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Greek Art in Context: Archaeological and Art Historical Perspectives

Greek Art in Context: Archaeological and Art Historical Perspectives

Edited by Diana Rodríguez Pérez. Pp. xxi + 282. Routledge, Abingdon, U.K. 2017. $112. ISBN 978-1-4724-5745-5 (cloth).

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This volume publishes some of the papers from the Greek Art in Context international conference held at the University of Edinburgh in 2014. “‘Context’ has become a buzzword,” Rodríguez Pérez notes in her introduction (1), and both the conference and the volume aimed to explore its many facets. With the study of Greek art, Rodríguez Pérez advocates for the melding of art history and classical archaeology over any divide between these disciplines, with material culture studies added for good measure. Consideration of context forms an essential part of this exercise—context in its many meanings, ranging from archaeological findspot to socioeconomic and other historical contexts to the contexts of museums and collecting.

Despite the goals of inclusion and methodological diversity espoused by Rodríguez Pérez, ultimately the picture of “Greek art” presented in this volume is rather narrow (as she herself admits). First, the subjects of contributions are limited to sculpture and pottery; Rodríguez Pérez explains that no proposals were received for architecture-themed papers for the conference (8). Second, and perhaps this similarly results from external circumstances, 12 of the 16 chapters center on Athens, including exported Attic pottery. The conference program lists other papers and posters that concerned other areas of the Greek world, and this reader wishes more of the original contributions could have been included.

The volume’s chapters nonetheless yield much food for thought as a cross-section of the conference. Part 1, “Location and the Find-Spot,” involves the most literal definition of context. Chapters by Dillon and Shea and by Baltes each take as their starting point the significance of findspot for Athenian sculpture, attempting to move past exclusively typological approaches and the privileging of certain periods over others. Dillon and Shea reexamine the recorded findspots of classical figured gravestones and Roman portraits (including secondary and tertiary find locations) and raise questions about what these might suggest in terms of depositional practices and other issues. Addressing the “changing statuescape” of the Agora (34), Baltes similarly believes the later movements of sculptures to be as essential to their object lives and to scholarly consideration as is their initial locations. Manakidou’s chapter takes a welcome turn northward into ancient Macedonia and considers assemblages of local and imported pottery at various sites. Recent excavations in this region promise to alter our picture of archaic Greece; in terms of imported pottery alone, Manakidou mentions East Greek, Corinthian, Attic, and Laconian wares. Once fully published, these data will enhance our understanding of distribution and trade in the early to mid sixth century B.C.E., while documented findspots encourage cogent discussion of local consumption.

Part 2, “Experiencing Material Culture,” privileges the viewing context of artworks. Levitan and Wescoat’s chapter revisits the Parthenon frieze through the lens of experimental archaeology, with the authors recounting a project in which to-scale canvas panels replicating portions of the frieze were mounted on the Nashville Parthenon. Survey of visitors about their visibility suggested not only that the frieze was more visible than is often assumed but also that color was key to perception. Levitan and Wescoat’s discussion points up the value of such experiments and promotes a new way of thinking about a familiar monument.

The next three papers focus on iconography. Van de Put’s brief chapter ponders the legacy of the hermeneutic tradition in the age of the “contextual turn” (76). Llewellyn-Jones takes on another oft discussed work, the Athenian Eurymedon vase, known for its unique portrayal of a mostly nude Greek chasing a caricatured Persian soldier with clear sexual intent. After considering previous interpretations (favoring some more than others), Llewellyn-Jones proposes a new way of reading the scene, namely that the painter intended to represent rape in progress by collapsing the oinochoe’s pictorial space. Even if one is less convinced by this argument, the author’s remarks about the scene’s impact on contemporary viewers as they handled the vase remind readers of pottery’s materiality. For this reader, Volioti’s contribution is the most thought-provoking of the trio, considering not just the viewing context of Attic pottery but the context of buying and selling. The paper focuses on the sketchily drawn vessels of the Haimon Group, which by the author’s own admission are “bad art” (81) that no self-respecting art history text would ever feature, and by that choice encapsulates the ideals of art-history-meets-material-culture championed by the volume. Volioti argues for intentional iconographic repetition and ambiguity by Haimonian painters to cement their brand and appeal to consumers’ sense of the familiar. Ancient consumers, she suggests, would not have responded to “bad art” the same way modern viewers would. While I quibble with her claim that “iconographic repetition . . . did not result from a drive toward efficiency in production” (81)—couldn’t there be multiple motivations?—her business-minded approach is welcome. In addition to Volioti’s points about imagery, I wonder to what extent the black-figure technique itself appealed to nostalgic consumers in the early fifth century.

The papers in part 3, “Historical and Artistic Contexts,” approach context in its widest sense. Meyer and Zaccarini each tackle an Athenian monument—Meyer the west pediment of the Parthenon and Zaccarini the now lost (or is it?) Stoa of the Herms—and raise questions about the use of (especially later) literary sources. Hochscheid, also focusing on Athenian sculpture, turns to the broader workforce and larger base of patrons, asking readers to think beyond political circumstances and motivations and famous sculptors like Pheidias; most of the questions she raises cannot be answered with present evidence, but they are worth asking nonetheless. Turning once more to Attic vase painting, Masters and Andrason use complexity theory to “unidentify” Helen and Paris (156) in a group of late fifth-century vases that for many scholars show the fateful meeting that initiated the Trojan War, arguing instead that the scenes show generic brides and grooms. While a bold effort, the authors neglect a smoking gun: a hydria by the Jena Painter in Berlin cited among their examples (V.I. 3768) was shown in the CVA (Berlin 9, Germany 74) to have inscriptions labeling four of the figures: Alexandros (i.e., Paris), Helena, Himeros, and most intriguingly for the scene’s interpretation, Habrosyne. This vase alone shows the entire group cannot be tossed out with the mythological bathwater, and that greater nuance is required than this chapter offers. (Another missing key reference here is H.A. Shapiro, “The Judgment of Helen in Athenian Art,” in J. Barringer and J. Hurwit, eds., Periklean Athens and Its Legacy: Problems and Perspectives [Austin, Tex. 2004] 47–62.)

Hildebrandt’s chapter takes the discussion to ancient Apulia with its consideration of five fragmentary vessels, acquired by the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg in 2003 from a German collector said to have owned them for “over thirty years” (170). The fragments were published for the first time in 2002. In the introduction, Rodríguez Pérez takes the position that “ungrounded” (i.e., unprovenienced) objects are nonetheless valuable for scholars and should not be neglected (6); Hildebrandt makes similar arguments before proceeding to an iconographic exploration of the vases. The unacknowledged elephant in the room—particularly for a book titled Greek Art in Context—is that large numbers of “ungrounded” Apulian vases left Italy illegally, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, with the result that perhaps as few as 5.5% of Apulian vases have documented findspots (R.J. Elia, “Analysis of the Looting, Selling, and Collecting of Apulian Red-Figure Vases: A Quantitative Approach,” in N. Brodie, J. Doole, and C. Renfrew, eds., Trade in Illicit Antiquities: The Destruction of the World’s Archaeological Heritage [Cambridge 2001] 143–53). Certainly many of the questions Hildebrandt poses would have better answers if these and scores of other Apulian vases—including other recently surfaced vessels by the artist under discussion, the Darius Painter—had known archaeological contexts. Hildebrandt admits the utility of findspot but ultimately follows Cuno (in, e.g., Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage [Princeton 2008], cited in this chapter) and others of his mindset in believing “findspot is only one element in the information cluster” (169).

Part 4, “Re-contextualization,” extends themes already found in earlier chapters. Fernández provides a useful overview of fourth-century contexts of Attic pottery in the Iberian peninsula. Although the Athenian ceramic industry was arguably in its decline, the export market continued to thrive, and Fernández gives many examples of targeted production and trade to this region. Iberian consumers adapted and in some cases literally transformed imported pottery for local needs, and they were not bound to Greek ways of thinking about these vases. Schierup’s case study of Panathenaic amphoras (both prize amphoras and pseudo-Panathenaics) in South Italy presents a similar story of reception and appropriation as imported amphoras were repurposed as funerary vessels and later as local workshops crafted their own versions. Landskron explores the Heroon of Trysa, a monument produced for a Lycian dynast that melds Greek, Persian, and local Lycian subjects in its sculpted friezes. She presents new readings of some of the iconography and stresses the selective appropriation of Greek myth in service of the dynast. Waite’s chapter takes the theme of recontextualization to Great Britain and the collecting of Greek art in the 19th and early 20th centuries; in mining the history of the Kent Collection, she shows that many of its objects derive from earlier collections (namely those of Bonaparte, Disney, and Cesnola). Her contribution forms part of a recent scholarly interest in the history of collections and collecting and extends the metaphor of object biography into modern times. Like Rodríguez Pérez and Hildebrandt, she argues that findspot is only part of an object’s story but states: “When this findspot is unknown it is of paramount importance to understand this post-surfacing history. Since looting is a direct consequence of collecting, it is vital that this collecting history is clearly documented” (234).

The production quality of the volume is consistent with other Routledge books. Illustrations (line drawings and black-and-white photographs) are limited but sufficient for points made, with the exception of Masters and Andrason’s chapter, which lacks—and needs—illustrations. Typographical errors are few.

As an eclectic collection bound by the broad theme of context, Greek Art in Context offers much for the reader, with many contributions serving as both self-contained entities and signposts to larger areas of inquiry. The “paradigm shift” privileging context in the study of Greek art noted by Rodríguez Pérez in her introduction (3) is not going anywhere; context is unlikely to remain simply a buzzword but will persist as a regular focus of research. Our field is enriched as a result.

Sheramy D. Bundrick
College of Arts and Sciences
University of South Florida St. Petersburg

Book Review of Greek Art in Context: Archaeological and Art Historical Perspectives, edited by Diana Rodríguez Pérez

Reviewed by Sheramy D. Bundrick

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 1 (January 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1231.bundrick

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