Robin Osborne looks at the ways of seeing Athenian painted pottery.

Scholars are a conservative lot. And those who aim to be most radical are sometimes the most conservative of them all. Take what has happened in the study of Athenian painted pottery.

Go back to the eighteenth century and the things written by the rogue ‘Baron’ D’Hancarville, who published Sir William Hamilton’s collection of vases. His explanations now seem fanciful, but they engage directly with the scenes those pots show. As soon, however, as the study of classical antiquities became serious in the nineteenth century, attention turned to the one element of pot-painting people were confident they could understand – the writing. Noticing that some pots were signed by painters or by potters, scholars realised that they could classify pots by who made or painted them. And since they could, they did. And since not all pots were signed, they tried to classify the unsigned pots in the same way.

Sir John Beazley

The great master of this art of classifying pots by their artist was, of course, Sir John Beazley, who spent a long lifetime building up the most extraordinary visual memory and eye for individual quirks of style (aided by the massive photographic collection that is now Oxford’s Beazley Archive – Beazley not only identified unsigned vases by painters who signed other of their work, he created hundreds and hundreds of ‘new’ artists whom he named according to where one of their pots was found (‘The Aberdeen Painter’, ‘The Berlin Painter’), to the subject matter of a famous pot (‘The Pan Painter’, ‘The Niobid Painter’), to a stylistic quirk (‘The Painter of the Woolly Satyrs’, ‘The Fat Boy Painter’), or, in despair, to the quality of their work (‘The Worst Painter’).

While Beazley lived, all scholars of painted pottery spent at least part of their time revisiting his classifications or applying his techniques to other types of pottery. But when he died there was a massive reaction. The attack was mounted by a group of French-speaking scholars who determined to forget all the attributions and turn instead to the images on the pots, studying not the works of a particular painter, but the images of a particular activity. Not only did the photographic exhibition and accompanying book, La cité des images (Paris, 1984), not bother with identifying painters at all, the book was prefaced with a claim that it was not ‘artists’ who created these scenes but only ‘imagiers’; ‘imagiers’ were taken to somehow be tied within iconographic conventions just as Beazley had taken his artists to be tied within stylistic conventions. The game had changed radically, but the rules had been kept just the same.

Both in terms of their positive assumptions and in terms of what they ignored, the Francophone scholars and Beazley had much in common. On the one hand, the archaeological and historical context of the pots was ignored. On the other, the pots that had been a transparent window on the mind of the artist became a transparent window onto the city of Athens.

There is much to retain both from Beazley’s work and from La cité des images; Beazley may have subdivided Athenian pottery between too many artists, but the connections he saw between pots that he thinks of as drawn by the same hand are real. La cité des images may have been foolish to ignore change over time and artists’ imagination, but the recognition that Athenian pottery continually revisits and reworks various themes that relate to life was important. But both Beazley and his Francophone detractors missed what is, in my view, the extraordinary historical value of Athenian pots.

Go into an art gallery and, unless you are visiting a room featuring the work of artists whom you already know very well, the first thing you notice won’t be differences between artists, it will be differences of subject matter. That’s true within a single room – particularly if you visit somewhere like Tate Britain since Penelope Curtis’s more strictly chronological hang. But it is also true between rooms, as you move, say, from a room dominated by portraits by the four Rs, Reynolds, Raeburn, Ramsay and Romney, to one dominated by the landscapes of Turner and Constable. Historians of nineteenth-century art have sometimes highlighted such changes in subject matter, as with T.J. Clark’s calling his book on French Impressionist art The Painting of Modern Life.

There are some pretty dramatic changes in subject matter as one works one’s way room by room through the museum of Athenian painted pottery. All those massive pots with funerary scenes and fighting on land and sea that dominate late Geometric pottery followed by the graphic mythological scenes of the blinding of Polyphemos, or Odysseus carried out from the Cyclops’ cave under the ram, or Perseus and the Gorgon on seventh-century Proto-attic pottery, for instance.

But it is the more subtle changes in subject matter that seem to me to deserve our attention. The earliest red-figure pots, painted either side of 500BC, have all sorts of intriguing scenes of athletics, for instance. We see young men milling about the gymnasium preparing for or recovering from boxing, running, discus-throwing, jumping, and throwing the javelin.

Archaic (510BC) red-figure kylix attributed to the Epeleios Painter showing athletic scenes

Sometimes they are shown with a pipe-player whose tune both gives the jumper a rhythm to which to swing his jumping-weights and guarantees that we are in a world of competition; sometimes we have the herald, head thrown back, announcing the victor, and the victor being pelted not just with leaves but with whole branches of foliage. Action is everywhere, and the challenge to the viewer is how they compete in this slightly frenetic world. But by either side of 450, the athletes whom we see on pots are frenetic no longer. The pipe-player and the herald are gone; jumping weights sit on the ground and young men simply stand around. If they do anything, they scrape themselves down with their strigils. Their soft bodies offer themselves to the gaze not for us to admire what they have been doing, for we are given little hint of that, but for us to think what it would be like to stand in the gymnasium young like them. What would we be thinking? What were we thinking when we were like them?

Classical (430BC) terracotta red-figure oinokhoe (jug) showing athlete with strigil

What is important about this change is that we know that life hasn’t itself changed. It can’t be the case that young men who went to the gym in the middle of the fifth century never ran, threw the discus, jumped, boxed, and the rest of it. Nor can it be the case that no one had bothered at the end of the sixth century to scrape themselves down. What has changed is what painters select to represent. And assuming that the painters had a fairly keen eye on the bottom line, presumably they selected different things to paint because their customers were now attracted to different things.

How are we going to explain such a change? It is tempting to think it is political. A crude political version might wonder whether the gymnasium wasn’t too associated with the wealthy élite. The Old Oligarch (2.10) resents the people constructing public palaistras, so maybe this is tied up with that? Ordinary people who could go only occasionally to the gym not wanting to expose their athletic abilities to competitive scrutiny? Another version might think rather about how the justification for democracy changed, from Kleisthenes’ removing barriers to participation to Perikles insisting that ‘a man may benefit his country whatever be the obscurity of his condition’ (Thuc. 2.37.1 trans. Jowett)?

But we should not jump too soon. Athletic scenes are not the only ones where what painters select to show on pots in the middle of the fifth century is different from what they select to show c.500. In fact, whatever sort of scene one looks at, the selection changes, and changes in similar ways. Soldiers engage in all sorts of activities in 500, arming themselves with every element of armour, laying ambushes, fighting in open battle; by 450 they pour libations or take their helmet from their mother/wife as they depart for war. Men and women on early red-figure pots are shown in explicit scenes of sexual intercourse of various forms; by the middle of the fifth century the only sexually explicit scenes involve two young lovers dreamily staring into each other’s eyes.

Faced with these and more, similar, changes in scene selection, particular explanations about prejudices over gymnasia are clearly unfit for purpose, and the political explanation also comes to look a bit thin. We need to think harder about the nature of the differences between the scenes popular in 500 and those popular in 450. One change is in temporality. Scenes in early red-figure catch the moment – sometimes very literally as they show jumpers mid-jump. High classical scenes have nothing momentary about them. It is not the excitement of the particular action that is crucial, but the state of the person who is shown. We are encouraged not so much to observe what someone else has achieved as to contemplate what it might be to be the person in the picture. J.J. Pollitt taught us long ago that what marked out early classical art was its new interest in ‘character’ (êthos) and ‘timing’ (rhuthmos), and these changes seem to display the pot-painter’s version of that.

But this is more than just a matter of aesthetic preferences. In requiring empathy, the classical scenes choose moments at which interpersonal relations are central. The subject of the scenes of departing warriors is the relationship between the young warrior and his mother/wife; the subject of scenes of scraping down in the gymnasium is the young man’s relation to his own body as seen by others. The question raised is the question of how one’s performance will be assessed by those whose verdict one cares about. That is very different from the late archaic scenes, where winning the competition is more or less explicitly at issue in every case. Their concern is with competitive excellence, while the excellence explored in the classical scenes is excellence in one’s own eyes and the eyes of those with whom one is intimate.

The transformation of values which the changing scenes pick up certainly has political implications. The group of men whose drinking party conversations revolve around the issues raised by the classical scenes is going to behave very differently from the group of men whose drinking party conversations were stimulated by the active competition of the late archaic scenes – very differently in private but very differently, too, when gathered in the Assembly. But it would be a mistake to think that politics drove these changes, or that some sort of moral revolution drove these changes, or indeed that aesthetics drove these changes. For all of these are bound up together. And because they are bound up together they apply not simply to the visual arts but across the whole field of Greek cultural history.

Rigorous scholarship drills deep, as Beazley drilled deep into personal graphic style or the French scholars drilled deep into the way scenes of soldiers or of the hunt or of religious acts ‘talked to each other’. But the danger of not seeing the wood for the trees is real, and the significance of what gets painted on pots emerges only when we take a broad look at the whole corpus. In the end radical overhauling of our understanding cannot come from overturning particular claims, it comes from seeing that those particular claims mistake the part for the whole, and that better understanding of the parts can come only from a proper understanding of the whole.

Professor Robin Osborne teaches at King’s College Cambridge. His book The Transformation of Athens: Painted Pottery and the Creation of Classical Greece, which sets out this argument with full illustration, was published by Princeton University Press in January 2018.