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“Greek Art”: The Present Through the Past

The book is more than a collection of images of Greek art. It is also a book of extraordinary insights, knowledge and wisdom.

(Book cover courtesy of Thames & Hudson)

In every visit to Greece, I spent lots of time in the country’s museums. My hunger for the sculpture and architecture of ancient Greece remains constant and complements my interest in Greek philosophy, history and science.

It’s hard to explain, but being close to a Greek temple like the Parthenon is an experience of pleasure and satisfaction. The temple becomes a time machine, helping me appreciate the society that built it. I am convinced the marble columns and the remaining parts of a temple fit so nicely together they become magnets of beauty and harmony. But, at the same time, the ruined temple gives me clues of its aesthetic, religious, possibly healing and practical use at the time it came into being.

It pains me that ancient and modern people vandalized and looted Greece, including all of its magnificent temples and sculptures.

I relived that tragedy last summer in Peloponnesos, where I spent a few days traveling in and around Argos and Arcadia. For the first time in my life, I visited the Temple of the Epicurean (Helper) Apollo at Bassae on Mount Kotilion near the ancient Arcadian town of Phigaleia.

Pausanias, the second-century Greek traveler who authored Guide to Greece saw the Temple of Apollo at Bassae and admired its architecture and beauty. Iktinos, the architect of the Parthenon, also designed this gorgeous temple in late fifth century BCE. The people of Phigaleia dedicated their temple to Apollo the Helper because Apollo saved them from plagues.

Like other temples in Greece, this one is in ruins. Only its columns barely stand. So when I reached the temple sometime in September 2015, the entire temple was covered by canvas. The temple has been under the care of restoration experts since 1995.

I went inside the covered temple and tried to absorb as much beauty and knowledge as possible. This is a Doric temple that had a frieze running on top of the wall inside the main building. But the frieze, representing a struggle between Greeks, Amazons, Lapiths and centaurs, was looted by the British architect C.R. Cockerell in the 19th century and is now at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, UK.

I went outside the ruined temple for a walk. I imagined the sanctuary full of ancient Greeks celebrating the birth date of Apollo. People walking for hours through the woods, climbing the steep mountain so they would offer sacrifices to the Epicurean Apollo.

Those times are gone forever. We are left with ruins to recreate Greece and its art. Archaeologists have been digging the soil of Greece for more than two centuries. The debris they uncover could be humble clay vases or treasures of great importance, dating all the way from the Bronze Age to the time of the Roman occupation of Greece.

John Boardman, professor emeritus of classical archaeology and art at Oxford University, explains how and why the Greeks created their art and architecture. His Greek Art (fifth edition, Thames & Hudson, 2016) is a beautifully and lavishly illustrated book covering a millennium of Greek art history. But the book is more than a collection of images of Greek art. It is also a book of extraordinary insights, knowledge and wisdom.

Boardman has been studying and writing about the art of the Greeks for half a century. He is a masterful storyteller who knows the origins and history of Greek art. He rejects political correctness and its influence on our understanding of Greek art. He explains: “Art history in the last hundred years has been driven largely by other preoccupations, all of which can be found to have bearing on our understanding of Greek art, though to varying degrees. Many of these have been generated by anthropological, philosophical, psychological and perceptual studies provoked to some degree by the problems of the 20th century, much of whose intellectual life became positively anti-classical in mood or conditioned by new social pressures.”

The Greeks created art for personal and social needs. There were no museums or art markets in Greece. Boardman says Greek artists “were suppliers of a commodity on a par with shoemakers.”

The story of the classical art of the fifth century BCE is the story of the Greeks: how they rose in artistic, economic and political power in the Mediterranean and defeated the greatest empire of that age, Persia. In art, the victory over the Persians probably speeded the abandonment of the archaic art the Greeks shared with the Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Anatolians from the 8th to the 6th centuries BCE.

According to Boardman, “In the early 5th century, a break with archaic conventions heralded the classical revolution, achieving that unparalleled blend of realism and the ideal which we recognize as the hallmark of the classical, centered on representation of the human body … the artist shows complete understanding of how the body is constructed, how to express nuances of movement and … repose.”

In addition, Boardman explains that the “Classical art was not a sudden apparition, like Athena springing fully armed from the head of Zeus, nor a brilliant amalgam of the arts of Assyria and Egypt, but independently evolved by Greeks in Greece, and its course only superficially conditioned by the influence and instruction of other cultures, however important these had been on the preceding three hundred years.”

Another insight of Boardman is that the Greeks used colors in their sculpture and architecture.

He is also right mythology for the Greeks was history, which was a source of great inspiration. The Greeks constructed beautiful temples for their gods, sculpted nude statues for their athletes, heroes and gods, and painted countless vases.

Reading Boardman’s book gives you the satisfaction of learning from one who knows. He says Greek art “needs to be … understood on Greek terms,” by which he means we need a thorough understanding of the Greek society that created that art. He guides you how to look at the masterpieces of the classical age. At the same time he explains when the art came into being and why. “Knowledge of the date and origin of works is a necessary prerequisite for exploration of their function and quality,” he says.

Greek Art informs you that Greek sculpture and architecture have left their footprint on modern culture. This happened through the Renaissance. Such a contribution was merely “one of the legacies of ancient Greece which have helped form western thought, society and art — the product of a civilization which … had a unique effect on the history of mankind.”

Boardman also says that the Greeks communicated with art at “all levels from the moral and political to the appropriately entertaining, far more effective than word of mouth or writing.” Art enabled the Greeks to explore their present through the past.

Read Greek Art. It is a lucid and timely account of the most important artistic tradition in the Western world.