Saturday, November 18, 2017


by Richard Rossi
The evolution of art, on the surface, is a movement towards greater complexity, but a closer look at art history reveals sometimes the devolution full circle back to simplicity and primitive styles.

I am looking at the human body and how it is treated differently in three Works of Art (Aegean, Greek and Roman). My Aegean example is a harpist aka "Kero's Harpist" made from white marble, circa 2500 BC from the early cycladic period. It was based on geometric shapes and it is simplistic and abstract. The artist used large flat planes. The harpist's head is tilted back.

He appears to be holding the harp, but not playing it. This is a remarkable piece to view, over 5,000 years old. The lack of specific detail makes the gender of the subject not readily apparent, but is probably male because of the lack of breasts and the way the head is tilted back and has more movement. Also, what we have now is probably a copy of the original. Picasso loved the primitivism of this piece.

For my Greek example, I chose a bronze statue of Eros sleeping.
There are a number of copies and versions of the archetypal Greek god of love. Unlike the English language, the Greeks have a more precise description of love. We have one word for love so we speak of "I love pizza," with the same word as "I love baseball," "I love my wife," "I love my son," etc.... The Greek language has multiple words for love. "Agape" is the Greek word for divine unconditional love. The Apostle John uses this in his writings when he says "God is love." "Storge" is the word for family love. "Philo" is the Greek term for brotherly love, the city of Philadelphia gets its name from this. "Eros" is passionate love, our word "erotic" comes from eros. In this sculpture, Eros is a sleeping baby, showing the purity of the Cupidlike image in Hellenistic Greek style, in contrast to the idea of a capricious Cupid wounding us with love's arrows. It probably was used in a religious sanctuary. We see the human form more developed than the simple earlier Aegean style. The statue is made in seven pieces with incredible dimensionality and naturalism, the baby's doughy folds of skin like a real baby.

Our discussion on style and subject or substance comes to bear here. Art professors and historians postulate great questions about the difference between style and substance. Subject is what the art is about. Style is the way the art is done. Hypothetically, we could have a nude model sit before all of us in a classroom and we are assigned to draw the nude woman. We would all draw the same subject but do it in thirty different drawings with thirty different styles. These stylistic differences would be based on us as individuals, even though we are are drawing the same subject. Sometimes styles are also reflective of a period in time or a culture.

Such is the case with Greek art. Theology's shifting winds influenced the style in which the human body was treated. Greek church bishops decided based on the Ten Commandments that it is a sin to draw an exact replication or representation of anyone in Heaven or Earth. This, they believed, was the sin of idolatry. Therefore, the sacred paintings now housed in museums and Greek Orthodox churches treat the same subjects as Catholic Renaissance art like Jesus, Mary, the Apostles, but in a different style. Michelangelo and Da Vinci paint them in three-dimensional fleshed out work in Roman Catholic churches, such as the Sistine Chapel. The Greek art is two-dimensional and flat with exaggerated facial features so as not to make an exact representation of a three-dimensional human face.

For my Roman example, I chose Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, focusing on the image of the finger of God creating Adam, often referred to as the "Creation of Adam."
The image is a good example of anthropomorphism of God, that is, the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to Diety. What scripture states as a metaphor or allegory, according to Saint Augustine, "the finger of God," Michelangelo paints in his fresco panels quite literally. The purpose of his work is to show the history of the Bible to an illiterate congregational audience in pictures, retelling the story from Genesis to Revelation. I had the opportunity to visit the Vatican Museum when a movie I wrote and directed was up for an award in Milan. I remembered that security rebuked those trying to take pictures of the Sistine Chapel. There was a real reverence for this work. We see the evolutionary advancement in figures that take our breath way in their three-dimensionality of the human form. This image of God and man's fingers almost touching has become an iconic symbol of humanity, and along with DaVinci's Last Supper is one of the most known and replicated works of art.

The Greek and even moreso Roman art is obviously more fleshed out and three dimensional. The Romans learned sculpture and painting from the Greeks and facilitated the transmission of Greek art to later ages. The early Greek statues were stiff, almost one-dimensional and flat, but in about the 6th century BC the sculptors began to study the human body and work out its proportions, using human models. Ancient Greek art stands out among that of other ancient cultures for its eventual evolution of naturalistic but idealized depictions of the human body, in which largely nude male figures were usually the focus of stylistic innovation. The pace of stylistic development between approximately 750 and 300 BC was remarkable by primitive measurements.

We can see the evolution of art to be more realistic, whereas the Aegean harpist is simple, like Picasso in his later period. Picasso, interestingly enough, chose to de-evolve and draw and paint more in the style of a child or primitive art at the end of his life, as seen below.
The films consistently up for Oscars and revered as artistic zenith, are often not the evolved technological advancements with CG computer effects, but the indie films that have the simplicity of strong characters and human dramas like the films of old.

Even though early in his career, Picasso could draw as a young man an almost exact photographic license like the Greeks and Romans, to him reverting to the primitivistic style of the Aegean harpist was a step forward, not a step backward. Is evolving in art possibly not always the most complex step forward but sometimes a step backward for impact?

Or as T.S. Eliot put it the journey of art is going through a cycle and returning to the simple beginning and knowing it as if for the first time.