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It has been suggested that this image of a modest young girl [Acr. 670] . . . was a more or less direct portrait of a living model. And it is true that the most beautiful faces of Attic korai—those which are not, like some others, merely mediocre copies of genuine masterpieces—present, despite their superficial resemblance, a variety of shapes and expressions that is not merely the fruit of the sculptor's imagination. An exceptional instance of this is Kore 643. The face, under the loops of hair that crown it like two folded wings, seems imbued with poetry like a distant echo of Sappho's verse. So typically Attic in its openness to the light, so spiritually and physically individual with its slightly crooked smile, this face refuses to be considered simply a member of a stylistic family and rebels against the dawning severity of the age.
Those who have found themselves at one time or another face to face with the veritable chorus of marble maidens from the sixth century B.C., whose Archaic smiles seem to breathe life into the stony stillness of the archaeological museum that houses them, will understand why Jean Charbonneaux found poetry in appearances. For the korai from the Acropolis of Athens are extraordinary, strange figures from a pre-Classical past whose combined presence is pure poetry, a poetry whose poetics is but skin deep, so to speak, rooted, as it is, in the maidens' physical demeanors. At face value, and in the face of the korai themselves in their present home in the Acropolis Museum, the above remarks are simply a straightforward response which might occur to anyone viewing these famous images for the first time or for the hundredth time, who, for a moment, chooses to forget what he or she may have been taught to think about these statues and instead respond to what is actually seen and felt in their presence. And yet, beneath the apparent naiveté of the above remarks lies an iconoclastic view of a much discussed and analyzed group of ancient images, which, because they are well known, many assume they know well, a view that is seldom expressed in the ever-expanding body of scholarly literature on Archaic Greek art.
There are some fifty-six marble votive korai from the Athenian Acropolis preserved in various states of fragmentation, a selection of which is on view in the Acropolis Museum, while the rest lie in its storerooms. They represent young women in a range of scales, from under life-sized to well over, elaborately dressed, coiffed, and accoutered, and carved and painted with great skill, care, and expense. They were dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess of the citadel, in the sixth and early fifth centuries B.C., a period encompassing both the latter years of the Peisistratid tyranny and the early years of democracy; the dedicants came from both inside and outside the aristocracy. Alone, any one of them might go unremarked, but together, like a chorus, is how the korai make their strongest impression, since together is, after all, the only way they were ever meant to be seen. Together they once stood on the Archaic Acropolis; for nearly twenty-four centuries, they lay buried together; and so it is fitting that together they confront, and bewitch, the modern-day museum visitor. And, unlike some other famous sculptures which first saw the light of day on the Athenian Acropolis, the korai have been spared separation and relocation; the Attic light under which they were intended to be seen still falls on them, if only through the museum's windows. These statues, much scrutinized, much admired, much written about, and yet still as mysterious as any to have survived from the ancient world, are the subjects of this study.
Contrary to the impression conveyed by the introductory quotation, the Acropolis korai are not usually regarded as individualized representations of young women but as examples, if rather fine, of a generic type, counterparts to the Archaic images of young men, the kouroi. This, however, was not always the case. The earliest observers, like Henri Lechat and Franz Winter, writing at the turn of the century, shortly after the korai's discovery during the excavations of the Acropolis in the 1880s, allowed themselves to effuse at length about the statues' individuality and lifelikeness. But these first impressions were short-lived. A different interpretation of these images has prevailed in subsequent scholarship. Arguably, the most influential study of the korai has been Gisela Richter's 1968 monograph, Korai, Archaic Greek Maidens: A Study of the Development of the Kore Type in Greek Sculpture. Adapting a methodology that she had already applied to convincing effect in her equally influential monograph on the kouroi, Richter arranged all of the korai, including the Acropolis examples, primarily according to her conception of an advancing naturalism evidenced by the sculptor's increasing ability to render volume and three-dimensionality and to break through the limitations imposed by the shape and dimensions of the block. That Richter's groupings of the korai as well as the methodological principles on which they are based have emerged substantially intact after more than three decades suggests that her chronology as well as its premise is sensible and therefore likely to be correct. As a sign of the resilience of Richter's methodologies, and serving as well as a tribute to her work, Claude Rolley, in a major recent French-language survey of Archaic and Early Classical art, devotes a portion of a chapter to a critique of Richter's approach.
However, a less fortunate result of Richter's hold on the scholarly literature has been that all of the korai, regardless of quality, are first and foremost thought of as examples of a fixed, predetermined type; in other words, what unites them is privileged over what differentiates them. The wording of Richter's own subtitle acknowledges its focus on this aspect of the korai. The notion of the korai as types has remained firmly entrenched, resistant to new ideas, in spite of much subsequent scholarship that has sought to expand the parameters of the discourse on these images. In this study, while neither directly assailing nor undervaluing Richter's schemata, I present an alternative way of viewing the Acropolis korai which I believe has not been seriously entertained since the late nineteenth century and even then not fully explored: that these statues display a concern for a kind of individuality, for a mimetic modality that can even be considered realistic, and that this modality is not necessarily exceptional for the age in which the korai were created. Thus, "conceiving realism" applies both to the existence of an Archaic mentalité that is sympathetic with the idea of mimetic realism and to the subtle charge to the reader to conceive of the possibility that realism is present in a style of art in which it is almost never thought to be present.
It may be useful to pursue, for a moment, an analogy with a style of art which, like the Greek Archaic, is not often associated with realism but perhaps should be: Analytical Cubism of the early years of the twentieth century. It is no accident that styles as dissimilar as Archaic Greek, Romanesque, tribal, and early Modern are discussed in nearly identical aesthetic terms. These styles do share many qualities, including a notion of mimetic realism and even portraiture that is fully functional in a nonclassical, nonnaturalistic idiom. Analytical Cubist portraits, for example, are effective as conveyors of a set of individualistic characteristics that coalesce into a distinct personality, while at the same time being difficult to decipher from a formal point of view—in other words, they are abstract. Yet, in spite of the arcane formal language of its presentation, it is unlikely that the art dealer D.-H. Kahnweiler might be known any better or more satisfyingly than in Picasso's portrait of 1910. A sufficient number of informative details are present; the viewer has but to put them together. A photograph of another sitter, Wilhelm Uhde, and Picasso's 1910 portrait of the same are often reproduced side by side for comparison. Since only the essential particularized features of the man are reproduced, the painting conveys a more potent image than the somewhat characterless photograph, even though the latter is more easily legible.
It is a mistake to assume, as is commonly done, that photographic reality represents the highest degree of realism achievable in a work of art and that photography should be the gauge by which all other realism in art is judged. It is fair to say that mimetic realism was an achievable goal in periods and places that did not know the paradigm offered by the photographic replica. Furthermore, the optical correctness of photography has itself been regarded with suspicion from the very beginning of its history. Apollinaire, who knew photography, nonetheless recognized the unique placement of the new Cubist modality in the centuries-old quest for artistic realism when he remarked in a program note to the 1917 production of Erik Satie's ballet Parade, with Cubist sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso: "This realism, or this Cubism, whichever you prefer [my emphasis], is what has most deeply stirred the arts during the last ten years." Apparently realism and Cubism were thought of as synonyms by the creators of the style, among whom was Apollinaire, a notion that is every bit as astonishing at the beginning of the present century as it must have been at the beginning of the last. Similarly, a notion that bemused Classical Greeks and eludes the modern viewer, that Archaic Greeks thought of the figures that they produced as nothing other than realistic, went just as surely unquestioned by the original viewers.
The term "mimesis" in its nominal, adjectival, and adverbial forms appears throughout this study; its usage must be clarified. Mimesis is the act of imitating nature; mimetic realism is the result. Mimesis is generally thought to be etymologically derived from mime, a dramatic artform, a derivation which attests the fact that the mimetic act has never been confined to the visual arts. Successful mimesis results in lifelikeness, or trueness-to-life, sometimes to an astonishing degree. However, in part because of its origins in the art of acting, there is always an inherent deceit, or counterfeit, associated with the product of the successful mimetic act. A mimetic object may be a perfect facsimile, but it is never the real thing. A mimetically realistic work of art invariably signals trickery; it invites comparisons with nature and carries overtones of accomplishing the impossible or the unlikely, of matching or even besting nature. When used of the visual arts, mimesis should not be equated with naturalism, since naturalism refers to a stylistic mode rather than an act. Naturalism can aid in the achievement of mimetic realism, but it is not essential to successful mimesis, and above all should not be considered a synonym for either mimesis or realism, but rather one choice among many as a means of access. "Mimesis" (as the act) and "mimetic realism," or simply "realism," (as the visual result) shall be used largely interchangeably of the phenomenon which this study explores. Thus far the crux of the present argument may be stated as follows: Some Archaic works of art are not necessarily very naturalistic but they are realistic, in that they are successful essays in mimesis. The fact that they are not very naturalistic does not automatically disqualify them from being realistic.
Naturalism and realism are not synonymous terms or concepts, although they often are treated as if they are. Naturalism can be said to indicate the degree to which a work of visual art successfully matches, visually, what most human beings would agree to be the actual appearance of nature or physical reality. In other words, the naturalistic work of art is one that matches what is seen as judged by the same eye that sees it. It is therefore directly dependent upon the way we see, upon optics; therefore naturalistic art can be said to be optically correct. The closer a work of art is to optical correctness, the more like natural appearances it seems. The eye is the arbiter, rather than the intellect or the emotions. With this said, it must be cautioned that what most human beings agree to be naturalistic can change from place to place, from era to era. Even idealized images can and should be regarded as naturalistic if they seem to represent appearances correctly at any given time and place.
Classical Greek art and all the arts of the Classical tradition are almost exclusively naturalistic; in fact naturalism can be said to be the chief distinguishing characteristic of Classical styles of art. Yet the character of naturalism itself changes even during the narrow course of the Classical period proper, between the time that Polykleitos (mid-fifth century B.C.) was working and the time of Lysippos (second half of the fourth century B.C.). On the contrary, with the great exception of the Amarna period, Egyptian art is almost never described as naturalistic, although much of it comes quite close to being naturalistic in the way that Classical art is. This is because contrapposto, what we have come to regard as the essential ingredient of naturalism, as a result of the Classical artist's virtual obsession with it, is absent from Egyptian art.
There is little justification for discussing Archaic art in terms of strict fidelity to natural appearances, or naturalism; it may even be a little unfair. To do this would be to diminish what is best about Archaic art, to wring the life out of it, to disregard what it does better or different than the art of later periods. It may be many things, awkward, clumsy, funny, strange, just plain wrong, but it wears its freshness well over a longer period of time than does the Classical. Its naiveté could be seen as a reflection of the tendency of Archaic Greeks to see and name things and parts of things for what they are, not for the qualities which make them what they are, a presocratic construing of the world which Alexander Mourelatos has called "the naive metaphysics of things."14 Unlike the Classical, which all too soon degenerates into what might be called an academic style, Archaic art may be formulaic, but it never becomes academic. The style seems impervious to the organic theories about the development and decline of forms which have been applied with varying degrees of success to other historical styles. And, most important, I would argue that Archaic art, at its highest levels of execution, is capable, in its way, like the best Analytical Cubism of Picasso and Braque, of attaining realism in spite of its less than perfect naturalism. While the history of Western art would include a number of nonclassical styles which would repeat this feat, it would never be repeated in the Graeco-Roman period.
Optical correctness (= naturalism) is not the only "correctness" in the visual arts. The term "realism" has both a broader and a far more complex visual and conceptual frame of reference than does the term "naturalism." All works of art which are naturalistic are not necessarily also realistic, and works of art which are realistic need not also be naturalistic. In other words, to say that naturalism is optional in a realistic work of art is neither the paradox nor the contradiction in terms that it may at first seem. What then is realism? The very word "realism" inherently implies that it may be something like reality but never reality itself; therefore we must seek a definition that is exclusive to the making of art and which will involve artifice to some degree or other, since artifice and its consequence, artifactuality, the means and the end, are what set art apart from nature. We have seen the inadvisability of preserving the notion that realism in any style or period of art is commensurate with naturalistic depiction. Any definition should then be broad enough to apply both to naturalistic styles of art and to nonnaturalistic styles of art, and therein may lie the greatest obstacle to conceiving realism for the modern mind.
This study proposes and proceeds on the premise that the essence of realism in any work of art lies in the accretion of information and meaning provided by accumulating layers of detail. These details may be stylistic or iconographic, intellectually erudite or philosophical, subtle or overt, aesthetically or extra-artistically inspired; the more of them there are, the more realistic an image will seem to the viewer. Realism in a work of art can be as simple as this: If more lines are inscribed in a length of flowing drapery, whether or not those lines conform to prevailing notions of optical correctness or reality itself, that drapery will appear more realistic than if fewer lines were indicated; the rendering of drapery in the Parthenon pediments compared with the pediments of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia may be cited to illustrate the point. Or it may be as complicated, if we may again turn to a useful postclassical example, as the following: It has been shown that Michelangelo turned to ancient physiognomic theory to formulate his image of David, noting that the similarly youthful and audacious Alexander the Great was deemed leonine in appearance and that the lion was also the ancient symbol of Florence; thus, Michelangelo's marble colossus has flowing, leonine locks. These, along with additional references and allusions which result in a highly complex, distinctive, and erudite iconography, make Michelangelo's portrait of David more realistic than, say, an image of David from a medieval manuscript which conveys little more information about the biblical giant-slayer than that he was a boy with a sling.
Whether of a formal or an iconographical nature, the more information given about the subject of a work of art, the more realistic the results are likely to be judged to be. It will be noted that little of this is directly related to reality itself, even in the form in which it is best known, nature, or the visible world. This allows, then, images of people who cannot necessarily have been seen by the artist, such as gods, mythological and biblical figures, and, in some cases, the dead, to be considered realistic as well. Rather than being copied, nature is imitated, in Aristotle's sense, as if the artist is a quasi-divine creator. This is mimesis. As does nature, so the artist, starting with his knowledge of the characteristics of something, applies his technical skills and "brings to life" (that is, mimes) a convincing portrayal detail by informative detail. He may or may not be "matching" visually, but he is "making," to use E. H. Gombrich's well-known terms. A simplified version of the intellectual progression that leads to mimetic realism might go something like this: man; man with beard; man with beard and fine wavy hair; man with beard, fine wavy hair, and wart, and so on.
Thus defined, realism is then the exact opposite of idealization. For to idealize is to simplify, while to render realistic is to complicate. Idealization involves a reduction in visual information and a subsequent raising of the evidence of artifice; consequently there is a reduction in the range of possible meanings conveyed about the subject of the artwork, in other words, in the very details that lead to an impression of realism. Artifactuality is given more conceptual space than nature. The more the work of art is inflected by artifice, at the expense of informative details which can be verified by consulting nature or, in lieu of that, memory, the farther from mimetic realism it drifts. It is a long-held truism that idealization is the predominant characteristic of Greek art as a whole, that Greek art throughout it history concerned itself more with the universal than with the particular. It is also true, however, that even in its most paradigmatic form, the art of the High Classical period, this art never ceases to betray a concern for realism at some level. Arguing that a form of realism is present in a style of art in which it has not often been sought leads to the startling but inevitable conclusion that some degree of realism is seldom altogether absent from a work of figural art, reflecting something elemental and abiding about the practice of making images, of the act of imitating nature, in Aristotle's sense. Just how powerful is the association between image-making and the generation of life is demonstrated by the fact that creator gods like Hephaistos, Athena, Prometheus, and the Egyptians Ptah, Imhotep, and Khnum are all metaphorical artisans, just as real-life artisans are metaphorical creators. These self-referential conflations become so intertwined that the term "metaphor" no longer aptly describes them; they are quite simply truth.
The Poetics of Appearance
Proceeding from the notional definition of realism just articulated, this study proposes a new way of viewing the Attic korai. In gathering together ancient evidence, both visual and verbal, both direct and indirect, that these statues are highly individualized, mimetically realistic—on the terms just outlined—representations of Archaic young women, my conclusions challenge some of the most venerable and most tenacious truisms about ancient art, that the korai, like their male counterparts, the kouroi, are no more than types, that they represent idealized images of female beauty, and that these characteristics would seem to preclude any possibility that the statues could be realistic. Through primary evidence, the reader will be introduced to a way of conceiving realism in pre-Classical Greek art and, more specifically, to conceiving it in the korai under discussion.
It will be seen that the expression "poetics of appearance" in the book's title alludes both to the methodology of applying the evidence of literature to a consideration of the question of realism in Archaic visual arts, and to the conclusion that physical appearance, in the form of dress, gait, bearing, and accoutrements, especially in the case of women, is paramount in any perception of realism in the art of this period. It should be noted that the use of the term "poetics" has little directly in common with a current theoretical approach called "cultural poetics," which involves an appropriation of the term whose fitness for the use to which it is being put might in fact be debatable but which has proved a useful designation to describe the shared interests of an interdisciplinary group of scholars among whom the label and the loosely defined endeavor have found acceptance. Poetics, however, as the title of Aristotle's treatise indicates, refers quite simply to the ways and means of poetry. I am using the term in its traditional sense, with a twist. The lovely physical appearances of the korai are and have always been judged to be no less than poetic and, more literally, I enlist actual poetry to aid in elucidating them.
The study opens with a historiography of the statues, in other words, a brief synopsis of the written history of the korai, including a discussion of the evolution of aesthetic appreciation in modern times which has resulted in the general consensus, challenged in this study, that the statues are idealized, generic, and repetitive types. In addition it is argued that the early descriptions of the korai, written when much of their painted polychromy was still in place, now form an essential part of the statues' historiography. Chapter Two consists of visual analyses, supplemented by information now available only through the early descriptions, which reveal that, rather than homogeneity, distinctiveness is their most salient characteristic. The korai are justly celebrated for their elaborate coiffures, each distinguishable from the next by its particular arrangement of a combination of crimps, braids, and curls. The variety of their garments and other accoutrements is also commonly acknowledged. However, all of this evidence is rarely treated as a sign of the degree of intentional, calculated differentiation among the statues. Even less frequently appreciated is the fact that faces and figures are also individualized. This chapter treats the purely visual characteristics, that is, the materiality of the korai.
Chapter Three adduces literary and archaeological evidence to suggest that an untheorized, but nonetheless intentional, conception of likeness in art that borders on portraiture existed in the pre-Classical period, but that it manifested itself in ways that are not entirely consistent with modern expectations. It cannot, however, be overemphasized that my proposition that the korai are mimetically realistic images does not stand or fall on the conclusion that the korai are portraits of real individuals; the very notion of portraiture is too fluid a concept to be applied systematically to the arts of all periods and places, and is especially problematic in the case of unnamed statues like the Acropolis korai. For these reasons, when the term "portrait" is used in this study, it is usually enclosed in inverted commas to indicate that it is being applied with qualifications. Chapter Four contextualizes the korai through an examination of the relevant written material, including poetry, literature, and history, which, as a verbal parallel to the korai figures, similarly reflects on the demeanor and appearance of young women in the Archaic period. This evidence will complement the visual evidence presented in Chapter Two and broaden the base of support for the thesis that the korai represent mimetically realistic images of Archaic women.
Poetry will again provide the comparanda in the final chapter, a single case study of a completely preserved Attic monument, the kore Phrasikleia with its inscribed base, which, unlike the Acropolis group, all of which served a votive function, was made to mark a grave. Once more interweaving verbal and visual evidence, this funerary image is systematically decoded to disclose the synthetic likeness that it was arguably intended to be.
The Kore as Type
What does all of this imply, ultimately, about the kore as a type in comparison with the kouros? Quite a bit, actually. It has long been noticed that the kouros type is more numerous and has a wider distribution over the Archaic Greek world than does the kore, a fact which suggests that the male form was always a more versatile format whose range of perceived usefulness was more flexible than the female. The kouros' nudity offered a virtual tabula rasa of interpretation imposed or deduced by the maker, the patron, and the viewer which lent itself neatly to acclimation to the occasion and locale, whereas the dressed kore automatically accrued some degree of iconographical specificity, intentional or not. Not surprisingly, given the potential, as well as the constraint, of greater iconographical specificity, the kore was more restricted in use and in distribution. The great majority were votive; merely a handful were certainly funerary, Phrasikleia being the outstanding extant example. And by far the most and finest korai occur on the Acropolis of Athens. Thus, the phenomenon of "kore" may be said to be particular, if not necessarily exclusive, to the Acropolis of Athens.
At first glance, one could assume that the ideological framework of the Acropolis group was extraordinary because the statues themselves are extraordinary. But the context for korai on the Acropolis is the type's primary context and only appears exceptional when it is assumed that the kore is exactly analogous to the kouros. Because the Acropolis is the locus classicus, so to speak, of the kore in the High Archaic period, its function there should logically be regarded as the referent for its function elsewhere. The Acropolis kore is the norm for the type, not the exception, thereby paradoxically rendering, if one follows the argument to come, mimetic realism the norm for the type rather than the exception. The paradox is that, while the kore is still, by later artistic standards, a type, the limited and specialized case of its principal occurrence being on the Acropolis of Athens allows, unlike the kouroi, for the narrowing of the possibilities of its meaning to the determinant/s of its specific function on the Acropolis. This use, as it turns out, is perfectly in keeping with the kore's pre-Acropolis history.
It is generally acknowledged that the Acropolis korai, and the kore as a type, are genealogically descended from a seventh-century B.C. statuary prototype which flourished first on the islands and in Asia Minor. It has long been suspected, and in a few cases certified, that islanders might even have sculpted the Attic examples; Phrasikleia, for one, certainly was made by Aristion of Paros. These early korai were votive and arguably meant as representations of a worshiper, who is occasionally named; none appears to be a goddess. Their intended function as Stellvertreter ('place-takers') is virtually certain. As the type gained a foothold on the Acropolis, the simpler style of the earlier images, which limits any perception of mimetic realism, was superseded by the advanced Archaic style, which offered new scope for aesthetics and the exploitation of iconography. What is missing on the Acropolis are names, for any number of reasons, but the function of the kore as place-taker was carried over. The marker of name is replaced by the marker of visual individualization and differentiation.
Although, or perhaps because, the Attic Korai are among the most well known and beloved of all ancient works of art and have been studied for so long by so many, a fresh interpretation of them is overdue. These statues have sometimes been the victims of their fame, with the result that they are seldom viewed with true objectivity, independent of the vast scholarly apparatus which has grown about them over the many decades since their dramatic recovery. In fact, so accustomed are we to the "official" modern views of the Acropolis korai that it may be by now impossible to revisit them without the encumbrance of scholarship that these images trail behind them as they do their flowing chitons, and it may be presumptuous to suggest that one may begin to find one's way to interpretation simply by looking and trusting, in the manner of the earliest commentators, in the judgment of the eye. Unlike the viewers of the late nineteenth century, viewers of the present may not enjoy the luxury of seeing these statues and commenting upon them for the first time in their long history, or of an honest, dispassionate scholarly response. But as long as these statues are there for the looking, the urge to understand them will prove irresistible to some. In offering a new way to view the korai, as an alternative or as a complement to the traditional interpretations, it is hoped that some of the ideas presented in this study, as with previous studies both grander and more modest which likewise fail to explain them completely, may find a place in the historiography of these magnificent images and, perhaps more important, in the minds and eyes of those who continue to want to look at them. At best, if it compels the first-time viewer or the recurrent viewer to take another, longer look at the Attic korai, this study will have served its purpose.