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Aegean Painting

( Originally Published 1955 )

Aegean painting. Liveliest of ancient traditions of painting was that of the Aegean cultures: Crete, Mycenaean Greece and the islands of the Cyclades. It was an art of fanciful stylization, but of a strong feeling of naturalism deriving from its aesthetic of flowing lines and brilliant colors. Aegean painting stands in sharp contrast to the stable forms of Egyptian and Near Eastern painting. All three traditions were intensely decorative, but Aegean art was devoid of the stiff and pompous effects of the great land empires. Although its centers were swallowed up in history, the Aegean culture profoundly affected Mediterranean art. In its day it probably contributed to the enlivening of the New Kingdom period in Egyptian painting (see), and its colonies on the eastern littoral of the Mediterranean were apparently a source of the new vitality of Greek painting (see) during the seventh century B.C.

The original center of Aegean culture was Crete with its palaces like that of Minos at Knossos. This palace, built of timber-bonded rubble, was divided into such an intricate arrangement of rooms and courts that its form may have given rise to the myth of the Labyrinth. All important wall surfaces were, apparently, covered with painted murals. An early example is the fresco of a Boy Gathering Saffron (c.2000 B.C.). As in much Cretan decorative painting there was no emphasis on ground line; stylized flowers and rocks intrude from both top and bottom into the area of figure action. The details are in yellow and white on a red ground, with the boy's flesh painted blue. It is easy to understand how Cretan art caught the imagination of modern artists at the time of its discovery, about 1900. Aegean painting is at its best when drawing on themes of nature, as can be seen in the frescoes of Flying Fish, of Dolphins or of Lilies. The late Minoan period in Crete (end of second millenium B.C.) abounds in compositions of religious character. These include stately processional figures, paintings of crowds at shrines and a delightful fresco of acrobats and a bull. Although its aesthetic is different, Cretan painting resembles Egyptian in several respects. It showed no clear development, but existed throughout its career essentially full-blown. It was primarily decorative, linear in outline and it never developed a chiaroscuro. It also employed somewhat similar conventions in the presentation of bodies, heads, eyes, etc.

At the height of Cretan civilization there existed on the mainland of Greece a related culture called Mycenaean. Its people were perhaps more northern in stock, but certainly Cretan in taste. It outlasted the Cretan empire, but fell to the invading Dorians about 1100 B.G. Its mural painting was Cretan in style, although inferior in execution. Among ,the subjects were again processional groups, rendered rather stiffly, and a Boar Hunt which retained much of the liveliness of the Cretan style. There is also a Bull fresco, which suffers badly by comparison with the Cretan example.

Aegean pottery styles are among the richest of the ancient world. The history of the craft was one of a struggle between stylized and naturalistic motifs. In its beginnings polychrome was practiced in highly abstract patterns of interlocked spirals and floral motifs. Then naturalistic elements like the standing lilies of the frescoes came into vogue. Vases with decorations in zones were also produced, but late in the culture. Marine forms were as popular on vases as in murals, but the octopus was chosen as a more suitable vase coverer than the Flying Fish or Dolphins of wall painting. Certain Mycenaean-type vases are particularly striking because of their tall attenuated forms ornamented with a stylized lily or octopus. These show a fine feeling for the artistic possibilities of broad undecorated backgrounds.

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