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Greek Art and Aesthetics in the Fourth Century B.C.

Greek Art and Aesthetics in the Fourth Century B.C.

By William A.P. Childs. Pp. 516. Princeton University Press, Princeton 2018. $65. ISBN 9781400890514 (paper).

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Scholarly books dedicated exclusively to Greek art of the fourth century B.C.E. are few in number. Prior to the current volume’s publication, those most recent and widely known focus on sculpture—original and copy, architectural, and relief. This emphasis is not surprising given that no original painted panels survive, although publications on the tomb paintings from late fourth-century Macedonia discovered since the 1970s have significantly amplified the study of painting of that period and beyond. Furthermore, except for a few specialized studies, the vase painting and metalwork of the fourth century are usually included either with those of the fifth century under the category “Classical” or, alternatively, with Hellenistic material.

In the notably large and comprehensive book under review, the most extensive evaluations focus on sculpture. The author also discusses painting with authority, though more succinctly, importantly including the Macedonian tomb facades and walls but sensibly avoiding the academic quarrel that struggles to establish distinctions between the “linear” and the “painterly” (149–50). He is demonstrably familiar with the toreutic arts of the period, assigning the bronze Derveni krater to the Rich Style with a date before 370 B.C.E. (274), and reviewing with fluency the red-figured pottery, appropriately noting the increasing influence of relief metalwork and pottery’s progressive decline in quality. These expositions are also brief relative to the frequently protracted investigations of sculpture. The book is unmistakably the product of decades of careful visual analysis of the arts of fourth-century B.C.E. Greece, with broad consideration of stylistic characteristics, a thorough knowledge and assessment of the history and social character of the period, and ample familiarity with both previous scholarly research and relevant ancient literature.

The book’s introduction is a thoughtful essay on the historical background to the study of Greek art of what the author loosely terms the “Late Classical” period, from roughly 420 to 300 B.C.E., a time fraught with social and political complexities, including almost continuous warfare, with periodic meddling from Persia. The subsequent portions of the book are organized in a somewhat unusual way. Each of the eight chapters (one of which has two parts), establishes a perspective from which an aspect of Greek art of the fourth century B.C.E. is examined. First of these is titled “The Evidence,” the last “Reception,” and then follows a conclusion. The five chapters between the initial and final themes deal with copies, general issues of style, form and presentation, iconography, and style and meaning. The division of viewpoints inevitably results in consideration of a single work of art in multiple chapters. While a work’s inclusion in any of the given contexts is always logical, the system initiates a certain amount of repetition and some subtle aesthetic reconsiderations.

At least for this reviewer, the (few) instances of reassessment enliven the text and engage the reader, but they could be somewhat challenging for students. For example, in the author’s most extensive discussion of the marble Hermes with the Child Dionysos in Olympia, we learn that he believes the statue to be a “brilliant copy of the late Hellenistic period,” his principal reason for this decision being the integral marble strut (70–5). In the following chapter, the author discusses the stance of the Hermes in terms that seem to suggest some hesitation with that evaluation (119–21). His bibliography on the statue is extensive, but not entirely complete. Given the author’s manifest interest in scholarship in a 1984 reference by Pfrommer (M. Pfrommer, “Leochares? Die hellenistichen Schuhe des Artemis Versailles,” IstMitt 34 [1984], 176) that weakens arguments rejecting a fourth-century date for the shape of Hermes’ sandal (71), a pertinent later citation introducing a fragment with the sandal of a terracotta statue found in Elis dated to 330 B.C.E. should be mentioned here (H. Froning, “Die Sandale des Hermes des Praxiteles in Olympia,” in E. Christof et al., eds., Potnia Theon. Festschrift fur Gerda Schwarz zum 65. Geburtstag [Vienna 2007] 95–100).

Among the author’s enumeration of evidence in chapter 2, most original works, including the debated Piraeus bronze Athena, are unsurprising (34). The inclusion of the bronze strigil cleaner from Ephesos is an oversight but it is later put into its correct context as a copy (90 and elsewhere). (This error would have been caught by more stringent editing, the insufficiency of which is most evident in the footnotes.) The author dismisses the dynamic bronze satyr mainomenos from Mazara del Vallo as an original Greek work because of its high lead content (36–7). Understandably impressed by the satyr, he returns to it frequently, once in the same context with the Olympia marble Hermes and Dionysos, where he suggests that Praxiteles “may well have created more inventive and interesting works than the standard copies associated with his name today” (121). Such thoughtful remarks are frequent and are indicative of the author’s judicious consideration of his material.

As another example of the author’s careful attention, he chooses the Colonna statue in the Vatican as the Roman copy closest to the original marble Knidian Aphrodite by Praxiteles (86–9). In a subsequent chapter, after a lengthy discussion of the uses of female nudity, he remarks on what he calls the Aphrodite’s quality of “accessible epiphany” (258), reinforcing observations made in foregoing pages. He suggests the gesture of the Colonna figure’s left hand is one of dropping the fabric onto the nearby vessel rather than gathering it up to cover herself. He also perceptively notes her slight bending, or crouch—a feature replicated, interestingly, in the large bronze statuette of the Knidian Aphrodite in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The humanization of both divine and heroic representations in the fourth century is a theme that runs throughout the book, as is the conscious recognition of style that develops at this time. These are only two of the author’s multiple astute and thought-provoking observations. The arts of fourth-century Greece are as complex as the period that engendered them, and that complexity is elucidated as much as seems possible, at least for the present, in this articulate and generous text.

Beryl Barr-Sharrar
Institute of Fine Arts
New York University

Book Review of Greek Art and Aesthetics in the Fourth Century B.C., by William A.P. Childs

Reviewed by Beryl Barr-Sharrar

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 4 (October 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1234.BarrSharrar

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