Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Thomas Brisart, Un art citoyen: recherches sur l'orientalisation des artisanats en Grèce proto-archaïque. Mémoire de la Classe des Lettres. Collection in-8°, 3e série, 54. Bruxelles: Académie royale de Belgique, 2011. Pp. 352. ISBN 9782803102785. € 25.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Carolina López-Ruiz, The Ohio State University (

Version at BMCR home site

Brisart's book on orientalizing art is much more than an art-historical study: It furthers our understanding of early Greece, particularly of how the artistic innovation we call "orientalizing" is inseparable from the crystallization of the polis from the end of the eighth through the seventh centuries BCE. Moreover, Brisart takes the refreshing approach of going beyond the "who" and "where" questions that occupy most of the bibliography. He is not primarily interested in the modes or agents of transmission, much debated elsewhere, but instead makes a concrete proposal for the much needed "why" and "how" of that type of art, integrating it within the mechanics of polis-formation and socio- cultural change in the post-Geometric/pre-archaic era. He does so by grounding his analysis in specific archaeological contexts, from which he extrapolates a possible larger pattern that, he admits, will have to be corroborated and nuanced by further studies of this type of material in other sites.

The book is organized in three parts. In Part One (entitled "Technê"), Brisart discusses general issues, such as the definition of orientalizing art, his methods and sources, the types of materials included, and the scope of his work. Part Two ("Agôn") begins with chapter 3 on the nature of orientalizing art as a mode of social recognition for the elites in the formative city-states and its relationship with oriental cultures. He then moves on to focus on the materials proper, using several case studies to build the arguments summarized above. Chapter 4 treats in detail the orientalizing materials from the necropoleis of Argos and Athens, as well as orientalizing tripods and other ostentatious offerings. Chapter 5 discusses the contexts of aristocratic banquets, athletic competitions, and the use of perfumes. All the while the author accompanies the detailed archaeological account with discussion of texts, especially Homer and other archaic poetry. Finally, Part Three ("Polis") includes three chapters on Crete: Chapter 6 begins with Cretan archaic society and polis formation (including textual evidence) and the place of orientalizing art in that context; a discussion follows (Ch. 7) of the materials from Aphrati (central-east Crete), focusing on the pithoi with reliefs, used in communal banqueting (as opposed to private exhibition), the orientalizing ceramics from burials, and the decorated armor also associated with public banqueting (andreion). Chapter 8, in turn, discusses the so-called Daedalic art of Crete, that is, orientalizing sculpture mostly associated with cultic architecture (temple A at Prinias and a sanctuary south of the acropolis of Gortyn), as well as votive terracotta figures (from the acropolis at Gortyn), representing either goddesses, devotees, or, as Brisart proposes, an abstract set of concepts associated with coming-of-age rites (300-304). Finally, a thorough and clear recapitulation of all the arguments in the conclusion compensates for the rather intricate organization of the book. Unfortunately, an index of any kind (topics, sites) is missing.

First, I will summarize the most salient methodological arguments Brisart makes about orientalizing art in general, and then turn to its connection with polis formation. Brisart deliberately chooses the aseptic "proto-archaic" as a label for the period (56), insisting that "orientalizing" is a style. This detachment aids the perception throughout the book that we first need to understand the socio-political phenomena and then (independently) account for the material culture that accompanies them. We should note, however, that he accepts "Geometric," also labeled after an artistic style, as a period. Also, Brisart defends the much-debated term "orientalizing"1 on important grounds: The category has been called vague and criticized for its association with an "Orient" that is in itself an artificial construction that blurs together the diverse civilizations of the Near East. However, it does reflect a functioning concept (artificial though it may be) in a culture like Greece that self-consciously 'orientalizes,' a concept quite similar in both ancient and modern times in its vagueness and allure. Paraphrasing Brisart, if the ancient Greeks developed an art that evoked in a global manner the prosperity and luxury they attributed to the populations east of the Greek world, as expressed in archaic Greek texts, then "orientalizing art" is a perfectly justifiable term (55-56). Finally, in terms of the specific materials, Brisart rightly points out that we need to distinguish between oriental imports, their imitations, and orientalizing art proper, which is Greek in essence and manufacture, and oriental only in inspiration (a "reminiscence") (57-58). In these distinctions he follows recent work by Gunter (Greek Art and the Orient, Cambridge, 2009), who was especially worried about the confusion that imitations and imports produce. Brisart is more optimistic as to the existence of an identifiable Greek-made orientalizing art, and argues that among some of the imitations Greek features can be discerned (e.g., in some ivories and faience objects) (63).

The author admits the difficulties of drawing precise contours around what he counts as legitimately orientalizing. Still, a wide range of decorated pottery, metal objects such as cauldrons, protomes with griffins, and decorated armor, pithoi with relief decorations, terracotta figurines, so-called Daedalic sculptures and architectural sculpture (all discussed in his case studies), in addition to faience objects and ivories (not treated in detail), all populate Brisart's study, accounting for the majority of artisanal production in the proto-archaic century and a half. Still, there is a smaller body of Greek materials with no strong orientalizing features, which continue the geometric tradition. More importantly, as he points out, continuities with Geometric decorative syntax, traced in painted pottery and typically Greek objects such as cauldrons and tripods, exemplify the functional and typological continuity from the earlier Iron Age, to which the oriental-izing elements are added (61). In this sense, he insists, this Greek- made art, distinctive enough from the oriental prototypes, allows the proto-archaic Greeks to fashion themselves on equal footing with their oriental peers (they can do it by themselves and in their own way).

How are these materials connected to socio-political changes? The starting point is that orientalizing art, with its evocation of a more sophisticated and rich world, was part of the search for new modes of social recognition, and thus functioned always (and presumably everywhere) in the service of elites (322). Accordingly, the use of these artifacts when they were made should vary depending on the different dynamics in different cities between the elites and the rest of the population (322). The author follows other scholars, especially Ian Morris, in proposing that there were two models of polis formation (notwithstanding the unlimited range of variants in between): In the first model, citizen rights were expanded considerably, and the new citizen body exceeded the smaller circle of the elite. In this model the aristocracy is not a bound class but an "open entity," accessible through certain modes of competition. In the second model, extension of citizen rights was more reduced and citizens and elite are one and the same, striving to guard their privileges over the rest of the population. Brisart analyzes the particular contexts in which orientalizing objects were used in sites that represent both models (which in turn is supported by a combination of literary, epigraphical, and archaeological evidence) and finds that orientalizing art seems to function in ways that correspond to and confirm the two models, hence this type of art is inseparable from the processes of polis formation that it serves.

To be more specific, in societies that fit the first model, such as Argos and Athens (dealt with in Part Two), orientalizing art is associated with the new modes of recognition typical of so-called "agonistic cities:" formal burials now practiced by a larger part of the population, ostentatious religious offerings, aristocratic banquets, athletic games, and the use of exotic perfumes. All these are contexts in which the newly enfranchised citizens could access or aspire to an enhanced status. In the second type of polis, by contrast, exemplified by conservative Crete, the elite is the citizen body and, thus, orientalizing art is used as a means of reinforcing the existing breach between that elite and the rest of the population. There, we do not find orientalizing objects in association with private (aristocratic) banquets, athletic performances, and perfumes, but rather with civic institutions that reinforce elite cohesion, such as public banquets (andreia or syssitia), the establishment of civic necropoleis and temples, and aristocratic warfare.

Inevitably, a number of general questions remain unanswered – questions that this work does not pretend to answer or even ask. Brisart's goal, after all, is to "understand the reasons of the artisan's orientalization" (67). Even so, what his work explains, to be precise, is not why the orientalizing trend emerged but how it worked in Greek communities, that is, the ways in which this type of art served undergoing political processes. We should not forget that a similar phenomenon is attested in contemporary cultures, which entered into contact with the Near Eastern trading routes, especially via Phoenician activity (Etruscans, Tartessians in southern Spain, Sardinians). To answer the question of why an oriental-like art developed at a particular time and place, we still need to resort to the old issue of historical contacts (treated summarily in Ch.1) and the ways of transmission, which the author admittedly avoids (44). After all, orientalizing art cannot be separated from Phoenician expansion, Greek colonization, new or re-opened trading routes, and cultural contact and exchange. In other words, the orientalizing "revolution" was a global phenomenon by Mediterranean standards, and the reasons lie ultimately in historical circumstances and human connections and interaction beyond the Greek bubble. The mechanics of how the new aesthetics were manipulated by the elites in Greece is what Brisart convincingly explains, which is not a small task. It would be interesting, nonetheless, to compare how experts in other affected fields (in Italy, Spain, Portugal) ascertain the same for other "orientalizing" cultures.

Moreover, this phenomenon affected other areas of Greek culture too (alluded to in pp., 45-48). Epic poetry, mythology and religion, institutions (the banqueting associations themselves), intellectual developments (law codes, astronomy, mathematics, alphabetic writing, etc.), also received the stimulus of this contact. Can we explain these too as new modes of social recognition? How do the non-visual (literary, intellectual) elements relate to social changes? Surely the Near East was associated with more than wealth and prestige. Surprisingly the author does not exploit the essentially urban organization of those cultures (even under one empire's claws or another) and the fact that the world of the Phoenicians, Palestinians, Aramaeans and Luwians (so-called Neo-Hittite states), to mention those in closest contact with Greece, was a world of city-states. Different though they might have been from the Greek ones (where democracy did not exist yet), it is worth asking whether it is not this urban world itself that the new art evoked. It is surely not by chance that the Greeks formed city-states precisely at a time when they (re-)enter the international network of eastern Mediterranean elites. Is the urban world itself not evoked in this art? Is it by chance that the Greeks returned to it precisely at a time when they (re-)enter the international network of eastern Mediterranean elites?

Brisart's monograph (a revised award-winning dissertation), presents an important and well-argued study of what is a difficult and slippery subject. Through a great interdisciplinary effort, he supplements his expert application of contextual archaeology and art history with a sound discussion of texts as well as historical and socio-political theories. All in all, Brisart does move us closer to the unwritten social history of Greek art that he yearns for, reminding us that the artist is not the full master of his art, neither is his main goal simply to create beauty (17); that artistic styles are part of their human communities and participate in the dialogue between social classes (15). One of the few monographs on orientalizing art since S. P. Morris' Daidalos and the Origins of Greek Art (1992), it is to be hoped that it will be translated into English (with an index!) for further diffusion in the Anglophone world.


1.   See Riva, C. and N. Vella, N., Debating Orientalization: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Processes of Change in the Ancient Mediterranean (London, 2006).

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