ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 45
The ancient Greeks lived in a world of danger and unrest that make our own exciting headlines look tame by comparison. They created artistic masterpieces in the midst of prolonged wars and invasions, plague, political chaos, coups, and the scheming of scoundrels. No wonder Thucydides wrote, "You could sum up Athens by saying they were born never to live in peace and quiet."
The Greeks were forced to become warrior-poets; their ideals of beauty and virtue had to withstand almost daily bloodshed and death. Yet they set a world standard for sophisticated, delicate beauty. They were the first to dream there was such a thing as "perfect" beauty out there waiting to be achieved.
Which brings me to the lovely drawing on the urn above. (Actually, the "one" drawing has two sides):
There are urns with complex and violent drawings of mythological figures or wild animals. Many are cluttered with layers of decorative geometric patterns. But personally I prefer the serenity and simplicity of this exquisite design.
Look at what the artist did with just two colors: that black slip negative space makes the glowing abstract shape of the figure dominate, far beyond what those descriptive lines contribute. The artist also had to unify the flat drawing with the rounded vase design, and did so with grace, restraint and confidence.
For me, this is the real heroism of Greek drawing-- not pictures of Achilles bashing his enemies. In a violent world, the Greeks explored proportion and balance and composition looking for "ideal" beauty. They groped their way toward the "golden ratio" and built classical archetypes for us.
The renowned scholar Herbert Read makes a respectable case that the ancient Greek synthesis of human activity with formal beauty first introduced humanism to the world.