Ancient History & Civilisation


This sudden irruption of humor into the once formal sanctuaries of Greek sculpture is a distinctive mark of Hellenistic art. Every museum has preserved from the ruins of the age some laughing faun, some singing Pan, some rioting Bacchus, some urchin serving as a fountain with alarming indecency. Perhaps the return of Greek art to Asia restored to it the variety, feeling, and warmth which it had almost lost in its classic subordination to religion and the state. Nature, which had been adored, began now to be enjoyed. Not that classic moderation disappeared: the Youth of Subiaco in the Museo delle Terme, the Sleeping Ariadne of the Vatican, the Sitting Maiden of the Palace of the Conservatori continue the delicate tradition of Praxiteles; and in Athens, throughout this period, many sculptors fought the “modernistic” tendencies of their time by deliberately going back to fourth-and fifth-century styles, even, now and then, to the archaic dignity of the sixth. But the spirit of the age was for experiment, individualism, naturalism, and realism, with a strong countercurrent toward imagination, idealism, sentiment, and dramatic effect. Artists carefully followed the progress of anatomy, and worked more from models in studios; sculptors carved their figures to be seen not only from in front, but from all sides. They used novel materials—crystal, chalcedony, topaz, glass, dark basalt, black marble, porphyry—to imitate the pigment of Negroes or the ruddy faces of satyrs illumined with wine.

Their fertility of invention equaled their mastery of technique. They were tired of repeating types; they anticipated Ruskin’s criticism,* and were resolved to show the reality and individuality of the persons and objects they portrayed. They no longer confined themselves to the perfect and the beautiful, to athletes, heroes, and gods; they made genre pictures or terra cottas of workingmen, fishermen, musicians, market men, jockeys, eunuchs; they sought unhackneyed subjects in children and peasants, in characterful features like those of Socrates, in bitter old men like Demosthenes, in powerful, almost brutal faces like that of Euthydemus the Greco-Bactrian king, in desolate derelicts like the Old Market Woman of the Metropolitan Museum in New York; they recognized and relished the variety and complexity of life. They did not hesitate to be sensual; they were not parents anxious about the chastity of their daughters, nor philosophers disturbed by the social consequences of an epicurean individualism; they saw the charms of the flesh, and carved them into a beauty that might for a while laugh at wrinkles and time. Freed from the conventions of the classic age, they indulged themselves in tender sentiment, and pictured, possibly with sincere feeling, shepherds dying of undisillusioned love, pretty heads lost in romantic reverie, mothers fondly contemplating their children: these, too, seemed to them a part of the reality they would record. And finally they faced the facts of pain and grief, of tragic catastrophes and untimely death; and they resolved to find a place for them in their representation of human life.

No student with a mind of his own will join in any sweeping judgment about Hellenistic decay; a general conclusion to this effect serves too easily as an excuse for ending the story of Greece before the task is done. We feel in this period a slackening of creative impulse, but we are compensated by the lavish abundance of an art now completely master of its tools. Youth cannot last forever, nor are its charms supreme; the life of Greece, like every life, had to have a natural subsidence, and accept a ripe old age. Decadence had set in, it had bitten into religion, morals, and letters, and had left its stigmata upon individual works here and there; but the impetus of the Greek genius kept Greek art, like Greek science and philosophy, near their zenith to the end. And never in its isolated youth had the Greek passion for beauty, or the Greek power and patience to embody it, spread so triumphantly, or with such rich stimulation and result, into the sleeping cities of the East. There Rome would find it, and pass it on.

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