an unidentified portrait of the same type found at Cyrene. Trimble cleverly suggests that the standardization of the type opened numerous potential frames for exploring the individuality of specific “sitters” by way of an almost infinite number of relational decisions made by artist and patron.

Platt treats Roman sarcophagi in chapter 7. For Platt, sarcophagi mediate a series of concentric, nested frames that both physically contain the deceased and, at the same time, allow the metaphorical crossing of that most important boundary—the separation of the dead from the living. With her careful readings of these complex objects, Platt shows how traditional conceptual frames begin to fold into one another with complex and surprising results, allowing hitherto irreconcilable interpretive positions to thrive together in a complex dance of organizational, topographical, allegorical, ontological, ornamental, and eschatological significance.

One of the most interesting contributions in the book is chapter 8, by Gaifman. This essay moves freely from gems to pots to cult statues to dedicatory images and in so doing demonstrates how critical frames were to the creation of divine images. Specifically, these various frames—architectural, pictorial, and more—provide ideal vehicles for negotiating the complexities attendant on the presence of divine beings that are at once very much like us and wholly “other.”

Osborne’s chapter 9 discusses the so-called Lesser Attalid Monument in Athens. He suggests that these little barbarians—when pulled from their architectural frames—served as potent reminders of Attalus’ godlike power in late third-century B.C.E. Athens. No longer “held” by structure, the statues become visceral embodiments of the power of Hellenistic god-kings. The chapter is a superb counterpoint and complement to Stewart's groundbreaking 2004 study of the monument and its contexts (A. Stewart, Attalos, Athens, and the Akropolis: The Pergamene "Little Barbarians" and their Roman and Renaissance Legacy. [Cambridge]). The two are best read together.

Chapter 10, by Elsner, treats the way in which “style” frames—and is framed by—art, artists, and their histories. Specifically, he argues that ancient artists within the Western tradition used contrasts of style to articulate explicit ontological differences between the sacred and the profane. Style could be (and was) used by individual artists in antiquity to communicate specific values, ideas, or ontologies; this is not really in dispute. What is exciting about Elsner’s chapter is how he happily jumps from era to era, deftly weaving threads of commonality through diverse periods to near operatic effect, demonstrating his point via careful analysis of specific objects and their trans-historical comparison.

Texts, frames, and “illustration” form the subject of chapter 11 by Roby. This is a fascinating discussion about the power of images, texts, and the purposes and interfaces that bind them together, specifically within the spheres of ancient scientific and technical writing. That said, this is also the one chapter in which the book’s insistent theorizing seems a bit misplaced—or at least not as useful, or perhaps not as usefully deployed. When Ptolemy, for example, explains specifically how and why graphs, text, and illustrations work together to communicate knowledge more effectively—when an ancient author is telling you how he thinks the images frame his own text—do you really need more Derrida in there slipping and sliding around? Maybe you do? Maybe that’s exactly why you do? Are those kinds of questions even allowed inside the frame?

Chapter 12, by Leatherbury, deals with the frames of epigraphic display, specifically on wall and floor mosaics, moving past ancient Greece and Rome into the Early Christian world. Leatherbury is specifically interested in how frames of late antique inscriptions were used to attract attention, emphasize text, and shape reception—and faith. A rock-solid chapter.

Zorach closes the book with her response discussing “framing ‘antiquity.’” It’s not really a “response,” though—and that’s good. It is more like a kaleidoscopic series of reflections that serve to bind and pull and enclose and open the preceding chapters in relation to one another, all from the perspective of the Renaissance. Her last sentence is one of the most profound in the book.

Peter Schultz
North Dakota State University

Book Review of The Frame in Classical Art: A Cultural History, edited by Verity Platt and Michael Squire

Reviewed by Peter Schultz

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 4 (October 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1224.schultz

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