The sculpture of ancient Greece is renowned for its revolutionary depiction of the human body. However, this influential artistic tradition did not just appear fully formed. Ancient Greek sculpture is commonly divided in the multiple phases of development; the three main stages are the archaic, classical and Hellenistic periods, but there is also an earlier stage in which the qualities that would come to define ancient Greek sculpture were already beginning to emerge.
Greek statuary from the ninth through seventh centuries B.C. features a preoccupation with geometric form. Both human and animal figures were represented as an aggregation of simplified shapes, such as a triangular face on top of a triangular body and ovoid legs. The geometric period exhibits several qualities that would come to characterize Greek sculpture, including fabrication with bronze as well as marble, depictions of myth, an emphasis on clarity and order, and a preoccupation with the human form.
The sixth-century B.C. archaic period art marks the beginning of a shift toward a more naturalistic portrayal of the human body. One type of statuary that emerges in this era is the korai, statues of women clothed in the draped garments characteristic of ancient Greek dress. Equally important are the statues known as kouroi, which depict naked young men. In addition to having bodies with a more realistic style, the korai and kouroi also tend to be sculpted with positions that express motion and a facial expression that art historians call the archaic smile. Like later Greek art, these statues were painted in vibrant colors that have faded.
The classical period, which begins after the defeat of the Persians in the early fifth-century B.C., is the most well-known of phase of Greek sculpture. It is characterized by dynamic explorations of motion through space, a stylized blend of ideal form and naturalistic portrayal, and the distillation of principles of proportion in works such as Polykleitos' Doryphoros. Other famous works from the classical period include the Riace Bronzes, a lifelike pair of bearded, naked warriors; and the Parthenon frieze, an elaborate depiction of the Panathenian Festival procession.
The Hellenistic period commences with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. Hellenistic sculpture considerably expanded the range of exploration of the human form, with realistic depictions of individuals across social classes, stylized eroticism, images of violence and raw emotion, depictions of the naked female form, and a proliferation of portrait sculptures commissioned by the upper classes. Arguably the most famous example of sculpture from the Hellenistic period is the Venus de Milo, a second-century B.C. statue of the goddess Aphrodite that expresses sexual allure to a degree not evident in classical works.
- A Companion to Greek Art; Tyler Jo Smith and Dimitris Plantzos, eds.
- Metropolitan Museum of Art: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History - Geometric Art in Ancient Greece
- Gardner's Art Through the Ages: A Global History - Enhanced 13th Edition, Volume 1; Fred S. Kleiner
- Museo Archeologico Nazionale Reggio Calabria: Bronzi di Riace
- National Documentation Center - Greece Ministry of Culture: Parthenon Frieze
- Understanding Greek Sculpture: Ancient Meanings, Modern Readings; Nigel Spivey
- The Technique of Greek Sculpture in the Archaic and Classical Periods; Sheila Adam
- The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture: Greek Sculpture and Modern Art from Winckelmann to Picasso; Elizabeth Prettejohn
- Greek Sculpture and the Problem of Description; A. A. Donohue
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- Greek Sculpture; Nigel Spivey
- Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images