Article Review; “What is ‘Classical’ Sculpture” by Walter R. Agard Jakob Mattern HUM 2220, prof. Warner Ph. D. Th, 6:00pm-8:45pm Word Count: 1102 The word ‘classic’; used to describe styles of music, painting, sculpture, architecture, and even manufactured consumer goods. If ever there was a period in art or manufacturing that stands out with even balance, subtle dignity, and general excellence, it will most likely be described as classical, which after all, is no easy feat, considering that anything to bear the “classical” name is decidedly, in some way or another, “The best of the best. According to Walter R. Agard however, the word has lost some of it’s gusto. He states that it is so overused that it no longer describes whether or not something is in-fact excellent, but rather, if a piece fits into a time frame and location that suggests that it most likely is. Just as all cars produced between 1900 and 1972 in America are not necessarily classics, not every piece of art created in the broad history of Greeks should be considered a true classic.
Rather, Agard places forth his guidelines and examples of what should classify ancient Greek art, sculpture in particular, as the best of it’s time. The details of Agard’s argument rest upon the structured guidelines he lays out in the beginning of his article; that to be classical, a Greek sculpture must have: The initial concept of a healthy human form. The synthesis of naturalism and clearly defined, relatively simple design. The amplification of essential planes.
Refinement of detail. He also suggests that classical style sculpture took prominence between the years 500 BCE and 420 BCE, thus dismissing some of the earlier geometric style sculpture, as well as the later more expressionistic and complicated Hellenistic sculpture. He states that while some later sculptures may be more magnificent to behold, they are not embodying that which makes something a classic, and that they are not fulfilling the nature of the aterials or the monumental purpose of sculpture. Marble is not a soft substance, and thus, the shapes created out of it’s dense composure must follow suit, according to Agard. While the presence of fine details are very necessary, he states that the overall action of the piece must be graceful, direct, noble, and strong; the sculpture must follow the ancient Greek adage, “Know thy self” to be a classic, it must appear just as powerful and eternal as the marble itself.
This quality is found in the many sculptures that he analyzes in his article; the weight bearing Hermes, the tower-like Apollo, and the tensioned Heracles all display a living strength that compliment the nature of the marble. Agard also places a great deal of importance on the healthy human form, and the presence of subtle naturalism expressed through fine details. In every piece defined classic by Agard, we find a being that, while possessing a basic and strong geometric base, is also defined by many smaller details that synthesize simple design with an idealistic human form.
The curls in Hermes’ beard and hair, the subtle veins and ligaments of the Charioteer’s hands and feet, the calm and confident gaze of Apollo, and the bulging muscular details found on the statues of the bow wielding Heracles and the lightning lobbing Zeus all add a life-like element to the otherwise cold geometric shapes, and help to portray each character as a healthy and idealistic human being in both mind and body.
For his closing statement, Agard mentions an encounter he once had with a tourist who was frustrated with how “sure of themselves” the classic Greek statues seem to be. He then refutes that they have the right to do so, simply because of the rich value and dignity confined in their strong and noble bodies, and that it was this spirit that make these statues honest and true classics of the ancient world. As a whole, I do agree with Agard in his viewpoints and conclusions of what a true classic should consist of.
Referring once more to automobiles, it is my view that for a car to be classic it must combine simple design with beautiful details while still fulfilling the function for which it was designed with full effect. With respect to Agard’s definitions, the formula of classic sculpture should not be far from such ideals. I thought that Agard’s affinity towards the nobility and strength of the designs was well founded, because although a statue is undoubtedly a work of art, it is also a permanent public speaker of a city’s people.
These strong and idealistic statues may very well have served as an ego-booster for the ancient Greeks; their solid forms and endless wisdom meant to personify the people dwelling in the polis itself. If anything however, it was this ego that catapulted these ancient people to such great heights in terms of sophistication and achievement, so while some later sculptures may have captured more emotion or better expressed the human condition, it was the dignified, strong, and direct sculptures from 500-420 BCE that best embodied the golden age of Greece.
There were a few points with which I disagree however. The selection of the Statue of Hermes, firstly. Although it is a good combination of geometric driven balance and fine detail, I felt that over all it was simply not naturalistic enough to be considered a perfect synthesis of the human form and simple design. It is an impressive statue none-the-less, but it seemed a bit rudimentary compared with the other examples, a bit too two dimensional.
Another idea with which I don’t completely agree is the classification of two dimensional friezes with linear backdrops as the only true classical form of the frieze. Once again, It seemed to me that a frieze with a more shallow appearance did not coincide with some of the other mentioned sculptures bursting with depth and life. While the drapery of the frieze depicting Heracles and Athena was beyond impressive, the naturalism of the characters themselves did not seem to reach the same heights as some of the other pieces.
In any matter however, I believe that Agard compiled an excellent definition of what a classic statue should be defined as, what it should personify, and what it’s function should be, compared with the common ideal that nearly every statue from ancient Greece should be considered classical. His analysis of each sculpture was extremely thorough, and as a whole, his article gave some insight into what exactly these ancient artisans may have been thinking of when they shaped these masterpieces. Bibliography Agard, Walter R. “What Is “Classical” Sculpture? ” The Classic Journal, Vol. 49, No. 8 (May, 1954): pp. 341-349. Print.