The brilliant artists who decorated pottery throughout the Hellenistic world from 2000 to about 450 BC left a legacy that was unsurpassed in the civilizations of Greece and Rome, and probably unequalled worldwide in any era since.
They decorated huge wine-mixing bowls, plates, drinking bowls, flasks and funerary urns. Their individual styles became known, and enough of their works have survived that even today, many of these artists are identified by the names of their most famous pieces and have listings kept of their works.
Quite some achievement, 2000 – 4000 years later! How much art from today will survive that long?
Art and Ancient Greek Coinage
Equally to be marveled at were die-makers throughout the Ancient Greek world who created the designs for the coinage used by all the city states – of which there were many – all having their own traditions and ‘coats of arms’.
These artists carved in metal, in intaglio (in reverse) the dies from which the many city states’ coins were struck on a regular basis – coins that are works of art in their own right.
Can you imagine the skill required to carve perfect works of art of that size – in reverse? In metal? By hand? A study of the development of Greek coinage from about 700 to about 150 BC brings to light a whole new world of artistic triumph: marvelous, almost unbelievable skill.
If you are interested, go HERE and click on the Alphabetical Index of Issuing Authorities for Greek coins. You will find at the top of each issuing authority page a link to pages with thumbnails, which saves a lot of blind delving.
To round out this post, here are one or two of my own sculptural tributes to the Greek die-makers, sculpted and cast in epoxy resin soon after we came to New Zealand. Size – 9cm (3.5″) diam approx:
Aside from Disney, of any film I ever saw, this film had by far the widest and most lasting impact on me. I had already been studying Latin at school from quite young (thanks to that great Scottish education), and I found it rather dry.
Now for the first time, the Roman world began to come alive. I bought the book, The Robe by Lloyd C Douglas, was fascinated by it, and started taking an interest in the Romans and their culture.
More than that though, I got a crush on the movie’s leading man, Richard Burton. Ah me – the effect of getting a teenage crush! But it was a very good thing for creativity, all the same!
Doing the usual teenage girl crush stuff of finding out more about Burton’s career led me into the world of Shakespeare at The Old Vic, Alexander the Great, The Dark Tower by Louis MacNeice, Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, Coleridge’s Rime of The Ancient Mariner, and some of Christopher Fry’s plays. This new world I stumbled upon had an exciting richness of spirit. Shakespeare took on new life, and I began to look at literature with different eyes.
All of this impacted on my art – especially Alexander the Great : the door on Classical Greek Art and Architecture was opened for the first time. That was hugely valuable, because Greek sculpture taught me a lot about anatomy – along with a couple of books I got for Christmas presents. I spent some hours drawing anatomical studies from pictures of Greek pieces (didn’t they used to do that in Art School? – never thought of THAT at the time!)
The human body is arguably the hardest thing to render convincingly in art. Quite a number of people doing art struggle noticeably in that area, though the Photoshop ‘Artists’ just grab photos of models, and solve their problem that way. And they call it ‘Art’? Ha! Which goes to show : the good old Art School disciplines – canned in this modern age of ‘permissive everything’ – had some great value, after all!
A couple of years ago, I picked up the B/W drawing at the head of this post and worked it into a full color art piece. Click on the image for larger size and more details:
Done from a Roman sculpture – this is the most ornate helmet I’ve ever set eyes on : isn’t it gorgeous?
He was experimenting with molding and casting processes and it wasn’t long before I was learning the techniques of creating low-relief and three-dimensional sculpture in plasticine and making plaster of paris molds to produce master casts – mostly in plaster of paris also.
My dad had his own very strong sculpture style, which he passed on to me. Usually it was full of cutbacks and tricky shapes, so we started off making waste molds of plaster of paris. With free-standing sculptures, these molds had to have more than one part.
I learned how to box in the original and use either shims or gravity to make molds in several pieces, keyed into each other. Then to take the cast, we used vaseline as the parting agent before pouring plaster into plaster. Scary!
The end job of breaking the mold away from the hardened master inside it with a hammer and chisel was always an exciting and tricky business – sometimes fraught with accidents. There was always patching and sanding to do afterwards.
Making molds is a lot easier process today, even though the fundamentals are still the same. True, you could get rubber molding agents then, but they had to be poured hot – an impossibility with a plasticine original – hence the need to create a durable master cast to work from.
I came away from that early period with several pieces of my own and a wealth of experience.
I realize now these early beginnings were a real gift – something else that has never left me.
A few years ago, I took up sculpture again and found the molding and casting fundamentals I’d learned as a youngster were still there. They stood me in good stead working alone, even though the materials have changed (for the better) over the years.
It’s now most common to use cold-pouring, two-pot molding material, of course, and after a day of instruction at a bronze foundry I was able to adapt my techniques to make ‘rubber’ molds within a supporting plaster jacket very successfully. Thank you, Ken.
True: but journeys don’t only have beginnings – they have roots. Physical and spiritual roots that reach back through the generations standing behind us. It’s scary to contemplate at times.
We accept readily enough that our immediate physical world operates by cause and effect. No-one has the slightest difficulty in understanding that if they jump off a building they will hit the ground. What we do have trouble with is recognizing that same law operates on a spiritual level as well, both for individuals and generationally – “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” Hummmm. Food for thought.
My father, Kenneth Methuen Howitt, was the source of my artistic journey. Its roots lay on his side of my family. Regimental Sergeant Major of the 1st Battalion Scots Guards, with an army career spanning 24 years, he had an amazing artistic talent operating around the sidelines of a busy working life. As I’ll explain later, he nurtured in me the talents I got from him, and though he never had time to be a serious ‘painter’, he produced great sculpture with seemingly little effort.
He organized and ran some stunning Charity Balls for the Guards in London – with Royalty counted amongst the guests. He thought big, and produced the results to go with it: everything had to be right and to look great – and some of that at least rubbed off on me.
He was exceptional in the skills of training and handling men – which may have saved his life more than once. One time, in April/May 1940 contingents from the Scots Guards were sent on the ill-fated Allied invasion of Norway. My mother often told the story of going down to visit him in London and arriving at the barracks late at night to find – unexpectedly – the troops lined up on the square ready to move off for Norway. One can only imagine her state of mind as she waited at the barracks gate while one of the sentries went to find her husband.
When he finally came, it was with the news that he was not going to Norway – he had been promoted and held behind to carry on with training the troops. Thank goodness – as I child I can remember being told many men were lost in the Norway Invasion. Wikipedia states “The British lost 1,869 killed, wounded and missing on land and approximately 2,500 at sea.”
Years later when we moved up to Aberdeen, my dad was seconded to run to run the Aberdeen University Training Corps under Lt Colonel Thomas Broun Smith, QC – training potential army officers from the ranks of the students at Aberdeen University. He was later commissioned into the Gordon Highlanders, wearing the kilt and continuing to conduct training maneuvers in the Highlands of Scotland – with the same outstanding qualities of character.
I still have his Regular Army Certificate of Service – a small, slim, red book that details every step of his army career. The Final Assessment of Conduct and Character, completed personally in the handwriting of his Commanding Officer, Lt Colonel Tom B Smith, was “Exemplary”.
Briefly, I was born an Army child in Derby, England, traveled about, and now live in New Zealand. Having trained and worked as a lawyer, I’m at last refocusing my life on what I’ve been secretly doing all along – art.
The journey so far has taken me from England to Scotland, to Africa, and now New Zealand. Through it all, art underpinned and sustained me through a heap of stuff – I’ve been grateful for that.
Now, this exercise of putting down on ‘cyberpaper’ the journey that brought me to where I am as a person and an artist is helping me rediscover myself after ‘losing’ ten years of my life caring for my elderly mom with Alzheimers. I’ve come away with no regrets for giving that time, and at last it is being returned to me. Here, if you care to check out some of the struggles of being a carer, is my account of the process written while in the thick of it – The Alzheimers Carer.
This blog is in a sense its own fulfilment, though like my art it does have a definite message of love and respect for our wonderful planet and the creatures that inhabit it with us – we have severely misused both.
If anyone cares to join me in this journey, I shall be truly honored. For my main Home Page that links and knits together all my websites, click HERE.
For a time warp journey to my last project, visit Taketakerau.com which features the 36 major paintings I created for a recently-published book about the nature and history of New Zealand.
Showcasing the Paintings, Sculpture and Jewelry of a multi-talented New Zealander with a love of nature and a background in – of all things – the law.