By Alastair Harden, Acting Head of Classics
On a visit to the British Museum with 6.2 Classical Civilization students in February, after looking at the Parthenon sculptures and the frieze from the Temple of Apollo at Bassae, I brought the class around the Greek Vase galleries. I know these galleries very well, so I confidently strode up to a glass case, ready to wax lyrical on one of the most beautiful pieces on the A-level syllabus: a magnificent volute krater depicting the final duel between Achilles and Hektor. I mentally gathered my notes and got ready to dispense wisdom when – much to my disappointment – the case turned out to be empty. Well, not quite empty: a card read “This vase has been loaned to the Princeton University Art Museum for the exhibition ‘The Berlin Painter and His World’.” This kicked off a very welcome chain of events that led to me trading the Block 3 Parents’ meeting for an aeroplane bound for New Jersey and attending the most important conference and exhibition on Greek Art to be held in a generation.
I’d heard that Princeton was hosting the first exhibition devoted to a single vase-painter in almost forty years, so I emailed J. Michael Padgett, Princeton’s curator of Classical antiquities, chastising him for ruining my speech about Achilles and Hektor and fondly recalling the afternoon in 2011 when he took me to the store-room under the galleries in the museum at Princeton to examine some fragments for my doctoral dissertation. To my surprise and delight he replied straight away, inviting me to two events: the fizzy ‘gala opening’ of the Berlin Painter exhibition on March 4th, and a star-studded one-day symposium on April 1st. (Well, ‘star-studded’ to Greek Art enthusiasts. Or really to vase-painting enthusiasts. Well, really, to enthusiasts of early Athenian red-figure vase-painting, which thankfully I am.) I expressed my regret that I could go to neither, but after some string-pulling and many apologetic emails to my Block 3 parents I found myself gratefully bound for the symposium.
‘The Berlin Painter’ is the name given by the Oxford scholar John Davidson Beazley to an otherwise-anonymous painter of the most beautiful painted pottery of the early fifth century B.C.: Beazley grouped together several vases which he judged to have been painted by the same person in a 1911 article entitled ‘The Master of the Berlin Amphora’, and in doing so he effectively initiated the study of Greek vase painting as a major art form. Beazley remained central to the study of Greek vase painting until his death in 1970, and I was working as a researcher at Beazley’s archive in Oxford (www.beazley.ox.ac.uk) when I left academia to come to Bedales.
The Berlin Painter was one of thousands of painters whom Beazley was to identify on stylistic grounds, but to all scholars of Greek art the Berlin Painter has a special place as the first painter to recognize the aesthetic potential of using the shape of the vase and the framing painted floral and geometric patterns to bring the painted scene to life. Before this, painters usually treated the shape of the vase as a blank field to be filled in, and simply divided the vessel into zones or panels, but the Berlin Painter seems to have had a gifted sense of how the complex shapes of the vases can complement the drawing. He (or she, though we presume the painter was male: that’s another discussion…) also observed anatomy in minute detail, and I hope all of my students share my enthusiasm at how the Berlin Painter renders the complex relationship of the serratus anterior muscles to the ribcage in a level of anatomical detail unprecedented in its accuracy, at a time when sculptors were also looking to complex anatomical accuracy to make bronze and stone resemble real living bodies.
The exhibition in Princeton brings together a representative selection of pieces from museums all over the world, including the ‘name vase’, the ‘Berlin Amphora’ which Beazley discussed in his 1911 article; sadly the exhibition does not include the beautiful fragment which Beazley saw in Winchester College, pictured, but it was awe-inspiring to be in a gallery with so many pieces of such high quality. The symposium featured a brilliantly stimulating group of lectures, including a wonderful talk by Richard Neer about how Beazley’s sexuality and early Brideshead-like days as an Oxford undergraduate in the 1900s influenced his later scholarship, and a typically poetic paper by the renowned French scholar François Lissarrague on the painter’s astonishingly sensitive use of deep black backgrounds for the figural scenes. Mario Iozzo, director of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Florence (home of the famous François Vase), revealed that he found what all archaeologists long for: a secret message, barely detectable beneath the black glaze of one vase. His paper will quite literally have every curator of Athenian vases looking again for these tantalizing hidden words, which will occupy scholars for decades: they can only be seen with the naked eye under certain lighting conditions, preferably when the vase is being held in the hand, a nice reminder of the tactility of these objects in an era which is increasingly devoted to digital images and accessing artefacts primarily through the internet.
At the reception following the conference I re-connected with Prof. Lissarrague, who wrote the single most beautiful book on Greek vases (Greek Vases: The Athenians and Their Images) and, much less illustriously, examined my PhD thesis in 2013 (‘Animal-skin garments in archaic Greek art: style and iconography’). I also caught up with several other academics whom I knew through my five years working at the Beazley Archive: I was reminded of the joys of research, and I’ve already since been consulted by a curator at the Metropolitan Museum in New York about an animal skin on an ancient statuette. It has been very rewarding to spend even a brief time among academics and curators, and I plan to re-enter this world by writing a paper this summer on the Berlin Painter’s use of animal-skin garments: this will be one of hundreds of pieces of research inspired and stimulated by the epoch-making conference and exhibition, with its beautiful catalogue, and it was truly a privilege to have attended this monumental event.
On the day of the exhibition’s opening, Michael Padgett gave an excellent introductory lecture on the Berlin Painter which you can see here.