“Blending Styles and Cultures: Part 2 – The Unity of Style” by Katerina Volioti

The second part of this blog posting consists of two sections. Firstly, I comment on how style works for art historians. Secondly, I consider in what ways a pre-occupation with style is evident in children’s books and how this aligns with art historical approaches. 

Art historians and style

Stylistic analysis is important for art historians and archaeologists. The close and often meticulous observation of an objet d’art enables scholars to discuss distinctive technical and artistic traits, date the work, and contextualise it within the artist’s oeuvre and contemporary society. In effect, stylistic analysis constructs classificatory schemas, ranging from phases in an artist’s career to typological sequences. For Greek vases, John Beazley, the greatest vase connoisseur of the twentieth century, devoted his life to the systematic examination of how different painters rendered idiosyncratically the anatomical and ornamental details of their drawings (1).

Figure 6 Sir John Beazley studying lekythoi
Sir John Beazley studying lekythoi. Photograph from the Beazley Archive. Courtesy of the Classical Art Research Centre, University of Oxford

Beazley thus attributed vases to different painters and created a sequence of the relationships of painters, both stylistically and chronologically. Beazley built a robust system for ordering thousands of painters and their vases, to which subsequent generations of vase scholars have adhered. Evidently, learning about style and acquiring skills in stylistic analysis is invaluable in specialist scholarship.

When I teach undergraduate modules in Classical Art at Roehampton, my students and I are also faced with learning about style. Even before coming to university, students have an idea about the Classical style as something that describes ancient and modern works, such as Neoclassical buildings that look either Greek or Roman, or both.

Figure 7 Neoclassical architecture.jpg
Neoclassical architecture: Sackler Library, Oxford. Wikimedia [source]

Students are right to find the timeframe of the Classical era, from 480 to 323 BCE – that is, from the naval battle of Salamis (480 BCE) to the death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE) – a little too tight in appreciating the Classical style (2). Indeed, much of Classical art, especially sculpture, is studied through its legacy and emulation in later periods. Even Praxiteles’ mid fourth-century BCE Aphrodite of Knidos, the most-discussed sculpture in ancient texts, survives only in Roman copies (3). In the first-year module Introduction to Classical Art (4), therefore, we problematise style and its implications for a quasi-historical approach to ancient art. As we discuss in our seminars, there exist no comprehensive answers in scholarship for why a particular style emerges, persists, and changes. While stylistic analysis appears to be a systematic approach, through the study of style the ancient world does not become more objective and scientific. If anything, an imaginative approach is needed in envisaging how style becomes influential and malleable over time.

Style in children’s books

In the books that I have studied for the OMC project, myths, sites, and museum exhibits are presented chronologically, from earlier to more recent times. In educational activities, children are asked to order mythological and historical figures (e.g., Theseus; Pericles) and material entities (e.g., the Erechtheion; the New Acropolis Museum) chronologically. From early on children are meant to think in terms of grouping like with like. This practice goes back to the eighteenth-century historicizing work of Johann Joachim Winckelmann (the Father of Art History), and in fact even earlier. The strong emphasis on periodization reflects the importance of (ancient) history in formal school curricula, both in Greece and other countries. That is, children are required to learn the names and (approximate) dates of different periods of human activity in the lands and islands of Greece. The list of periods is long and diverse – some periods are named for materials while others for style – and includes the Neolithic, the Bronze and the Dark Ages, the Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic and Roman eras, Late Antiquity, the Byzantine period, the Ottoman and recent past and, of course, modern times. Human activity is understood (to a certain degree) through the rise and fall in artistic output, which is taken to reflect socio-economic prosperity and decline. With an emphasis on artistic achievement, children tend to valorise certain periods over others. Children note, for example, the high artistry of Cycladic and Mycenaean artefacts in the museum guides for these two stylistic groups. These guides include Ariadne Tells Stories from the Cycladic Period in the National Archaeological Museum from 2009 (5and Argos Tells Stories from the Mycenaean Period in the National Archaeological Museum from 2008 (6(my translation of titles in Greek). Both books are by Evi Pini and Popi Kirdi (authors) and by Stamatis Bonatsos, G. Ntelagiorgou and Giannis Sarsakis (illustrators). By contrast, the Dark Ages are given short shrift in all the books that I have examined, since this period can boast little in terms of artefactual elaboration.

Although mythology is placed in the deep past before (pre)history began, its relation to this periodization remains opaque. For all books that I have written database entries, there appear to be subtle efforts to associate mythology with historical events and archaeological finds so as to define mythology more concretely in time and space.

The Trojan War. The Beginning of History, from the series I Read Mythology [source]

In The Trojan War. The Beginning of History (7(my translation, the cover above) by Evi Pini (author) and Eliza Vavouri (illustrator), which was published in 2011, episodes from the epic cycle are recounted in a vivid and page-turning fashion, as if they were events that really happened. Yet there is no explanation of the title, specifically why these episodes marked the beginning of history. Some illustrations imitate Mycenaean frescoes and objects, such as boar’s tusks helmets. For readers who recognise the affinities with Mycenaean artefacts, the illustrations – just like the written text – point to actual people who made and used material culture in the past, and not to fictive mythological characters. Artistic style seems to add a material dimension – possibly credence – to myth. Mycenaean frescoes and helmets, moreover, are treasured museum exhibits, centrepieces of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens (8). With all these pointers to history, archaeology, and museum visitation, the story of the Trojan War blends the past with the present; and the real with the imaginary.

Figure 9 The real_Fortifications of Troy I
The real: Fortifications of Troy I, ca. 2920 BCE. Photograph by Anja Slawisch taken in 2007

This blending does not allow, however, for the mixing and matching of different styles. Appropriately for the Trojan War the style of the illustrations refers to Mycenaean times, the time when historians and archaeologists believe that this war took place. Consistency in style is needed, not least because the book is an educational resource that follows to some degree school textbooks. When freed from their (art) historical contextualisation, how might mythological stories help with innovative thinking and artistic creations, both of which are favoured by young children?

In the final part of this blog posting, I suggest that a departure from strict stylistic norms can unleash creativity in children and adults alike.

Prepared by Katerina Volioti

Elaborated by Dorota Bazylczyk


(1) https://www.beazley.ox.ac.uk/tools/pottery/techniques/sir-jb.htm

(2) https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tacg/hd_tacg.htm

(3) http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095418740

(4) http://urweb.roehampton.ac.uk/module/?module=HSA020C104

(5) https://www.epbooks.gr/product.asp?catid=100445&title= and http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/myth-survey/item/325

(6)  https://www.epbooks.gr/product.asp?catid=100447&title and http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/myth-survey/item/313

(7)  https://www.epbooks.gr/product.asp?catid=101031&title=

and http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/myth-survey/item/108

(8) See http://www.namuseum.gr/collections/prehistorical/mycenian/mycenian20-en.html




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