The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
An Essay on Greek Sculpture.

by George Knollys Blogg.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 746-758

[George Knollys Blogg, 1871-1908, was the brother of Frances Blogg, the PNEU secretary who married G. K. Chesterton.]

[NOTE:--The following essay is founded mainly on a study of three books:--Jane Harrison's Introductory Studies in Greek Art; Lowes Dickenson's Greek View of Life; and Walter Pater's Greek Studies.]

In a certain part of the Paradise Regained, Satan takes our Lord up a high mountain and shows Him all the cities of the earth. Of the details of the vision thus unfolded the Scriptural narrative had said little, and it was left to a writer of a much later date to enlarge upon this theme. The genius of Milton was equal to the undertaking and in a series of striking verbal pictures he presented to the Redeemer all these high places of the world's history. Of those we are only concerned with one, but I feel in this we have made no mean choice, for it is in the description of the city of Athens that the poet has put forth some of his finest powers. Reflecting upon this description we may consider that if any heritage from the past were worthy of the Saviour's acceptance to the exclusion of His mission on earth, it was this comparatively small town, known poetically as the City of the Violet Crown. For it was a heritage not of mere force, not of beauty alone, but one of an intellectual eminence that still dominates the mind. When united to this we are sensible of an atmosphere of youthful vitality which tempers the above characteristic, it is not saying too much to assert that to be lord of this spot would be a temptation that only divinity could withstand.

It is then of this land, and more particularly of this city which Milton calls "the eye of Greece," but which, to the student of antiquity is perhaps rather the heart of the ancient world, that I wish to speak. Especially I wish to say something of its art, and to endeavour to show some reasons as to why it reached its high pre-eminence, and why it has remained as the model of the generations that came after it.

In the consideration of any work of art, there are two points of view from which we may regard it, viz., either from the technical or the philosophical point. If we accept the first, we must judge how far it comes up to, or falls short of, what we conceive to be the canon of art as applied to the subject in hand. We must judge, if it be a statue, how far limb and form are in perfect proportion, and whether they are a true copy of the model from whose likeness they have been moulded. With the instinct of the workman, we must go over each part in turn and let mind and eye join company in a close and critical survey. With strict impartiality, considering not the motive, but the achievement of the artist, we must point out any weakness of design, any curve or fold of drapery that falls short of excellence, alike whether to cause a mere flaw, or to mar the production regarded as a perfect whole. We must further examine such details or accessories as are not essential of themselves, but are only introduced by way of heightening the primary motive of the subject, and see how far they fail or succeed in this object. In a word, we must judge of our statue, or whatever it be, as an expert, as one who, though perhaps quite incapable himself of a similar creation, has yet acquired by study and observation, the knowledge that will entitle him to speak with authority.

For the second point of view, a certain amount of knowledge is necessary, but chiefly such qualities as sympathy and insight. This philosophical, or, as I should prefer to call it, spiritual enquiry into the value of any work of art, demands that we should know something of the history of the country from whence it sprung, that we should have studied the mind and the temperament of the artist, and that we should have discovered what effect it has had, or is likely to have, upon the imagination and the conscience of those who behold it. But our main object will be to endeavour to find out what was the motive and the belief which prompted the work, and how far such qualities as beauty and truth and an exalted view of the life have entered into its composition. For as the philosophical is, to my mind, the spiritual enquiry, it is necessary to know how these abstract forces bear upon and influence a material production. We thus join together two opposites, the seen and the unseen, and produce a riddle which it is hard to read, but towards the solution of which I hope to bring a little light.

Before proceeding any further, I may as well say at once that it is from the latter point of view that I intend to speak, I can, of course, only do so in quite a brief manner, as I have neither time, nor sufficient command of a big subject to enable me to touch more than lightly upon a somewhat abstruse matter. But I have at least one merit. I have selected a subject of great personal interest, and one upon which, therefore, I shall hope to write with sincerity and conviction.

But it may be pointed out that at the outset I have committed a grave error. Granted the two points of view which I have mentioned, it may be said with justice that the one involves the other, that without a sufficient technical knowledge, it is only too easy for the so-called philosophical mind to be led astray. How can the uninitiated separate what is good from what is bad? While he is speaking in exalted terms of the high qualities that have dictated the production of any given piece of sculpture, he may at the same time be praising what is, perhaps, the worst specimen of an artist's work, himself of less than average ability.

This accusation has some grounds of truth, but like most charges it has also an answer. To fully state the grounds of defence would take too much time, and would be giving an undue importance to a matter only indirectly connected with my subject. But insomuch as I wish it to be known that I have not taken up my present position without some thought, I will endeavour to state briefly, in what, in my opinion, this defence consists.

All the arts have an analogy. There is between them a certain something, a peculiar force, which often renders like in kind what is apparently unlike. Of these unions the closest is, perhaps, between poetry and music. But there is also a connection, which, though not so apparent to the unobservant mind, is none the less a reality, between literature in which I include poetry, and the arts of painting and sculpture. As a rule the poet or the literary man has some knowledge of these subjects, or, if he has none, is at least alive to and appreciative of these two forms of the fine arts. He surrounds himself with the best of these things: they have a meaning to him; their power speaks to him through his pen. He can say of them the word in due season. He can look behind the material form and speak to us of its ethical construction.

What is the common meeting ground between these two? Is it emotion? I think not. The best religious pictures are not, except to a limited extent, emotional. This characteristic is mostly noticeable in a class of religious pictures a long way after the true masterpieces. Those Madonnas with long streaming hair and theatrically upturned eyes deceive some people. But they do not deceive the poet. And though here, I may be accused of mentioning a form of emotion closely bordering upon hysteria, it is useful as contrasting what amount of genuine emotion is apparent in a really fine production. Here the feeling is subdued, reserved, rather holding back than speaking with a loud voice. And though the poet or the man of letters is conscious of this element, it is not to him of primary importance. It is the meaning, not the sensual side of the picture that appeals to him. If he is to be a true judge, his grasp of the subject must be an intellectual, not an emotional one.

Is it a common love of beauty? Not necessarily. The aesthetic standard is also likely to mislead. The works of art with which a poet surrounds himself are generally good, not of necessity beautiful. We often find in his house those pictures that show the beginnings of art, often quaint, out of drawing, colourless, but yet of interest, as marking a stage in the development of painting. If he banish all such as these, and only have his walls hung with the perfected types of a perfect artist, he could scarcely be called a man of much breadth of view. Nor do I think he would really care for these things at their true value. To appreciate the achievement, one must also love the labour. And he must know, as [Walter] Pater says, and as I hope to show, that such perfection, in Greece or elsewhere, was not reached in a day, but that it was the outcome of earnest endeavour, of a manful striving towards truth, of a wrestle of the hand, dictated by the spirit, with the elements of marble and of bronze.

The junction of these two is neither emotion, nor a love of beauty: it is ideas. The true artist, like the true poet, is a man of ideas. It is, primarily, the conception, not the execution, which forms the value of any work of art. The imagination, as Wm. Blake held, is the divine part, and it is, broadly speaking, this fact which divides what is good from what is bad. For accepting this doctrine, it will be seen at once that the field for artistic activity is, with a certain restriction which I shall presently mention, almost limitless. And it is for this reason that purely decorative art, and especially portrait-painting, are bound in their nature to be inferior to creative art. The finest portrait painter can only be at best a skilful copyist. He can but reproduce in another form that which he sees before him. Any element of his own personality which he may introduce into his work, apart from what he conceives of the character of the subject before him, produces an atmosphere of artificiality extremely detrimental to this form of painting. The same remark applies in the main to landscapes, but here, perhaps, the field is somewhat broader, and would, in some ways, qualify the value of this statement.

The basis, then of the union between the two fine arts of painting and sculpture on the one hand and literature and poetry on the other is a common groundwork of ideas, and it is this fact which makes the poet or the man of letters a capable judge, as a rule, in these matters. He can see and appreciate the idea that lies behind the material of canvas and marble. And this brings us to a new and important point. This habit of looking at art from the point of view of the idea, or in other words, philosophically, produces a species of aesthetic judgment which forms a substitute for the technical, and is by no means to be despised.

Suppose, for instance, we consider any statue of the Dorian Apollo, and regard it as an expression of perfect manly beauty. The Doric style, as opposed to the Ionian or more Asiatic standard, aimed in art, as in other things, at a simplicity bordering upon severity and produced, therefore, a type of beauty restrained and dignified. With this conception in our minds we shall be able to tell where limb or drapery fall short in grandeur of curve or outline, where the modelling of any part shows incapacity of weakness of treatment, and be able to form an opinion of the whole which, beside the judgment of the expert, would, I think, present many points in common.

This, then, is my justification for approaching this subject from the philosophical standpoint. I do not, of course, claim to be a poet. I only hope, for the time being, to put myself in his place and look at the matter through his glasses. I shall not see less clearly on this account, nor do I consider that I shall have wasted my time, but if my explanation for having made the attempt has appeared tedious or irrelevant, I must ask your pardon.

In order to study the tendencies of the art of Greece, we must look not merely at the masterpieces, but also at the first beginnings. The one enquiry involves the other, for speaking broadly, Greek sculpture, though it developed in more than one direction, showed a consistent tendency which may be traced from the first knowledge we can glean of it, and lasted certainly till the time of Phidias. Beyond that point I do not propose to travel, firstly, because to do so would occupy more time than I have at my disposal, and secondly, because from this time art began to decline. To trace the growth from any art is always more pleasant than to witness its fall, and though with Phidias the story is not complete, after this it becomes a little sad and offers a less rich reward to those who would follow it to its close.

When did Greek art begin? The question takes us a long way back, to a period fixed by archaeologists at somewhere about 1500 B.C. From that time till 1000 B.C., Greece appears to have been inhabited by a people of wealth and power, an eloquent memorial of whose existence is afforded by the excavations at Mycenae. This burial-place of the Argive kings appears to have existed about the time fixed for the fall of Troy, for among the discoveries it has been said the bones and possessions of Agamemnon himself have come to light. These discoveries seem to be among the most ancient found upon Greek soil, but their chief interest for us lies in another question which arises out of the former, and which is indispensable for a faithful study of the present subject.

Was this art, existing in mythical times, of which we have only this monumental evidence, of home growth, or did outside influence bear upon and dictate its origin? The enquiry is not irrelevant, for it is not merely by following the particular bent of the Greek people in this matter, but rather by contrasting their art with that of their contemporaries in other countries, that we arrive at the truth. For myself, viewing the subsequent achievements of the Hellenic genius in the light of the other ancient arts, I cannot help feeling that the power that was granted to them in the fullness of the noon-tide, must have come to them direct with the first whisper of dawn. But this is a matter, not of sentiment but of history, and it is from this point of view that we must regard it. And here, fortunately for the lover of antiquity, fact seems to support intuition, and to tell us that what may be only a personal view is, in fact, a historical one.

The foundation for this remark lies broadly in the following statement. The tendency of Greek art from its first beginnings was towards naturalism, that is, towards a desire on the part of the worker to take nature as his model, and to reject anything that is contrary to her rule. In the surrounding countries this was not the case. Neither in Egypt nor Assyria, which countries had the chief influence, though indirectly, upon Greece, is this tendency noticeable. And though these excavations at Mycenae have revealed many proofs which point to an outside influence, there yet remain so many designs upon arms and implements in which the reverse holds good, that the probability appears to lie strongly in favour of a native and not a foreign origin for their production.

Many have held the opinion that Egypt was responsible for the rise of Greek art, but at this remote date of which we are speaking, it impossible to hold this on the grounds of any strong evidence, and indeed, in view of the fact that the early Greeks were never very keen mariners, the reverse would appear to be the case. Later on, about the seventh century B.C., it would be more likely, for this contact between the kings of Egypt and the Greek colonists appears then to have taken place. And this fact is interesting, for it is at about this date that Greek sculpture, in the true and historical sense, may be said to have taken its rise.

For those excavations of Mycenae of which I have spoken stand alone. They are one of the few utterances of a voice that speaks to us out of remote antiquity. That voice is silent again till about 700-600 B.C. Then it is heard throughout Greece, speaking in terms which the sculptor is just beginning to understand. For after about 1000 B.C. came the Dorian immigration and art apparently became extinct till the above date. And though we are now approaching history and can more definitely trace the artistic relations between Greece and the neighbouring countries, and see how the Egyptian or the Assyrian conception influenced the Hellenic, the meaning of Mycenae will not have been lost. For we shall have learnt that there was in the mind of the Greek, by virtue of the light that was in him, a desire and power to express his own individual thoughts, and that though a foreign touch may for a time have guided his arm, the spirit and the inspiration were his own.

But as I have said, and I think with justice, that it is by contrast as much as by direct appreciation that truth is learnt, it may be of assistance to compare the tendency of Egyptian art with Hellenic, in its development as well as in its origin. Speaking broadly, Egyptian art has two motives; firstly, it is symbolic, and secondly, personal.

Let us consider the first and illustrate it by an example. In justice to Egypt, which commonly dealt with abstractions, I will choose an abstract instance. We meet sometimes among the many hieroglyphic inscriptions that have come down to us, a symbol which illustrates the element of the divine nature within the human. This is conceived of by an equilateral triangle of a dark outline placed crosswise upon another of slighter form, so as to leave six outside vanishing points. The meaning is clear at a glance. Now let us compare this with the Greek idea and endeavour to estimate the difference.

A constant tendency of the Hellenic mind, in sculpture as well as in other matters, was an endeavour to unite these two elements which we are now considering in the form of man. It was with this ideal, either conscious or unconscious in the popular mind, that the figure of the hero emerged from the primitive imagination. We must look a little closely upon this figure, for we are on the threshold of a matter peculiar to Greek tradition. The hero, as a rule, was the product of the love of a god for a mortal. He was thus possessed of powers not shared by the others. In such qualities as strength and wisdom he stood alone. But he was also mortal and liable to the failings of humanity. He was therefore no god with unerring powers over man, a being who was himself the law and yet above it. But there was in him the strength to rise to this divinity, a power which if he acted up to the heroic ideal would lift him to the stars. But this goal was not to be reached in a day. It was not till he had girded himself with the divine gifts which he had inherited from his ancestry and gone forth as a man to fight many fights, and in each to prevail, that he should approach the end of his earthly journey. And considering this we begin to understand the meaning of the twelve labours of Herackles, and its spiritual significance to the mind of the Greek sculptor. This is probably a cosmic, not a merely local conception, but in the power in which these early artists have carried out the idea, they have spoken for the world, and expressed in marble a belief that is common to humanity.

Such a statue, or rather bust, I have now in my mind. It is called simply a heroic head and is characteristic of the Pergamene school of sculpture. It is capable of such a spiritual interpretation as I have spoken of, but it is also distinctly human. And here we approach the point of difference between the Greek and the Egyptian conception, which may be summed up in the following manner. The Greek expresses such a matter as the divine within the human in the terms of nature, the Egyptian in the form of a symbol, or a mental abstraction.

Which of the two is the better? I say, emphatically the former. The thing is clear to my mind, but it is a subject that requires some proof and the grounds for my preference are briefly as follows.

In art, any definite form of symbolism in which the symbol becomes the prime factor is fatal to its best interests, and for this reason. The first object of the artist becomes to express some meaning, not to produce a work of art, and this is in fact what happened in Egypt, which produced a symbolism which has been the wonder of the world, but an art which has only interested it.

But here it may be said that I am speaking in a way exactly contrary to that which I stated some time ago, viz., that the conception and not the execution is of the first importance. But when I made this remark it may be remembered that I qualified it by saying that a certain restriction was to be observed. This restriction is thus. The idea of the work is its chief value, its execution secondary. But the method of expression in which the idea may be conveyed is limited, and the only safe way in which it can be embodied is by the way of nature, or in other words by taking nature as the model.

Why is this? Let us go back to our example. The Greek sculptor has conceived a high thought. To adequately express it he must accomplish a high performance. If his hand falter, if, in the treatment of feature or of form he admits any weakness, he has not fully carried out his ideal. For his ideal is a human one; that is, a following of nature, whose tendency is to produce a perfect being. He is bound, then, to produce a fine work, for it is essential to his subject. His very object demands it. His mind and hand must join company and strive with an equal power. So that art, as it were, becomes the handmaid of nature, who is indeed her only true mistress. Thus, although the motive does not cease to be primary, it involves along with it, if it is to be expressed in the terms of nature, a technical study and finish that are essential to its perfect utterance.

But if we take the Egyptian idea, the reverse is the case. To adequately carve any symbol or class of symbols upon monuments of stone demands no very great skill. If it is only done in a passable fashion, the object is accomplished, for the meaning has been made clear. This art requires no perfection, it only needs the hand of an average craftsman. So that, in this case, art is not truly served, but becomes the slave, instead of being, as it should be, the servant of the imagination.

But it may be said that in this matter I have hardly made a fair comparison and that to place a heroic head side by side with a pair of equilateral triangles is somewhat far-fetched. But what I have said is true in the main, for that which we notice in Egyptian inscriptions, also applies to its statuary. There is in it the same trend towards mathematical proportions, the same attempt to reduce the body to the limits of straight lines, and though Egypt had many and high ideas, she allowed them to dominate the natural, and so produced a spectacle that is of interest to the archaeologist and the mystic but distasteful to the lover of nature.

We now approach the second point in our contrast of Egyptian with Greek art, viz., its personal aspect. The art of Egypt was, to a very large extent, connected with the kings of the country; and one of the its principal objects was to leave behind a monument relative to the life and achievements of some particular monarch. On this point Muller says: "Kings and priests were from the earliest times honoured with statues which are scarcely to be distinguished from those of the gods by a general attribute; and the pylons and walls of the palaces, the royal tombs and monuments perpetuate on countless sculptures and pictures the principal action of the public, military and sacerdotal life of the sovereigns. Considering this close relation of art to reality, it is not to be wondered at that the Egyptian artists, even from a very early period, endeavoured to communicate to the representations of the kings a kind of portrait resemblance. In this art the design of preserving the memory of particular events and circumstances everywhere prevails, so much so, that even the most minute details, the number of enemies slain, of birds and fishes caught, are admitted into the artistic representation, and it therefore supplies the place of a register in such matters."

This is one picture of Egyptian art in its dealings with the personal element in life, but there is also another, its relation to the soul after death. With the early Egyptian the soul did not die with the body. It lived again in a much fuller sense than the "non omnis moriar" of the old Roman poet. But its existence was one that linked it with the body it had left. It possessed with it a dual personality rather than separate vital life. It could not quite shake off the trammels of the flesh, and therefore, for its sustenance, food and drink were supplied to it in the grotto tomb which it might be supposed to haunt. This is, of course, not an idea confined solely to the Egyptians. It is a common belief in people of a primitive religion. It is not till a higher development is reached that the meaning of spiritual things becomes clear to the imagination. But I mention this now because this phase of thought gave rise to a custom which has a distinct bearing upon the present matter.

As the soul still required material sustenance, so also it needed some material symbol of its former life with which to link itself. The body, if not preserved, would decay, and therefore a portrait statue or bust of the deceased was executed which might take its place. To accomplish this, absolute fidelity to the likeness of the original was necessary. The soul could join company with no image that might appear strange to its shadowy vision. So that the art of representing the human features developed into a portraiture, in its most narrow, personal and restricted sense.

Let us compare these thoughts with the Hellenic view, in so far as they bear on its art. With regard to the latter remarks, there is not, perhaps, so much to be said. The idea of the after life, though it was a conscious factor in the Greek mind, was not one that dominated it. I am speaking now of the general attitude of the people, not of the conceptions of the philosophers. Of course it must have been a truth that at times came home to the ordinary man, and when it did so, it was more with a feeling of regret that he must quit a life which appeared so beautiful, and go into the "lamentable house of death," rather than that he might reach a country more beautiful than his own, rich with a wealth of spiritual possibilities to which hitherto he had been a stranger. Nor was his creed conducive to such a train of thought. "The Greek religion," says Lowes Dickinson in his Greek View of Life, "was a religion not for death, but for life." Even the gods he worshipped were distinctly human, and appealed to him, probably, as much on account of their humanity as their divinity.

Now this temper is reflected by Greek sculpture, which also deals not with death, but with life, in its most full and perfect sense. I say perfect for this reason. It is not personal. There is constantly the tendency not to represent man, but men. The individual, of course, must stand for the model, but he speaks not of the qualities he represents as peculiar to himself, but rather as applying to the whole race. His statue, therefore, is not a portrait, it is rather a type of humanity. In the great area, which, as it will be seen, this view affords to artistic activity, the Egyptian idea falls into comparative insignificance. The Greek is better as the sun is greater than the star, or the life of the people of more importance than that of the individual unit.

As an example of this I may take the statues, so long preserved, of Harmodius and Aristogeiton by Antenor. Though, no doubt, there was a strong personal feeling towards these two, the deliverers of their city, as it will be remembered, from the tyranny of Hippies and Hipparchus, they yet stand out and appeal to the conscience, as the type of the hero who is content to risk his own life in the sacred cause of freedom. They represent, in the form of man, the ideal of this quality, an ideal to which, under similar circumstances, their successors might also hope to attain to.

(To be continued.)

Typed by Blossom Barden, Jan. 2024; Proofread by LNL, June 2024