Art History through Innovators: Sculpture
Part 3 (Look at those chiseled abs!)
The New York Kouros — one of the earliest surviving life-size Greek sculptures — at first glance looks like a close relative of the Egyptian sculptures we saw in Part 2. But in the details lurks a major innovation. (Note: The timeline is here; the complete survey in Kindle format is Innovators in Sculpture.)
How is this sculpture like Egyptian sculptures?
Working head to toes, here are the similarities between Egyptian sculpture and the New York Kouros.
- The hair is stiff, like a wig.
- The arms are attached to the torso. In the Greek sculpture, though, they’re attached only at the hands, not all the way along the arms.
- The shape of the torso is the same, from the broad shoulders to the tapering waist.
- The left foot is forward.
Clearly this Greek sculptor was very familiar with Egyptian sculptures, and even used them as models. But he also shattered conventions that had kept Egyptian art static for 2,000 years.
- The figure is nude.
- He’s not attached to a backboard.
- The torso of the New York Kouros is balanced between his feet — not resting over the right foot. Because of that, even though his feet are flat on the ground, he seems to be moving forward.
- The sculptor has incised lines on the abdomen to indicate the rib cage. Egyptian torsos appear more realistic, but if you look at a series of them, there’s an astonishing sameness.
- The sculptor has also marked the figure’s shoulder blades, elbows, and kneecaps.
- And what about his toes? They’re not breakfast sausages of decreasing size. They’ve got knuckles.
Innovation #2: Studying anatomy
The innovation here is that the sculptor of the New York Kouros chose to show bones and joints and muscles: the features that make the body capable of movement. Compared to Michelangelo’s David, the New York Kouros is very primitive. But if you look backwards at 2000 years of conventional, repetitious Egyptian sculpture, the New York Kouros is an breathtaking achievement.
In Part 4 of this series, we’ll see the consequences of this new interest in the features that make the human body capable of movement. But before we move on, I want to make a couple of big-picture points.
Point 1: Recognizing innovators
We’ve lost far, far more ancient sculptures than we’ve found. Is the New York Kouros the very first sculpture that broke from Egyptian conventions? We don’t know. Probably not. But we can tell from looking at it that an innovator has been at work. An innovator’s ideas are reflected in dramatic changes in the sculpture of his own time and that which follows.
In this survey, we’re looking at the earliest examples in the Metropolitan Museum of major innovations — but I’m not claiming that these are the earliest examples ever.
Point 2: Transmission of knowledge
Egyptians placed their sculptures inside tombs and temples. Once the works were installed, few people saw them. On the other hand, Greek sculptures were always on display. They stood on top of tombs. They decorated buildings. They stood in marble throngs around temples. In the 5th century BC, visiting the great temples at Olympia, Delphi, or Athens would have been like visiting the Metropolitan Museum is for us — except that the sculptures weren’t all beat up.
The public display of sculptures meant that Greek artists routinely saw the work of their predecessors and their contemporaries. They could learn from those sculptures, and use that knowledge to improve their own works.
Progress in art requires that innovations become known to other artists: that they be picked up and passed on. For innovations in art, such transmission of knowledge is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. (We’ll come back to the other condition later.) I mention this here because you should watch for a pattern: the innovations of one artist become characteristics of the next artists, and are eventually followed by new innovations.
Point 3: Your emotional reaction
Would you want the New York Kouros in your living room? Chances are you said “no.” This isn’t one of my favorite works — we’d be doing a very different tour if we were looking at my favorite sculptures. In this survey, we’re looking at sculptures that show innovations so fundamental that they changed the way artists worked. It’s likely — even probable — that a later artist may use the innovation to convey a message that appeals to you more.
But even if you dislike the subject or the message of a particular innovative work, you should be able to appreciate the thought and effort of the great innovators. So look at the pieces in this survey with that in mind.
And now, back to the Greeks
The type of standing male figure we just looked at is known as a kouros. In Greece from 600 to 500 BC, freestanding male figures were always carved in this pose: flat footed with the left foot forward, arms at their sides.
During the 6th century BC, sculptors made rapid progress at showing eyes, ears, abdominal muscles, knees and other anatomical features more realistically. But by 500 BC, no single sculpture had yet been created in which all the anatomical details were correct.
For our next innovation, we’re going to jump from the New York Kouros of about 600 BC to a Greek sculpture of about 450 BC. That’s 150 years, the time from the American Civil War to the present.
The timeline for Art History through Innovators is here.
- Innovation #2: Greek sculptors used almost the same pose as the Egyptians for about a century — but by 600 BC, they were already fascinated by bones, joints, and muscles, the features that make the human body capable of movement.
- Point 1: We’re looking at the earliest examples in the Metropolitan Museum of major innovations — not necessarily the earliest examples ever.
- Point 2: For progress in art, transmission of knowledge is a necessary condition. Sculptors must be able to see and build on one another’s work.
- Point 3: We’re looking at major innovations. You might not have a strong emotional reaction to the earliest works that show such innovations, but you should appreciate the thought and effort that went into the innovation.
Because I’ve made changes in the text from this point on, the rest of the series is no longer available on Medium — but you can read the whole survey in the Kindle book Innovators in Sculpture.
Comments and suggestions always welcome, in the form of notes here or tweets (@NYCsculpture).
- If you’re enjoying this series, please scroll down and hit “Recommend.” A Paypal donation is also a greatly appreciated!
- Handy list of prints and reproductions of works shown in Art History through Innovators
- For more of my writing, visit DianneDuranteWriter.com.
- Because I’ve made changes in the text from this point on, the rest of the series is no longer available on Medium. Read the whole in the Kindle book Innovators in Sculpture.