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The Emergence of the Classical Style in Greek Sculpture

The Emergence of the Classical Style in Greek Sculpture

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by Richard Neer

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In this wide-ranging study, Richard Neer offers a new way to understand the epoch-making sculpture of classical Greece. Working at the intersection of art history, archaeology, literature, and aesthetics, he reveals a people fascinated with the power of sculpture to provoke wonder in beholders.  Wonder, not accuracy, realism, naturalism or truth, was the


In this wide-ranging study, Richard Neer offers a new way to understand the epoch-making sculpture of classical Greece. Working at the intersection of art history, archaeology, literature, and aesthetics, he reveals a people fascinated with the power of sculpture to provoke wonder in beholders.  Wonder, not accuracy, realism, naturalism or truth, was the supreme objective of Greek sculptors. Neer traces this way of thinking about art from the poems of Homer to the philosophy of Plato. Then, through meticulous accounts of major sculpture from around the Greek world, he shows how the demand for wonder-inducing statues gave rise to some of the greatest masterpieces of Greek art. Rewriting the history of Greek sculpture in Greek terms and restoring wonder to a sometimes dusty subject, The Emergence of the Classical Style in Greek Sculpture is an indispensable guide for anyone interested in the art of sculpture or the history of the ancient world.

Editorial Reviews

Best Books of 2011

The Emergence of the Classical Style in Greek Sculpture offers a visually and conceptually fresh take on its perennially fascinating subject.”—Michael Fried, Artforum

— Michael Fried

James I. Porter

“This is a big and ambitious volume, beautifully written by one of the leading new voices in the field of Greek visual art. Filled with considerable merits, it aims to do nothing less than shift the language of the art historical description used in accounting the transition from archaic to classical sculpture. From its rich and challenging introduction on the theory of interpretation to its brilliant reading of the Tyrannicides, The Emergence of the Classical Style in Greek Sculpture is unlike any other work in its field.”

Mary Beard

The Emergence of the Classical Style in Greek Sculpture represents an original and worthwhile approach to a major turning point in art history from a distinguished young scholar. Well-informed and up-to-the-minute theoretically, this important contribution to ancient studies offers excellent criticisms of individual works of art that begin to reveal the crushing inadequacies of some of our most respected accounts.”

Gloria Ferrari Pinney

“The question that Richard Neer asks is of crucial importance: ‘Given that the Archaic Greeks, by definition, didn’t know the classical style, what were they after?’ What Neer advocates in this bold and enlightening book is a return to the analysis of style, not simply in the service of attributions to masters, but instead to the reconstruction of aesthetics. I know of no other work on the subject that addresses the issue in these thought-provoking terms.”

Artforum - Michael Fried
Best Books of 2011

The Emergence of the Classical Style in Greek Sculpture offers a visually and conceptually fresh take on its perennially fascinating subject.”

Anglo-Hellenic Review

“This wide-ranging book is one of the most innovative, stimulating, and learned studies of Greek sculpture to be published on this side of the millennium. . . . This is a book full of intellectual sparkle.”
Times Literary Supplement

"The Emergence of the Classical Style in Greek Sculpture is a major contribution to our understanding of the history of Greek sculpture; it will be a constant source of intellectual stimulation and critical inspiration for scholars in the field for years to come."
Art Bulletin

 “Beautifully produced and lavishly illustrated. . . . The Emergence of the Classical Style in Greek Sculpture is an exciting book—provocative in approach, theoretically sophisticated, and packed with lots of interesting ideas and observations. . . . Neer has . . . succeeded in giving us a very rich and suggestive vocabulary for describing what these wonderful statues do and how they affect their viewers, and he may well succeed in transforming our way of seeing Archaic and Classical Greek sculpture. And that is a significant contribution indeed.”
Visual Anthropology Review

“This is quite possibly the most important book on Classical Greek sculpture in modern times. The author argues his theses magnificently and backs them up with dazzling scholarship. . . . The Emergence of the Classical Style in Greek Sculpture will undoubtedly change the way Classical sculpture is viewed and understood, and it will endure for a long time to come.”

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The Emergence of the Classical Style in Greek Sculpture



Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-57063-1

Chapter One

The Anavysos Road

Attica's central plateau is mostly flat, but as you walk eastward toward the sea the terrain becomes hilly, and the road winds through a series of connected valleys (fig. 1). Near Anavysos, ancient Anaphlystos, rises a pyramidal massif. Smaller than a mountain but larger than a hill, it bears the name Olympos; the epithet Laureotic is often added to distinguish it from the gods' home in Thessaly (fig. 2). Skirting its slopes on the inland side, a traveler in the early 400s BCE would have passed through fields and orchards, in a region famous for its figs, before encountering a remarkable sight: a naked youth by the roadside (figs. 3–4). Made of pure white marble, with blazing red hair, the youth on sunny days would have gleamed from a distance as you approached. He stood some six feet tall—taller by far than most Athenians—and a base elevated him still further above the passerby. Drawing alongside you could pause to read the inscription on the plinth. It was a single word: Aristodiko, "of Aristodikos." The statue was the sign, the sema, of a well-born man, beautiful and good: it marked a grave.

There were lots of "signs" like this one in Archaic Greece, and the encounter on the Anavysos road is representative. Indeed, the making and beholding of these statues—the little roadside dramas of sculptor, image, and beholder—followed a consistent set of themes, which received progressive elaboration over the years to produce the Classical style in sculpture.

First, however, the roadside marker and its circumstances. There is no ancient term for this specific figure type. Modern scholars would call it a kouros, Greek for "young man," but as a term of art its invention is recent. As Gisela Richter put it, in a classic study, "The kouros type ... runs through archaic Greek sculpture like a chief theme in music."

The scheme adopted was always the same—a nude youth, generally broad-shouldered and narrow-waisted, standing erect in a frontal pose, one leg, usually the left, advanced, the weight evenly distributed, the arms, at least in the earlier marble statues, hanging by the sides, the hands either clenched or, more rarely, laid flat against the thighs.

Kouroi turn up all over the Greek world, from Asia Minor to Sicily, from the north Aegean to Libya, but they are especially common in the old Ionian territories of the central and eastern Aegean. They are generic, possessing few attributes and stereotyped physiognomies. This lack of specificity seems to have ensured their popularity: kouroi could be used in almost any situation, as cult statues, votives, or grave markers. Attica is unusual in that most of its kouroi stood over tombs: they are mnemata, memorials for the dead. Even here, however, there is variety. Just down the road from Anavysos, a cluster of sanctuaries at Sounion on the tip of the Attic peninsula has yielded fragments of some fourteen large kouroi, all dating to the first years of the sixth century (figs. 5, 91). Though essentially similar to the Aristodikos monument, these statues were not grave markers but gifts to the gods. Elsewhere in Greece the type is even more adaptable. With the addition of a bow, a kouros may serve as a statue of the god Apollo; with a beard and cloak, he is Dionysos; and so on. The kouros is "a man for all seasons." For just this reason, specific contexts of use do not seem especially pertinent to these statues. One kouros is pretty much as good as another, and we should not imagine a radically different structure of beholding for the type depending on its use in a sanctuary or a graveyard. The best evidence for lumping these two contexts together is the sheer homogeneity of the statues themselves.

If you approached Anavysos from the northwest in the years around 500 BCE, you would have encountered at least four such statues. The earliest, now in New York, dates on style to circa 590 (figs. 6–7); one in Athens and another in Munich both date on style to circa 530–520 (figs. 8–10); the marker of Aristodikos, to about 500–490, again on style. Of these statues, only the last has an absolutely secure provenance: it stood alone on the road to Keratea, about three-quarters of a mile northwest of the present Church of Ayios Pantele?on. The other three kouroi were excavated illegally and smuggled out of Greece; the first around 1910, the latter two in the 1930s. The statue in figures 8–9, known conventionally if inaccurately as the "Anavysos" kouros, was seized by police in Paris; the looters had sawed it in half for ease of transport, and the scars are still visible. Investigations by Greek authorities, in tandem with the testimony of museum personnel (both on and off the record), suggest that all three of these kouroi came originally from the area of Phoinikia to the north of Olympos. In particular, the New York kouros is rumored to have been found with the Anavysos kouros. It is even possible that all three kouroi come from a single plot, since the Munich and Anavysos kouroi turned up at almost the same time—a suspicious coincidence.

Complicating matters is an inscribed block bearing the hexameter couplet,

"Stay and mourn at the marker [sema] of dead Kroisos Whom raging Ares destroyed once on a day in the front ranks."

This stone has a complex history. Discovered in 1938, it was presented to the Greek National Museum only in 1954.?? Its exact provenance remained uncertain until 1974, when Greek archaeologists excavated a large tumulus— meters tall, with a diameter of 28 meters—by the roadside in Phoinikia. Although the tomb itself had been plundered, the farmer who owned the land was in possession of a large fragment of stone that joined the inscribed block. He also had a bronze ash urn said to come from the tumulus. On this basis, the epitaph and the tumulus may be associated; the urn presumably held Kroisos's ashes. His was a cremation burial, a deliberate throwback to the age of heroes at a time when most Athenians were inhumed. Another tumulus stood nearby the first and probably belonged to the same family.

The Kroisos epitaph now stands beneath the Anavysos kouros in the National Museum, and many authors simply identify the statue as "Kroisos." But there is no join between the statue and the inscribed block, and the connection is hypothetical. The inscription comes from the middle step of a three-stepped base; the top step, which would have borne the plinth, is lost. According to local residents, the statue and the kouros did not come from the same place. The letterforms of the inscription do seem contemporary, stylistically, to the Anavysos kouros, and the block's dimensions are appropriate to that statue's size. But the Munich kouros has essentially the same dimensions, provenance, and date as the Anavysos kouros and must, therefore, make an equally plausible candidate. To make matters worse, it is even possible that the base did not support a kouros at all. Absent the top step, we cannot be sure what stood on it. Although the standard identification of the Kroisos base with the Anavysos kouros is plausible, it is at best an educated guess.

Although the combination of illicit and scientific excavation has left a confusing picture, a few points are reasonably secure. First, the relative isolation of these statues indicates that they come from family plots, as opposed to communal graveyards. Second, it is likely that either the Anavysos or the Munich kouros stood over the grave of Kroisos by the roadside in Phoinikia. Third, it is likely that one of the other sculptures from this vicinity corresponds to the tumulus adjacent to that of Kroisos. Taken together, one can imagine the Anavysos kouros atop the Kroisos base, and the New York kouros standing nearby. But another possibility is that none of these kouroi matches the Kroisos base; any or all of them could have been found elsewhere in the vicinity.

In addition to the four kouroi, the area around Laureotic Olympos has yielded at least three grave stelai. The first comes from Phoinikia as well (fig. 11). It depicts a discus thrower facing right. Although badly mutilated, the stele seems to date to the third quarter of the sixth century. The second stele, from Anavysos, is one of the finest Archaic gravestones in existence, dating to circa 540–30 BCE (fig. 12). Although its exact provenance is unknown, it is known to be from the vicinity of Olympos and Anavysos, and may well have been unearthed in the same looting campaign that yielded the kouroi. Known as the "Brother-and-Sister stele," it is now divided between Berlin and New York—an unfortunate result of black marketeering. A young athlete (identified as such by the oil flask that hangs from his wrist) walks to the right, accompanied by a young girl; an apotropaic sphinx crowns the slab. A fragmentary inscription on the base reads, "To dear dead Me [...] his father and dear mother raised this monument [...]." The young man's name is often restored, conjecturally, as "Megakles," a name traditional to the Alkmeonid clan. The final relief is from Barbaliaki in the hills above Anavysos, on the inland route to Laurion and Sounion (fig. 13). It, too, is sadly fragmentary: what remains is a mother cradling the head of her infant in her robe (the fabric was painted onto the background).

From this scattered and complex evidence, it is clear that a traveler from Phoinikia to Sounion in 500 BCE would have encountered a network of country roads punctuated by marble monuments, culminating in a seaside sanctuary thick with votives. In this regard, the Anavysos road was probably fairly typical of the Archaic Greek countryside. Kouroi and stelai were among the commonest sculptural types of this period, while the graveyard and the shrine were the two chief venues for sculptural display. The Anavysos road thus makes an ideal case study for a consideration of early Greek sculptural practice. It presents a large but not unmanageable number of artworks, all of very high quality, in a representative array of contexts. In this chapter, it will serve as a "home base," from which we shall make forays to other regions (and other artworks) as the need arises.

There is, of course, a sociology to this scatter of sculpture across the countryside. Made of Naxian stone, in a Naxian style, and very early in date, the Sounion kouroi are anomalous in Attica for having a votive function; indeed, their presence suggests that Sounion may have looked more toward the Cyclades than toward Athens in this period. On the Anavysos road proper, it may be significant that the mortuary kouroi stood in isolated plots, and not in the communal necropolis just west of Anavysos town. These plots may have been associated with particular families. If so, then it is just possible that, as much as they identified graves, these statues identified tracts of land as the property of a particular clan. Land tenure in Attica was generally fragmented, with most wealthy families owning a number of small, noncontiguous estates. Hence it will rarely have been obvious just who owned what territory. In such a situation the need to assert ownership—or, at a minimum, local prestige—will have been pressing. There could be no more forceful assertion of ownership than the raising of a monument over the bones of one's ancestors. To pause by the roadside in rural Greece and read an epitaph was to be reminded of who owned many of the surrounding fields and pastures, the names of the local gentry. The absence of patronymics from the inscriptions suggests that the dead men had local reputations and did not require much in the way of identification. The name "Kroisos" is not Greek but Lydian, and it has been argued plausibly that the grave precinct at Phoinikia belonged to the Alkmeonidai, a powerful and politically active clan with special ties to Lydia. The radical politician Themistokles grew up in this vicinity—in the township of Phrearrhoi—and must have passed Aristodikos's grave every time he went into Anavysos town; a land trip to Athens will have taken him by Phoinikia. The man who, more than anyone, put power in the hands of the Athenian commons cannot have failed to see these standing reminders of aristocratic power.

A "territorial" function for sculpture might help to explain an otherwise peculiar aspect of Athenian cultural policy in the late sixth century. At about this time the brother of the ruling tyrant of Athens caused a distinctive form of sculpture to be set up around the Attic countryside. These "herms" were blocks of stone crowned with a carved head of Hermes, god of wayfarers and boundaries. Inscribed with sententious bits of advice like, "Deceive not a friend," they stood throughout the Attic countryside as markers of the halfway point between the city of Athens and each of the rural townships, or "demes." Fragments of one have been found; the fragmentary inscription reads, "Midway between Kephale and the town, Brilliant Hermes ..." The herms established a civic metric or standard by which to organize space in the countryside, and were in this sense an element of the tyrants' program of political centralization. Running counter to them, like a centripetal force, were the grave monuments of the rural gentry. Instead of organizing space in civic terms, relative to the town, these statues marked territory in terms of family history. Statuary was a way of articulating authority, hence space. The challenge is to see how the actual look of the work accomplished this end.


It is useful at this point to return to Jean-Pierre Vernant's work on Archaic figuration. As detailed in the introduction, Vernant's central claim was that the job of an early Greek statue was function "in the paradoxical manner of a double": to mark an absence (variously of a god, a dead person, or a ritual), while yet remaining itself a constant presence in the here and now. Yet, as I hope to have shown, this argument carries no weight if it does not cash out in actual encounters with actual statues. What does the paradoxical manner of a double look like?

The kouros type was Vernant's paradigm, because it can function variously as a cult image, a votive, and a memorial. In its mortuary inflection, Vernant argues, the statue type makes allusion to the literary conceit of kalos thanatos, or "beautiful death." It is a commonplace of Archaic poetry—elegy in particular—that to fall in battle and suffer outrage (aikia) at the hands of one's enemies is miraculously to acquire youth and radiant beauty. For the Archaic body, death in battle is a change for the better: the marks of disfiguration inscribe on it, paradoxically, a new youth and beauty. Even mature men like Hektor and Patroklos become rejuvenated when they die in war, and the horrible mutilations committed upon the former do nothing to dim his radiance. Quite the opposite: as Priam declares, "For a young man all is decorous when he is cut down in battle and torn with the sharp bronze, and lies there dead, and though dead still all that shows about him is beautiful." At Iliad 22.370, the Greeks admire Hektor's "bearing and enviable beauty" even as they defile his corpse. Mutilation creates a new moral and physical perfection.

Seen in this light, the kouros instantiates the radiance that a warrior acquires at the moment of his demise. Kroisos, for instance, was "destroyed" by raging Ares: yet here he stands on the roadside, his body whole and perfect. The statue—let us assume, for the moment, that it is the one in Athens—is a device for re-membering what is gone: frozen in time, Kroisos is always in that state of perfect beauty he attained on the battlefield. "In its own way," writes Vernant, "by the immutability of its material and shape, and by the continuity of its presence, the mnema [memorial] conveys the paradox of the values of life, youth, and beauty which one can ensure for oneself only by losing them, which become eternal possessions only when one ceases to be." The sculpted sign is thus a sort of discursive solipsism: its referent—dead Kroisos in all his glory—resides in the here and now precisely because he is already gone forever. Because Kroisos fell in the foremost ranks, therefore he is bodied forth in the sema. The kouros is a machine for the production of presence, conjuring it literally out of its negation.

The principle finds a contemporary exponent in the philosopher Herakleitos. His fragment 34, for instance, serves as the epigraph to this chapter: "The proverb bears witness to them: 'present while absent [pareontas apeinai].'" Three further dicta expand upon the theme.


Excerpted from The Emergence of the Classical Style in Greek Sculpture by RICHARD NEER Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Richard Neer is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Humanities, Art History, and the College at the University of Chicago, where he is also a coeditor of Critical Inquiry.

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