Disrecognized Space

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Form and Reality: the Classical Greek Balance of the Ideal and the Natural

Ancient Greek sculpture of the Classical period depicts beauty through the balance of naturalism and idealism.Ancient Greek sculpture represents a development from idealism to naturalism. In the Classical period this conflict reached an apotheosis when the two forces were balanced against each other. An example of this is the bust of Pericles by Kresilas.

During this period of ancient Greece’s existence (some 900 years) it was only natural that sculpture should develop in different ways. From Geometric Art, through the Archaic Period (when the formulaic kouroi became predominant) and on to the Classical Period (defined by Kleiner (2009, p.118) as 480—323 BCE) there is a broad development from the ideal but unreal, through to the naturalistic representation of the human figure.

Even during the Archaic Period there was a tension with naturalism, as each kouroi was an individual though not necessarily naturalistic, and there was a clear leaning to the formal ideal. During the Classical Period, however, there is a fine balance between the ideal form and the natural form.

The way the ancient Greeks viewed the Ideal as a concept is famously stated by Plato. In the Republic he introduced the simile of the Cave wherein people are constrained to view shadows only, taking these to be reality whereas the true (unseen) object – the Platonic Form – is so much more marvellous (Plato 1987 p.317-319). Later in the Republic Plato points out that he considers art as being a long way from showing the Platonic Form itself, since this would be unrepresentable by an actual object. Art, instead, was an imitation of a specific instance (Plato 1987 p.426).

An example of this melding of naturalism and idealism is the herm of Pericles by Kresilas (marble, circa 429 BCE, 6’ high), now known only through a later Roman copy, but based on a bronze full body sculpture (Kleiner 2009 p.125; Perikles, Pio Clementino, Inv 269, n.d.).

Figure 1: Kresilas: herm of Pericles, marble, circa 429 BCE, 6’ high,Musei Vaticani, Rome (Perikles, Pio Clementino, Inv 269, n.d)

Pericles (Halsall 1999) was the epitome of the Greek statesman. As such he is presented as a noble figure. He was seen as the most powerful man in Athens (Plutarch 1960, p.176), an exemplar who increased the power and wealth of Athens (Plutarch 1960, p.182), and a man of ‘serene temper’ and ‘greatness of spirit’ who ‘might well be called Olympian’ (Plutarch 1960, p.205). Nonetheless, Pericles was far from perfect. Contemporary writers made fun of his high forehead (Plutarch 1960, p.167) and Plutarch presents a man full of that particularly Greek sin, hubris (Plutarch 1960, p.194).

The portrait of Pericles by Kresilas shows the conjunction of idealism and naturalism. Though created after Pericles’ death (Kleiner 2009, p.125) Kresilas portrays him as a man not yet aged, serene and authoritative, such that Pliny termed it ‘the Olympian Pericles’ (Kleiner 2009, p.126). Furthermore, Kresilas has placed a helmet on the sculpture in order to hide Pericles’s deformity, at the same time reinforcing the military aspect of his rule.

This portrayal of Pericles as the perfect statesman accords well with the Greek obsession with the mathematical structure of the world and also of beauty, particularly by Pythagoras (Kleiner 2009, p.124) and applied by Polykleitos in his Canon, setting forth the standard for what is beautiful in art, independent of what nature may have created (Kleiner 2009, p.124). Pollitt (quoted by Hope n.d., p2) states Greek art was influenced by a fear of the irrational and a need to provide order to the world, and this is displayed in this portrait: the man who was the most important citizen of Athens of his time, though far from perfect in real life, becomes an exemplar of the ideal Form.

Collins (2007) points out how Greek art evolved from symbolic to naturalistic, with symbolism never quite disappearing. The Golden Age of Greek sculpture saw these two achieving a balance of “power and grace”. In the portrait of Pericles, naturalism and idealism struggle together and create a balanced object that both objectifies and individualises the nature and Form of a man.


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