Looking at Art: A Story in the Round

Posted on September 6, 2017

by Clare T

The Berlin Painter exhibit, presented by the Toledo Museum of Art, is a rare event (going on now through October 1, 2017). An assemblage of pottery from The British Museum; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; J. Paul Getty Museum; Vatican Museums; Musée du Louvre; and the Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – it’s safe to say we’re incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to check it out.

The Berlin Painter is an anonymous artist whose name reflects the best painted pottery created in Ancient Greece. Today, many of his vessels are held in the Berlin Museum. It is a special display of orange and black ancient pottery.

Image of Panathenaic Amphora by the Berlin Painter - Wikimedia Commons

I am not an expert, or a curator or archeologist, but somehow I am intrigued to find meaning in something as simple as an Ancient Greek pot. Personally, I wonder who could really be interested in this show? With serious consideration, I begin a journey to investigate more. Much of what we know today about the ancient Greeks has been preserved on pottery. Each vase tells a “story in the round”. Imagine a world where people have no electronic media to record big events. No typewriters, no computers, maybe a pen and scroll. This was a world that existed decades ago in Ancient Greece. As innovators, Greek storytellers and historians could commission an artist to paint their story on an everyday, clay pot. But, in fact, expert historian Mark Cartwright states, “artists were driven by the market demand for particular styles, subjects, and fashions.”

I visit the Berlin Painter exhibit to see it is an arrangement of orange and black clay pots, twenty-five hundred years old. I’m not an expert, but from the viewpoint of a Librarian, I think this exhibit is incredible. The themes drawn on Greek pottery give us a full spectrum of Greek life ranging from raucous and bold, to delightful. Even today, most people would be intrigued with the subject matter: Greek gods adorned with warrior shields and helmets, warfare in action, athleticism, totem animals and Greek costume.

As I examine the exhibit, I see there were numerous animals, some recognizable, some not! Children can be urged to begin a basic lesson in “visual literacy” by looking for many identifiable animals. Challenge your children to go on an “animal scavenger hunt,” looking specifically for a bull, eagle, fawn, goat, hare, horse, lion, Maltese dog, owl, rooster or snake.

The strongest imagery has to do with Greek mythology. I see a Greek god, probably Hermes, wearing a feathered helmet. Zeus is very masculine with his elaborate robe, beard and thunderbolt. Figures like these offer great inspiration for myths and storytelling. I am reminded to pick up a Teen edition of Rick Riordan’s, “Percy Jackson and the Olympians.” Riordan’s modern-day stories ride on Greek mythology and are loved by even the most reluctant reader.

Statue of Athena - Pixabay

I view many athletes, mostly nude males, who appear to be in various athletic competitions, notably running and discus throwing. Whoa! Most modest adults and children will wonder why the athletes don’t wear clothes. I learn that a Greek athlete would proudly show off his physique (without clothing) as a sign of his strength and ability. This was “normal” for them, odd to us!The superstar of athletic power is woman deity-warrior Athena (Goddess of Strategic Warfare). She is easily identified with her giant shield and helmet! Her shield is remarkable. It has a “whorl” or circular design with lions, winged creatures, a goat and a horse.

Then, contrary to the “action” scenes, are beautiful maidens or “classic” beauties. They are adorned with long drapery, somewhat gathered about the waist and pinned over the shoulders. Fashion experts will tell you that this “peplos” is different from a “chiton,” and different from a “himation.” None of these classic fashions are what we commonly call a “toga.” Let’s reserve that popular formal wear for the male citizens of Rome and actor John Belushi (“Animal House,” 1978).

And finally, the symposiums! Looking for intellectual conversation? A symposium was a convivial meeting, usually following a dinner. At every one of these events, a giant vessel known as “krater” was used to hold the water mixed with wine. Mixing the liquids proved useful as a scientific method of purifying the water. I did a little investigation to find that wine was seen as a way to purify and improve the taste of the (often stagnant) water source. Essentially, a symposium was considered an all-male drinking party. Seek out the giant krater that is on display (for viewing)!

Many art historians report that the vast majority of Greek vases were actually meant for everyday use. The Berlin Painter was a master craftsman. His human figures are elegant, perfectly executed. Take time to appreciate this rare and unique exhibition. There’s a story behind every artwork.

Note: Greek pottery has been a subject for poets and artists throughout the ages. I would be remiss without mentioning that writer John Keats summed up this scenario with much more complexity, with his lyric poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Another tribute to Greek creativity was matron-actor Hermoine Gingold, who staged a human sculpture in “The Music Man” (1962), “Ladies, one Grecian Urn, two Grecian urns…”

Berlin Painter: Recommended Reading for Children and Teens

Ancient Greeks : dress, eat, write and play just like the Greeks / Joe Fullman
Ancient Greece inside out / John Malam
Greek mythology / by Ken Jennings
Percy Jackson's Greek Gods / Rick Riordan

Berlin Painter: Recommended Reading for Adults

The Berlin painter and his world : Athenian vase-painting in the early fifth century B.C. / edited by J. Michael Padgett
The Greek vase : art of the storyteller / John H. Oakley
Greek art / John Boardman
The Greeks : an illustrated history / Diane Harris Cline

Find out more exciting facts about Greek Pottery

The Berlin Painter and His World – Toledo Museum of Art

Greek Pottery – Ancient History Encyclopedia

The Apparel of Ancient Greece – The Met

Why did the Ancient Greeks and Romans Mix Water and Wine? – Wine Spectator

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