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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: May 2017

11 - ‘Is Painting a Representation of Visible Things?’ Conceptual Reality in Greek Art: A Preliminary Sketch

from Section III The Archaic and Classical Greek World



Recent approaches to Greek and Roman art unanimously and emphatically stress the character of images as visual and material ‘constructions’ (Bažant 1985; von den Hoff and Schmidt 2001). This concept is held by the most advanced, thoughtful and serious voices of art history, and it is applied to all kinds of figurative representation, from individual figures to multi-figured scenes, through all genres and periods of ancient art. Thus, Richard Neer sees Archaic statues as ‘signs’ to which the concept of likeness to real persons is fundamentally alien (Neer 2012: 110–12). François Lissarrague interprets scenes of a warrior's departure on Athenian vases as non-realistic constellations of the Greek oikos (Lissarrague 1990: 35–53). Wolfgang Ehrhardt analyses the Alexander mosaic from Pompeii as a purely fictitious depiction of the historical battle between Alexander and Darius III (Ehrhardt 2008).

Of course, one can only agree with these approaches: they have led to important insights into the social meaning and cultural significance of Greek and Roman art. The following reflections are by no means meant to contradict such positions. Nevertheless, there is a fundamental problem. For the Greeks themselves conceived art as a practice of mimēsis, imitation (Pollitt 1974: 37–41, 46–8; for mimēsis in Greek art, see Stewart 1990: 73–85). Thus, the title of this chapter, quoting Socrates’ initial question in his discussion with the painter Parrhasios, as it is reported in Xenophon's Memorabilia, literally anticipates an obvious answer: yes, painting is a representation of visible things, that is, of their visible appearance (Xen. Mem. III, 10, 1; Preisshofen 1974). Therefore, the scope of this chapter is to reconcile the emic with the etic view, that is, our constructivist approach to ancient art with the definition of art in antiquity. It is with great admiration for Anthony Snodgrass and his pioneering work on early Greek art that I submit these considerations for his critical examination.

Of course, the Greeks were always aware of the fact that images were not identical doubles of ‘real’ beings or objects but artificial re-presentations, made in various materials, and they realised that this implied a specific ‘artistic’ activity, employing technical skill (the most penetrating analysis: Neer 2013: 1–19, to which I cannot do justice in this place).