Sunday, August 15, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
E. Anne Mackay, Tradition and Originality: A Study of Exekias. BAR International Series 2092. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2010. Pp. xiii, 413; 86 p. of plates, 29 p. of charts. ISBN 9781407305684. �75.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Mary B. Moore, Hunter College, CUNY

[The Table of Contents appears at the end of the review.]

Anne Mackay's interest in Exekias began with her 1982 dissertation, Exekias: A Chronology of His Potting and Painting, and the painter has been a friendly presence in her life ever since. Her new book has had a long gestation but it was well worth the wait. Mackay examined first hand all but two of the 30 extant vases that comprise the work of Exekias; two others, known today only from photographs, bring the total to 32.

Exekias was not a prolific artist, but his achievement in the Attic black-figured technique is rivaled only by that of Kleitias, Nearchos and the Amasis Painter. As a potter, he was instrumental in developing and perfecting the amphora Type A, the eye cup, and the variant of neck-amphora that became standard in the last decades of the sixth century B. C. He also produced two sets of handsome funerary plaques, which are not part of this study.1 Exekias's sensitivity to shapes and the ornaments and compositions that decorate them is particularly laudable. Meticulously incised line combined with restrained use of accessory red and white creates a perfect balance between texture, glaze and color. They are the intrinsic characteristics of Exekias's work that not only define his style, but also establish his artistic personality. His figures have enormous dignity, often expressing sensitive emotions in a restrained manner; bold gestures are kept to a minimum; movements are never exaggerated; tragic situations are more poignant by being understated. Inscriptions not only identify figures, but are an integral part of the composition. Nearly every one of his vases offers something new. Unlike his contemporaries, Exekias often shunned the high point of a narrative and chose the moment before or after the greatest action. A good example is the Boulogne amphora (558: cat. no. 21, pl. 59, top) where Ajax prepares to commit suicide. The usual composition shows the hero fallen upon his sword and Greeks gesturing excitedly. Exekias focused on the loneliness of this destructive act and lets the viewer imagine its tragic aftermath. Some scenes are restful: a warrior grazes his horse, a quiet moment between man and beast (Philadelphia MS 4873: cat. no. 24, pl. 67, top); Oinopion offers wine to his father Dionysos (London 1836.2-24.127, ex B 209: cat. no. 31, pl. 75, lower). Exekias painted some memorable horses, e.g., Kastor's noble horse on Vatican 344 (cat. 32, pl. 78, lower); the fallen and dying chariot horse on the amphora in a Swiss private collection (cat. no. 23, pl. 64, top). Exekias may have been the first Athenian artist to record ethnic differences, e.g., Memnon's Ethiopian squires have distinct African features (Philadelphia MS 3442: cat. no. 27, pl. 70 top and London 1849.5-18.10, ex B 209: cat. no. 18, pls. 50, below, 51); the Oriental archer on the other side of the Philadelphia amphora wears colorful eastern dress (MS 4873: pl. 67, lower). These few examples merely hint at the richness and diversity, as well as the innovation and sensitivity of Exekias's subjects. Thus, it is all the more surprising that there has been no detailed study of his work until now; some painters with less talent and more vases to show for it were luckier. Mackay's monograph on Exekias is not only an important contribution to the study of later sixth century Athenian vase painting but it will not be superseded by another study of this painter for a long time to come.

In the Introduction, Mackay sets out her main objectives: 1) to offer a full description and an analysis of each vase signed by or attributed to Exekias; 2) to propose a relative chronology based on her analyses. Athenian potters and painters were bound by firmly established traditions in which innovation took place very slowly. Mackay shows that Exekias often used traditional elements but adapted or combined them in new and imaginative ways. Some of his scenes may even be unique, e.g., Dionysos in his boat (Munich 8729, ex 2044: cat. no. 20, pl. 55) or Ajax preparing to commit suicide on the Boulogne amphora. Mackay is particularly object-oriented and she is interested in the reception of Exekias's work by his contemporaries within the context of sixth century Athens. This has been a leitmotif in her work (see p. 5, n. 35). Mackay admits this is a risky proposition, but well worth an investigation, even if the results can only be speculative owing to the dearth of hard facts and the relative lack of external evidence such as how long a vase remained in Athens after it left the kiln. Mackay is not interested in joining colleagues who prefer to apply modern critical theory to the ancient world rather than tackle the more difficult questions posed by the objects themselves or address the historical and cultural ambience in which the artists created their work.

The catalogue forms most of the book and the 32 vases are described and examined in the chronological arrangement Mackay established during the course of her research (see the chart on p. 359). Bibliographical references are kept to a minimum: Beazley, including the Archive, and LIMC. Mackay begins each entry with dimensions and condition, shape and ornament, as well as added color and inscriptions where applicable. Then comes a very careful description of each scene. Signatures by Exekias and inscriptions naming figures as well as those praising youths are discussed in the course of presentation. Mackay's account of each vase focuses not only on the physical drawing and its subtlety, but also on how the artist's figures 'communicate' with one another and with the viewer. The entries are written with great clarity and are full of new observations prompted by Mackay's keen eye for detail and nuance as well as the patience required to look long and hard. She does not overlook even the tiniest detail and every observation is carefully incorporated into the text. The result is a long description of each scene, but well worth a close reading. My favorite among her new discoveries is the small grazing deer Exekias incised on the richly decorated chlamys worn by Achilles on the Vatican amphora (color plate Ic). To my knowledge, no one has ever observed this charming detail.

An analysis of the subject follows the description of each composition and forms the core of the book. Mackay not only investigates comparable representations of the scenes, but also includes references to pertinent literary sources and historical events that may be relevant. A few examples will illustrate the author's approach to the iconography. Subjects with inscribed figures are unquestioned, e.g., Ajax and Achilles playing a board game on the Vatican amphora (pl. 78, top), but when there are no inscriptions or if Athena is not present in other playing scenes, Mackay challenges the assumption that the participants must be Ajax and Achilles. She suggests the contest with anonymous players might simply be a metaphor for conflict in battle. For scenes without inscribed figures, identification may be problematic. A good example is the reverse of Orvieto, Faina 2745, ex F 187 (cat. no. 17, pls.46 and 48). It looks like a standard chariot departure with accompanying attendants, including a child. But Mackay asks: who is the woman standing on the left hand side of the chariot holding up a well-crafted metal corselet for all to see? She wonders if this might be a subtle reference to the famous ruse pulled off by Peisistratos when he reinstated his tyranny by driving his chariot into Athens accompanied by Phye, a statuesque woman disguised as Athena (Herodotos I.60). Probably not, because Athena should wear an aegis, not a corselet, and Exekias's scene may postdate the event by too much time to be relevant, but the idea is intriguing. The scene on the inside of the famous cup in Munich with Dionysos sailing his boat over the sea accompanied by dolphins looks straight forward (pl. 55). Many authors, including the reviewer, connected it with the Homeric Hymn to Dionysos where pirates kidnap the god who transformed them into dolphins. Mackay casts about for other interpretations and among them wonders if this might be a reference to Dionysos as wine-god sailing from Naxos to Athens where he would be celebrated annually at the Anthesteria. Mackay likes to play the devil's advocate and occasionally I think she goes a little too far, e.g., the Philadelphia amphora (pls. 69-71). The reverse depicts the death of Antilochos (inscribed). In the left hand third of the obverse, Menelaos (inscribed) is about to kill one of Memnon's Ethiopians (inscribed Amasos). The rest of the obverse depicts the rescue of an enormous corpse (inscribed above his outstretched legs: ]ΙΛΕΟΣ, retr. ). The subject has always been titled: Ajax lifting the body of Achilles (the far right part of the panel is lost and filled in with plaster). Mackay thinks the inscription names the rescuer, not the corpse: Achilles tries to confiscate the body of Memnon, whom he has slain. If so, the scenes on the vase would occur within a single time frame of the war. This is a little like bending the nail so one can hit it on the head. Achilles was slain in the same epic as Memnon, the Aithiopis. The inscription should name the corpse and the huge size of it and Ajax compared with the other figures on the vase argues for this interpretation; they were, after all, the two most prominent Greeks at Troy. Ajax's name would fit nicely in the upper right of the panel now missing.

These few examples of the author's inclination to question the standard interpretation of a subject and identification of figures may stand for many and there is no way to prove these suggestions are correct or incorrect, but they urge us to look at the vases with an open mind. Far from being annoying and inconsequential, they are interesting and thought-provoking. It is also reassuring that Mackay never insists that her suggestions should be accepted without question; she reminds us that interpretations often need to be reassessed. All of this is as rich and rewarding as one could hope for, if at times a bit daunting, but in the end the reader gains a fuller understanding of the complexity of Exekias's work and acquires an enormous appreciation for his accomplishments.

One point of disagreement concerns the horse and rider on the obverse of Louvre F 206 (cat. no. 7, pl. 18 top). I do not think the rider is wounded because the hurled spear does not penetrate him—the contour of his lower back overlaps the shaft as it whizzes past him. His horse has stumbled to its knees and the rider tries to help it regain its balance. He faces outward; if he were wounded, his head would be lowered and his torso slumped forward. This rider is in perfect control.

Mackay dis-attributes four vases (pp. 353-358, pls. 80-84): the Brauron pyxis (already questioned by Mommsen2), the Agora calyx-krater, fragments of an amphora Type A in the collection of the late Herbert Cahn, and the Dublin neck-amphora. Beazley hesitated about attributing the pyxis and the neck-amphora; he never knew the Cahn fragments. At the conference in Amsterdam in 1998, Mackay set out her reasons for rejecting the attribution of the calyx-krater to Exekias and proposed a painter in the workshop of the Lysippides Painter;3 in the present volume she suggests it might be by the Mastos Painter.

"Chronology" (pp. 360-371) is based on stylistic criteria discussed in the previous section and is prefaced by a handy schematic chronological table (p. 359). The vases appear in columns implying this is the order in which each was made. It would have been useful to bracket those grouped together when there is no compelling evidence for the sequence of production. General dates for each of the four chronological phases would have been useful. "Conclusions" (pp. 373-386) offers a concise summary of this study and is especially useful for it provides an excellent overview of the whole book. For newcomers to vase painting, I recommend reading this first.

The planar maps of complex scenes clarify the density of some of Exekias's compositions, visible in photographs, but emphasized in 'aerial view' (Appendix C: pp. 395-398). An excellent bibliography and a short general index conclude the text.

The 78 black and white plates are for the most part of good quality, with some exceptions which have unfortunate glares. Just two color plates seem a bit stingy, given the ready availability of color digital photography. The six charts of comparative details of human and equine anatomy, as well as the four of ornament, are immensely useful.

Correction: The old accession number for the neck-amphora in the British Museum given in the captions to pls. 74-76 should be B 210, not B 209.

The major flaw of this book has nothing to do with the author or the book's content. The book is printed on very good quality paper; it is 426 pages plus 84 plates and 10 chronological charts that total 27 pages and it weighs nearly 4 pounds! Why then was this heavy book issued in paper back instead of hard cover? Even when carefully handled, the book falls apart in the hands of a serious reader who has to toggle between text, bibliography and plates and this is absolutely maddening.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix-x
Abbreviations xi
Preface and Acknowledgements xiii
Introduction 1-9
Catalogue of Vases 11-386
A. The methodology of determining Exekias's chronology 387-393
B. Table of comparative measurements (amphorae) 394
C. Schematic planar 'maps' indicating depth of field in complex scenes 395-398
Bibliography 399-410
General index 411-413
Photographic plates
Chronological charts


1.   Mackay omitted Exekias's funerary plaques because these appeared in a splendid monograph by Heide Mommsen, Exekias I. Die Grabtafeln, Mainz/Rhein, 1997.
2.   Heide Mommsen, "Siegreiche Gespannpferde," Antike Kunst 45, 2002, p. 36.
3.   E. Anne Mackay, "Exekias's Calyx-krater Revisited. Reconsidering the Attribution of Agora AP 1044" in Proceedings of the XVth International Congress of Classical Archaeology, Amsterdam, July 12-17, 1998, Amsterdam, 1999, pp. 247-251.

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