Week 7 - The Role of Humanism in Greek Art

The Role of Humanism in Greek Art by Anjali Vakil

     In early history, mankind relied on functional art, rather than art for art’s sake. However, this functionality was entirely reinvented with the rise of the Greek civilization. These gifted people were self aware of the works they were creating and questioned their reason for creating it. Duality was an existing part of the Greek philosophy on life, and the idea of rationality versus idealism permeated throughout the civilization. Where reason and logic were unable to answer, intricate mythology clarified. Reason influenced the Greeks heavily, and they held themselves responsible for their society politically, religiously, and socially. Due to this, there was an uphill struggle to better oneself; man was obligated to constantly outdo himself and his community was expected to do the same. Man placed himself at the center of the universe, and held his gods in the same respect. This delicate balance of reason and theology was called upon by philosophers such as Plato, who not only desired to answer the weighted question of human existence, but also tried to use these ideals when defining the role of art within the Greek world. With the introduction of the philosophy that beauty mimics nature, Greeks began their strife of recreating reality and naturalism within their art. At the same time, the political and social reality of Greece was constantly changing.  Due to the fact that humanism and mimicry were the goals of Greek art, their works evolved alongside their society, and paralleled all aspects of Greek life. 
     During the Orientalizing period of Greek artwork, there was a large influx of colonies being established in Greece due to political stability. In turn, this prosperity also allowed for travel as well. Soon enough, outside influence began to permeate throughout early Greece. Before this intermingling however, the era known as the Geometric period held very little naturalism and relied mostly on basic patterns and shapes to assemble the form of figures and animals alike. However, because of the the influence of Egyptian and Mesopotamian art due to this stable period within Greece and the rise of colonies, the artwork also began to evolve, showing signs of an attempt at naturalism. This reflects the idea that a time of economic stability was when art flourished and improved, perhaps due to the new ideas of art as well as culture that was being adopted within Greece. The evolution of Greek art from the Geometric period into the Orientalizing period is very apparent when comparing the Griffin Head, created around 650 BCE, to the various wine and ceremonial jars that were created before this date. A popular example is the Dipylon Vase, created in 750 BCE, a large, belly-handled vase used for burial purposes. The styles of the characters on the vase are extremely angular and have little attempt towards reality. On the other hand, while the Griffin Head is a very obvious recreation of the Mesopotamian hybrid figures, it still has a much more obvious attempt at a natural and believable look. The piece inherently reflects a period of rapid urbanization and expansion, leading to the stability that allowed the Greeks to find a new direction with their works, having been influenced from foreign sources. This proved to be one of the very first steps towards the realms of naturalism, as Greece begins to work towards a more realistic interpretation of the world through their artwork following this period of discovery. This later evolves further towards humanism as well, as later Greek artists within the classical era rely on naturalism to make an attempt at recreating man as accurately as possible. The Orientalizing period proves to be the foundations for the works that the Greeks later become famous for, and was a period where the Greeks first began to toy with the concept of naturalism, the roots of humanism in art, in a time of prosperity.
  Once again at a time of rapid expansion was a period of philosophical enlightenment within Greece. While naturalism was now an idea that was a solid foundation of Greek artwork, the Archaid and Early Classical eras marked the point where the Greeks now wished to interpret themselves in the most artistically satisfactory way. To them, this now marked the beginnings of the journey towards obtaining the most lifelike figures possible. When the Greeks were thriving socially after a recent battle won against the invading Persians, a new sense of pride once again pushed the idea that man must achieve his ultimate potential, they saw within their art this same potential for greatness. Although Egyptian Kourus statues and the ideas of youth and beauty still heavily influenced Greeks, they also sought to experiment with more realism. This attempt towards humanism paralleled economic and cultural expansion once again, and in turn, Greek artwork would evolve even more. Figures were now rudimentarily accurate in their representation of the form, and Greek artists would eventually drive this idea of the perfect form even further. Within sixty years, the Greeks managed to create an even more realistic human figure and this idea of humanism was not only an ideal that was sought after by Greeks socially and politically, but they worked to create artwork that represented this idea that the Greeks were truly at the center of the universe. The sense of pride that came with the strength that Greeks had, Athenians especially, only further reinforced the confidence that the people had with their republic form of government and their ideas of individual strength and achievement.  The Kourus statue, created around 540-525 BCE, in the Archaic period is a piece that visually represents the change in ideals from early Greeks. Not only did they strive for naturalism, but the Greeks now also strived to capture man as best as they saw possible. Later versions of this statue evolved rapidly, such as the famous piece known as the Charioteer made in 450 BCE in the early classical era. These pieces showed a true attempt at capturing the stories, works, basic facial features, and actions of the subject in an attempt at centering the piece around the idea that humans were the center of action. Compared to the pieces from the Geometric and Orientalizing period, there is a very obvious and more refined understanding of human anatomy, as well as a heavier importance of the idea of capturing the form, weight, and balance of the human figure. Once again, the development of the human figure pertains to the development of Greek civilization.

     Running into the High Classical era, the Greeks at this point had completely solved the enigma of the human figure. Relying on their concepts of duality,  Greek artists managed to combine both their vision and measurements of proportion to create a canon for the human figure. This travelled beyond the human form as well: Greeks also created an order for architectural design and pottery flourished as well. Once again, the high classical era was a period of extreme economic prosperity and the Greek society flourished.  Following the Kritios boy, which was deemed to be the epitome of naturalism, the Greeks now had another goal altogether: achieving humanism through the idealization of the form. Sculptures were now exaggerated yet conservative at the same time, maintaining the duality of Greek culture, yet still under the influence of the human ideal. It was only after the Late Classical Era, when the Peloponnesian War created a rift within Athens and pushed the once-flourishing city backwards, that the styles of Greek art began to grow more modest. This was due to the fact that the Athenians were humbled and chastened back into their place. The pride of the High Classical Era no longer existed among the Greeks, and although the civilization was not in a bad position, they were humbled nonetheless. This newfound humility was once again pushed back into the artwork of the era, because the nature of humanism was to reflect the ongoings of man, the Greek statues were no longer displaying athletes winning a fight or gods with immense power, both equally strong. Instead, the statues of the High Classical Era were engaging in everyday activities with modesty and ease.  The piece of Alexander the Great from the Late Classical Era, although maintaining an expert understanding of human form, is portrayed modestly, as were many of the gods as this point in time, quietly reinforcing the philosophy that man and god were on the same scale.
This contrasts the earlier piece from the High Classical era of Heracles, who is over exaggerated and has a heroic posture.

The idea of humanism led the Greeks to reflect through their artwork the political and economic, as well as the social structure of the time in which the work was created.  Through naturalism and duality, humanism truly reached its greatest heights, and gave the world some of the greatest works of art and architecture. Today, western civilization strives for the ideas that the Greeks maintained about politics, and the individual, as well as his role within society.


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