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On a Grecian Urn


The Berlin Painter, one of the oldest masters of all, gets his first solo show, an occasion to reflect on the meaning of personal style in ancient art.

Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Red- figure stamnos of special shape

Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Red- figure stamnos of special shape: A: Peleus and Thetis, fleeing Nereids; B: Chiron, Nereus, and fleeing Nereids, ca. 480–470 B.C. Ceramic.

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The Berlin Painter wasn’t from Berlin, and he wasn’t a painter. What he was, though, was one of the greatest artists of the ancient world. An Athenian of the 5th century B.C., he (or possibly she, since the Berlin Painter’s anonymity includes gender) was a specialist in the decoration (with liquefied clay rather than paint) of ceramic vases, which happened to be the main vehicle for graphic expression in ancient Greece. On various forms of pottery, Greek artists depicted, with tremendous grace and precision, events such as athletic contests, musical and dramatic performances, drinking parties, and religious rituals, as well as the stories of mythology, of which the vases constitute a massive, though fragmentary, visual corpus.

Some of the painters and potters (always two different people in ancient Greece) signed their work, but usually the vases were unsigned; therefore most of those that survive are by anonymous hands. But that doesn’t mean that they were anonymous in their own time. Athens, where the best vases were made, was a small community, and in the circle of elite patrons, everyone was well aware of the artists and their various styles, so vases did not really need signatures. We should not infer from the fact that most vases come down to us without names attached that that the art form itself was the product of some sort of group mind that eschewed personal style and individual expression. Far from it. In fact, the distinct touch and vision of many of the vase artists has enabled scholars to identify them as individuals and attribute works to them. Absent a name, they are generally identified by one of their most famous works (known as the name-vase), and that work, in turn, is usually named after some pictorial element in it or after the museum or collection that owns it. The Berlin Painter was named by the English scholar Sir John Beazley in 1911 for a stunning amphora in the Staatliche Museum zu Berlin, depicting a satyr and the god Hermes, that had been found in an Etruscan tomb near the central Italian town of Vulci in 1834.

Though one doesn’t usually think of ancient artists as having one-man shows, our knowledge of Attic vase painting and the herculean attribution efforts of scholars like Beazley make it possible. This month, the Princeton University Art Museum in Princeton, N.J., is opening “The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C.” (March 4–June 11), which brings together 84 objects—54 vessels and fragments by the Berlin Painter plus 22 other vessels and fragments and 8 statuettes by other Attic artists, for purposes of comparison and context. Pieces from the Princeton Museum’s collection are joined by loans from museums and private collections around the world, including the Staatliche Museum zu Berlin, the British Museum, the Louvre, and the Vatican. The exhibition, curated by J. Michael Padgett, curator of ancient art at the Princeton University Art Museum, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see so many works together by a great master of antiquity and to get a sense of what qualities make a visual artist shine as an individual through the intervening haze of 25 centuries.

Before discussing the special traits of the Berlin Painter, we need to understand something of what Greek vase art was. First of all, though he and his fellow artists are called vase painters, their rich imagery was not created by any process of painting as we know it. Instead, the artist would incise or draw the lines of his composition on unfired wet clay that had begun to harden, so that it had a leathery finish, and then use something like a pastry bag to apply slip, a mixture of clay and water, to the appropriate areas. Once the vase was fired, with air and smoke being allowed into the kiln in several stages, the areas coated with slip would turn black, while the rest of the vase would retain the original reddish color of the clay. There are two main kinds of vase painting technique, called black-figure and red-figure. On black-figure vases, the background is red and the figures are black, while on red-figure vases, the scheme is reversed. These two styles were not reversed approaches existing side by side as choices for an artist to make; the black figure was a cruder style that predated the red, which offered more expressive possibilities, and the Berlin Painter flourished at a time when red-figure painting was rapidly overtaking black-figure.


With black-figure, there was very limited ability to depict detail within a figure (and bear in mind that Greek vase art is overwhelmingly an art of the human figure). All the artist could do was to incise a few lines that would show up light within the blackness, and the effect ended up being rather schematic. So while black-figure was undeniably bold, it conveyed a mechanical, almost robotic effect. In red-figure, on the other hand, the slip makes the background back while the red clay ground becomes the figures’ flesh tones. Because of the resulting lightness, the artist can use additional slip in small quantities to fill in very fine detail within the figures, for facial expressions, musculature, hairstyles, and so on. This technique was very difficult, in that the artist had to work—very quickly—with a nearly transparent medium, the slip, and often could not be sure of exactly what he had drawn until the vase was fired. And many times the vase would not survive the firing, emerging from the kiln cracked or shattered. Nonetheless, it was worth it; in red-figure pottery, the figures truly come to life, and in them we can see the birth of a naturalistic, emotionally expressive graphic art, the likes of which would not appear again until the European Renaissance.

The Berlin Painter did make some black-figure works, such as an amphora (two-handled jug for olive oil), shown in the exhibition, that was intended to be given as a prize to victors in the Panathenaia, the great quadrennial athletic festival held in Athens. Out of reverence for tradition, Panathenaic amphorae continued to be painted in black-figure well into the 4th century B.C., long after red-figure had won the day. On one side of the vessel, which stands two feet tall, the goddess Athena, patroness of the city, is depicted, flanked by columns topped by cocks. On the other side, two wrestlers struggle with each other while a judge looks on, holding a long staff that indicates his authority. The wrestler on the left assumes a posture typical of the Berlin Painter—moving in one direction while twisting his head to look in the opposite direction, which gives it a dynamic effect.

But red-figure was his forte, and that was in keeping with the times. The Berlin Painter belongs the Late Archaic phase of Greek vase art, when a new, naturalistic style had overcome the rigidity and formulaic nature of the Archaic style, but the supremely balanced, serene quality of the Classical style had not yet taken over. There is a dramatic tension, an intensity to Late Archaic painting that is unmistakable. The first Late Archaic vase painters who worked in red-figure are known as the Pioneer Group, which the art historian John Boardman has described as the first self-conscious artistic movement in Western art. (One member of the Pioneer Group is Euphronios, famous today for the exquisite circa-515 B.C. calyx krater—or vessel for mixing wine and water)—painted with a scene of the death of the Homeric hero Sarpedon, which was looted from an Etruscan tomb at Cerveteri, Italy, in 1971, bought by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and in 2008 repatriated to Italy after criminal trials and extensive negotiations.) The Berlin Painter belongs to the generation immediately after the Pioneer Group.

His achievements are on full display in a red-figure neck amphora with ridged handles, Amazonomachy with Herakles (circa 485–480 B.C.), on view at Princeton. Departing from the convention that a vase have two separate illustrations 180 degrees apart, this fantastic composition wraps entirely around. It depicts the battle between Herakles (Hercules) and his companion Telamon and 10 Amazons (female warriors)—three archers and seven hoplites or foot-soldiers. Herakles, with a bow in one hand, waves a club with the other hand to menace an Amazon who has fallen, injured, at his feet and lifts up a supplicating hand for mercy. All around the vase, between two rows of floral decoration, the crowd of combatants runs, bristling with spears and circular shields, figures and weapons alike curving gently with the contour of the vase—a reminder that Greek vases are always flat art on a curved surface, a requirement that places additional challenges on the spatial capabilities of the artist. The details of the garb of the warriors, their tendrils of hair, and their strangely cheerful, peaceful-looking eyes are exquisitely rendered by the painter. This composition, the Berlin Painter’s most complex, is most likely modeled on one made by Euphronios about 20 years earlier, and Euphronios himself may have been the potter for this one.

Most of the Berlin Painter’s vase designs are less busy than the Amazonomachy. Usually he favored simple compositions with one figure or small figural group on each side, obverse and reverse. His name-vase itself (in the Staatliche Museum zu Berlin) shows on the obverse two figures intertwined, facing opposite directions, with a spotted fawn rubbing between their legs like a cat. The black-bearded figure on the left is a satyr, whose name is spelled out as Oreimachos, or “mountain-fighter.” The muscular, animal-eared creature holds a lyre in one hand and its plectrum in the other. The other figure, whose face has a more-than-human dignity and refinement, contrasting with the beastly satyr, is none other than the god Hermes. He holds his herald’s wand and a kantharos, a type of wine cup. Beazley speculated that this vase depicts a scene from the myth in which Hermes and Dionysos bring the blacksmith god Hephaistos back to Mount Olympus after his expulsion by Zeus—a favorite subject for vases. In the story, Hephaistos refused to return, so Dionysos got him drunk, and then he and the satyrs and Hermes brought the recalcitrant god back on a mule. The presence of the satyrs and the wine cup on this amphora suggests the myth, but the figure of Dionysos is conspicuously absent. The Berlin Painter worked with many vessel shapes, but he apparently avoided doing wine cups and rarely depicted drinking parties (symposiums), a subject popular with patrons. Perhaps his choice to allude to Dionysos rather than showing him was an expression of his distaste for bacchanalian topics. Whatever the reason, the painting is an example of a salient fact about Greek mythological vase painting: A given vase only presents a fragment of the full myth, which was no problem to the original audience, which would have known all the plots and characters inside out. For us, much is opaque, and between the glancing allusions of the vase painters many details have to be filled in, which even the experts are often uncertain about.

The Princeton show is a celebration of a different kind of modern expertise, connoisseurship. The term—which originally referred to a method of identifying Old Master paintings pioneered by the 19th-century Italian scholar Giovanni Morelli and taken up by the American Bernard Berenson—refers to the attribution of works to artists based on subtle, often tiny, bits of visual evidence. Beazley, whose career began before World War I and extended into the ’60s, is the great figure to be contended with in Greek vase connoisseurship. He catalogued thousands of vases and fragments and named many artists, including of course the Berlin Painter, to whom he attributed some 200 vessels and fragments. As Princeton archaeologist Nathan Arrington explains in an essay in the catalogue that accompanies this show, there is something slightly conservative or perhaps even contrarian about doing an exhibition on a single vase painter, because the trend in Classical art studies has turned against the Beazley approach and toward methodologies that focus on factors other than the personality and identity of the artist. Those factors include how the objects were consumed rather than how they were produced, how and why and where they were traded, and what they can tell us about the socioeconomic forces at work during the time and place of their creation. Traditional connoisseurship relied on analysis of stylistic points that can seem incredibly picayune: In search of the little unconscious giveaways of an artist’s hand, more like fingerprints than like anything an artist would be proud of or even aware of, Beazley and his students scoured the vases for idiosyncratic renderings of tiny details like an eyebrow, an ankle bone, or a nipple. These little hints, combined with other pieces of information, would enable them to achieve a level of confidence in attributing a given vase to an artist known from other vases. When enough of these could be put together, an artist was born—or rather, reborn, resurrected from oblivion.

But these vanishingly small though telling stylistic points are not what make us feel the personality, the vision, and the skill of the Berlin Painter or any of his Attic peers. The mixture of grace, subtlety, and delicacy on the one hand and Late Archaic boldness on the other are what make the Berlin Painter stand out and speak to us down the millennia; they, as well as his choices of subject matter and the way he poses his figures, are what make him seem like a real person with an artistic vision to impart. His name and life story will likely never be revealed to us, but through this exhibition and its catalogue, the most essential part of him is vividly present, his designs as fresh and alive as if they were made yesterday.


By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: March 2017

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