Make your own free website on

"Walk Like an Egyptian"


Text of Hum 110 Lecture, 20 September 1995
by Minott Kerr, Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History and Humanities
Reed College Portland, Oregon USA
© 1995 Minott Kerr. All rights reserved.

Good morning. My name is Minott Kerr. I teach in the art department. As an art historian I do something quite different from the other Humanties instructors. I study primarily physical objects rather than the written word. The purpose of my talk is to introduce you to thinking about visual images, in this case, Archiac Greek statues, as opposed to thinking only about texts. You already have considerable experience thinking about or discussing texts, but probably very few of you have ever tried to discuss or think about a sculpture or any other visual image in detail. My talk suggests a few approaches one might use to begin thinking about such material.(SLIDES LEFT & RIGHT)

Today we will be looking at only a few sculptures and studying them much more closely than you are used to. We start with a single statue shown in the two slides on the screen. You should note that we will not be able to study the actual sculpture itself, since neither this one or the others we will be examining today happen to be at Reed. We have to study these works as the best we can in pictures of them in slides. This makes our task more difficult, but not impossible. You should keep in mind not only throughout my talk, but also when you read texts such as Pollitt and Gombrich, that we are thinking about three dimensional objects and not merely the two dimensional representations of them such as we see here on the screen. Also remember that all these objects not only occupy all three dimensions of space, but also have weight and texture, two features that are very poorly served by pictures or slides.

The sculpture on the screen shows an unclothed young man striding forward. Something you cannot tell from the slide is that the figure is slightly less than two meters tall, or just over life size. This type of Archaic Greek sculpture depicting a striding naked youth is called a Kouros, the Greek word for young man.

As you know from your reading of Murray, Pollitt and Gombrich this kouros type is considered today to be one of the most distinctive products of the Archaic era, the period of Greek history from about 650 to 500. There are about two hundred known examples of kouroi. Unfortunately, just as with the Lyric poems we read for Monday, the majority of kouroi are fragmentary. The kouros here on the screen, and the three others we will be looking at later in my talk, are among the best preserved.

The statue now on the screen is known as the Metropolitan kouros after the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, its present owner. The sculptor who carved the piece is usually referred to as the Master of the Metropolitan Kouros or more simply the Met master. This anonymity is not at all unusual for the Archaic period. Like most craftsmen in antiquity, and like those about whom I will be speaking this semester and next, we know nothing about the Met Master not even his name. Even if we had the name it would only be a name and not offer us little, if any, further insight into the work or its production, except perhaps to suggest the region of Greece where the sculptor was from. In the Archaic period, his name was not thought worth preserving. We see his only known work, and all that we know about him is that his medium was stone sculpture, specifically marble sculpture.

The anonymity of the maker of this statue may trouble you. If it does, the problem is not surprising because our culture thinks that the names of sculptors and what they think about their work, is not only worth knowing, but perhaps even central to our understanding of their work. Not so in Ancient Greece. I will return to this idea at the end of the talk.

Around the year 600, about when we think the Met Kouros was carved, monumental stone sculpture was still something rather new in Greece. The origins of the medium seem to date to around the middle of the century. The surviving textual and archaeological evidence all suggests that in Greece before this time there were life-size freestanding stone figures such as we see here on the screen. With no indigenous tradition in Greece to account for the appearance of the freestanding-stone kouros at this moment in time, scholars have looked elsewhere to find one that might have served as a possible source.

The majority of art historians and classicists today believe that the model for the Greek kouros can be found in Ancient Egypt, where such sculpture did exist. The Egyptian connection is particularly attractive as the suspected earliest appearance of the stone kouroi in Greece of around the middle of the seventh century occurs soon after Greeks were first allowed to settle in Egypt in return for having served as mercenaries.

The idea that Egyptian art was a starting point for the Greek Kouros is based upon a comparison between Greek sculpture such as the Met kouros and similar Egyptian works (SLIDE RIGHT). We see here on the right a typical example of Egyptian sculpture from about 2600 BCE, only one of among many I might have chosen. I show this particular example simply because it is typical of a great number of Egyptian works. In making this comparison I am not suggesting that any Greek would have known this particular work, but something rather like it.
As with the Met Kouros on the left, we have here on the right an almost two meter tall male figure with his left leg extended forward. Both pieces are sculpted in stone, a medium, as I mentioned previously, not used in Greece at this scale before about 650. In both figures, the arms extend downwards at the sides of the torsos and terminate in clenched fists at the thighs. The heads of both figures, framed by a triangle of long hair falling to the shoulders, look straight forward. Both are frontal. Both preserve the four sides of the square blocks from which they were cut. The similarity of the poses of these two figures is one of the reasons why art historians believe that the later Greek kouros type was modeled on this sort of earlier Egyptian figure.

The Greek and Egyptian works also share a similar set of proportions. Egyptian sculptures conformed to a strict set of ratios, called a canon. The Met kouros is important because it uses the Egyptian canon to establish its proportions demonstrating the Greek dependence on the earlier Egyptian tradition.

Despite the technical, proportional and obvious formal similarities between these two works, I am also sure that you see that they also differ greatly. One major difference between the two works is that the Egyptian figure wears a kilt while Greek statue is entirely unclothed. More subtle are the differences of pose.

The Egyptian figure stands with all his weight on his back foot. Its left foot is thrust forward so as to define a right triangle. With its weight distributed so unevenly, the figure appears off balance and to be very much in need of the slab of stone attached to its back to maintain its stability. Tied in this way to this support at the back, the figure is really not free-standing, but rather projecting from the slab in extremely high relief. Therefore, the Egyptian figure is essentially frontal in design. Note, too, that the figures legs are linked by a stone screen, and the arms are also attached to the the figure's torso.

The Met kouros on the other hand does not extend its left leg quite so far forward, and has its right set slightly back, thus its center of gravity is moved forward so that its weight appears to be evenly distributed over its two legs. Its legs form a triangle whose long side are equal in length. The even distribution and the different shaped triangle formed by its legs makes the Met Kouroi much more stable visually than its Egyptian counterpart. In abandoning the back support, the Greek sculptor carved the Met Kouros so that it could sustain its own weight. Just as the back has been freed of any support, so the legs and the arms, though still attached to the thighs at the hands, are liberated from the rest of the body. Carved in the round, rather than in high relief like the Egyptian figure, the Greek Kouros is an independent and self-contained object standing isolated in space. As such an entirely free standing object the kouros, unlike the Egyptian work, is meant to be seen from all sides.

Though the pose of the Greek statue is undoubtedly based on an Egyptian prototype, the many differences between them suggest that the Greek sculptors were very quick to make changes. Clearly, to cite 1980s pop-music group, the Bangles, they did not want their statues walking like an Egyptian. (Pause)

So far in our examination we have focused on the physical aspects or forms of the two works. We have described the works and compared them to each other. While this process of first description and then comparison may seem rather mundane, it is an important aspect of the art historian's trade. First and foremost a descriptive approach helps verbalize what we see, a task you might want to try in your conferences if only to demonstrate that that transformation from visual observation into verbal description is not so easy as it may at first seem. But secondly and more importantly this two step process called formal analysis helps us understand the work as a visual object. I could have gone into a great deal more detail to illustrate this, but I think you can see how an attention to detail in this approach helps to examine a work's physical appearance in order to understand its visual structure. This is not to suggest that anyone in Archaic Greece ever thought in this way. Rather, formal analysis is simply a tool we can use to begin to understand the objects that have come down to us.

Along side with this first method that examines the purely formal aspects of the work is a second method that is more concerned with what is actually represented and with attempting to understand how a work was seen and understood in its own era. This approach we call iconography. The term, though a modern one, is forged from the Greek words icon, meaning image, and graphe, meaning writing. So it literally means image writing. Formal analysis, as we have seen, considers how that subject is represented; while iconography focuses on the subject matter or what is depicted. While formal analysis depends solely on the visual qualities of the object itself, iconography generally turns outside of the work to written evidence.

On one level the subject matter or iconography of both the Metropolitan kouros and the Egyptian figure is straight forward. Both represent a male striding with one leg ahead. But, generally iconography is both more complicated and far more interesting.

Though I have no doubt that a Greek, when looking at an Egyptian sculpture like this one, would have thought he or she was looking at a walking figure, this is almost certainly not the way an Egyptian would have thought about this work. Walking, suggests movement in time, which in turn suggests change. Change is the one thing that a sculpture like the Egyptian one on the right was not intended to convey. The Egyptian sculpture comes from a tomb for a priest named Ranufer. Stored away in a tomb, the sculpture was never intended to be seen by the living. As Ranufer probably understood it, the figure doesn't represent him as a walking man. Rather this statue was intended as a substitute repository for the spirit or "ka" of Ranufer, should Ranufer's mummified remains have been damaged in any way. The very idea of representation suggests a separation, really a distinction between the thing and the image of the thing or the body of the dead man and its image sculpted in stone, a distinction which I am not sure an ancient Egyptian would have made or even understood. In the case of the ka sculpture of Ranufer, rather than seeing the stone image and the body of the man as different, an Egyptian would see this image and the dead man's body as somehow equivalent. The standing position with one foot forward was used because it was believed that this particular position was the best way to provide this sort of equivalent body in stone, and not because it was thought to show the figure in action.

The information I've mentioned to help us understand how the work may have been seen and understood in antiquity is taken from hieroglyphics on the sculpture and the tomb from which it came, and from ancient Egyptian writings about the dead and the afterlife. In shifting to this type of information we've moved from formal analysis to iconography. Establishing the same level knowledge for the Greek Kouros is somewhat more difficult. In most instances we have no precise idea of what exactly a particular kouros represents. Statues such as the Met kouros seemed to have served a number of purposes, grave marker, votive statue (i.e., a gift to a deity), or a cult statue (i.e., a representation of some divinity housed in a cult building in a sanctuary). Their function like their form seems to have varied from region to region. Just as Professor Nicholson in his lecture on Monday suggested was the case for a Lyric poem, the meaning of a particular kouros can only be determined from its particular context.

The Met Kouros seems to date from about 600 to 590 BCE. Not only is the date not absolutely certain, but we can only suggest that the piece was probably made in Attica, the region surrounding Athens, and probably served as a grave marker. All these uncertainties exist because the work was purchased in 1932 through a dealer who for legal reasons had probably not asked too many questions as to when and where the statue had been found. Nor did its present owner the Metropolitan Museum of Art inquire any further. Lacking any textual information about the work and since the piece was torn from its original archaeological context because of human greed, we can only summarize its origins; we can't be certain as to whether this kouros represents a youth, an athlete, a warrior or a God.

Fortunately, we have two texts which can be directly connected with three Archaic Greek kouroi (SLIDES LEFT AND RIGHT). On the left are a pair of brothers, Kleobis and Biton. They stand about two meters tall and were probably carved around 590 or 580 BCE, somewhat later than the Met statue. They were found at the end of the last century at the important sanctuary of Delphi. On the right, is Kroisos. He was carved in or around Athens in about 530, about a half century after the two brothers. He too is just over two meters tall. Unfortunately we know less about his specific find-site. Reportedly it came from a cemetery near Athens.

Unlike with the Met kouros, I can refer to each of these three kouroi by a name, because texts have survived that establish the identity of each of these three figures. Thus we know that, on some level, these three sculptures represent three real people. We should note, however, that because they have identities, these three kouroi stand out from most other kouroi who remain anonymous.

We know more about Kleobis and Biton, than just their names. We know something about their life, and most importantly, something about their death. Their story is mentioned by the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, who wrote during the third quarter of the fifth century, and whose magnum opus we will begin reading next week. According to Herodotus, Solon, the ruler of Athens (some of whose poetry you may have read for Monday) went to visit the fabulously wealthy Lydian king, Croesus, who ruled what is now Turkey. Expecting that his own name would be the answer, Croseus asked Solon who was the most blessed or happiest man he knew of. To Croseus's utter astonishment, Solon responded that the most blessed man he had ever encountered was a certain Tellus who had had a fine family, lived in the well-ruled city of Athens, and had died in battle.

Missing the point of his guest's response, and sure of being named, in the next round as the runner up, Croseus then asked Solon who he thought was the second most blessed man after Tellus. Again the king was disappointed by Solon's answer. When asked the question (and now I quote from Book I chapter 31 from Herodotus's The Histories), Solon responded:
"Two young men of Argus, Cleobis and Biton. They had enough to live on comfortably; and their physical strength is proved not merely by their success in athletics, but much more by the following incident. The Argives were celebrating the festival of Hera, and it was important that the mother of the two young men should drive to the temple in her ox-cart; but it so happened that the oxen were late in coming back from the fields. Her two sons therefore, as there was no time to lose, harnessed themselves to the cart and dragged it along, with their mother inside, for a distance of nearly six miles, until they reached the temple. After this exploit, which was witnessed by the assembled crowd, they had the most enviable death --a heaven-sent proof of how much better it is to be dead than alive.

"Men kept crowding around them and congratulating them on their strength, and women kept telling the mother how lucky she was to have such sons, when in sheer pleasure of the public recognition of her sons' acts, she prayed to the goddess Hera, before whose shrine she stood, to grant Cleobis and Biton, who had brought her such honour, the greatest blessing that can fall to mortal man. After her prayer came the ceremonies of sacrifice and feasting; and the two lads, when all was over, fell asleep in the temple --and that was the end of them for they never awoke again. The Argives had statues made of them which they sent to Delphi, as two men who were best of all. (unquote)"

As incredible as it may seem, a fragmentary inscription on the base of one of the Kouroi, we see on the screen, permits us to conclude that these are the very statues mentioned by Herodotus.

From the Greek standpoint Cleobis and Biton had the good fortune to have gone out at the very apex of their life. Pollitt, in his classes at Yale, brings the story alive to his audience by making the Ivy-League analogy with the Argive pair by comparing them to a Yale football player, a senior, who in the last seconds of the annual Harvard-Yale homecoming game in the Yale Bowl before a sellout crowd makes a dazzling catch to score the winning touchdown ... and dies in the end zone. Now, I realize this analogy is rather peculiar to Ivy League culture. As Pollitt's teaching assistant for several years, everytime I heard him tell the story as a Reed grad. I tried to think of what a similar situation at Reed might be, perhaps collapsing after gloriously defending one's senior thesis? (Pause)

In the case of Kleobis and Biton, death was not a tragedy, but a victory. Remember Herodotus explicitly tells us that Solon ranked them number two on his chart the happiest people of all time. This was because in death, the brothers were no longer subject to the mutability of existence. After having performed a great act of filial devotion in the service of the Gods, they had been recognized for their action by god and human alike, they died, and then were immortalized in stone. What more could they have asked for? From the archaic Greek point of view absolutely nothing, since their death had made them heroes and their statues made them known to posterity. As Herodotus put it, the gods showed "how much better it is to be dead than alive."

The statues before us do not depict the brothers performing their pious deed, but rather simply "as two men who were the best of all." The deed itself was less important than the quality of the men who performed it. Strength, piety, and filial devotion were not important per se but rather as characteristics of an ideal. Kleobis and Biton in both life and death were the very embodiment of heroic virtue which the Greeks called arete.

I suspect then that their chunky and rather bovine appearance is intended to suggest their great strength. Their vacant stare and odd smile indicates that they are no longer subject to the flux of human emotion. Their nudity is not to suggest vulnerably, as it usually does today, but rather to associate them with the Gods and Heros. Their image is not an exact mirror image of nature, because it is not nature that they represent, but rather, a human I-D-E-A, the Archaic heroic I-DEAL.

The same ideal is also expressed by the statue of Kroisos. Though his name sounds the same, he was unrelated to the Lydian king who interrogated Solon. As the case with the brothers, we know his identity because of an inscription on the statue's base. The inscription, which is included on your handout, in fact gives us more than his name. It reads:

Stop and give grieve beside the tomb
of Kroisos, dead, whom once
in battle's front rank
raging Ares destroyed.

Here again, we have an image representing a specific dead man. And though we are asked by the inscription to grieve for him, the reference to his death in battle also makes him a hero, in this case a military hero. He thus is like Solon's number one happy man of all time, Tellus, in at least two features. He apparently lived in the well-governed city of Athens and he died, apparently gloriously, in battle.

Kleobis, Biton and Kroisos are all given something like immortality through their heroic death. This notion, of course, is nothing new in the Archaic period. We may recall that Achilleus' choice in the Iliad is between a long but rather prosaic life back home in prosaic Pthia, which would be remembered by no one, OR, a short, but glorious life ended in battle at exciting Troy, which would be remembered by everyone, forever. This idea of immortality through heroic death is also treated by some of the Lyric poems. For example, Teer-táy-us, a poet from Sparta, writes of a fallen warrior, in a poem found on pages 14 and 15 of your collection of Greek Lyrics. I cite a different translation which can be found on your handout:

I quote,
His noble memory is not destroyed nor his name.
(But,) He is immortal, --(though he lies beneath the earth)--,
Whomever, (pause) excelling in valor, (pause) standing fast, and
fighting for his land and children, (pause) raging Ares destroys.

Teer-tay-us's poem uses the same phrase "raging Ares destroys" as we found in the inscription on the Kroisos statue. The phrases "battle's front rank" and "raging Ares destroyed" could be right out of the Iliad. As in some of the Lyric poetry we read for Monday, Homer has been appropriated for the writer's own ends. In this case, Homer, if not quoted literally, is a least alluded to, in order to transform the deceased into a hero in the traditional Homeric mode.
Herodotean story, epitaph, poem and these three statues demonstrate the remarkable continuity from the time of Homer to the time of Herodotus of this belief that heroic death brought immortality. This, of course is the idea of the beautiful death of the hero discussed by Professor Bruce King a few weeks back and mentioned by Vernant his essay "Feminine Figures of Death." Throughout the Archaic era the only compensation for death was immortal fame, what the Greeks called KLEOS. The only way this fame could be conferred was through poetry or the visual arts. The idea that art brought immortal fame is an idea expressed at a number of places in the Iliad. You may recall that in the Iliad, Helen was weaving a robe which had scenes depicting the deeds of the Greeks and Trojans when we first meet her in Book III (Lines 125-28); and in Book 9 (line 185) when Achilleus greeted the Embassy from the Greeks, he was singing "of men's Fame." Singing men's fame is one of the things Homer's epic is meant to do. These three Kouroi do much the same thing. There was no way recounting of the past to future generations aside from these media. History in the way we might understand it today as an analytical examination and recounting of the past did not exist at the time and was only given concrete form in the second half of the fifth century by Herodotus.

To return to the three statues before us on the screen. We need to understand that they are in no way individual depictions of the men they represent. As we saw in our examination of the Egyptian ka figure, the idea of "representation" in the way that we understand it today, may be quite different or even inapplicable to the visual arts of other periods or cultures. The three kouroi on the screen are not what today we would call portraits, because they make no attempt to portray any the particular physical aspects of the historic persons Kleobis, Biton and Kroisos. If we ran into any of the three on the street, I don't think the statues would help us identify them. The kouroi do not represent what made these men individuals in the modern sense of the word. Rather they do exactly the opposite. Kouroi present men only in the light of the ideal of the Archaic Greek hero. These statues depict ideals, not individuals.

Gombrich in the chapter you read for today, like many other scholars, does not focus on this idea that Greek kouroi represent an ideal and not individuals. Because he is interested in how the representation of human form changed between the mid seventh and the early fifth century, he focuses on the differences between the kouroi rather than the similarities they share. According to Gombrich, during this period, representations of men came to look more and more like real men, that is, as sculpture progressed chronologically, it came to look more and more like what it represented. Gombrich makes some interesting suggestions as to why he thinks this happened.

There is no doubt that a Kouros of ca. 480 was more naturalistic than one of ca. 600, but based on the surviving sculptures, the move towards increasing naturalism seems hardly to have been a continual evolution. Most of the evidence is very dispersed geographically and very few examples have firm dates. Many dates for these works are established precisely on the basis of where a particular sculpture is seen to fit into the naturalistic development. As you can see this is a rather circular argument to insist on chronological development and then establish your chronology by putting undated works in where you think they best fit. Basically, this is formal analysis gone awry. (Slides Left and Right)

Imagine if we had only a few dozen oil paintings surviving from the three quarters of a century between 1865 and 1940, none of which were signed and dated. Would it make sense to date this picture by Picasso on the left, actually painted in 1932, to some time before this portrait on the right by the French artist Ingres actually painted in 1865, simply because the work by Picasso was less naturalistic? Clearly not, both painters have chosen to represent a woman, but neither Picasso nor Ingres were particularly interested per se in naturalism or to use the Greek term mimesis. By this I mean that neither painter was purely interested in trying to create the illusion that what he was painting was a mirror image of something seen in the observable world. In both cases, a woman served as the starting point for the work, but a total illusion of her in paint was not these artists' goal. In fact, judging the Picasso work on the basis of naturalism is exactly the wrong thing to do, as he used representation to move away from what we could merely observe to offer instead some special insight into what he painted. People have painted and sculpted for tens of thousand of years and mimesis though a goal for some, was not an universal one. There are many other criteria we can use to examine art besides mimesis or imitation of nature. (SLIDES LEFT AND RIGHT)

Gombrich, because he focuses on the differences between the kouroi, treats them as individuals. For me, it is precisely all the similarities that kouroi share that is important and not the relatively few differences that make them stand apart from each other. What fascinates me is that despite any changes that did occur in Greek sculpture between 650 and about 500 the kouros appears to have remained the most important type throughout the entire period. All three figures shown on the screen, like the almost 200 others that have come down to us whole or in fragments, are nude youths, not men, for example, because they do not yet have the adult beard, who stand stiffly while striding with their left legs forward. Even their overall proportions are almost identical. In detail, the similarities are also far more numerous than the differences. In all three, hair, ears and eyes seem based more on an Archaic love of pattern, than on examination of the hair, ears and eyes of a living human being. The comparison suggests that little progress was made down the road of ever greater naturalism between ca. 580, the date for the bovine brothers, and 530, the date of Kroisos. Thus, I think the important question is not why did kouroi change? But why did they change so little?

The Archaic kouros is a very conservative type of sculpture. Freestanding marble sculptures, of this greater than life-size-scale, are extremely expensive items in any period; and they must have been even more so in the Archaic period, which had few good sources of marble; a very small number of craftsmen who had the ability to carve such works; and very limited means of transportation to move stone, craftsmen or sculpture from place to place. Kouroi can only have been commissioned by members of the highest social classes, because they were the only people who could afford them.

I would like to turn for a moment to one of my favorite subjects, burial of the dead. You may recall that Murray mentions that through excavation archaeologists have established that in Attica over the course of the seventh and sixth centuries there was a great increase in the number of burials. Some archaeologists have suggested that this change indicates there was a huge increase in the population. Other scholars more sensibly suggest that what the increase of burials means, is, simply, that (Pause) there was an increase in burials (Pause), meaning not that there were more people to be buried, (Pause), but rather that more bodies being treated in this manner after death. According to this view, what we see here is an increase in the number of people who chose, or had chosen for them after they died, this form of burial which is easier than many other ways of disposing of the dead to find in the archaeological record.

What appears to have occurred during this early period is that a mode of burial which seems originally to have been the exclusive preserve of the aristocracy was used more and more by a greater percentage of the entire population. As a response to this widening use of what once had been a solely aristocratic mode of treating the dead, the aristocrats began to mark their graves with the large ceramic vases in an attempt to continue distinguishing themselves in death as they did in life. (SLIDE LEFT) I show you an example of such a grave marker here on the left, you should note that it is almost 2 meters tall. Over time, this practice of using such vases as markers, also seems to have been appropriated by a wider range of people than had first used it, and in response to this more prevalent use, aristocrats began to use kouroi as markers over their burials. Being much more expensive than cermaic vases, and therefore well beyond the economic means of the vast majority of people, and kouroi remained the exclusive preserve of the aristocracy.

This explanation is not entirely satisfactory, as it is built upon a sort of trickle down model of social change. As well, it only accounts for the kouroi that served as grave markers. Nonetheless I suspect this explanation provides at least a crude outline of the changes that took place.

As crude as this hypothesis may be, it is similar to what happened to the epic poems in the eighth century which may have been written down at that time to preserve traditional values. As I see it, the kouroi being images of the heroic ideal, do very close to the same thing. They freeze what is basically a Homeric ideal into stone.

Kouroi then are backwards looking in their purpose, and I think that this is why they changed so little between ca. 650 and 500. They emphasized a traditional aristocratic view of the hero that remained essentially unchanged throughout this period. This is why they all look so similar.
What role did the sculptor play in all this? His role was not that much different than a Lyric poet such as Pindar, who wrote odes for the winners of the Panhellenic games at Olympia. He used his craft to make a living. Like Lyric poets writing odes for winners at Olympia, a sculptor of Archaic kouroi used his craft for aristocratic patrons. In both writing Lyric poetry and carving stone sculpture, there was no tension between the desire for individual expression and what one was expected to execute for a patron. (SLIDES LEFT AND RIGHT)

Thus, the ancient Greek conception of a sculptor is quite unlike the one suggested in this photograph on the left made by the American artist Edward Steichen, in 1902 of the French sculptor Rodin in front of his all too famous statue, "The Thinker." In this photograph, Steichen clearly wants Rodin to be thought of as both a thinker, that is an intellectual, and a sculptor, as someone who has the ability of both mind and hand to execute a work such as his "Thinker." Today, we put a premium on this idea of the sculptor as the thinking intellectual who can make beautiful things, someone who we call in Modern English, an artist. Not so in antiquity (SLIDE RIGHT). Here on the right a Greek painter of the fifth century BCE depicted what he did as something quite different. He depicted someone doing what he did by showing vase-painter busy at work. Note that the painter is not shown in the act of thinking, but rather in the act of making.

The modern idea of the artist simply did not exist in antiquity. Neither ancient Greek, nor ancient Latin has a word that any where approaches the modern English word of artist. In fact, they did not have an equivalent of our word art. In antiquity, painting and sculpting very much belonged to the mechanical arts, that is, they were placed among the crafts and not the liberal or intellectual arts where we would place them today. In antiquity artists were craftsmen and not intellectuals. In antiquity painters' or sculptors' works might be both highly valued and highly praised. Their works might even express complex ideas and values such as we have found in the kouroi we examined this morning. But it is the skill in execution that is valued most by their contemporaries, and not their ability to think through complex ideas. Consider, for example, the passage in the Iliad devoted to the Shield of Achilles. There, Homer praises Hephaestos for his ability to represent and not for the ability to devise the complex content of what he represents. Just think, we are studying a culture this semester that has no word or concept to express what people like Picasso or Rodin do, and I think that having no such concept makes the Greeks, fundamentally, very different from us.

Thank you.


Back to Hum 110 Home Page
To My Home Page
Send any comments, suggestions or additions to Minott Kerr at:
Last Modified: 21 Oct. '95