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Hellenistic art is the art of the Classical period dating from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC to the emergence of ancient Rome as signified by the Battle of Actium in 31 BC and the subsequent conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt in 30 BC. A number of the best-known works of Greek sculpture belong to this period, including Laocoön and his Sons, Venus de Milo, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace.
The term Hellenistic is a modern invention; the Hellenistic World not only included a huge area covering the whole of the Aegean, rather than the Classical Greece focused on the Poleis of Athens and Sparta, but also a huge time range. In artistic terms this means that there is huge variety which is often put under the heading of "Hellenistic Art" for convenience.
There has been a trend in writing the history of this period to depict Hellenistic art as a decadent style, following of the Golden Age of Classical Athens. Pliny the Elder, after having described the sculpture of the classical period says: Cessavit deinde ars ("then art disappeared"). The 18th century terms Baroque and Rococo have sometimes been applied, to the art of this complex and individual period. The renewal of the historiographic approach as well as some recent discoveries, such as the tombs of Vergina, allow a better appreciation of this period's artistic richness.
One of the defining characteristics of the Hellenistic period was the division of Alexander the Great's empire into smaller dynastic empires founded by the diadochi: the Ptolemies in Egypt, the Seleucids in Mesopotamia and Syria, the Attalids in Pergamon, etc. Each of these dynasties practiced a royal patronage which differed from those of the city-states. In the architectural field, this resulted in vast urban plans and large complexes which had mostly disappeared from city-states by the 5th century BC. This city planning was quite innovative for the Greek world; rather than manipulating space by correcting its faults, building plans conformed to the natural setting. One notes the appearance of many places of amusement and leisure, notably the multiplication of theatres and parks. The Hellenistic monarchies were advantaged in this regard in that they often had vast spaces where they could build large cities: such as Antioch, Pergamon, and Seleucia on the Tigris.
Pergamon in particular is a characteristic example of Hellenistic architecture. Starting from a simple fortress located on the Acropolis, the various Attalid kings set up a colossal architectural complex. The buildings are fanned out around the Acropolis to take into account the nature of the terrain. The agora, located to the south on the lowest terrace, is bordered by galleries with colonnades (columns) or stoai. It is the beginning of a street which crosses the entire Acropolis: it separates the administrative, political and military buildings on the east and top of the rock from the sanctuaries to the west, at mid-height, among which the most prominent is that which shelters the monumental Pergamon Altar, known as "of the twelve gods" or "of the gods and of the giants", one of the masterpieces of Greek sculpture. A colossal theatre, able to contain nearly 10,000 spectators, has benches embedded in the flanks of the hill.
It was the time of gigantism: thus it was for the second temple of Apollo at Didyma, situated twenty kilometers from Miletus in Ionia. It was designed by Daphnis of Miletus and Paionios of Ephesus at the end of the fourth century BC, but the construction, never completed, was carried out up until the 2nd century AD. The sanctuary is one of the largest ever constructed in the Mediterranean region: inside a vast court (21.7 metres by 53.6 metres), the cella is surrounded by a double colonnade of 108 Ionic columns nearly 20 metres tall, with richly sculpted bases and capitals.
Hellenistic sculpture repeats the innovations of the "second classicism": perfect sculpture-in-the-round, allowing the statue to be admired from all angles; study of draping and effects of transparency of clothing; suppleness of poses. Thus, Venus de Milo, even while echoing a classic model, is distinguished by the twist of her hips. One seeks, above all, expressibility and atmosphere. This search is particularly flagrant in the portraits: more than the precision of the traits represented, the artist seeks to represent the character of his/her subject. In the great statuary, the artist explores themes such as suffering, sleep or old age. One such is the Barberini Faun of Munich, representing a sleeping satyr with relaxed posture and anxious face, perhaps the prey of nightmares. The drunk woman, also at Munich, portrays without reservation an old woman, thin, haggard, clutching against herself her jar of wine. Laocoön, strangled by snakes, tries desperately to loosen their grip without affording a glance at his dying sons.
Pergamon did not distinguish itself with its architecture alone: it was also the seat of a brilliant school of sculpture called Pergamene Baroque. The sculptors, imitating the preceding centuries, portray painful moments rendered expressive with three-dimensional compositions, often V-shaped, and anatomical hyper-realism.
Attalus I (269-197 BC), to commemorate his victory at Caicus against the Gauls — called Galatians by the Greeks — had two series of votive groups sculpted: the first, consecrated on the Acropolis of Pergamon, includes the famous Gaul killing himself and his wife, of which the original is lost (the best copy is in the Massimo alle Terme museum of Rome, see illustration); the second group, offered to Athens, is composed of small bronzes of Greeks, Amazons, gods and giants, Persians and Gauls. Artemis Rospigliosi of the Louvre is probably a copy of one of them; as for copies of the Dying Gaul, they were very numerous in the Roman period. The expression of sentiments, the forcefulness of details — bushy hair and moustaches here — and the violence of the movements are characteristic of the Pergamene style.
These characteristics are pushed to their peak in the friezes of the Great Altar of Pergamon, decorated under the order of Eumenes II (197-159 BC) with a gigantomachy stretching 110 metres in length, illustrating in the stone a poem composed especially for the court. The Olympians triumph in it, each on his side, over Giants – most of which are transformed into savage beasts: serpents, birds of prey, lions or bulls. Their mother Gaia comes to their aid, but can do nothing and must watch them twist in pain under the blows of the gods.
Another phenomenon appears in Hellenistic sculpture: privatization, which involves the recapture of older public patterns in decorative sculpture. This type of retrospective style also exists in ceramics. Portraiture is tinged with naturalism, under the influence of Roman art.
Paintings and mosaics
Few examples of Greek wall paintings have survived the centuries. Beyond the recently-restored 1st-century Nabataean ceiling frescoes in the Painted House at Little Petra in Jordan, researchers have been limited to studying the Hellenistic influences in Roman frescoes, for example those of Pompeii or Herculaneum. Certain mosaics, however, provide a pretty good idea of the "grand painting" of the period: these are copies of frescoes. An example is the Alexander Mosaic, showing the confrontation of the young conqueror and the Grand King Darius III at the Battle of Issus, a mosaic from a floor in the House of the Faun at Pompeii (now in Naples). It is believed to be a copy of a painting described by Pliny the Elder (XXXV, 110) which had been painted by Philoxenus of Eretria for King Cassander of Macedon at the end of the 4th century BC, or even of a painting by Apelles contemporaneous with Alexander himself. The mosaic allows us to admire the choice of colours, the composition of the ensemble with turning movement and facial expressivity.
Recent archeological discoveries at the cemetery of Pagasae (close to modern Volos), at the edge of the Pagasetic Gulf, or again at Vergina (1987), in the former kingdom of Macedonia, have brought to light some original works. For example, the tomb said to be that of Philip II has provided a great frieze representing a royal lion hunt, remarkable by its composition, the arrangement of the figures in space and its realistic representation of nature.
The Hellenistic period is equally the time of development of the mosaic, particularly with the works of Sosos of Pergamon, active in the 2nd century BC and the only mosaic artist cited by Pliny (XXXVI, 184). His taste for trompe l'oeil (optical illusion) and the effects of the medium are found in several works attributed to him such as the "Unswept Floor" in the Vatican museum, representing the leftovers of a repast (fish bones, bones, empty shells, etc.) and the "Dove Basin" at the Capitoline Museum, known by means of a reproduction discovered in Hadrian's Villa. In it one sees four doves perched on the edge of a basin filled with water. One of them is watering herself while the others seem to be resting, which creates effects of reflections and shadow perfectly studied by the artist.
The Hellenistic period is that of the decline of painting on vases. The most common vases are black and uniform, with a shiny appearance approaching that of varnish, decorated with simple motifs of flowers or festoons. It is also the period when vases in relief appeared, doubtless in imitation of vases made of precious metals: wreaths in relief were applied to the body of the vase, or again the one shown here received veins or gadroons. One finds also more complex relief, based on animals or mythological creatures. The shapes of the vases are also inspired by the tradition of metal: thus with the lagynos (pictured here), a wine jar typical of the period.
Hellenistic pottery designs can be found in the Pakistani city of Taxila which was colonized with Greek artisans and potters after Alexander conquered the city. The tradition continues to this very day, with the city of Taxila, Pakistan being famous for its unique pottery and ceramic designs.
In parallel there subsisted a tradition of polychromatic figurative painting: the artists sought a greater variety of tints than in the past. However, these newer colours are more delicate and do not support heat. The painting occurred therefore after firing, contrary to the traditional practice. The fragility of the pigments preventing frequent use of these vases, they were reserved for use in funerals. The most representative copies of this style come from Centuripe in Sicily, where a workshop was active until the 3rd century BC. These vases are characterized by a base painted pink. The figures, often female, are represented in coloured clothing: blue-violet chiton, yellow himation, white veil. The style is reminiscent of Pompei and is situated much more on the side of the grand contemporary paintings than on the heritage of the red-figure pottery.
Progress in bronze casting made it possible for the Greeks to create large works, such as the Colossus of Rhodes, with a height of 32 meters. Many of the large bronze statues were lost — with the majority being melted to recover the material. Because of this, only the smaller objects still exist. Fortunately, during Hellenistic Greece, the raw materials were plentiful following eastern conquests.
The work on metal vases took on a new fullness: the artists competed among themselves with great virtuosity. At Panagyurishte (now in Bulgaria), skillfully sculpted gold vases have been found: on an amphora, two rearing centaurs form the handles. In Derveni, not far from Salonica, a tomb has provided a great krater with bronze volutes dating from approximately 320 BC and weighing 40 kilograms (Derveni krater).
The neck is decorated with ornamental motifs while four satyrs in high relief are casually seated on the shoulders of the vase. The evolution is similar for the art of jewellery. The jewellers of the time excelled at handling details and filigrees: thus, the funeral wreaths present very realistic leaves of trees or stalks of wheat. In this period the insetting of precious stones flourished.
The figurines were equally fashionable. They represented divinities as well as subjects from contemporary life. Thus emerged the theme of the "negro", particularly in Ptolemaic Egypt: these statuettes of Black adolescents were successful up to the Roman period. Sometimes, they were reduced to echoing a form from the great sculptures: thus one finds numerous copies in miniature of the Tyche (good luck) of Antioch, of which the original dates to the beginning of the 3rd century BC.
Terra cotta figurines
Previously reserved for religious use, in Hellenistic Greece the terra cotta figurine was more frequently used for funerary, and even decorative, purposes. The refinement of molding techniques made it possible to create true miniature statues, with a high level of detail.
In Tanagra, in Boeotia, the figurines, full of lively colours, most often represent elegant women in scenes full of charm. At Smyrna, in Asia Minor, two major styles occurred side-by-side: first of all, copies of masterpieces of great sculpture, such as Farnese Hercules in gilt terra cotta. In a completely different genre, there are the "grotesques", which contrast violently with the canons of "Greek beauty": the koroplathos (figurine maker) fashions deformed bodies in tortuous poses — hunchbacks, epileptics, hydrocephalics, obese women, etc. One could therefore wonder whether these were medical models, the town of Smyrna being reputed for its medical school. Or they could simply be caricatures, designed to provoke laughter. The "grotesques" are equally common at Tarsus and also at Alexandria.
Glass and glyptic art
It was in the Hellenistic period that the Greeks, who until then only knew molded glass, discovered the technique of glass blowing, thus permitting new forms. The art of glass developed especially in Italy. Molded glass continued, notably in the creation of intaglio jewelry.
The art of engraving gems hardly advanced at all, limiting itself to mass-produced items that lacked originality. As compensation, the cameo made its appearance. It concerns cutting in relief on a stone composed of several colored layers, allowing the object to be presented in relief with more than one color. The Hellenistic period produced some masterpieces like the Gonzaga cameo, now in the Hermitage Museum, and spectacular hardstone carvings like the Cup of the Ptolemies in Paris.
The golden wreath of Philip II found inside the golden larnax. It weighs 717 grams.
Golden jewel for the hair, 3rd century BC, Stathatos Collection, National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
- Alexander the Great
- Hellenistic civilization
- Hellenistic Greece
- Hellenistic period
- Art in ancient Greece
- Hellenistic works: Barberini Faun, Laocoön and his Sons, Stoa of Attalos, Venus de Milo, Winged Victory of Samothrace, Boxer of Quirinal, Derveni krater.
- Bacchic art
References and sources
- Art of the Hellenistic Age and the Hellenistic Tradition. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013. Retrieved 27 May 2013. Archived here.
- Hellenistic Age. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2013. Retrieved 27 May 2013. Archived here.
- Pliny the Elder, Natural History (XXXIV, 52)
- Alberge, Dalya (21 August 2010). "Discovery of ancient cave paintings in Petra stuns art scholars". The Observer. Retrieved 14 April 2015.
- This article draws heavily on the fr:Art hellénistique article in the French-language Wikipedia, which was accessed in the version of 10 November 2006.
- Boardman, John (1989). Greek Art. London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-20292-3.
- Burn, Lucilla (2005). Hellenistic Art: From Alexander The Great To Augustus. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust Publications. ISBN 0-89236-776-8.
- Charbonneaux, Jean, Jean Martin and Roland Villard (1973). Hellenistic Greece. Peter Green (trans.). New York: Braziller. ISBN 0-8076-0666-9.
- Havelock, Christine Mitchell (1968). Hellenistic Art. Greenwich, Connecticut: New York Graphic Society Ltd. ISBN 0-393-95133-2.
- Holtzmann, Bernard and Alain Pasquier (2002). Histoire de l'art antique: l'art grec. Réunion des musées nationaux. ISBN 2-7118-3782-3.
- Pollitt, Jerome J. (1986). Art in the Hellenistic Age. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-27672-1.
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