The Arrogant Spectator

Reading my little notebook from my visits to the British Museum and other London galleries, I sometimes find incredibly pompous reactions scribbled in letters very clearly written in motion, even in haste. One of these is: “Mycenaean pottery is pretty boring.” After a day in the National Gallery and with later red figures in the British Museum it might seem so, but surely this is a distorted perspective. It is like judging the main course in terms of the dessert; after the taste buds have been assaulted and saturated by sugary goods, they do not wish to be teased by those joyous delicacies that bring our deeper animal appetites to the surface, to those things that are not flashy and which are not supposed to be.

Source: Wikipedia

One must also remember that stuff like the scene above is from over a thousand years BC, so even if there were flashier things around, it’s only the sturdier items that have survived.

The arrogance continued with: “The Macmillan Aryballos from Corinth (c. 650 BC) kicks it up a notch.”

Source: Wikipedia

It’s a perfume bottle and its greatness is in the details. There’s a battle scene and other stuff and ornamentation. This picture does not do these scenes and squiggles justice, but I’m sure one can find better ones online with a short search.

And yet again, commenting on the Greek black figures of roughly around the same period: “Athens is modern at that time as well.” It is absolutely amazing how sharp some of these black figures are.

Source: Wikipedia

The above example from around 580 BC, and it is not a very good one, actually. It is on these occasions I curse myself for not having a camera, because online photographs do not seem to be all that good most of the time. However, I’m afraid I would have spent all my time with these pots had it been possible to make my own pictures and made no progress at all.

After this, I learned that a guy called the Andokides Painter was responsible for creating the technique behind red-figure pottery. No smug remarks this time, just an overall feeling of “Well done!”

Source: Wikipedia

The image above depicting a dramatic moment in the story of Menelaos and Helen conveys a hyperbolous version of my first reaction to the red figures. An earthly vision so arresting it warrants unconditional admiration and strips the vanity of all notions of beauty. There’s tons of them in the British Museum and going through the pieces can be quite overwhelming and exhausting, but even after hours of looking at these simple pots my appetite for the symmetry and harmony they convey remains intact. (The one thing that has happened is that I found out I was quite ready to dismiss more recent copies of the old pots just by looking at the composition and proportions of the figures.)

However, that also means there is always room for dessert before the day is done, something excessive and all too sweet from those masters of excess, the Romans. The Portland Vase is exactly that, with sugar on top.

Source: Wikipedia


Source: Wikipedia

The vase had a little plaque next to it trying to explain the idea behind the way it was produced, but it is difficult to concentrate on technicalities in the presence of something so exquisite. The Wikipedia page for cameos says:

During the early period [Roman glass cameos] usually consisted of a blue glass base with a white overlying layer, but those made during the later period usually have a colourless background covered with a translucent coloured layer. Blanks could be produced by fusing two separately cast sheets of glass, or by dipping the base glass into a crucible of molten overlay glass during blowing.

This particular cameo has been designed and cut so that it creates shadows out of thin strips of glass which give the figures a strange glow or ambiguity. My words are too crude to describe how pleasant it is to look at, pictures capture little of the way the light plays with the details. Sometimes it is worth while to see something — not pictures of it, mind you — so over the top that it brings back to you the appreciation of simplicity done right. That way, you can see your perspective and adjust it accordingly, become the fish who finds the water. Therefore, the final arrogant comment on the Portland vase: “Look at the way you see and look again.”

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