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Classical Art Styles

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Utilizing from the text of Janetta Rebold Benton and Robert DiYanni’s Arts & Culture, An Introduction to the Humanities (Prentice Hall, 2012), Smithsonian Learning Labs and other resources, the focus of this collection will be on the classical art styles, particularly in sculpture.  

Let's begin this journey with a glimpse of Classical Greece.  Greek values included a pursuit of perfection and the love of beauty.  Also known for their philosophical impact today, the Greek philosopher Plato's beliefs are reflected in the sculpture of this time.  "Plato postulated that ideal Goodness, Truth and Beauty were all One, in the realm of Ideal Forms.  Thus, all actions can be measured against an ideal, and that ideal standard can be used as a goal toward which human beings might strive.  According to Plato, human beings should be less concerned with the material world of impermanence and change and more concerned with the spiritual realm of Perfect Forms."  (Benton & DiYanni, Arts & Culture, Prentice Hall, 2012, Pg. 73).  Increasingly lifelike, sculpture in the Classical Greek period reflects these ideals.  

Changes came about during this time in the function and style of sculpture.  The rigid form of years past was replaced with more natural, realistic form.  The sculptures/statues began to reflect what the human body can look like at its peak.  The technical skills of the sculptors evolved greatly as well, showing the human form in various poses.  These poses, which came to be known as the contrapposto pose, included characteristics such as the head slightly turned and a shift in weight onto one leg.  Some sculptors also utilized mathematical calculations to achieve these perfectly portioned forms.  

The first sculpture to utilize the contrapposto pose was the Kritios Boy (Sculptor Kritios) with his weight slightly shifted to one leg raising one hip causing an "S" curve at the spine.  The head was also slightly turned.  This piece shows a more natural form and mirrors the Greek's growing knowledge of how bone, muscle, flesh, etc. work together in the anatomy.  This was considered the transition from the Archaic to Classical periods.  The contrapposto pose achieved a perspective of fluidity in movement and a more relaxed appearance. 

Doryphoros or Spear-Bearer, by the sculptor Polykleitos, shows the ideal of perfection better still.  It was while working on this statue that Polykleitos created a set of written rules instructing how to sculpt the perfect human form.  Each part of the body was taken into consideration allowing the sculpture to be fashioned in perfect proportion.  There is also the likes of Discobolus (Discus Thrower) by Myron of Athens.  A sculpture reflective of the perfect human form that incorporates the physical stature of the sporting contest that is still known today in the Olympic games.  Another great sculptor of this period, Praxiteles, is best known for the Aphrodite of Knidos.  Aphrodite is born from the sea and is known as the goddess of love.  While common for the male form to be nude, this piece illustrating Aphrodite in the nude, was rare for its time.  The art of the female nude became a more prominent theme for the Hellenistic period artists that followed.   

Sculpture was secondary to mosaic and painting in the Early Christian era due to their rejection of idol worship.  Sculpture of this time was found on stone, typically coffins, and small ivory panels or plaques.  The Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus is one of the most famous pieces from this era.  The Islamic civilizations' greatest contribution was architecture while the Romanesque periods' focus was in architectural sculpture.  "Romanesque architectural sculpture is concentrated on church portals, especially on tympana (the tympanum is a semicircular section above the doorway, with a horizontal lintel at the bottom, supported by a central trumeau, or post) and column capitals."  (Benton & DiYanni, Arts & Culture, Prentice Hall, 2012, Pg. 246).  One phenomenal example is the Mission of the Apostles at the church of Sainte-Madeleine in Vezelay.  As in the Early Christian civilization, Romanesque era sculptors also carved in stone.  Included in these stone sculptures was a book of pictures created for use in sermons for those who were illiterate.   

The Gothic era, like the Romanesque, also incorporated sculpture in their architecture.  Unlike Romanesque sculpture; however, their column figures, as they were called, were peaceful and calm looking.  It mirrored the intensified idealism and realism of the era, thoroughly illustrated in the Annunciation and Visitation at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Reims.  As we move toward the Renaissance, a time in which there was an urgent desire to seek truth in life and to know every detail of the world as it existed, sculpture came back with a classical elegance engaging naturalism.  The human anatomy was extremely important to them, they essentially picked up where the ancient Greeks and Romans left off with the look of fluidity and movement in their sculpture.  "Sculpture in Italy differs from that of the rest of Gothic Europe.  Nicola Pisano (ca. 1220/25 or before-1284) reintroduced a classical style, as demonstrated by the marble pulpit he made for the baptistery in Pisa, 1259-1260."  (Benton & DiYanni, Arts & Culture, Prentice Hall, 2012, Pg. 278).

The period of the early Renaissance, which means rebirth, brought forth the interest in the person as an individual and a new intrigue with nature.  The Italians thought it "marked a radical break from the past and a reinvention of the civilization and ideals of classical Greece and Rome."  (Benton & DiYanni, Arts & Culture, Prentice Hall, 2012, Pg. 289).  Renaissance culture fostered the idea of individual creativity and supported competition amongst artists.  Sculptors of this time include Donatello and Lorenzo Ghiberti, then some years later in the High Renaissance period, Michelangelo.

Over time, through the course of centuries, the art of sculpture continued to evolve.  The contrapposto pose of Classical Greece led the way to the more elaborate, almost theatrical Baroque sculpture.  What was initially made in bronze came to be made in materials such as stone, marble, wood and a variety of metals.  Some sculptors go back to the earliest forms of the art in their productions.  In the Sleeping Faun, 19th century Harriet Goodhue Hosmer captures the beautiful curves and perfect physical proportions of Greek Hellenistic sculpture in her marble creation.

Come the 20th century, while utilizing these various materials, sculpture became more diversified and ornate.  Some pieces, such as Noguchi’s Kouros, incorporated elements of both carved and ‘constructed’ components while Calder's Mobiles physically moved.  The utilization of blown glass, although previously used as an art medium in ancient Roman times, became a fine art with the likes of sculptor Dale Chihuly.  Time shall tell what new, innovative twists in sculpture will emerge.