Turning Art into History

We’re back! Classics Ambassador Caroline writes about the visit of the inimitable Professor Robin Osborneour first lecture event held in-person in eighteen months:

On Thursday 16th September, Professor Osborne opened our 2021-2022 lecture programme with an excellent talk: ‘Turning Art into History – The Case of Classical Athens’. The lecture was the first to take place at AKS Lytham in person since the beginning of the pandemic and it was a delight to hear Professor Osborne so knowledgeably and eloquently trace the development of Athenian art from the Archaic to the Classical age, and put forward a compelling argument for the reasons behind this fascinating transition.

It’s great to be back! Professor Osborne and Classical Civilisation students from Runshaw College

Professor Osborne began by drawing comparisons between archaic male and female standing sculptures and relief sculpture and identifying patterns of change across all three. The Archaic Moschophoros (a figure bearing a calf for sacrifice, below left) and Antenor Kore stand forward and confront the viewer, the opposite of the Classical Kritian Boy (centre image below), who relaxes with his head slightly turned, and Nike Adjusting Her Sandal, whose drapery reveals the curves of her body. Similarly, one can compare the goddesses of the Siphnian Treasury Frieze with those on the Parthenon Frieze, who talk among themselves. Each set of Archaic and Classical examples presented by Professor Osborne emphasised the movement from sculptures that challenge the viewer head-on, to ones where the viewer feels that they are observing a figure who is engaged in their own story and perspective.

Professor Osborne then went on to discuss how this change has conventionally been attributed to two, very different, causes. The first is artistic improvement in sculpture, which meant that, over time, trial and error led to the ‘discovery’ of naturalism. The second commonly-cited reason is that historical events such as the invention of Athenian democracy and the Persian Wars, changed social, political and cultural attitudes and therefore changed art. However, Professor Osborne introduced a new question: to what extent should we think about art not just as a reflection of historical change or artistic techniques, but instead as a medium through which a new world is produced, and hence, how much does the way that the world is presented to people in visual arts impact the way they view their own world?

Professor Osborne explored a potential answer to this complex question by focusing not on sculpture but on Athenian vase paintings as, although we have many free standing sculptures, we have thousands more pots which enable scholars to build a more holistic picture of artistic development across both high quality and low quality artefacts. Sculpture can lead artists to be inherently conservative due to the expense of marble. Pots bypass this as cheaper clay allows for more fearless innovation and they are therefore more likely to represent what was on people’s minds and capture a range of approaches. Professor Osborne began his discussion of common iconography on pots by looking at representations of athletics. The introduction of the red-figure style of vase painting, c. 520 BCE, led immediately to mass painting of activities in the gymnasium; from those participating in exercise to those standing at the side, observing or attending to the athletes. However, 10 years later, the focus shifted to trying to capture the excitement of social encounters at the gymnasium. As a result, more images of men impressing each other with their musical skills and admiring each other’s physique appear, many with sexual undertones. 

Some pots, such as a krater by Euphronios, even illustrate post-athletic activities, for example, one athlete removes a thorn from his foot whilst another pours oil onto his hands to rub himself down. Competition soon disappears from pots and is replaced with athletes walking around with the discus or javelin, standing and conversing, and using strigils to scrape away their sweat. Gymnasium boundary stones are also now depicted to denote the scene, as it is no longer entirely obvious that the young men are taking part in athletic events, but often appear to simply be relaxing. The standard motif of a winner and loser is gone and the context is no longer one of heroic warfare and godlike figures engaging in competitive events, but one of education and social interaction. Athletics is now one of many activities a young man undertakes to further himself, alongside, for example, debating, dancing and playing music. 

Professor Osborne then explained how these changes can be paralleled in the iconography of warfare. In the early sixth century, many different aspects of war were depicted on pots: soldiers leaving families, fighting, cavalry and infantry, dead bodies, and the inspection of animal livers and entrails to predict military success. Throughout the century, scenes become more complicated. Where paintings of armour formerly concentrated on putting on the greaves, now soldiers began to be seen picking up shields, taking them out of wrappers, strapping on swords and putting on animal pelts. Fighting is shown from every possible angle, and detailed patterning is used to produce a variety of textures and to highlight contrasts between opponents. After the Persian wars these scenes of ordinary warfare vanished in the same way that athletic competitions did. They were replaced by mythological battles or highly stylised renderings of real ones. Soldiers were now shown only as preparing to fight, take helmets from female relatives and pouring libations rather that actually asserting themselves in battle. What can explain this shift? 

Professor Osborne with students from Nelson and Colne College

Professor Osborne described how the movement from competition and individualism to uniformity and participation represented a shift in interest from winning to taking part. He finished his fascinating lecture with a summary of his aim to demonstrate that the change between Archaic and Classical art is not one of improvement in style, or one that only impacted certain topics in art. He argued that all art changed in similar ways. He pointed out that it is difficult to see the Athenians’ new confidence in young men standing in the gymnasium or receiving their helmets, and that the Archaic figures actually seem to embody this more. However, the agenda of social relations has changed and the idea that the viewer can put themselves in the place of the Classical figures is explored. This new attitude may have been led by politicians, artists or a combination of both. There is no reason to search for a start or end to these two influences, since the changes that make up the development of art from the Archaic to Classical period, were due to a dialogue between the two elements and hence ‘art makes history, as well as being made by it’.

Many thanks to Professor Osborne for such an engaging and thought-provoking lecture as well as his insightful answers to questions at the end of the session.


You can read a further mini review of the lecture by another Classics Ambassador here!

We’re so grateful to everyone who enabled us to return to such an enjoyable in-person event, especially our venue AKS Lytham and their amazing pianist, our audio-visual tech team and all of our fabulous volunteers. We can’t wait to see you all again in a couple of weeks time for Scottish author Douglas Jackson’s talk on Hadrian’s Wall.