The Greeks, close yet far

Reading Greek Art
December 4, 1998

Johann Winckelmann, for many the founding father of western art history, died in his 50th year at the hands of a robber assassin in Venice in 1768. But not before he had delivered to the public The History of the Art of Antiquity, published in Dresden in 1764, which so profoundly influenced Goethe and Hegel among many others and indeed - as Nikolaus Himmelmann rather wryly notes - was still capable of exerting its seriously distorting influence as late as the 1960s.

Art history - or at any rate the history of art history - is, alas, rarely as enthralling as this. But there is a particular pleasure to be savoured in entering the workshop of so meticulous and scholarly an art historian as Himmelmann. And these nine essays, selected by Hugo Meyer, introduced by William Childs (both of Princeton) and translated by divers hands (including their author's in one instance), offer an excellent conspectus of the German tradition of classical art history during the past 150 years. Or rather, they would have done, had any very recent essays of Himmelmann been included, since those translated here run only from 1957 to 1976. They span, therefore, the period from immediately after the publication of his doctoral dissertation on the well-known Ilissos grave relief in 1956 to his secure entrenchment at Bonn, where he remained the senior professor until his retirement in 1994.

The title of the collection is, frankly, a bit of a nightmare. "Reading" is a naturalised English rendition of the French lecture, and so not a metaphor that springs naturally to the lips of a German art historian, who typically prefers to conduct something called "hermeneutics". "Art", whichever of its many English meanings may be in question, is in any case precisely not how Himmelmann would classify the vase paintings (or painted pots) and sculptures that he explores so carefully here. He is a convinced - and convincing - exponent of the anti-aesthetic, function-as-meaning school of interpretation. For example, the paper he gave to the fifth International Congress on Ancient World Studies, held in Bonn in 1969, was delivered self-consciously in the section known as the "Interpretation of ancient historical evidence within its context".

That paper is included here, minus its typological appendix, as "A sarcophagus from Megiste". This is partly no doubt to show that Himmelmann could handle Roman-period art with a mastery comparable to that which he displayed as a matter of course in the field of pre-Hellenistic Greek visual art. It appears, however, in the much shorter and bittier part two, "Approach and meaning", whereas the five essays in part one - on the plastic arts in Homeric society, narrative and figure in archaic art, divine representations in classical art, the assembly of the gods on the Sosias Painter's cup in Berlin, and the stance of the Diadoumenos of Polykleitos - are heralded by the editor as constituting collectively a virtual history of "Greek art". But there we are again, back with the old problem of "art".

Himmelmann's take on this, briefly, is that the function of ancient Greek images both determines their choice and communicates their meaning, and that their function was pre-eminently and overridingly religious or religio-social. Form, for the Greek practitioners of visual mimesis, was not separate from content, and artworks were essentially "vehicles of civic and religious self-presentation". Childs aptly dubs Himmelmann's approach iconological, after the manner of Erwin Panosky, since he studies in combination an art object's iconography, composition and style. This leads to many powerful insights, such as into the underlying continuity of divine representation, and it is only a pity that this collection cannot give more than the merest hint of his major contributions to the elucidation of the archaeology and art history of such basic cultural themes as slavery and nudity.

So to the cultural historian, especially the cross-cultural historian, easily the most important aspect of Himmelmann's work that is included here is his claim that, when it came to the configuration of representational space, the ancient Greeks simply did not share our modern western mind or mind-set. Whereas we see space as the structured container of human experience, they lacked the idea of a continuous spatial container for objects and saw space rather as separating than connecting them.

This exciting suggestion of essential social-psychological difference is developed further in a trenchant series of observations extracted from his intriguingly titled "The Utopian past". Here in the name of unsentimental academic propriety, he castigates "the sellout of bourgeois culture (which) unerringly denigrates through trivialisation those values it purports to esteem". And he puts his finger, also unerringly, on the enduring source of the pedagogical attraction of antiquity for the modern era, that it "seems to be part of our culture but also alien to it, which evokes interest and distance simultaneously".

One of those distancing but essential features is, as he acutely observes, that the ancients did not have an antiquity; nor could they postulate, as we in principle can, a seriously recommendable alternative non-ancient lifestyle; and they experienced "art" in a quite dissimilar way. It was all so different, and so long agoI Yet it is also brilliantly revivified here, with an "aliveness" of which Homer would surely have approved, in these handsomely reproduced, lavishly illustrated and exuberantly footnoted pages. Gentle reader, go read.

Paul Cartledge is reader in Greek history, University of Cambridge.

Reading Greek Art: Essays by Nikolaus Himmelmann

Editor - William Childs
ISBN - 0 691 05825 3 and 05826 1
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £55.00 and £19.95
Pages - 317

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