Sculpture of the Greek Classical Period (480 - 323 B.C.)

 From the National Archaeological Museum of Athens

The Classical period of Ancient Greece produced some of the most exquisite sculptures the world has ever seen. The art of the Classical Greek style is characterized by a joyous freedom of movement, freedom of expression, and it celebrates mankind as an independent entity (atomo). During this period, artists begin to expand the formal aesthetic boundaries while they worked in expressing the human figure in a more naturalistic manner. They were able to replace the strict asymmetry of the figure with a free flowing form more true to life, while they approached an ideal aesthetic vision through stone and bronze.

Zeus of Artemision
Bronze, circa 460 - 450 B.C.
2.09 m (6' 10.5") high,
2.10 m (6' 10.75") fingertip to fingertip.
Found in the sea near cape Artemision
The Diadoumenos
By Polykleitos
Marble, 1.95 m (6'5") high.
Roman copy, original circa 420 B.C
Found at Delos
Youth of Anticythera
Bronze, circa 340 B.C
1.94m (6'4.5") high.
Identified as statue of Perseus
holding Medusa's head.
Youth of Marathon
Bronze, circa 340 B.C.
1.30m (4'3") high.
Found in the Bay of Marathon
Athena of Varvakeion
Marble, 2nd Century b.C.
1.05m (3'5.5") high (inc. base)
Roman Copy of the gold and Ivory statue made in 438 B.C which was placed inside the Parthenon

The form of classical sculpture became fluid and natural and the stylization of the archaic art gave way to realistic figures which emanated the illusion of moving through space. For the first time in human history, human anatomy was deemed worthy of being immortalized in stone or bronze, and the humble and laborious forward step of the kouros statues was replaced by poses that commanded their space with effortless movement. During the classical period the Greek artists replaced the stiff vertical figures of the archaic period with three-dimensional snap shots of figures in action. While the archaic sculptures appeared static the classical statues held dynamic poses bursting with potential energy. The overall patterns of immobile muscles were developed into a complex universe of tension and relaxation. The ancient Greek sculptors had finally achieved balance through the opposing action of the human muscle groups.

It was the first time in human history that the human body was studied for its aesthetic values, and was treated as an autonomous universe. The object of art became the human itself as the focus of the artist revolved around ordinary subjects like the the weight shift during the forward step at the moment before the release of the thunder, the tying of a ribbon around ones head, or just the shift of the pelvis when one leg supports the man's weight.

The classical Greek sculptor was more of a magician than an artist. He transcended ordinary subjects into extraordinary universal signs. And in the process, he reversed thousands of years of artistic tradition when he shifted the focus from the supernatural and unknown, to more earthly matters. Throughout history the human figure had been used by many civilizations as a mere object which signified metaphysical preoccupation. On the other hand, in classical Greek sculpture the figures often depict deities but clearly the human body becomes the subject of study. The gods were depicted as a mere excuse to study humans.

In ancient Greece, a long intellectual evolution reached its logical conclusion during the classical era when man as a living organism on this planet acquired the importance it deserved, and gods became human through marble and bronze. The golden age of classical Greece dictated that this earthly world can be explained in terms of cause and effect, and that every civilized society was built on the underlying foundation of logic. In classical Greece the visible universe became explainable, and thus the subject of intense study. The idea of observing and explaining the universe was evident in the writings of Greek philosophers, and more visibly in the chisel marks of the sculptors of the classical period of Greece. It was also not an accident that at the same period of time society in ancient Greece was organized around democratic principles with the city officials being elected by the demos (the community) who reserved the right to revoke their authority whenever they ceased to perform to the Demos' liking.

In the art of Greece during the Classical period the characteristic smile of the Archaic sculpture was replaced by a solemn facial expression. Even in sculptures which depict violent and passionate scenes the faces betray no expression of any kind. This is the case only for noble Greeks because within the same sculptural groups, the enemies (the barbarians) always are depicted with dramatic facial expressions. The reason for this is that ancient Greeks believed that suppression of the emotions was a noble characteristic of all civilized men, while the public display of human emotion was a sign of barbarism. Logic and reason was to dominate human expression even during the most dramatic situations.

In ancient Greece the concept of dialectics began to take shape. The world became understood as a series of opposing forces that created a certain synthesis and a transient balance that always shifted to accommodate the movement of the opposing forces. So in sculpture the human figure became understood as a universe of opposing forces which created a perfect aesthetic entity the moment they achieved balance. As the weight of the upper body

shifted towards one side, the corresponding leg muscles stiffened and the bones straightened in order to support it, while another group of muscles and bones on the other side relaxed and moved to retain the physical balance.

It was clear to an artist of the Classical period of Greece that the beauty of the whole depends on the harmony of the parts which comprise it, and that each part depends on the others in order to create a harmonious group.

"...[beauty consists] in the proportions not of the elements, but of the parts, that is to say, of finger to finger, and of all the fingers to the palm and the wrist, and of these to the forearm to the upper arm, and of all the other parts to each other, as they are set forth in the Canon of Polykleitos."
Galen interpreting Polykleitos' canon in his 2nd century "Placita Hippocratis et Platonis"
Gardner's Art Through the Ages, Horst de la Croix, Richard G. Tansey, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, Eighth edition, 1986 (pg. 161)

Proportion became the main preoccupation of sculptors and architects in ancient Greece shifting thus the focus away from metaphysical subjects and towards formal problems in creating art and representing the surrounding universe. Greeks sought the relationships in the universal which created harmonious balance thorough opposites. They searched for it in Astronomy, in Philosophy, in Politics, in Science in Architecture and in Art, and they expressed it in mathematical formulas which could be applied in nature.

The ancient Greek Artist invented his own self and became the creator of god and man alike in a universe of perfect formal proportions, idealized aesthetic values and a newly found sense of freedom. This was a freedom from barbarism and tyranny and a transition towards self-determination. The sculptures of Greece more than any other art form are the pure expression of freedom, self-consciousness, and self-determination. These were the values that motivated the inhabitants of Ancient Greece to defeat mighty Persia, and led them to the development of a model of society that ensured the dignity of every man within it. The sculptor in this context became the creator of human values and used his deities as an excuse to create humanity in stone and bronze. He became the universal record of man and his journey towards self-determination.

Next: Hellenistic Art

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