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James Baikie

The Art of Greece: Painting and Architecture

I am almost afraid to put such a title at the head of this chapter, for more reasons than one. To tell you anything worthily about the Art of Greece would require not one short chapter of a little book, but the whole of a very big book. Then, to a great many people, the Art of Greece brings up nothing but recollections of dry statements about the different orders of architecture, and of visits to museum galleries where most of the statues seemed to have lost their noses, a good many of them their arms and legs, and some of them their heads. They were never in the least interested in such things, and don't care a sixpence about the differences between Doric and Ionic temples, or between a statue by Pheidias which has lost its arms, and one by Praxiteles which has lost an arm and a leg; and so the chapter on Greek Art is a very suitable one to skip. Worst of all, I can only tell you about a very small part of Greek Art. Music and Painting were most important parts of it; but Greek music has practically vanished, and we know next to nothing about it, and Greek painting has vanished altogether, and nothing remains to tell us what it was but a few popular stories about the great painters, which, like most popular stories, put all the emphasis on the wrong places. So that when we talk of Greek Art, we really mean Architecture and Sculpture. You must just remember that these little books are only peeps after all, and that the peep at Greek Art can only show you a very little of a very great thing.

First of all, let me say a word about Greek painting. I dare say you know all the old stories about it that you will find in Lempriere's Classical Dictionary and a hundred other books—how Zeuxis painted a bunch of grapes so realistically that the birds flew in and tried to peck at the fruit, and how Parrhasios painted a curtain so like the real thing that Zeuxis tried to draw it aside that he might see the picture behind, till Parrhasios said, "The curtain is  the picture." Or how Apelles called on his brother-artist, Protogenes, and drew on the wall of his studio a line so fine that it seemed impossible to equal it, till Protogenes drew a line still finer over it; whereupon Apelles came back, and drew one finer still over the line of Protogenes, and so on, I suppose, ad infinitum. All these stories are quite useless, so far as telling us anything about Greek painting goes. Even if they were true, which is unlikely, the artists who played these rather silly tricks on one another may have been very bad painters all the same. Painting grapes to cheat the birds is not art, and if it comes to drawing fine lines, a Rowland's engine beats Apelles and Protogenes hollow.

We may be sure that Greek painting had something better to show than nonsense like that, and that the race which produced the finest sculpture the world has ever seen produced also pictures worthy to rank with the statues. We know that the Greeks themselves thought as highly of the paintings of Polygnotus, Zeuxis, Apelles, and others, as of the sculpture of Pheidias and Praxiteles. And that is really all we can say about it. For the pictures that so delighted the Greeks of two thousand years ago have utterly vanished, and we shall never know what they were like. Some of them were painted in fresco, on plastered walls; some of them, like the pictures of the early Italian masters, in tempera—that is, in colour mixed with white of egg, or some other sticky substance (for the Greeks did not know the use of oil-colour for painting), and some of them in colour mixed with heated wax. In the National Gallery in London you will see some portraits painted in wax by Greek artists living in Egypt. Professor Petrie found them some years ago at Hawara, and some of them are wonderfully lifelike, though they are so old. But you must not judge Greek painting by them, for these are only the commonest of work, painted by tradesmen to put on coffin-lids. You don't expect much art in a coffin-lid; at least, you can say that these Egyptian portraits are a good deal more artistic than anything that our undertakers ever do.

Besides these Egyptian pictures, we have still a few frescoes from Pompeii and Herculaneum and other places where Greek influence had spread; but they are mostly only copies, and poor copies at that, of older work, and can tell us but little. It is sad to think that we have lost for ever pictures worthy to rank with the great statues of ancient Greece; but we must be thankful that while the paintings have gone, and most of the sculpture too, enough of the latter survives to let us see something of the genius of the greatest race of artists that ever lived on earth.

About some of the features of Greek architecture I tried to tell you something in describing the Parthenon at Athens. But, though the main ideas of all Greek temples were very much the same, there were all sorts of differences in the details of them. Your temple, for instance, might be a Doric one, like the Parthenon, or it might be an Ionic one, like the smaller temple called the Erechtheum, which stood beside the Parthenon on the Acropolis, or it might be Corinthian, like the great temple of Olympian Zeus, which was built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, below the Acropolis on the banks of the Ilissus.

If it was Doric, its columns were shorter and stouter than in the other styles, their flutes had sharp edges dividing them, their capitals consisted simply of a kind of rounded cushion moulding, with a square block on the top of it, and the column had generally no base, but rested simply on the pavement blocks beneath. If it was Ionic, the columns rested on moulded bases, were taller and slenderer than Doric pillars, and carried capitals which curled over at either side like ram's horns; while the flutings of the pillars were separated from one another, not by a mere sharp edge, but by a narrow flat face. The Corinthian pillar was like the Ionic in most respects, but its capital was much more highly decorated, being carved into the shape of a bunch of curling leaves of the plant called akanthus. But the Greeks were never very fond of the Corinthian style, which seemed to them overloaded with ornament, and it was only in later days that it was much used, and then more by the Romans.

Indeed the finest of all Greek building work was done in the simplest style of all, the Doric; and though you may admire the rich carving of the Corinthian pillars, or the graceful curves of the Ionic capitals, I think you will come in the end to see that the Greeks were right in their preference, and that none of their styles is so beautiful as the simple, straightforward, clean-lined Doric.

So far as building goes, there is nothing very wonderful about even the finest Greek temple. When you go to see a great Gothic cathedral, such as York or Amiens, you are amazed at the skill with which the whole building has been planned, the columns placed to take the thrust of the ribs that support the great vaulted roof, the buttresses and flying-buttresses set just where they are needed to press against the outward pressure from the vault, the way in which all unnecessary stonework has been cut away till the whole great building is just a framework of stone, set with pictures of painted glass. A Gothic cathedral always reminds one of a living thing, with bones and muscles constantly at work pushing and pulling as they are needed. In a Greek temple there is none of that.

Its beauty is the beauty of rest, simplicity, perfect proportion, perfect fitness. As building, it is the simplest thing you can conceive of. The Parthenon is built just exactly as you used to build with your wooden bricks in the nursery when you were ever so young. You set up two blocks, and laid a third across from the one to the other, and went on doing that as often as you felt inclined, or till you had no more bricks to build with. Well, the Greek architect did exactly the same, only he worked with pillars forty feet high, and stone cross-beams many tons in weight, and the number of his pillars and cross-beams, and the arrangement of them, was carefully planned out so as to make his simple building perfectly symmetrical. But a Greek temple is not a great adventure and romance in stone like a Gothic cathedral. It is just the simplest and most straightforward solution of the simplest of all questions in building—"How are you to cover in a given space?"—and all the beauty of the solution lies in its perfect proportion, its quiet restfulness, and the perfect taste of the sculptured ornament with which the Greek enriched his simple building.

Only, remember, it is not all just quite so simple as it seems. When you look at a model of the Parthenon, you think a child could copy it, as I have suggested, with wooden blocks. Perhaps he could, after a fashion, and yet of all the many buildings that have been built, by more or less famous architects, in imitation of the Parthenon, there is not one to be named in the same breath with the work of old Iktinos. For the old Greek had a wonderful eye, a wonderful sense of what was most satisfying, and a wonderful understanding of how to correct little deficiencies in our seeing that we pay no heed to. You would build your wooden-block Parthenon all straight lines and right angles, and think it was wrong if the lines were not straight, the pillars not absolutely erect, or not all of one size, the base not exactly level. The Greek knew better. There is hardly a straight line or a right angle in this building of his which seems to be nothing but straight lines and right angles.

He knew, for instance, that a long base line absolutely level does not look level, but seems to sag downwards in the middle, and so he made the long line of pavement on which his pillars rested curve upwards ever so slightly in the middle, to correct this mistake of the eye. He knew that a pillar seen against the light looks thinner than one seen against a dark background, and so he made his corner pillars just a little thicker than the ones which always had stone-work behind them. He knew that a pillar whose lines taper regularly from base to capital looks as though it were too thin in the middle, and so he gave his pillars the slightest and most delicate swell all the way to counteract that illusion. He knew that if you plant pillars absolutely square all round a building they will look as though they were really leaning outwards and ready to tumble; so he made his pillars slope inwards ever so little, so that if you pulled them out like telescopes they would meet at last, I forget how many miles up in the air; and thus again he corrected our blundering eyes and made things look right by being not right. So altogether you see the old Greek architect was a much cleverer man than you might think when you set out to copy him with a box of bricks. The Parthenon is not nearly so simple a thing as you are apt to imagine; and perhaps the genius of the man who foresaw all the needs of such a building and provided for them, so that, in spite of our defects of vision, it looks just right, was quite as subtle a thing as that of Robert of Luzarches when he flung the mighty vault of Amiens 150 feet up in the face of heaven.

One or two other things about Greek architecture may be worth mentioning. Remember that it was very different from the more or less faithful, not to say servile, copies of it that we see so often. It differed in material. The Greek always demanded the best for his best work. Marble if possible (the Parthenon is all Pentelic marble, one of the loveliest of stones); if not marble, then the next best. Workmanship was as perfect as human skill could make it. Nor was ornament the base mechanical thing, endless repetition of a single theme, turned out as though cast in a mould or stamped by a machine, with which we adorn or disfigure our copies of Greek temples. The Greek was sparing in his use of it. He kept the great structural lines of his building almost absolutely clear of it: the great columns that support the cross-beams, the strong cross-beams that hold up the weight of the roof—these are left plain, or only adorned with straight lines or flutes that emphasize strength and lift. But where he does put ornament—on the broad triangle of the gable end east and west, on the frieze between the colonnade and the inner building, on the alternate blocks of the band below the cornice, it is of a kind that glorifies the building. The Parthenon is great in itself; but its greatest glory is that its ornament was planned by Pheidias and hewed under his eye.

Perhaps the last thing we need remember is that Greek buildings were not the cold grey stone, viewed under a cold grey sky, with which we are familiar. They were of brilliant white with a strong golden tone in it here and there; they were lit by a southern sun under a sky of southern blue. And, what seems strangest of all to us, they glowed with warm colour. Backgrounds of crimson or dark blue threw up the sculptures of pediment and frieze, bands of colour emphasized the lines of the capitals, metalwork was bronzed or gilded. There was none of the dead whiteness either in Greek architecture or Greek sculpture that we are accustomed to associate with them both. It seems strange, almost doubtful in taste to us, because we have been so accustomed to colourless whiteness as the Greek thing in art. But we have to forget that. The Greek loved colour, and used it freely, even upon marble; and we may take it that the most artistic of races knew its business in this, as in other things.