Although there is still some debate as to the exact years that the Hellenistic period began and ended, scholars generally agree that it extended from the time of Alexander the Great’s accession to the Macedonian throne in 336 B. C. until the death of Cleopatra VII of Egypt in 30 B. C. (Bagnall and Derow, 2004). This period of Grecian history was a time of multiculturalism. The Greek culture that Alexander imposed upon his conquered territories interacted with the local cultures. Thus, the art produced in the Hellenistic age was shaped by the combined influences of several Western and Eastern civilizations.
Although Pliny the Elder derided this period for being artistically barren—in his words, ars deinde cessavit (as cited in Tanner, 2006), some of the most well-known works of Grecian art today come from the Hellenistic era. This essay will examine some outstanding examples of Hellenistic sculpture: the Aphrodite of Melos, the Nike of Samothrace, the Laocoon Group, and Tanagra figures. In particular, this essay will analyze the depiction of human clothing in these figures. Unlike the previous periods in Greek art, sculptures from the Hellenistic period emphasized emotion, power, movement, and naturalness.
While Classical sculpture was characterized by serenity, restraint and physical perfection, Hellenistic sculpture revealed a fascination with the theatrical, expressive, and imperfect. This new outlook manifested itself in all aspects of Hellenistic sculpture. This period produced a good number of sculptures with erotic, violent or grotesque themes. Creating likenesses of gods and goddesses did not suddenly go out of fashion. Hellenistic artists only began to show a new interest in the everyday realities of the human condition.
As a result, scenes from quotidian life began to appear in what was previously the exclusive domain of mythological events. Ridgway (1990) pointed out that the increasingly secular subject matter of Grecian sculpture was linked to the changes in how sculpture was used. In the fourth and fifth centuries B. C. sculpture in ancient Greece was made primarily for religious purposes. In the third century, it began to be produced more and more often for the adornment of private homes and tombs. As a consequence of this paradigm shift, the poses, hairstyles, and clothing conventions of Grecian sculpture also underwent many changes.
De Grummond and Ridgway (2000) noted the increased variety and the increased sense of movement in the types of drapery and poses depicted in sculpture of this era. They use the term “torsion” to describe this sense of movement, and indeed it is an appropriate term to describe the twisting, undulating, and rippling effect that is seen in so many Hellenistic statues. The richness of detail present in Hellenistic sculpture has led some scholars such as Porter (2005) to describe it as “baroque. ” Porter also observed the similarities between the era’s style of rhetoric and its style of sculpture.
He argued that many of the same techniques used by Asian rhetoricians of the era were reflected in Hellenistic statues. These techniques include stylistic devices such as auxesis (amplification), deinosis (intensity), ekplexis (shock), enargeia (vividness) and pathos. It is an unexpected, but surprisingly appropriate analogy, as will be demonstrated in the discussion of the individual pieces in this essay. E. A. Gardner (2007) cited three sculptors in particular as having had the greatest influences on Hellenistic art. The first of this triumvirate is Praxiteles, whose works embodied grace and beauty.
The second is Scopas, whose works were dominated by passion and dramatic force, and the third is Lysippus, who specialized in athletic figures and massive sculptures that commemorated historical events. All sculpture in the Hellenstic period bears the influence of at least one of these men and the schools they founded. The Nike of Samothrace The Nike of Samothrace, also known as the Winged Victory of Samothrace, is an iconic sculpture of the Hellenistic era. Its striking, dynamic pose owes much to its creator’s expert manipulation of the stone in order to create the illusion of soaked and windswept fabric.
The goddess’ clothing clings to the front of her body, showing off her proud contours of her breasts, waist and legs, as well as the clear imprint of her navel. Meanwhile, the fabric flares dramatically at the back. This illusion of a living woman confronting a stormy sea is reinforced by the Nike’s massive marble pedestal in the form of a ship’s prow. The powerful, outstretched wings also give the impression that the figure is about to take flight. The movement conveyed by all of these elements is so energetic that even without her head and arms, the goddess’ triumphant expression is clear (Gardner, Kleiner and Mamiya 2005).
Gardner et al (2005) (observed that the Nike of Samothrace rejects the Polykletian conception of a statue as a perfectly proportioned, static being that rests on a plain pedestal. The Nike and other baroque Hellenistic statues interact with their environment in such a way that they appear to be living human (or divine) beings that are simply in suspended animation. The Aphrodite of Melos This famous armless statue of the goddess Aphrodite, also known as the Venus de Milo, is one of the most famous examples of Hellenistic art. Indeed, she is one of the most highly praised works of Western art in general.
She is enshrined in the canon of Western art because of her supposedly ideal proportions, graceful pose and air of mystery. She is standing in a vulnerable yet proud pose, and her alluring bearing is accentuated by the skillful use of draping. The angle of her raised leg shows that she is attempting to keep her garments from slipping off her, but at the same time, the rest of her bearing conveys that protecting her modesty is not a pressing concern. Though there is much heated debate on the exact position of her lost arms, it is clear that they were not supporting her robes.
Aphrodite, ultimate personification of beauty, titillates the viewer with a question: is she or is she not going to disrobe? The intricate folds of the cloth that almost completely conceals her lower body provides a fascinating contrast with the inviting smoothness of her naked and unadorned upper body. Like the Nike of Samothrace, the Aphrodite seems to be a living person in suspended animation. She seems to have been caught in an intimate moment, and the positioning of her clothes creates a perpetual suspense about her next move. This suspense is in turn responsible for much of the allure that surrounds this celebrated statue.
While the representation of the goddess’ clothing is in the Hellenistic baroque style, the statue as a whole is simple and understated. It does not have the dramatic force of the Nike. Its appeal lies in its unparalleled ability to capture the essence of the goddess of love. The viewer is fascinated with the mystery that shrouds the intentions of this woman, and because the woman is only stone, the viewer is confronted with the feeling of being eternally left hanging. The viewer is left with the feeling of wanting to see more of this beautiful woman, but being completely unable to.
In short, this statue elicits in the viewer all the hallmarks of love (or infatuation) that is the source of the mythological Aphrodite’s power. In this statue is most clearly seen the marriage of Classical traditions with Hellenistic innovations. Like many Classical statues of gods and goddesses, the Aphrodite of Melos is self-contained, but at the same time, the torsion in its pose and the detail in its clothing give it a distinctly Hellenistic flavor. It is a hybrid, just as the Hellenistic age was a hybrid of many different cultures.
The Laocoon Group Clothing does not figure prominently in the Laocoon sculpture, which is comprised of the priest Laocoon and his two sons being attacked by snakes as a punishment from the gods. The three figures are seated on some folds of cloth, and one snake and one arm of a son is partially draped with fabric, but the viewer is clearly meant to be drawn to the writhing bodies of the vainly struggling men and of the monstrously large serpents. Nevertheless, a discussion of Hellenistic sculpture would not be complete without mentioning this work.
The Laocoon group holds the distinction of being revered as a masterpiece in its own time, in its rediscovery during the Renaissance, and in the modern age. In fact, Erskine (2003) declared that the way modern scholars view the Laocoon group is exactly the same way they view the Hellenistic era as a whole. Their exact dates and places of origin are the subject of heated debate. Both are, in the modern view, baroque and classic, Roman and Hellenistic. Most importantly, however, both the Laocoon group and the Hellenistic age are enshrined in the modern consciousness as the enablers of historically significant events.
The Laocoon served as both inspiration and standard to several of the greatest artists of the High Renaissance, most notably to Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian. The Hellenistic age, on the other hand, is acknowledged to be the first era of Western imperialistic expansion in the East, and as such, one of the seminal epochs in the history of Eurasia (Burstein, 1997). The Tanagra Figures Tanagra figures, which were quite popular throughout the Hellenistic world, are much smaller in size compared to the three preceding works. These statuettes were not carved out of marble.
Instead, they were crafted from terra-cotta or bronze. After being removed from their molds, they were usually painted with various colors. Traces of these vivid colors may still be seen on the surface of authentic surviving Tanagra figures. As only the rich could afford to commission large-scale works, these compact figures satisfied Hellenistic consumers’ demand for home decor at an affordable price. They were also commonly used as offerings for the dead. Vassilika (1998) theorized that they may even have been used as toys.
The many proposed functions of these objects would certainly explain the very high number of Tanagra figures that have continually been excavated since the middle of the nineteenth century. The making of these statuettes reached the height of its popularity under the influence of the school of Praxiteles (Sarton, 1993). Unlike the larger works, Tanagra figures usually represent mundane themes and beings. Women are the most common subjects, and they are usually shown wearing the conventional Greek costume, which consisted of the himation and the chiton. Many statuettes also have fans and hats as accessories.
Perhaps because of their primarily secular use, as well as the relative ease with which they could be mass-produced, it is in Tanagra figurines that the humorous, grotesque and quotidian side of Hellenistic life was most often depicted. People from all walks of Hellenistic life are represented in this miniature art form. Gods, society women, farmers, street performers, beggars and many other people of various ages and ethnicities can all found immortalized in these small figures, which were rarely more than one foot high. The Tanagra figurines are noted for the great attention given to the detail of their clothing.
Like the Nike of Samothrace, the dynamic, sweeping folds of the Tanagra figures’ robes are used to create the illusion of movement and life. Due to their small size, they lack the grandeur and monumental force of the three other works discussed. However, greatness was never their purpose. They succeed very well in what they were designed to be: delightful little objects that show the technical skill of their creators. These artists, called coroplasts in their time, had such control over their works that they could make the figures appear to be wearing clothes made of heavy cloth or of extremely light, almost translucent fabric.
It has been observed that the finest Tanagra figures have a fluidity that is rarely equaled by larger works (H. Janson & A. Janson, 2003). Conclusion The famous works of art discussed in this essay are representative of an important period of human history. The Hellenistic period was remarkable for the way it brought together Western and Eastern cultures in a way that formerly had not been possible, and this fusion of several rich artistic traditions enabled innovations not only in art, but also in philosophy, science, warfare and politics.
Some of the most important innovations of the Hellenistic age were in the realm of sculpture. These changes were so significant that they gave rise to some of the most celebrated works of art in Western history. The beauty and power of these sculptures is such that they were prized not only in their own times, but also until today. Long after their creators’ names had been forgotten, the names of these works live on in the writings of some of the most distinguished minds of Western thought.
These works fired the imaginations of some of the greatest artists of the Renaissance. Tanagra figures in particular sparked a collecting frenzy in the nineteenth century. The Nike of Samothrace, the Aprodite of Melos and the Laocoon group have been enshrined in France and Italy as national treasures for centuries, and they currently reside in places of honor in eminent museums such as the Louvre. To other countries in the world, these works of art are iconic symbols of the heights of imagination and skill that the Western world has achieved.