Getting Serious About Pottery

Most of the antique Greco-Roman stuff you see in museums is Roman pastiche or copies of old Greek stuff. The Greeks were a great inspiration, but even the so-called copies are mostly elaborate homages to the originals, not exact reproductions. From the early Greek statuary that has remained intact, like some of the kouros figurines, it seems like the Greeks before the Classical period were concerned with clean lines and a harmonic balance that is covered by robes and musculature in Roman tributes. This is something that was probably also present in the painting of the time, but very little paint survives from the period. Architecture also survives in ruins and there, too, we can see the Greek notion of harmony in action. The idea of harmony is what often got covered in excess and naturalism in later works made too far from the heart of Classical Antiquity at around 400 BC.

In the hunt for this Greek ideal, there is one extraordinary source that we can study in spectacular detail. It’s pottery. Yes, pretty lame next to the Acropolis, but as an indication of Ancient Greek aesthetic sensibilities (and hence the sensibilities of all of us who have inherited the history of the Ancient Greek world) they are pretty much the best thing we have to go on in the realm of the pictorial. The art itself is on a human scale, you will not have the abodes of the gods or the gods themselves hanging over you, you will not hear the booming voices of Apollo and Athena among columns that support structures that have stood for millenia, but sometimes good things come in small packages.

The Louvre has a fantastic collection of Greek pottery and I can but scratch the surface here. I fell in love with the two colors of these pots, black and red, during an art class in school ages ago and it was simply astonishing to find gods and mortals in these pictures engaged in what seemed to be simple everyday chores. People sacrificing to the gods, for instance:

Source: Wikipedia

Gods chasing tail:

Source: Wikipedia

Crass humor:

Source: Wikipedia

Men killing each other on the battlefield:

Source: Wikipedia

And getting drunk afterwards:

Source: Wikipedia

I did not have a camera with me at the Louvre, and the pottery section was the one where I finally cursed myself for not taking one along. Fortunately, there’s tons of stuff online including histories of the development of techniques and many galleries of the different phases the art form went through.

Simply put, next to the literature of the Ancient Greeks — poetry, plays, and philosophy — there is no better point of access to Greek culture, our shared Western culture, than these pots. Much of the written legacy is actually just a couple of clicks away, free online in very accessible form, just waiting to be read. Like these pots, it’s easy to dismiss this stuff as just history, something for bearded scholars to fret over and not suitable for the consumption of anyone who wants to live in the present, has a business to run, or has to stay tuned to the times we are currently living in. But why anyone would sit for hours in front of a television set watching the sort of rubbish our modern culture excretes for quick consumption when you have Greek pottery to look at is a mystery to me. Why should you be interested in Britney Spears’s latest publicity stunt when you could, for instance, be looking up the story of Clytemnestra.

Source: Wikipedia

These shared stories, some uplifting and some simply sordid, are our common culture. We are not made of whatever the yellow press is fretting about at the moment, nor are we the rubbish heap of pop-culture that resulted from our handing over culture to a bunch of twelve-year-olds. Nothing in that stuff is edifying and it makes us hate ourselves with a passion — sucking in worthless garbage will eventually make you feel like worthless garbage. The stories that lift us up from the baseness of our present condition can be found painted on humble clay, and these small paintings are still a potent source of that harmony the Greeks dreamed up and wanted us to achieve.

1 Response to “Getting Serious About Pottery”



  1. 1 Art in Paris « nonvisedvoce Trackback on January 30, 2012 at 22:39

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