Greek vase painting is one of the only surviving visual arts that we have that could possibly lead to historical connotations. Aristotle provides us with a particular way of viewing art that leads to an understanding of their time. Aristotle believed that Greek playwrights should write their plays with contemporary and local situations in mind, and by this they would gain the audience of posterity by virtue of universalizing their stories. I hope to illustrate Aristotle s Poetics through several Greek vases. The main examples that I would like to use deal with the subject matter of Greek vases during the 5 th century. Aristotle s Poetics is a fragmentary work based on his views of the poetical process; originally it was a text for use by philosophy students rather than by the general public.
The most notable thing about Aristotle s view of the poetical process is that he sees it as an imitation of real situations, rather than invention. Though his poetical process is really a mental abstraction derived from many single instances, it is truer than any individual situation, because it is more universal, more general, or (as Plato might have said) it participates in the ideal to a greater degree. The playwrights distilled the elements of perpetual interest by casting their histories as myths. The poets take the following from Aristotle s Poetics in which he discusses the nature of myth and its deployment. He states: It is not the poet s business to tell what has happened, but the kind of things that would happen what is possible according to probability or necessity. The difference between the historian and the poet is not the difference between writing in prose or in verse (the works of Herodotus could be rendered into verse, and that would still be history).
The difference is that history tells what has happened, and poetry the kind of things that would happen. It follows therefore that poetry is more philosophical and of higher value than history. For poetry tends to universalize; history, to particularize. To retrieve an understanding of the above passage and its relation to visual art, is to think in terms of replacing poetry and poet with artist and art. Though Aristotle survived in the 4 th century, visual art during the 5 th century relates to his idealized poetry.
During this time, historical circumstances not only influenced the subject matter of art, but the theatre as well. The performance of a play or recitation of a particular epic might have influenced the artist s interpretation of the particular subject, and the manner in which it was depicted. The introduction of narrative compositions in Greek vase decoration during the 8 th century BC begins the progression of the broad range of subjects that were depicted. Funerary scenes, and scenes of death and mourning appear on these early vases.
The majority of the vases that carried figurative decoration are found to be similar in subject (funerary). This provides enough evidence to consider the subject matter of these vases to be popular with the masses. As the subject matter of real life and myth began to appear, a better understanding of the role that the Greek vases played in these ancient times arose. The subject of the myth, with it s stories of the gods and heroes take up a large portion in the literature of ancient Greece, and this is also evident in vase-paintings. Particular subjects were depicted in mass quantities, and were recognizable by attributes and sometimes with names. Throughout four centuries, the manner in which these various myths were depicted changed many times.
Figure 1 Moving into the 5 th century BC, the artist tended to dramatize episodes from myths. Though some of the serious and dignified stories of the sixth century were trivialized and made hollow, by the late 5 th century BC the depicted myth was valued more for the spectacle it afforded than for the story it provided. The narrative depiction of the myth began to fade and mythical figures began to appear in pose like manners. It seems the figures were caught in a rhetorician gesture of emotional drama, and the story matter of it all left to the viewer to conceive. Myths on vases provide a clearer understanding of the popular versions of myths than the literary versions of the myths that we know through epic, drama etc.
By representing a myth through a depiction of a singular act, the vase painter provided us with the essential elements of the myth. For example, the kylix cup ca. 490 BC, showing Tec messa discovering Ajax dead on his sword (Fig. 1). The emotional atmosphere is not mistaken, the composition is immaculate, and the connotations of the subject matter do not interfere.
The painter provided the contemporary viewer with a recognizable event while allowing the emotional drama of the situation to play the main role. There are hardly any written connections between this idea of contemporary meaning that is invested into mythical scenes. But hopefully I will be able to provide adequate evidence through an example of a Greek a vase that depicts a historical event and allegorical representations. During the 5 th century BC art tended to be generated by historical circumstances, or mainly by the war with the Persians. There seems to be little effort to record any particularities of that struggle. Instead, the scenes of the war were portrayed generalized and abstracted in order to hold their universal value.
An Athenian red-figure water jar by the Kleophrades Painter, c. 480 BC, is a vivid display of the taking of Troy (Fig. 2). The epic seizure of Troy is outlined on the shoulder of the Figure 2 water jar. The central image is horribly depicted; the king Priam is being hacked on the head by Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles. Upon the lap of king Priam, sprawls the mutilated body of his grandson, Astyanax.
We see women sheltering themselves with arms over their heads, Aeneas carrying off his father, and that of the young and old being hustled away. These vengeful and spiteful slaughter scenes are what happen when a city falls during war. The vase was made in Athens not long after Athens had been sacked by the Persians, and the Greeks could understand and emotionally relate to this mythical depicted scene. The fact is these horrific details of the sack of Troy were well known to the viewers of the vase in its time. Aristotle believed the dramas of his own time to be weak in character-portrayal, though he also believed the dramas of an earlier time, the Classical period, to place emphases on this quality. In order to exhibit the strong character portrayal that Aristotle spoke of so highly, is to call upon a work by the vase painter known as Polygnotus.
Figure 3 This red-figure stamos shows Lapith Kaine's being beaten to the ground by two Centaurs, c. 440 BC (Fig. 3). Spivey believes that these Centaurs symbolized Persians in this period. Polygnotus depicted these mongrels in such a manner that they may be seen no other way than rude and barbaric. These beastly Centaurs fall into this Classical Greek poetic characterization that Aristotle speaks of in his Poetics.
This mythical motif of Greek fighting Centaur was common during and after the Persian wars. By this example, I may only refer to this manner of imitation of this historical incident to that of Aristotle s ideal use of characterization to suit contemporary fashions during the 5 th century. Figure 4 Another example of myth associated with Greek ideals, is perhaps the representation of the Persians as Amazons. Just as the Persians were depicted as Centaurs in note of their rude, inhumane, and destructive manner, Amazons reflected the Persians in several ways. The fact that these Amazons were painted fighting on horseback with bow and arrow, and wearing caps and leggings is evidence enough to point towards their resemblance to the Persians, for they also did these things.
1 In an Athenian red-figure k rater attributed to the Nio bid Painter, shows a Greek spearing an Amazon, c. 460 BC (Fig. 4). 2 The fear of the Persians by the Greeks may be seen in the Amazons, for they are female. The male Greek fear of women in control is easily seen through these fighting Amazon ladies that appear on this vase. Through my chosen examples of Greek vases, I hope that I was able to illustrate my knowledge of a portion of Aristotle s Poetics applied to Greek vase painting during the 5 th century BC.
Through subject matter that turned from narrative ly depicted scenes to a more universal scene, Classical Greek characterization of figures, and mythical scenes representing historical events, evidence of Aristotle s Poetics is clearly found. Bibliography Pollitt, J. J. Art and Experience in Classical Greece Cambridge at the University Press, London, 1972. S parkes, Brian A.
Greek Pottery: An Introduction Manchester University Press, New York, 1991. Spivey, Nigel. Greek Art. Phaidon Press limited, London, 1997.