The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase-Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C. at The Princeton University Art Museum, closing Sunday, June 11, 2017 (REVISED)

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 Attributed to the Berlin Painter, Greek, Attic, fl. ca. 500-ca. 460 B.C. Red figure Neck-Amphora with Twisted Handles, ca. 480 B.C. Satyr Running with Wineskin. Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek München (Inv. 8766)

Attributed to the Berlin Painter, Greek, Attic, fl. ca. 500-ca. 460 B.C.
Red figure Neck-Amphora with Twisted Handles, ca. 480 B.C.
Satyr Running with Wineskin.
Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek München (Inv. 8766)

The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase-Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C.
The Princeton University Art Museum
Saturday, March 4, 2017 – Sunday, June 11, 2017

Catalogue: The Berlin painter and his world: Athenian vase-painting in the early fifth century B.C., edited by J. Michael Padgett, Princeton, 2017

Part I

Of all the exhibitions in the New York area this season, Princeton’s The Berlin Painter and His World is the richest in aesthetic pleasure, methodological sophistication, and intellectual liveliness. Not only will visitors enjoy the handwork of one of the greatest Greek artists of the Late Archaic Period, they will experience a panorama of ancient Greek mythology, religious practice, athletic and military activities, and sympotic customs, that is, the etiquette and enjoyment of the all-male drinking parties that were the major nucleus of Athenian social life after the great annually-recurring festivals of their gods and heroes. These windows which provide such a vivid view on the outer and inner lives of the Athenians were painted on the surfaces of pottery turned with the beautiful red clay of Attica, following a figural tradition which extends ultimately back to the geometric vases of the tenth century B.C.

The exhibition is also a rare opportunity to study Attic vase painting from the perspective of a single master of the highest order. When exhibition-goers see Greek vases, it is usually as a component in a themed exhibition incorporating a variety of media, often organized around a mythological subject or some aspect of social life, e.g. children, marriage, or funerals. The monographic exhibitions of the past generation (and the first of these claims to be the first ever!) are, as far as I know, three in number: Dietrich von Bothmer’s on the Amasis Painter in 1985/6, Euphronios in 1991/2, and the Jena Painter in 1996, leaving a gap of twenty years up to the present exhibition. One detail of its preparation stands out. The importance of the subject—as well as the reputation of its curator, J. Michael Padgett—was not lost on any of the lenders. Every loan request was granted, an almost unheard-of success in the world of museums. This was followed by the distinguished scholars who contributed essays and entries to the catalogue, as well as those who contributed to and attended the brilliant symposium held at Princeton on April 1, 2017. Both this and the opening lecture by Dr. Padgett were full to capacity and even beyond—an impressive demonstration of the keen, widespread interest in Ancient Greek vases, which not even the organizers expected. No one, no matter what their main interest in art might be, should miss this great exhibition.

Today we make a distinction between the decorative arts and fine art, but Greek vases encompassed both, unless we arbitrarily choose to classify the powerful, psychologically pregnant narrative compositions on the pots as decorative. The art consisted of two distinct skills: forming the vases from clay on a wheel and enhancing their surfaces with black glaze during firing in the kiln—the work of the potter—and painting the open fields with ornament and figural depictions—the painter’s task. We know that some workers—some of the best—were proficient in both aspects of production, but in most cases it is either established that the two jobs were assigned to different workers, or it is not known. A primary clue to the distribution of labor lies in the signatures which appear on some vases. When a Greek artist signed a piece he did not merely write his name, but included a predicate as well, either “epoiesen” (=”potted”) or “egraphsen” (=”drew, or painted”). Modern notions of art and quality in art embrace the assumption that the better artists sign their work and the inferior artists less often, but there is no consistency among the potters and painters of Athens. Some vases bear signatures of both potter and painter, others only the potter, and most, including many of the best, none at all. Hence we know the names of very few of these supremely skilled and gifted craftsmen/artists. Most remain anonymous, although it has been possible to identify groups of pots and groups of paintings that are consistent in technique and style and to attribute these to individuals, whom scholars have endowed with names drawn from associations, for eample the potter with whom a painter collaborated, a museum or private collection where a key vase is located, or the catalogue number of the key vase, or name vase, as they are called. Hence, the anonymous painter to whom this comprehensive exhibition is dedicated is known as the Berlin Painter, after a large vase in the Antikensammlung, Berlin.

The classifications which define these artistic personalities, both named and anonymous, are the work of connoisseurship—a branch of the study of art that has come under harsh criticism over the past generation, as art history programs have leaned towards theoretical methods in their instruction.1 This spirit of critique is alive and well in the realm of ancient art as well, and it was discussed in some depth at the symposium and in the catalogue—an important point, since a monographic exhibition, especially of a dead anonymous artist, must necessarily depend on connoisseurship and its methods. In the case of Attic vase painting, the show, its catalogue, and the symposium depend particularly on the work of one connoisseur, the greatest of all, I believe, Sir John Beazley, who developed a disciplined eye and an unmatched visual memory through hard work and the use of drawing to record his observations. For someone who has worked in the field of old master drawings, in which generation has succeeded generation, continuously refining attributions and dividing artistic personalities as new, formerly obscure artists are added to the canon, the continuing validity of Beazley’s achievement—I daresay its authority—is astonishing. The entire project was a tribute to Beazley, as Dr. Padgett and others made clear, and there was nothing empty in their words.

It is commonly assumed that Greek vase painting and drawing have much in common at a basic level, are even equivalents, but the differences are more important than the similarities. A vase painting, especially Attic red figure, may look like a drawing, and it is executed in a similar way, using both draftsmanly and painterly techniques, but it is a finished work, unlike all but a particular category of drawing. Vase painting resembles print-making in that lines set down by the artist are not fully visible until the pot is fired, as a proof is run for a plate. The process of firing, however, allows no second chances, no corrections and changes. The artist cannot see the end result until it is finished. Hence the crucial need for consistency. Painting a pot was more a performance than a rehearsal. For this reason we see clearly defined, consistently repeated formulaic strokes for certain parts of the anatomy: the chin of a beardless youth or woman, the clavicles, the eyes, ankles, and so forth. Giovanni Morelli, who exercised as important an influence on Beazley as he did on Bernard Berenson, believed that similar details like ears, eyes, and fingers, etc. were unconscious patterns, considered insufficiently important for conscious delineation in a drawing or painting, and were therefore essentially—and subconsciously—characteristic of the artist. In the case of the Berlin Painter and his colleagues, the consistency of these motifs was essential to the successful execution of a work, and in the most basic way. Therefore they reflect anything but unconscious routine, although muscle memory must have played a significant role in the artist’s movements. In any case, although the symposium and the catalogue made it clear that there have been many advances and refinements since Beazley’s time, not to mention new discoveries, the direct line back to Beazley remains intact and strong. In Renaissance art, the line of descent is more like a family tree, with branches splitting from Morelli and Berenson to Popham, Pouncey, Béguin, and Freedberg on to the generation of Monbeig Goguel, Oberhuber, and Dreyer, to sketch out only a representative selection.

This shows that connoisseurship is a house of many rooms. Each time and place has its own methods, even if they are closely related. West African wooden sculpture and decorative arts, limited by the durability of the material in their original environment and a dearth of textual evidence and driven by tastes and market interests developed in New York or Paris, are only vaguely understood by the standards I have just described. I was amused, while working on an exhibition of Native American objects, to learn that a scholar had to be brought from Germany to attribute objects to particular tribes across the North American continent. Making classifications is especially difficult in this field, since the indigenous tribes were ready to learn from one another and asserting local or individual identity through style had little interest for them. Germans acquired a passion for everything Native American back in the nineteenth century through the novels of Karl May, but retain their own sharp sense of connoisseurship. Native American students take a more artistic view of their own art and would prefer to enjoy and present it in their own way, eschewing European pedantry.

The workings of the Morellian tradition that developed in parallel to that of Beazley is well demonstrated by a magnificent drawing in Princeton’s own collection, masterfully discussed by Claire Van Cleave in the catalogue to the 2014 exhibition of Italian drawings in the permanent collection2, and a comparison with another sheet also in the Princeton collection and discussed by Claire Van Cleave.3 Like so many Italian drawings No. 27 bore an old attribution to Leonardo da Vinci. The enthusiasm of 17th and 18th century dealers and collectors brought many drawings under the revered names of Leonardo, Raphael, and Parmigianino. Dan Fellows Platt (1873-1937) brought the drawing into an entirely different national sphere by attributing it to the Swiss/British artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). Winslow Ames opened the path to its present, secure attribution by describing it as “somewhat Zuccaroid.” Philip Pouncey, who comes as close in reputation to John Beazley as possible  for Renaissance connoisseurs, finally established the attribution to Taddeo Zuccaro (S. Angelo in Vado 1529 – Rome 1566) by connecting it with a finished work, the fresco of St. Paul Healing the Cripple in the Fringpani Chapel in S. Marcello al Corso, Rome—the equivalent of Beazley remembering the connection between two shards in different collections. The hand of the second drawing (No. 120) suggests somewhat the style of Taddeo’s brother Federico, but it doesn’t quite match the artist’s own hand. A rather weak drawing in the Teylers Museum attributed to another Marchigian artist, born less than 80 miles from the Zuccaro brothers, Giovanni Battista Lombardelli (Montenuovo {today Ostra Vetere} ca. 1537 − Perugia 1592 shows a simplified version of the composition of the Princeton drawing, but the hand is even more dissimilar. However, a drawing of much higher quality, securely attributed to Lombardelli by a direct relation to a finished work, has appeared with the dealer, Richard Berman, New York, and this shows the closest resemblance yet to the spatial rendering, visualization and hand of Princeton No. 120, confirming the attribution to Lombardelli. This illustrates the process of the granulation of artistic figures, as connoisseurs become acquainted with lesser-known artists. Seventy years ago the Zuccari were little-understood and considered obscure.

The Berlin Painter was trained by a generation of potter-painters known as the Pioneers, who included Euphronios, Euthymides, Smikros, and Phintias, who was probably the Berlin Painter’s primary teacher. They worked during the last decades of the sixth century B.C., just as red figure painting emerged as an alternative to black figure. Some of these painted in both media, while others threw their lot in with the new. The Berlin Painter’s earliest work—in Red Figure—dates from around 505 B.C., and he continued in that manner over a long career, which ended around 465 B.C. Late in his career, it is thought, he received the prestigious and lucrative commission to make prize amphorae for the Panathenaic Games, and these were traditionally painted in black figure. The Berlin Painter addressed himself to the task without insecurity or awkwardness. Periods in his career have been identified—by Beazley—and they are still generally observed today.

The potters’ workshops were mostly located in their own quarter of Athens, the Kerameikos, but we know that they were established elsewhere in the city and environs as well. The names of some of the workers were clearly foreign, for example Lydos (“the Lydian”) and Amasis (an Egyptian name), suggesting that there was a sizable contingent of metics (resident aliens) among them. Inscriptions have been found—some just announced at the symposium in an exciting paper by Mario Iozzo—and some of these seem to have been written in the Doric dialect, giving us a vivid picture of the foreign element in the industry. There is even evidence of grousing about the Athenians and their democratic ways. From this diversity an art form came which exuded Attic culture and taste in every way. From well before the Berlin Painter’s time pottery became a flourishing export industry. Far more examples have been found on the Italian peninsula and in Sicily than in Attica, especially among the Etruscans, whose own civilization had little in common with the Greeks. Michael Padgett believes that the men—possibly women as well—who created these vehicles for the spread of this characteristically Athenian brand of Greek figuration were relatively humble, uneducated folk, but he admits the likelihood of exceptions. Some of them may well have mixed with the elite at times. It also seems that they were not rich people. We don’t know much about this, but the few bits of evidence we have suggest that vases sold for modest prices. However, the fact that some vases are small and simply decorated, while others are large and elaborately painted with scenes of many figures suggests that there was a considerable range in the prices.

Red Figure Attic bell-krater. Attributed to the Berlin Painter. Paris, Musee du Louvre. Detail: Ganymede.

Red Figure Attic bell-krater. Attributed to the Berlin Painter. Paris, Musee du Louvre. Detail: Ganymede.

Mainly as a further enticement to travel whatever distance you need to go to get to Princeton to see this once-in-a-lifetime show, I’ll close this first part of my review with a brief discussion of one work by the Berlin Painter, a bell-krater in the Louvre, its find spot unknown, depicting Zeus and Ganymede (Catalogue, no. 44, pp. 290f.), dated 500-490. I have chosen this because the vase-shape is unusual and closely associated with the Berlin Painter4, it shows the simplicity the Berlin Painter strove for in reducing ornament to a minimum, and it shows his characteristic way of dividing a single scene and space between both sides of the vessel. This very simple form of krater, a kind of mixing bowl for wine and water, existed already among the Pioneers, but the Berlin Painter and his potter seem to have adopted the form and made it popular. It consists of an elegant rounded body with a flattened base extending directly out from its bottom. The lip is unusually thick and heavy with a bevelled side and a bevelled top. The handles extend downward from the bottom of the lip in a triangular shape, suggesting a pair of droopy ears.

Red Figure Attic bell-krater. Attributed to the Berlin Painter. Paris, Musee du Louvre. Ganymede.

Red Figure Attic bell-krater. Attributed to the Berlin Painter. Paris, Musee du Louvre. Ganymede.

The figure of Ganymede, depicted as a pre-adolescent peacefully playing with this hoop with his right hand, while he holds a rooster in his left. This classic love-gift makes it clear that Zeus has already consummated his desire for the boy, and a wistful expression in Ganymede’s eyes and face, subtly conveyed, as only the Berlin Painter could, shows him in a post-coital state of mind, as he reflects on the “shock of Eros described by Sappho,” as Jasper Gaunt so eloquently says in his learned and enlightening catalogue entry. The Berlin Painter, a supreme master of archaic anatomy, shows Ganymede, “revelling in glorious nudity,” (JG’s phrase again) in a subtle contrapposto. His torso and arms face the viewer, while his left leg moves across to the right. His right leg, however, is twisted towards the viewer, as he addresses his hoop, and perhaps prepares to turn rightwards. There is also a marked balancing and contrast of the right and left arms, also typical of the Berlin Painter. The boy’s golden hair, depicted with diluted glaze, reflects the beauty of the heroic age and his long hair, the fashions of Athenian aristocrats. The relationship between the figure (and Zeus’s), their contours, and the surrounding black of the vessel are perfection. The only extraneous element is a ground line decorated with a meander pattern. In some cases the Berlin Painter omits the ground line altogether and situates his single figure entirely within the black surface of the pot and its own contours.

Red Figure Attic bell-krater. Attributed to the Berlin Painter. Paris, Musee du Louvre. Detail: Zeus in Pursuit.

Red Figure Attic bell-krater. Attributed to the Berlin Painter. Paris, Musee du Louvre. Detail: Zeus in Pursuit.

On the opposite side, Zeus eagerly pursues the boy, spear in hand, his himation waving to his movement without betraying his divine composure. Whatever mental disarray his desire has aroused is expressed in the eccentric, but still elegant lines of his drapery.

While it is clear that the god and the boy occupy the same space, separated by a distance which the running Zeus will soon traverse, there is a temporal disjunct between the two halves. Zeus has not yet satisfied his lust, but the boy has already been enjoyed and has the love-gift to prove it. The only other explanation could be that the rooster shows that the boy has already had a human lover and is in high demand, an excellent choice for the king of the gods. Otherwise, the relationship between the figures creates a quasi-allegorical import to the spatially unified, but temporally split scene. Zeus the pursuant represents the lust of the older man in the the paederastic relationship, while the resplendent boy peacefully exists in the gifts of his personal beauty and transitory youth. Delighting both in his childish toy and the handsome reward from his divine lover, Ganymede assumes an emblematic nature, given the perfection of design in the deployment of his body and attributes over the convex surface of the bell-krater. In this way, the Berlin Painter, without neglecting the subtleties of human characterization, presents the scene as a celebration of aristocratic paederasty.

Among several other important points, Dr. Gaunt observes that this is the earliest preserved vase-painting of Zeus alone with Ganymede, but that the Berlin Painter, who returned to the subject more than once, obviously liked the subject.

  1. Mark Jones, former director of the V&A and the National Museums of Scotland, recently published a pertinent and timely discussion of the problem from a British perspective in The Art Newspaper: “Scholarly research is flourishing but curators’ ability to judge an object’s quality is not”.
  2. Italian Master Drawings from the Permanent Collection, ed. Laura M. Giles, Lia Markey, and Claire Van Cleave, Princeton, 2014, No. 27, pp. 67ff.
  3. op. cit. No. 120, pp. 269f.
  4. Catalogue pp. 51f.
About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

Readers Comments (1)

  1. Michael Padgett June 2, 2017 @ 10:11

    Dear Mr. Miller,

    I thank you for this flattering review, and for the obvious knowledge you bring to it. I should have mentioned the Jena Painter exhibition! The show at Princeton is up until June 11, after which it will be at the Toledo Museum of Art July 7 — October 1.
    Thanks again,

    Michael Padgett

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