Thursday, April 24, 2014


John H. Oakley, The Greek Vase: Art of the Storyteller. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013. Pp. 155. ISBN 9781606061473. $29.95.

Reviewed by Susan Woodford, London (

Version at BMCR home site

Lavishly illustrated, The Greek Vase: Art of the Storyteller is a beautiful book, its glorious photographs seeming to promise an equally illuminating text—a promise regrettably left unfulfilled for the general reader to whom it is addressed. The images are drawn primarily from the collections of the British Museum and spiced with a fair number from the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Arranged thematically, the book consists of six chapters: two introductory chapters, two on mythological images, and two on scenes from daily life. The first two chapters introduce various aspects of vase painting. The first, 'Fabric, Form and Function,' deals with how clay is prepared and how vases are shaped, painted and used. Different centres of production are named (there is no map), and the development of styles, starting from the Geometric period, is sketched along with a brief exposition of different techniques. The use of vases at symposia, for storage, as oil containers or as ritual vessels is illustrated in a number of plates. The chapter concludes with mention of foreign shapes (Etruscan) and their influence on Attic manufacture, of trade and of purchasers at home and abroad.

Chapter Two, 'Potters and Painters,' deals with the men who produced the vases. Painters are dealt with first, those who signed (beginning with Sophilos) and those who can be identified by individual characteristics of style. Oakley explains how connoisseurship and attribution allow scholars to recognise master-pupil relationships, a number of which are cited. Discussion of potters leads on to identification of workshops, their size and composition and how painters related to potters, both painters who moved among potters and those who travelled outside of Athens. Archaeological and literary evidence is cited, inscriptions are discussed and the chapter concludes with representations of painters and potters at work (these last illustrated by vases in Munich and Oxford).

Chapters Three and Four are devoted to mythological subjects. Chapter Three, called 'Depicting the Divine,' starts by explaining how anthropomorphic gods can be identified by attribute and touches on the use of new scholarly approaches, for instance semiotics, structuralism and information theory in the study of vase paintings.

Non-narrative images of gods (examples of Aphrodite and Hermes) are discussed first, followed by the lives and adventures of the gods under the rubrics of 'Childhood' (exemplified by the birth of Athena and infancy of Dionysos); 'The Gods and their Loves' (Zeus, Eos, Boreas and Apollo); The Gods and their Struggles' jointly in conflict with Giants, singly fighting one another or punishing offenders (Tityos, Aktaion and Ixion); and, finally, 'Followers of the Gods' (Dionysos and his crew, Aphrodite accompanied by personifications and the Eleusinian goddesses with Triptolemos).

The fourth chapter, 'Meeting the Myth Makers,' tackles a wide range of heroic themes starting with Herakles and Theseus, continuing with the Trojan War, and concluding with a motley selection of heroes and sagas (Perseus, the Seven against Thebes, the Argonauts and the final fate of Orpheus). Oakley retells the relevant myths as necessary but sometimes in a way that seems rather too elaborate and at other times too compressed to be entirely helpful.

The last two chapters deal with 'daily life'. The fifth chapter, 'A Life Well-Lived,' begins by pointing out that supposed pictures of normal life cannot be taken at face value. In some images it is unclear whether the subject of the representation is an everyday event or a special occasion—or even the depiction of a myth. Sections are devoted to 'Childhood, Men at Work, Women at Home, Funerals, Theatre, Other Rituals' and 'Sport'.

The final chapter, 'Seducing the Senses,' begins with symposia 'At the Party'. It includes a good deal on sexual activity and concludes with a section called 'Courting' which continues and elaborates on matters to do with sex.

In the chapters on mythology, the author includes comments on alternative interpretations, the possible influence of contemporary events and, in some cases, inspiration from the theatre. In scenes of 'daily life' he discusses ambiguities, points out how selective the representations of ancient Greek activities and experiences are, and explains social and religious customs to give a context to the images.

To this reader, the last two chapters on daily life are better presented, more informative and generally clearer than the somewhat arbitrary selection of myths in the preceding two. They give an interesting introduction to how Greek life was lived and enjoyed and what aspects are emphasised or suppressed in the repertoire of vase painting. The author neatly illustrates this by describing what women actually did and observing how few (and limited) the representations of women at work are.

A list of 24 books for Further Reading follows. There is no index.

The book claims to be addressed to the general reader, and herein lies its most grievous fault: the first two chapters are packed with so much detailed information and so many names of people, places, styles and techniques as to presuppose anything but a 'general reader'. In short, too much information is provided with too little explanation.

For instance, the first chapter offering a comprehensive overview of the background to Greek vase painting is filled with such a baffling number of technical innovations and geographically diverse centres of production as to discourage any nonspecialist reader. Some flesh might have been put on these bare bones of nomenclature had cross-references been provided to images elsewhere in the book. Examples of Corinthian could have been cited on pp. 12 and 54; Laconian on p. 93; Chalcidian on pp. 86-7, coral red on p. 66, Apulian on pp. 38, 50, 55, 64, 76-77, 126-7, 128; Lucanian on pp. 57, 85 89; Campanian on pp. 88, 96-7 Gnathian on p. 129 and so on. (The illustrations are, unfortunately, not consecutively numbered throughout the book, but the page numbers are adequate for identifying them). As it is, the fascinating variety of fabrics remain just a matter of mere words with little hint of their geographical or visual significance. A map certainly would have helped and unburdened Oakley's text of clumsy geographical glosses such as 'Boeotian (the region to the north of Athens),' 'Euboean (an island off the eastern coast of Attica),' etc.

It is unfortunate that someone (author? editor? publisher?) had the idea of providing the misleading subtitle 'Art of the Storyteller'. Storytelling, or in fact any discussion of narration, is only incidental and occurs infrequently in the course of the book. On page 10 Oakley states that this book is 'concerned solely with vases that have figured decoration,' a statement that, suitably modified, could have provided a more apt subtitle.

More confusion comes, however, from the fact that although the majority of the vases illustrated come from the British Museum, some 15% are from the J. Paul Getty Museum. As a result Oakley's book serves neither as a guide to a single institution nor as a general introduction to Greek vase painting (confined as it is to just two collections supplemented only by images of pottery workshops—from Oxford and Munich—on pages 36 and 37 and of necessity ignoring all the key works from other collections).

The mass of erudition (which flows easily from the learned author, himself an accomplished teacher) has not been edited into a form suitable for the reader who is new to the subject. It seems as if the author feared leaving any aspect of the study of vase painting untouched—which would be understandable, perhaps, in a book addressed to an aspiring academic audience, but even then unacceptable if presented too baldly and without examples and explanation.

Though the eye-catching colour images and crystal-clear details are certainly a great recommendation for Oakley's book, the factually overloaded text lacks the clarity and delicate aesthetic sensibility that might help the reader, see, understand and appreciate the distinctive beauty of Greek vases.

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