You are here

The Transformation of Athens: Painted Pottery and the Creation of Classical Greece

April 2019 (123.2)

Book Review

The Transformation of Athens: Painted Pottery and the Creation of Classical Greece

By Robin Osborne. Pp. xx + 285, figs. 177, pls. 35. Princeton University Press, Princeton 2018. $49.95. ISBN 978-0-691-17767-0 (cloth).

Reviewed by

It is surprising how much attention is paid in the modern study of ancient Greek art to change, for art is predicated on materially embodied objects, whereas change is an inherently immaterial logical structure. As Osborne puts it in his ambitious new book, “describing how the painting and sculpture of one period differs from that of preceding [periods] should not be mistaken for offering an account of the change that has occurred” (5). Osborne argues that a satisfactory account of the change from archaic to classical has remained elusive because historians of Athenian vase painting, and Greek art generally, have attended almost exclusively to differences in style and have overlooked change in subject matter. Osborne invokes (5–6) the more capacious understanding of pictorial style developed by Michael Baxandall for the study of Renaissance art, which embraced not only form but also content (Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style [Oxford 2nd ed. 1988]). How far the present book is able to transfer Baxandall’s nuanced approach to classical Athenian art is one way of measuring the book’s success.

Several methodological considerations are raised in part 1 of this book (chs. 1, 2), but the most important are two. First, the imagery of Athenian vases, with very few exceptions, was not shaped by or for a non-Athenian cultural milieu, even though most extant Athenian pots were found in the tombs of Etruscan patrons. Second, with again few exceptions, the same shapes, with the same subject matter, can be found in domestic, religious, and funerary contexts, in Athens as well as Etruria. Two important conclusions are drawn: that “the market imposed only light constraints upon painters as to what they should paint” and “it is the painters’ own common ways of thinking, indeed their underlying collective ideology, that is on display” (42). Given the autonomy and agency accorded to the artist in this sketch of the market for pottery, it is noteworthy that the particular ways of thinking unique to individual artists are of no interest. “The contrasts between the scenes painted by Exekias and by the Amasis Painter have often been observed, . . . [b]ut as far as I am concerned in this study such differences are mere noise” (49). The decision to overlook individual agents is driven by the ambitious goal of the book, which is to utilize “the patterns of choice of scene to depict on pottery” as primary, documentary, evidence of “the way in which painters saw the world [and] the way Athenians, and I maintain Greeks more generally, viewed the world” (xviii–xix).

Part 2 (chs. 3–8) offers an analysis of the principal nonmythological themes or subjects of Athenian red-figure vase painting from 520 to 440 B.C.E. (athletics, warfare, courtship, religious ritual, sympotic drinking). Where Webster (Potter and Patron in Classical Athens [London 1972]) was content to assemble long lists of such subjects, and Berard et al.’s La cité des images (Paris 1984) focused synchronically on the visual “grammar” of such scenes, Osborne examines how their appearances change over the period. In depictions of athletics, for example, the events appear less often, and the visual interest shifts to athletes themselves. In scenes about war, the hoplite is no longer visualized as different (in class or importance) from the archer or horseman. Family-focused arming or departure scenes eclipse depictions of military action in importance. On the basis of detailed comparisons with what is known of the underlying historical realities, Osborne argues, persuasively, that the decrease in popularity of certain types of images and the growth in popularity of others bear no relationship to historical changes in the cultural practices depicted. The popularity of athletic competition, for example, did not decrease at Athens, nor did warfare occur less frequently over the mid fifth century B.C.E. Rather than reflecting the unique histories of specific practices, the changes in the manner of presentation of one subject are similar to changes occurring in the others, and, ultimately, to the ways painters perceived the practices. What do all the changes have in common? It is no longer what the depicted figure does but who the figure is that counts. “We expect the soldiers arming on black-figure pottery to become champions; we expect these [mid fifth-century painted] young men to play their part alongside everyone else in the ranks” (120).

What Osborne is describing is in part a development of forms of subjective engagement in classical vase painting. “Everything is understated, everything is left for the viewer’s own construction” (116). Vase painting now affords beholders the opportunity to “evaluate people and acts as good and virtuous and to be aware of being themselves evaluated in turn” (247, italics original). But the book is also claiming that it is possible to read out of the vase paintings social values and not just pictorial conceptions. “Classical conformity” is the expression used here to describe the “classical idealism” regularly identified in depictions of mortals in classical art, such as the frieze of the Parthenon, and in philosophies of art like those of Polykleitos.

Part 3 (chs. 9–11) attempts to explain the changes in the iconographies of daily life. Perhaps not surprisingly, the changes are keyed to the development of Athenian democracy. “Participation has become the name of the classical democratic game” (218). Of particular importance is the model of democracy laid out in chapter 9, for it emphasizes the long duration of Athenian political transformation from 508 to 450 B.C.E. Implicit in the argument is the idea that the gradual pace of transformation of the iconography of daily life mirrored the slow pace of political development of Athens (though Rotroff’s 10- to 20-year down-dating of red-figure chronology would weaken the correlation; see "Early Red-Figure in Context," in Oakley et al., ed., Athenian Potters and Painters, vol.2 [Princeton 2009]). The notion of personal and collective identity articulated in and by mid-fifth-century Athenian vase painting turns out to be the picture of Athenian identity drawn in the funeral oration attributed to Perikles in Thucydides. So far, so good. But the significant changes in Athenian vase painting are not simply a consequence of democratic political development, because, Osborne suggests, they occur also in sculpture originating far from Athens or democratic politics. The explanation of the change in artistic emphasis from archaic individuality to classical collectivity is not simple. For one, Osborne argues, classical sculpture does not exhibit the development from competitive to collaborative values as uniformly as does classical Athenian vase painting (ch. 10). For another, the ways in which classical painting (and sculpture) reformed the address to the viewer themselves “put pressure on social structure” (227), and must be understood as constitutive features of the democratic revolution.

This book, appearing 33 years after the earliest of the 33 publications by Osborne listed in the bibliography, is in part a synthesis of half a lifetime of findings. Concerning the social and political history of Athens, no writer on Greek art today seems better informed. He also knows much, and informs the reader well, about the historiography of the study of Athenian pottery and vase painting. As a contribution to the history of art, however, this book seems to me to fall short in several ways.

The heavy emphasis on “what happened ‘generally and for the most part’” (36) leads one to expect a quantitative demonstration of changes in subject matter. But there are very few lists of vases to support the claims made in the book about the increase or decrease in popularity of this or that subject (and no Beazley Archive Pottery Database numbers to help the reader follow the argument efficiently). One essentially has to rely on comparatives. The representation of soldiers is said to change in ways that are “marked,” “not trivial but quite fundamental” (117–18), yet the magnitude of the changes here and elsewhere sometimes seems to me to be overstated. The argument relies extensively on comparison between a particular earlier vase painting and a later one, comparisons that are often sharp, original, and enlightening and among the most valuable features of this book, but which practically invite one to wonder about the many exceptions to the rules being laid down here (particularly in the chapter on satyrs). It is a peculiar method: the “wish to reveal the city that painters shared, not the idiosyncratic city of the individual artist” (49), is actualized in a series of distinctive analyses of unique vase paintings. The problem is that style was just subject matter for at least some Athenian painters and potters, and vase painting was in fact a pluralistic, competitive practice (as is well documented in Neer, Style and Politics in Athenian Vase-Painting: The Craft of Democracy, ca. 530–460 B.C.E. [Cambridge 2002]). There is evidence, pictorial as well as inscriptional, archaic as well as classical, suggesting no lack of interest in differences in manner of painting among the painters themselves. Yes, variety in subject as well as style is most noticeable in vase painting of the period 520–480 B.C.E., but it does not disappear in the Classical period, as the mannerists demonstrate.

The most valuable general conclusion of this book is that new forms of subjectivity are the salient feature of the new classical Athenian vase painting. The book is an important contribution to the recent scholarly turn away from naturalism as an adequate explanation of the changes between archaic and classical Greek art. But the book does not inform the reader as fully as it might about the depth and variety of recent scholarly descriptions of the relationship between artistic representations and the viewer. Tanner’s interpretation of the development of a classical manner of depicting the bodies of the gods [The Invention of Art History in Ancient Greece (Cambidge 2006)]—which is predicated on subjective identification and seemingly similar in important ways to the interpretation offered in this book—is discussed in a single elusive footnote (220 n. 31). Throughout chapter 10, Osborne employs Michael Fried’s terms “absorption” and “theatricality” to describe classical subjectivity and its archaic opposite, but in ways distinctly different from their original landmark formulation and with no discussion of Fried’s argument at all (221 n. 34). In general, there is a reluctance to acknowledge that there was a multiplicity of new classical strategies of subjective engagement and that archaic artistic conceptions were augmented, rather than replaced, by classical ones.

Perhaps the most serious difficulty with the argument of this book stems from the distinction drawn between text and image. Texts “were almost all written . . . for a definitive purpose,” and therefore, it is impossible to know “when the way they see the world reflects a view generally shared across the society” (xviii). Painted pots, it is claimed, are fundamentally different because they were painted “rarely for a definitive purpose beyond ‘to sell.’” As a result, the images appearing on pots “have a strong chance of reproducing the way in which painters saw the world” (xviii–xix.) That is a breathtaking diminution of the nature and capacity of pictorial representation. To begin with, it ignores the considerable body of “texts” written by the painters themselves on their pots. More problematic is the argument’s descent into the explanatory difficulties encountered by early 20th-century art historical attempts to identify the collective perception of an entire society on the basis of its visual art. The argument is reminiscent of Wölfflin’s 1915 attempt to tease apart style as individual expression from style as collective mode of perception and thereby write “a developmental history of seeing in the Western world, . . . a history for which differences in individual character . . . are of no great consequence” (Principles of Art History, trans. J. Blower [Los Angeles 2015] 94). Or Riegl’s mysterious Kunstwollen (“Rembrandt was essentially the agent of the artistic volition of his nation and times—albeit an agent of genius” [The Group Portraiture of Holland, trans. E. Kain and D. Britt (Los Angeles 1999, orig. 1902) 254]). Like those accounts, the present book contains strong, often brilliant analyses of individual works of art but weak explanatory models of artistic change. In his critique of Riegl and others, Brendel rightly noted that “theories of this kind presuppose a complete domination of the impersonal style . . . over the will of the artists [yet] they leave open the question of what really enforces the adherence of the artists to the impersonal styles” (Prolegomena to the Study of Roman Art [New Haven 1979] 57–8).

The present book calls attention in its opening pages to the concept of the “period eye” as theorized by Baxandall (1988). The significant differences between that work and the present book, however, are worth noting. Baxandall was at pains to identify specific transactional mechanisms that connected the development of painting with the visual and economic interests of patrons: “One is talking not about all fifteenth-century people, but about those whose response to works of art was important to the artist—the patronizing classes, one might say” (38). In that account, painting is not the principal document revealing the visual interests of its culture but is a visual phenomenon in need of deep contextualization and interpretation if it is to be of social historical significance. The primary evidence employed to construct a “period eye” is textual. Perhaps most importantly, Baxandall emphasized that “the social practices most relevant to the perception of paintings are visual practices” (109). In contrast, in the present book, the market is of little interest as a formative factor, and there is no sustained discussion of the distinction in social status between vase painters, citizens, and patrons of pottery; vase painting is the primary form of documentation of the way Athenians viewed the world, and it tells us not only about ancient visual practices but also about democratic ideology and social experience writ large. Osborne claims, mistakenly I believe, that Baxandall’s “period eye” was heavily influenced by Riegl’s notion of Kunstwollen (5 n. 3). In fact, however, Baxandall’s narrow focus on specific structures governing the relationship between painting and social life serves as a corrective to the kind of broad-brush, descriptive generalizing that characterized early art historical formalism—as well as, in places, the present book.

Guy Hedreen
Williams College

Book Review of The Transformation of Athens: Painted Pottery and the Creation of Classical Greece, by Robin Osborne

Reviewed by Guy Hedreen

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 2 (April 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1232.hedreen

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.