Many scholars of archaic Greek sculpture do not focus on this idea that Greek kouroi represent an ideal and not individuals. This is so because most are interested in how the representation of human form changed between the mid seventh and the early fifth century. In investigating this change, scholars focus on the differences between the kouroi rather than the similarities they share. For these art historians, representations of men during the archaic period came to look more and more like real men. That is, as sculpture progressed chronologically, it came to look more and more like what it represented. This view has allowed a scholar like Gombrich to write:
"The whole process looks so logical and inevitable that it appears easy to arrange the various types of figures so as to show their gradual approximation to life. ... But even though our reading of the history of Greek art may have made it look too tidy, the essential lines of this astounding development have been established beyond any doubt. ...the conquest of naturalism may be described as the gradual accumulation of corrections due to the observation of reality." E. H. Gombrich, "The Greek Revolution," Art and Illusion (1961): 117-18.
While there is no doubt that a figure of a man of around ca. 490, such as we see above on the right, is more naturalistic than ones of ca. 580 on the left. But based on the surviving sculptures, the move towards increasing naturalism seems hardly to have been a continual evolution. Most of the evidence is very dispersed geographically and very few examples have firm dates. Many dates for these works are established precisely on the basis of where a particular sculpture is seen to fit into the naturalistic development. As you can see, and as Gombrich points out, this is a rather circular argument to insist on chronological development of increasing naturalism and then establish your chronology by putting undated works in where you think they best fit.
Imagine if we had only a few dozen oil paintings surviving from the seventy-five years between 1845 and 1920, none of which were signed or dated. Would it make sense to date this picture by the Italian Amedeo Modigliani on the left, actually painted in 1916, to some time before this portrait on the right by the French artist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres actually painted in 1845, simply because the work by Modigliani was less naturalistic? Clearly not, both painters have chosen to represent a woman, but neither Modigliani nor Ingres were particularly interested per se in naturalism or to use the Greek term mimesis. By this we mean that neither painter was purely interested in trying to create the illusion that what he was painting was a mirror image of something seen in the observable world. In both cases, a woman served as the starting point for the work, but a total illusion of her in paint was not these artists' goal. In fact, judging the Modigliani work on the basis of naturalism is exactly the wrong thing to do, as he used representation to move away from what we could merely observe to offer instead some special insight into what he painted. People have painted and sculpted for tens of thousand of years and mimesis though a goal for some, was not an universal one. There are many other criteria we can use to examine art besides mimesis or imitation of nature.
Thus in order to establish a chronology of these works based on the supposed evolution of their forms, most scholars focus on the differences between the kouroi and therefore treat them as individuals. Yet, ironically, it is precisely all the similarities that kouroi share that is important and not the relatively few differences that make them stand apart from each other that is the key issue here. Despite all changes that did occur in Greek sculpture between 650 and about 500, the kouros appears to have remained the most important type throughout the entire period. The kouroi we have examined here, like the almost 200 others that have come down to us whole or in fragments, are nude youths, not men, for example, because they do not yet have the adult beard, who stand stiffly while striding with their left legs forward. Even their overall proportions are almost identical. In detail, the similarities are also far more numerous than the differences. Hair, ears and eyes seem based more on an Archaic love of pattern than on examination of the hair, ears and eyes of a living human being. The comparison suggests that little progress was made down the road of ever greater naturalism especially between ca. 580, the date for the bovine brothers, one of whose head we see on the left, and 530, the date of Kroisos, shown on the right. Thus, the important question is not why did kouroi change? But why did they change so little?
As we mentioned above, these statues depict ideals, not individuals. None the less, an important scholar of kouroi has written:
"In fact, Attic kouroi alone display strucural coherence and definte interest in musculature. All other kouroi present abstract renderings of anatomical forms which may pass as natural but are rather simplifications of more or less convincing stylizations of the human body." Brunilde Ridgway, The Archaic Style in Greek Sculpture (1977): 54.
The passage suggests the increasing naturalism is not something that occured throughout the Greek world in the period between 650 and 480. Rather this change is much more limited or focused in time and place, with the trend towards increasing naturalism being a special aspect of the kouroi in Athens and its surrounding countryside roughly during the last quarter of the sixth and the first quarter of the fifth. Given this understanding of increasing naturalism, the change that did occur is even more astonishing, as the period in which it took place was much shorter and the number of artists who took part many fewer than Gombrich suggests.
What may have contributed to this desire and the change in kouroi at this time and place? Gombrich helps us here when he suggests that the impetus for this change in the orientation of matching to an interest in narrative and the increasing number of distinctions that must be made when artists begin to be "concerned not only with the what but also with the how." (Gombrich: 129).
One aspect of Archaic art that Gombrich doesn't address but may help support his idea is that archaic art seems to have distinguished between two and three dimensional representations of the human body. S. C. Humphreys has suggested that fully three dimensional representations, that is ones that are free-standing, were apparently conceived as occupying the same space as the viewer. According to Humphreys, "it [a freestanding figure] was not an image, still less a portrait, but a substitute or proxy" (Humphreys: 106). Such images often have inscriptions which speak directly to the viewer often demanding some sort of response, as was the case with the statue of Kroisos. Most important for our argument are those kouroi, such as the Kroisos image, that come from burial contexts. You should recall that kouroi from Attica generally seem to have come from precisely this sort of context.
<! ---- [links to images of examples] ---> Humphrey also points out that human figures on reliefs (that is two-dimensional representations in contrast to free-standing figures) "alluded from an early date to narratives through the use of attributes and grouping of figures." You may recall that in the opening quote at the very start of this series of pages, Stewart stresses that kouroi generally have no attribute. Moreover, the two dimensional images almost always depict figures in profile, so that they do not interact with the viewer but instead with each other "acting out their story in a space cut off from the viewer." Exceptions are images of Gorgons, such as Medusa, or the god Dionysios, but as Humphreys points out these sorts of images were intended to threaten viewer by locking his or her gaze "into theirs so that he [the viewer] becomes immobilized by terror or drunkenness and may become posssessed by alien power."
Representations in relief or in two dimensions such as on vases seem to be have seen as such that is as representations. As Jeffery Hurwitt has pointed out that people and objects are often labeled in black figure pottery, but unlike Kroisos who speaks to the viewers directly, figures and objects on Archaic vases are often labeled in the genitive case. For example on the vase, shown below, by the painter Exekias and now in the Vatican Museum,the figures of Achilles and Ajax are labeled "Akkileos" and "Aiantos," or "of Achilles" and "of Ajax." implying that what is depicted is not the real people but instead images "of them." The two figures do speak to each other (they are playing a game and yell out to keep tabs) but these words are exchanged between the figures depicted on the vase and not to the viewer. Vases themselves, however, do sometimes "speak" to the viewer through an inscription which "speaking" in the first person identifies the maker often saying something like "Fred made me" or "George painted me." Other inscriptions such as "greetings and drink well!" or "Two obols - keep your hands off," or "I open my mouth wide" welcome, warn, chastise or humor the viewer.
Vases with so-called kalos inscriptions also seem to speak to the viewer. On these vases inscriptions tell the viewer that a particular youth was attractive. For example on the right, we find "the boy is fair" inscribed around image of the centaur on the interior of a kylix or drinking cup now in Toledo, Ohio. Unlike our example here, many inscriptions on kalos vases give real names.
Note that in all the instances we've considered here, the three-dimensional object itself, the vase, addresses the viewer and not the figures depicted two-dimensionally on the object. Thus in the sixth century, there seems to have been a distinction made between three and two dimensional images. A distinction which seems to only break down towards the end of the century, when we see the move towards increasing naturalism and the introduction of narrative into relief sculpture. Gombrich's point is that the latter drove the former, and that the demand for increasing narrative interaction between figures created an interest in increasingly naturalistic representations.
This page was written by Minott
Kerr for Hum110 Tech with the help of David Silverman, Daphne Kleps and Titus