The Greeks Appear
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The Entrance of the Greeks upon the Stage of History — The Hellenic World — Characteristics of the Greeks — The Qualities of Their Art — Abstraction — Freedom — Refinements of Athenian Architecture — Archaic Sculpture — Its Polychrome Treatment — The Use of Color in Architecture and Sculpture — Praxiteles and Nicias.
THE light grows stronger. A land appears, seamed with valleys between high ranges of hills, its coasts now rugged, now shelving in sandy beaches washed by the "wine-dark sea," deeply indented by bays and gulfs, almost barren of trees save the olive and the spired cypress, the stubborn soil refusing to yield much more than the fruit of the vine, sparse crops of grain, and a scanty pasturage for goats, sheep, or cattle. A land of purple and gold and blue—the purple of the hills clothed in bay, the gold of the soil, the ineffable, triumphant blue of the sky; of a singular and austere loveliness, designed on broad and simple lines that give the illusion of great scale to a landscape containing no elements of unusual size. Such is the land of Greece, the home-land of the Hellenes.
Politically a mere congeries of cities, debarred by racial origins and by the conformation of the country from true national life, banding together for mutual help against common foes when threatened from without, fighting savagely among themselves at other times, their spiritual tie their religion, their typical trait a fierce sense of independence, and deep-rooted in their souls the passion for self-government. Protected on the north from the barbarian hordes by lofty mountains easy of defense; on the west and south by the open sea; linked to the Asian shores by the archipelago which, island by lovely island, had been the stepping-stones of their progress beyond the veil of antiquity. In such a land and under such conditions were the Hellenes nurtured.
Their origins are lost to us. We know that broadly speaking they issued from two sources to be classed as Dorian and Ionian, of which the Spartans and Athenians are typical—the Dorian Spartans, the Prussians of Greece, war-like, predatory, caring little for the graces of life; the Ionian Athenians, to whom art, beauty, literature, and the drama were as important elements of life as war and politics. All Greeks from the Black Sea to Marseilles were proud to call themselves Hellenes—but the Athenian was first of all a citizen of Athens, an Argive a citizen of Argolis, and there was no nation in our modern sense. The life of the many tribes centred in the cities, walled for defense against their jealous and quarrelsome neighbors, and surrounded with a certain area of tillable soil to which the laborers repaired during the day, returning to the shelter of the city walls at night like the contadini of Italy or the peasants of France. Although the finest flower of the intellectual life of the Hellenes blossomed in Athens, she was even at her prime merely the focal point of a wide-spread culture that included the Corinthian, the Ionian of the cities of Asia Minor, the Boeotian, with the garrulous Athenian always eager to tell and hear of some new thing, and the laconic Spartan chary of speech.
Of all the gifts of the gods the most desirable is imagination; to souls endowed with it there are no horizons—they wing into the infinite. The Greeks were so endowed. They heard the voice of Zeus in the storm, the voice of the Naiad in the purling of the brook, and saw Aphrodite born of the foam of the sea. A great and sympathetic critic, Walter Pater, says: "The Greeks' thoughts about themselves and their relation to the world generally were . . . ever ready to be transformed into objects for the senses. In this lies the main distinction between Greek art and the mystical art of the Christian Middle Age which is always struggling to express thoughts beyond itself." The Greeks conceived of their gods as possessing human attributes, human beauty, raised to a higher power; and before they learned to express themselves in terms of beauty their sentiment toward the shapeless wooden images which embodied their early vision of the gods is comparable to the feeling of a child toward the rag doll she endows with every grace and every virtue.
They were men of essentially simple minds, clear thinkers, lucid speakers, but subtle in argument and dialectic; touched with the divine fire of imagination ; with a passionate devotion to "form," to beauty, in all things from art to athletics; profound in their knowledge of human nature and the con-tents of men's souls and the tragedies and comedies of life; and yet, alas, often tainted with dishonesty; faithless; treacherous; envious; fickle; jealous. This is a sort of catalogue of their qualities and as in all catalogues the soul of the thing described escapes; genius is perhaps the one inclusive term that might be used, for genius does not necessarily imply virtue in its possessor.
The Greek race was not composed of personages of surpassing beauty, each more intelligent, more sensitive to harmony than the other; the name Boeotian was a synonym in the mouth of the Athenian for grossness, vulgarity, and stupidity; and the philosopher Socrates was one of the ugliest of men.
They are the first of the modem peoples, although their story is to be found in the Ancient Histories. It was in Greece that the modern mind was born. Greek influences are at work today in life, in art, in language ; the terminology of logic, natural science, and philosophy is Greek; Grecian art contains within itself, in matured and developed form, the germs, hints, ideas, traditions, derived from Eastern sources—from Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, and from that dim Minoan civilization, of which we are just beginning to learn, that centred in Crete.
Quality is in all their works—quality and distinction. Their works of architecture have the spirit of their sculpture, quick with life, the soul of beauty expressed in stone. Only the architect, who knows the technical processes through which a work of architecture must be carried—the long road from the first dim adumbration of the idea to the finished structure, the travail of soul, the danger of loss of the spirit of the conception in the mechanical processes involved—only an architect can measure the achievements and equipment of the Greek architect ; the extraordinary combination of mathematician and artist, the cool faculties controlling the warm; the delicate adjustment of the parts of the structure to the whole, the patient modulation of form after form, the profound knowledge of optical illusions and their use or cure. In measuring what the Greeks achieved in architecture we may keep in view without disparagement that they were, especially in their temples, engaged in the elaboration of types which, in their general aspects, were fairly fixed and consecrated through long usage. We may trace this in the evolution of the Doric temple through the centuries; Ictinus, the architect of the Parthenon, brought it to its highest pitch of perfection, following the works of a long line of predecessors occupied in the solution of the like problem generation after generation, each adding a little to the sum of architectural knowledge; a better proportion, a refinement here, another there ; this or that difficulty better overcome in the next essay.
In all forms of art the Greek genius is marked by measure and restraint, limiting itself to a few motifs, consecrating itself to the development of these to a high and ever higher perfection—in music, the drama, painting, sculpture, architecture. "Measure in all things" was inscribed upon the Temple of the Oracle at Delphi.
In architecture and sculpture the character of the scanty vegetation of the land, the few floral forms at the command of the artist, exerted their powerful but unconscious influence; he was thrown back upon the human figure, the vine, the olive, the laurel, the honeysuckle, the leaves of the acanthus growing wild at the bases of the hills. The heads of bulls, of rams, and occasionally of goats, figure now and then in his designs. These did not quite suffice for his decorative needs and he found delight in abstract arrangements of line in geometrical patterns having no relation to the animal or vegetable kingdoms. The quality of abstraction, however, distinguishes all Greek work. The exquisite oval of a Grecian face, the line from brow to nose tip, the beautiful mouth and chin are largely artistic conventions; the general type existed perhaps, but the artist abstracted the most perfect elements in the type, and having created a new beauty by the rejection of the accidental and the trivial used it as a standard of taste, leaving his genius free to modify it and perfect it. Much of this quality, even after sculpture came to be independently used, is due to the intimate relation it had had to architecture. When the artist of Greece used the human figure, the vine, the laurel, or the olive, he looked upon them as so many forms or shapes, as decorative units, to dissect and recompose as suited the need of the moment, not as limb or leaf, fruit or flower.
Great art so modifies individuality that it takes on the quality of universality; it does not consist in the delineation of merely individual traits in man, beast, or vegetable.
Another salient trait of this art is freedom. Freedom ranging within self-imposed limits, acting under self-imposed laws. The lifeless copies of Grecian architecture, the cold and repellent imitations of Grecian sculptures inflicted upon the world by several Greek revivals have given a false impression not merely of the surface characteristics of Grecian art, but of the very spirit of it. Far from being "icily regular, splendidly null" a Greek temple is full of irregularities deliberately arranged in a regular frame. In the Parthenon, for example, the columns are not spaced at equal distances; as they approach the angles of the temple they are set closer together ; the corner columns, which are seen against the sky and which the light therefore seems to consume some-what by halation, are made thicker to correct this optical illusion ; the outline of the columns is not straight but has an exquisite outward curve or entasis; and they diminish in diameter toward the top ; the axis lines of all the columns not merely incline backward, but lean toward the centre also to an extent that would cause them to meet at a height of about a mile; the walls incline backward; the stylobate or series of steps on which the columns rest is curved, springing upward toward the centre; the line of the architrave, or lintel stones which rest upon the columns, follows another, similar curve. The only straight lines are those of the pediments or gable ends of the roof, and in the Theseum, built a few years later, these, too, are slightly curved. It is to be particularly remarked that these refinements are of the most subtle sort. They are so far from being obvious that their existence was discovered only during the last generation. But their presence or absence makes just the difference between springing life and the inertia of mere masses of stone. An impression generally prevails among those unfamiliar with Grecian buildings that they were perfectly symmetrical, part balancing part and re-producing each other with fidelity. On the contrary the Greek, artist that he was, adapted the design to the conditions of the site or of the problem; the Erechtheum and the Propylaea, both on the Athenian Acropolis, both of the great period, both the work of Mnesicles, are merely two examples of many that illustrate the freedom of Greek design from any preoccupation with symmetry.
The sculpture is instinct with the same subtle, essential, organic freedom. We have already referred to repose as being an element of great sculpture, and spirited repose is the mark of the Greek. Cold symmetry is absent ; examine a Greek head and you will find the subtle differences between eye and eye, brow and brow, cheek and cheek, that occur in nature; and attitudes and expressions are as free from self-consciousness and affectation as they are free from the lackadaisical or the rigid. Of course early Greek sculpture was stiff enough in all conscience. On the Acropolis in Athens is a little Museum containing some of the most precious relics of sculpture we have of the time prior to the destruction of the temples by the Persians ; they show what Athenian sculpture was before Phidias; so many of the connecting links between the two periods have been destroyed that upon a cursory view it almost seems as though Attic art leaped from the naif simplicity of childhood to full maturity at a bound. These statues resemble in spirit the sculptures of the portals of Chartres Cathedral carved in the thirteenth century of the Christian era; they have a similar simple treatment of the draperies and the fixed smiles of primitive sculpture everywhere. The archaic Greek statue was decorated with color, partly no doubt to express what the skill of the carver was at that time inadequate to render or suggest; and artistic criticism is beginning to realize that Mediaeval sculpture also was highly polychromatic.
It is easy to see how Greek painting may have developed from the decoration of sculpture and of vases into an independent branch of art ; but all vestiges of the paintings of the great periods have disappeared and nothing but legends about them survive. These tales indicate that the Greek painter attained a high degree of skill in the naturalistic representation of nature; Zeuxis deceived the birds who pecked at his grapes, and Parrhasius deceived Zeuxis with a painted curtain. Only faint traces upon fragments remain to suggest what Greek polychromy was. We are assured from many sources that color was used with great freedom in architecture and sculpture. The little figurines of painted terra-cotta found in the tombs at Tanagra in Boeotia and other places, little groups and single figures of a charming grace, indicate in a faint, far-off way, as such things must, how lovely Greek polychrome sculpture of the highest class must have been. Whatever it was, we may be sure that artists with the sense of form as highly developed as the Greeks would not have been found wanting in the matter of color ; and in envisaging what is to many persons a new idea it is to be remembered that their temples were placed on rocky eminences running the gamut from ivory to umber, with a setting of purple hills, blue sky, and bluer sea. In a preceding chapter we touched upon the general traits of the sculpture of Praxiteles, in which the most exquisite and subtle modulations of form are to be found, and the world for many years not merely accepted it as perhaps the highest possible excellence to which the treatment of form can rise, but would have been inexpressibly shocked had it been suggested that such perfect form was originally colored—and yet Nicias, a great painter, was also famous as the man who helped Praxiteles color his statues ! The fact that the great Praxiteles, sensitive to the ultimate degree in his apprehension and rendition of form, feeling that form was not enough, added color to what seems perfect without it, is for me conclusively in favor of the use of color in sculpture. I am quite willing to believe that the beauty of the color was equal to the beauty of form and that the sum of these two beauties made a third, more piercing, more moving, more marvellous than anything the world has seen since that day.