I’m currently working on a longer piece following the development of Greek vase painting, a subject I’m finding increasingly fascinating. It’s extraordinary to see how much styles and techniques changed, and how what people found aesthetically pleasing changed, even within such an apparently limited medium as black- or red-figure vase painting. I keep coming back to this vase; I don’t normally have favourites, but this has taken the title, and I hope you’ll see why.
The vase dates from between 450 and 425 BC, and is a pelike, which would have been used for storage, most likely wine or oil. It is, as you can see, a red-figure vase, as we would expect for its date. There is a lot to this vase, but the subject matter is an easy way to work your way into it. We recognise the story from Homer’s Odyssey. It is the moment when Odysseus meets the ghost of his deceased companion Elpenor in the Underworld, which Odysseus has travelled to in order to consult with the prophet Teiresias. Previously Odysseus and his companions had been delayed on the island of the witch Circe (Ogygia). Just before their departure Elpenor fell from the roof, where he had been sleeping (or rather sleeping it off), and died. His death went unnoticed, and so without the correct burial rites he was unable to travel further into the Underworld. We see him rising and coming to speak with Odysseus. Odysseus himself seems distanced from Elpenor, and lost within himself. The Lykaon Painter has skilfully depicted his musculature, so we see the tension in his sword arm, ready to attack, but he rests his head on his hand in a pose which would later become recognised as symbolic of melancholy and depressing. This is perhaps a reflexion of the hardships he has had to endure, and will face later (it is in the Underworld that he learns that his mother has died from grief, by meeting her shade, and being unable to embrace her). The presence of Hermes suggests that this depiction is drawn from a different telling of the story to Homer’s, which does not feature Hermes as this point. He is not out of place however, one of his duties was to escort souls to the Underworld. He is recognised by the winged hat and boots, as well as the kerrykeon, the staff of the messenger. In the background (more on this excitement later) we see the two animals Odysseus sacrificed to gain access to the Underworld. Each of the three human figures is carefully individualised – they are distinct characters not just generic human forms, and we can recognise them by more than the objects they are associated with. Elpenor’s immaturity is denoted by his short hair and lack of beard, Odysseus contrasts with long curls and a thick beard. His expression is stern, and though one foot is placed firmly on the ground, the other is one tip-toes, an indication of the cunning fighter hidden beneath the somewhat mournful exterior. It also gives us a sense of Odysseus’ famous knack for deception, he appears unprepared but is in fact ready to spring up should danger present itself. Odysseus’ hat is also very different to the typical helmet, perhaps to indicate that he is not at war, instead he is trying to return to his domestic life at home, and achieve the all important nostos (home-coming, a central concept in Greek warrior society). Hermes is gentle, a hand reaching towards Odysseus, clearly looking at him, with a neutral expression which gives a sense of wisdom. Both his feet are placed firmly on the ground, but his keens are bent, giving the impression of moving towards the two mortal to help – we are reminded of the moment in the Iliad when Priam is en route to collecting the body of his dead son, and Hermes puts him at his ease by taking an attitude towards him like that of a son – Hermes is portrayed as sympathising with the mortals. Elpenor is climbing out of the ground, one knee bent to illustrate his stepping up towards Odysseus. He is shown in the three quarter pose, with his hands gripping and pushing himself forwards. This is a difficult pose which the Lykaon Painter has achieved effectively. Elpenor’s expression is suited to the moment, a mixture of concern and eagerness. Odysseus is his chance of receiving a proper burial: it is a key moment for the character. Despite Odysseus’ slightly distracted expression, we get a strong sense of interaction between the characters. The composition is centrifugal, with both Elpenor and Hermes looking directly at Odysseus and moving towards him. So although a lot of attention is given to each of the characters, we are still in no doubt that, even given Hermes’ high status, it is Odysseus with whom we are mainly concerned.
But it is not characterisation in which this vase is most technically accomplished. It is an example of a relatively new development in the depiction of space. This vase is notable for the inclusion of lines denoting a rocky landscape, which gives the painting a real sense of depth. Instead of the ambiguous sense of depth previously denoted by overlaying objects, we get a true sense of fore- and background, with figures placed within this composition. This is an interesting display of the arts influencing one another. This depiction of space is taken from the artist Polygnotos, a wall painter. His paintings bore similarities with both vase painting and contemporary relief sculpture. It is believed that he used limited colours, and arranged his figures in rows, above each other, with the figures detached, but no difference in size depending on distance (figures in the background are the same size as those in the background). In this latter respect his style is similar to that of contemporary relief sculptures (such as those who would decorate the pediments and metopes of temples). The closest vase painter to his techniques would be the Niobid Painter, whose figures are arranged in rows, with some ambiguity as to distance due to the similar size and limited landscape lines. These were early classical artists, by the High Classical of the Lykaon Painter there had been some developments. The Lykaon Painter’s landscape lines are more numerous, with figures more clearly placed within them. The rocky landscape enables us to build a better picture of the space. The problem of extremes of fore- and background is solved by having the figures more or less in line, with Odysseus and Elpenor just slightly further into the space than Hermes. The scene itself is also relatively small, we are not shown a wide vista or a larger gathering – any attempt to do so would lead to confusion, so the scene is kept simple. Polygnotos was primarily known for his depictions of figures, which were skilful and charming, and had a sense of grace and delicacy of execution. It is thought that Polygnotos may have been the teacher of the great sculptor Pheidias; he was at least working at the same time. This skill and charm is an aspect which certainly carries through to the Lykaon Painter. Figures are realistic: Hermes’ drapery is graceful whilst responding to his movements. There are many little points of interest: the intricacy of Odysseus’ sandal straps, the curly hair of the goats, with their perfectly formed heads and hooves. We can see how Hermes has laced his boots, and there are lines on his feet suggesting the suppleness of the close fitting leather they are made from. The reeds behind Elpenor gently curve adding pleasing decoration, whilst also adding to the narrative – they enhance the sense of his being suddenly revealed to Odysseus. The painting is pleasing both aesthetically and as an illustration of the story, with a pleasing composition and charming individualisation of figures. Though this vase is successful, the noted scholar Susan Woodford suggests that the Polygnoton technique marks the beginning of the separation of vase and wall painting. Vase painters had no adequate way to suggest shadow, and would never be able to keep up with wall painter’s developments in the depiction of space. From this point onwards vase painting developments are almost exclusively in the depiction of figures and creation of new styles, not in developing new practices within the medium.
For far more eloquent an knowledgeable reading on Greek vases, I highly recommend Susan Woodford’s ‘An Introduction to Greek Art’, which is a great way in to studying Greek art, and gives a great overview of developments and different media.