Some Thoughts on the Persistence of Classical Imagery

I am not at all embarrassed to state that I still hold in the highest esteem the many works of Sir Kenneth Clark, the great British art historian. While most art critics, art historians, artists and social commentators would today describe his books and television programs, such as THE NUDE, THE ROMANTIC REBELLION and CIVILIZATION, half a century on, as totally discredited, in light of profound social, political and artistic changes, particularly in the West, I still adhere in many ways to his core principals. And I make this statement in full knowledge that many readers of this blog, as well as many of my closest friends and associates, would probably describe my personal politics as radical left.

I can recall very clearly, in my early teens, being enthralled with reading Clark’s CIVILIZATION, having seen the BBC television series when I was even younger, and marveling at the ideas he put forth in THE ROMANTIC REBELLION, such as the notion that hiding inside every Romantic painter was a lover of Classical art, and vice versa. After decades of absorbing, selling and more recently making art, I see no reason to contradict such notions. Indeed, I propose that the “Classical ideal” is experiencing something of a rebirth, with the energy and originality of so-called “outsider art” and various forms of in-the-moment pop, shock and blatant image appropriation art having largely run their course.

Let’s start at the beginning; specifically, the words of Kenneth Clark in CIVILIZATION: He stated that the Classical ideal was “invented in Greece in the fifth century before Christ and was without doubt the most extraordinary creation in the whole of history, so complete, so convincing, so satisfying to the mind and the eye, that it lasted practically unchanged for over six hundred years. Of course, its art became stereotyped and conventional…If you had gone into the square of any Mediterranean town in the first century you would hardly have known where you were, any more than you would in an airport today.”

I would argue that the Classical repertoire was so successful that it never really dropped out of sight, even in the darkest days of the early Middle Ages, and that artists working in many mediums today continue to find new inspiration, interpreted in new ways, from that Classical ideal. But this has happened before. Look at the image below. It is one small portion of the figure sculptures incorporated into the west front of Chartres Cathedral. These were carved around the year 1200 and with their individualized faces, elongated bodies and textured flowing robes, represent a very clear attempt to capture, for the first time in many centuries, the vitality of Greek and Roman sculpture. It’s worth noting that even in 1200 in this part of France there would likely have been quite a few fragments of Roman sculpture still laying about, giving the artists models from which to draw inspiration.


Much more recently, in the late 18th Century, the brilliant artist and technician Josiah Wedgwood drew directly upon the popular appeal of classical vases to create lines of affordable, mass produced (by the standards of the time) ceramic tablewares and decorative wares that were accessible to a broad cross section of the British and overseas public. In the late 1700s, with excavations in full swing at Pompeii, Herculaneum and many other Roman sites, as well as ongoing discoveries of Etruscan burials, the aftermath of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt and a host of other archaeological discoveries ongoing, public interest in Classical and other ancient imagery was reaching a fever pitch. Designers of all sorts, as well as painters, sculptors and other artists, drew upon these rich new sources of imagery for inspiration. Wedgwood did so more successfully than perhaps anyone else. The two images immediately below represent, on the left, an elaborate pottery funerary vase made at one of the Greek colonies in southern Italy around 330 BC and, on the right, a pottery vase made in Athens around 450 BC. Both are now in the Getty Museum collections. These pieces are typical of the beautifully decorated pottery that every European on the Grand Tour of the Mediterranean world wished to bring back home.


Wedgwood’s great achievement was to create relatively affordable, equally beautiful and functional ceramics imitating many of the decorative styles of Classical antiquity. The Wedgwood company continues to thrive well over 200 years later, and still produces many products that borrow directly from Classical Greek and Roman forms, images and decorative techniques. An early and especially fine example is the “Black Basalt Ware” vase below, made shortly before 1800 at Wedgwood’s factory at Stoke-on-Trent, England, the form and decoration of which are directly copied from Classical Greek red figure pottery of the 5th Century BC.


The more recent artistic movements of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, while quite different from one another philosophically, both drew heavily upon Classical imagery, as well as other more recently unearthed images from antiquity, especially from Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica.  One of the most iconic sculptures in America dates to the peak of American Art Deco, Paul Manship’s 1934 gilt bronze “Prometheus” at Rockefeller Center in New York, depicted below. Not only is it a depiction of a figure from Classical mythology, it is absolutely Classical in inspiration and uses cast gilt bronze as its medium, following in the great sculptural achievements of both the Greek and Roman worlds.


Today, artists working often in new materials, inspired by new political, philosophical and social ideas (and ideals), a great many of them women, continue to draw upon Classical ideas of form and beauty, interpreted in new ways, to convey their message. New York artist Monica Cook’s work was described by one reviewer as highlighting “the parts of ourselves that we guard in an attempt to make ourselves feel conscious and in control – emotionally, the lust and urges; physically, our biological makeup, the veins and the translucent skin.” What could be more classically inspired than her 2014 work depicted below, entitled “Phosphene,” made from a mix of resins, plaster, steel, paints and a range of exotic organic and non-organic materials.


Similarly, ceramic artist Coille Hooven from Berkeley, California, who now works primarily in porcelain, creates figures of pure white with only a clear glaze, reminiscent to me of Classical statues long since stripped by time of their original pigments. Her work has been described as challenging porcelain’s “classical European forms and associations with women’s work…in fairytale-like scenes that appear light and playful at first blush, though they surface deeper and darker meaning with prolonged viewing.” See her work below entitled “Howl.”

With the ultimate failure of so many shock and pop styles of art from the past quarter century and, I would argue, their damaging effect of driving art further away from the reach of the public at large, it should come as no surprise that so many really talented artists are turning back to the representational forms that ultimately derive from the Classical tradition. I fully expect we will some expansion of this movement in the near future and I hope to offer further commentary on it here.


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