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Komast Dancers in Archaic Greek Art

Komast Dancers in Archaic Greek Art

By Tyler Jo Smith (Oxford Monographs on Classical Archaeology). Pp. xxx + 357, figs. 5, pls. 42. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2010. $120. ISBN 978-0-19-957865-8 (cloth).

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Komasts, male dancing figures that are sometimes erroneously called “padded dancers,” decorate many an archaic black-figure vase and have long drawn the attention of scholars. Smith’s monograph, an update of Griefenhagen’s Eine attische schwarzfigurige Vasengattung und die Darstellung des Komos im VI. Jahrhundert (Königsberg 1929), is a traditional, to some old-fashioned, iconographical study that traces the changes in the depiction of komast dancers over time and in different regions of the Greek world. Athens naturally receives the most attention because of the importance of its painted vases, but the author also amply examines the depiction of komasts in Corinth, Laconia, Boeotia, East Greece, and the West, thereby providing a pan-Hellenic overview. These non-Attic sections are of particular value because the art from these areas is much less well studied than that from Athens.

To the author’s credit, she pays particular attention to the role of individual artists in the development of komast imagery, for she correctly sees that some changes are the result of artistic exchange or invention and not a shift in cultural attitudes, nor are they a reaction to historical events. Thus, lovemaking and other amorous features are popular only with the artists from the Tyrrhenian Group; the Falmouth Painter preferred nude figures; the Amasis Painter is the primary artist who shows the dancers with Dionysos and his retinue; and the Siana cup painters are the first to place komast dancers within a symposium context. Other motifs, such as “bottom slapping,” continue to be used over several generations of artists. All this, however, is not to imply that the author does not note and consider the larger trends and possible reasons for change. For example, the author explains that the komast vases made between 550 and 520 B.C.E. demonstrate more of a break with, rather than a continuation of, the komast iconography of the past, which may be partially connected with the invention of the red-figure technique.

Smith’s study has nine chapters and focuses on three main categories of iconography: (1) dress and attire; (2) poses and gestures; and (3) context. The first and last chapters are basically an introduction and a conclusion, respectively. Two chapters consider the Attic vases, and five more deal with each one of the five other regions. The author demonstrates in these chapters the history and development of the dancing motif and notes that every region had its own peculiarities and artistic preferences. Thus, the first full series of dancers occurs in Corinthian art in the late seventh century B.C.E. and spreads from there to Athens and elsewhere. In Attic art, the dancers first appear during the first quarter of the sixth century on black-figure vases by the Komast Group and continued to be used in succeeding generations by a host of other vase painters. Although derived from Corinthian models, the Attic artists did not dryly copy them; the vase painters quickly developed their own view of the dancers. The Boeotian artists are the first to place the dancers in association with athletics and are interested in merriment, as well as lined routines that may be choral in nature. Their dancers do not appear to be tied to any one single event but a variety, including cultic, Dionysiac, and sympotic. The Laconians also adopt their komasts from Corinth but transformed them for their local religious and dedicatory needs. The East Greek artists are the most independent, the hairstyles and dress of their komast dancers varying by locale, with the context of the dance often not indicated. The fewest dancers come from the West, the primary examples being on a Caeretan hydria, dinoi of the Campana Group, and Chalcidian black-figure vases. They demonstrate great diversity of type.

As a result of her careful analyses, the author is able to show definitively that there is no one overarching interpretation for the large corpus of material that she has collected; rather, there are clearly artistic and regional preferences, and the dancers are not associated with any single occasion. In addition, she clearly demonstrates the nature of the interplay between the depictions found in different regions.

In general, the referencing in the monograph is very thorough, and only very rarely is something wanting. The one major flaw with the book is the black-and-white plates, which are not always arranged in the order in which they appear in the text, and a single plate can extend to part or all of the next page, even when it is on the back of the first. A few images are too dark, and too many plates relegate complete views of large vases to a quarter of the page, so that it is difficult or impossible to make out all the details of the figures. There should have been one plate per page. The partially out-of-focus black-and-white frontispiece is not at the start of the book, where it belongs, but after the preface. Rounding out the monograph are a list of plates and figures at the front, and three tables, a bibliography, and two indices at the back (a general index and an index of museums and collections). Each table is devoted to one of the three main categories of iconography and presents the most common variants within each category by region.

Smith’s monograph is an excellent and thorough study of a popular motif used in archaic Greek art throughout most of the Greek world, and every university library and scholar of Greek vase painting should own a copy of this book. Studies like this take years to complete and are the building blocks for advancing our understanding of Greek art. We need more like this one.

John H. Oakley
Department of Classical Studies
The College of William and Mary in Virginia
Williamsburg, Virginia 23187-8795

Book Review of Komast Dancers in Archaic Greek Art, by Tyler Jo Smith

Reviewed by John H. Oakley

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 2 (April 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1152.Oakley

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