For the ancient Greeks, the concept of art covered every form of creative activity that contributed to their cultural development. We who are lucky enough to be born in this part of the world can see the artistic heritage of Athens with each step we take. Everywhere we look there are visible paths of architecture which has been copied but never surpassed. In museums all over the world we can see extraordinary examples of sculpture that has drawn figures bursting with life, beauty and harmony out of the cold marble. Perhaps nothing is more of an exclusively Athenian achievement than Attic pottery, which, in its search for creative perfection through vibrant ornamentation, tells us about the people's way of life, their worship of the gods and their joys and sorrows. The Attic earth has always yielded rich clay for the potter's craft, whether for household, religious or other purposes. With this material, Athenian artists – potters and painters – both known and anonymous, experimented, created and attained immortality.
One of the earliest ceramic pieces produced in Attic workshops is the famous large (1.75 m in height) amphora from the Dipylon gate, now exhibited at the Archaeological Museum. It was found in the necropolis of Keramikos, having adorned the grave of a distinguished citizen of the 8th century BC. The scene it depicts leaves no doubt about its use as a grave marker. Its shape is simple, without ostentation; It has a narrow base and an elongated neck, indicating a bold potter who was not afraid of such an unwieldy size. The decoration consists of successful series of straight lines and restless Greek key designs, while in the middle is the funeral procession with the body placed on a cart surrounded by grieving relatives and professional mourners tearing their hair; Little birds fill in the spaces. The scene brings to mind Cretan and Maniot dirges, timeless expressions of the pain of death. The entire work – both the vase and its decoration – was characteristic of the severity of the age, where geometric symbols approached the transcendental.
At that same period, an absolutely different type of ceramics began to be produced in Corinth and in neighboring Sikyon, consisting of small, round pots with richly painted belts of decoration depicting animals from Asian countries. Griffins, sphynxes and lions all suggested trade between Corinth and the ports of the East. Pottery of the same type was produced in Milos and Rhodes, another known trade centers of the ancient Aegean. It was the Corinthians, however, who first used the black-figure technique of incising the outline of the forms on the surface of the pot and then painting these forms black.
Early in the most productive period in Athens, Solon and his laws bought in many capable potters to produce works for an assured clientele. At the same time, the craftsmen themselves began responding to artistic demands by creating new shapes and sizes with a corresponding development in the decoration. The stiff, unbending figures of the geometric funeral urn gradually acquitted elasticity of movement. Artists were initially inspired by relief sculptures, deriving their subject matter from the inexhaustible themes of mythology. And while the pioneering Corinthians cave their work an Oriental air by painting exotic decorative figures on it, Athenian art was becoming narrative. Its black figures revealed the passions of gods and heroes, as well as the occupations of ordinary people: their work, ceremonies and weaknesses. In the beginning, the scenes evolved horizontally, as did the Corinthian pots which were their models, although Athenian works were much larger. Incised decoration allowed the natural color of the clay to show through, and only on female forms were the faces and uncoovered parts of the body painted white. Very often the artists added the names of the figures depicted in archaic script.
From the 6th century on, the artisans ceased to be anonymous as they began signing their works. The earliest signed piece of pottery we have is by a man named Sophilos. This priceless fragment has been dated 570 BC. It was this same craftsman who left us a signed scene of the funeral games held in honor of the slain Patroclus outside the walls of Troy, at which the spectators are shown listed on a double platform with steps: the first rostrum to be seen in the History of the tiered theater.
The golden age of black-figured vases was from 550 to 500 BC. To this period belong the famous Francois vase, now displayed in Florence, on which the potter Ergotimos and the painter Kleitias proudly placed their signatures. These two artists managed to portray 250 vivid figures of people and animals in five parallel rows on a vase with a total height of just 66 cm. This advance made Attic pots bought after through the Mediterranean and led the colonists of southern Italy and Sicily to establish their own workshops, from which they have left many examples of their incomparable art. Museum show-cases are complete with vases depicting gods, impudent satyrs, drunken, lovelorn mortals, hard-hearted pederasts, and noble horses ready to draw the chariots of heroes.
Exekias, sometimes the greatest pottery painter of his time, lived in about 530 BC. He was the first who dared to adorn the outside of his cups with two huge eyes of superstitious origin. The most splendid example of his art is the kylix in Munich, the inside of which shows Dionysus sailing carefree in his ship, having transformed the pirates who wanted to hurt him into dolphins. A lush vine shoots out of the mast and the grapes throw their shadow on the billing sail. This voyage, against a dream-like red background, was the preface to a new form of pottery painting, with red figures.
This new technique was exactly the opposite of the previous one, since here the entire surface of the vessel was painted black, except for the previously drawn figures which retained the warm brick color of fired clay. The artists no longer incised the design, but used brushes, rendering the details of dress and elaborate coiffure with sure lines. Women are no longer presented in white. On the contradiction, both male and female forms were frequently covered with a reddish varnish which reflected something of the inner warmth of the human body.
The inventor of the red-figure technique is considered to be a man named Andokides, even though he himself often decorated his vases in the old way. The transitional period can be seen in his so-called "bilingual" vessels on which the same scene was presented with red figures on one side and black on the other. Cups have been found with black figures inside and red outside. Then certain differences began to appear in the details of the features. For example, on the black pottery, men were shown with round eyes, while women always had elongated eyes; In the red-figured technique however, men and women both had the same almond eyes with thick eyelashes. At the same time the artists grew away from the inflexible archaic relief which showed things in profile. The artists' study of full-length sculptures was clearly visible in the portrait of figures which seemed to be facing the viewer. Looking, for example, at Kritias' marble boy in the Acropolis Museum and a youthful figure on a piece of pottery, we can detect precisely the same proud stance of the body.
The increasing realism of sculpture could not but influence pottery, so that painted decoration likewise began to acquire movement and vitality. Scenes from ordinary life were presented, sometimes verging on mockery. The painters were unrelenting in their portrait of old people, showing all the wrinkles and ugliness of age. Misshapen satyrs cave artists an opportunity to show their artistry, and provoking mirth at the same time. There is a characteristic cup in Munich on which the painter Epileios shows an extremely ugly satyr implausibly named Terpon (delight), exclaiming the phrase "sweet wine" before a full wineskin. Elsewhere, explicitly erotic scenes were drawn in which the expressions on the faces were as graphically depicted as the movement. Sometimes, multi-figured compositions are presented on different levels for narrative purposes. Inscriptions appeared less and less frequently as time passed and art developed.
A marvellous example of a red-figured vase from 500 BC is the Sosias kylix in Berlin. It depicts a moment from the Trojan war in which Achilles is tending Patroclus' wound. The scene is vividly presented: for example, details of the heroes' hair are emphasized with tiny lines and their scaled armour appearances to be in relief. For the first time, eyes are drawn in profile, precisely as we see them in reality. Patroclus is shown with his mouth half open, gritting his teeth against the pain of his wound, which Achilles has banded with a white cloth. Achilles' left hand and the right foot of the wounded man, with its boney toes, demonstrate a superb technique.
The possibilities provided to the artist by red-figured pottery painting completely supplemented the old black-figured technique which had prevailed exclusively in the decoration of Athenian pottery up to the 4th century. Amphoras, as the name indicates in Greek, were vessels with two handles for ease in carrying. In these amphoras, Athenians would send oil, wine, nuts and pulses all over the known world. With the establishment of the Panathenaia, it became a habit to give amphoras full of oil from the sacred olive trees of the goddess Athena to the winners of the contests. The height of these vessels was about 70 cm and their shape was more or less round, always with a small, circular base and a clay stopper to protect the contents. Often the neck of the vase was decorated with anthemia. On the Panathenaic amphoras there was always a presentation of Athena in arms on the one side and the contest in which the victor had distinguished itself on the other.
About the evolution of painting as such, we have no knowledge other than writings which have come down to us. From those, we derive descriptions of the works of Apellis and Polygnotos, but very little else. This is why pottery painting is so valuable. The so-called Rich Order of 5th century art, with its luxurious dress, colors and golden jewelery is highly indicative of a comfortable society. The Attic lekythoi are equally eloquent.
The white lekythos was another type of ceramic ware in the Polis, but with a limited use. Such vases usually contained aromatic oils for the preparation of the dead. After the funeral procession and cremation, they were placed either in the grave or on the steps of the funeral monument. The entire surface of this special vessel was coated with an off-white color on which figures were freely drawn. Usually the dead person was received receiving funeral gifts from his or her loved ones or some other scene connected to the death. The white background of these vases encouraged the use of colors on the figures and especially on the clothing. Dark or fair hair could be rendered superbly as could expressions on the faces of those mourning, which shown mortals accepting the will of the all-powerful gods with noble sorrow. The representations on the white Attic lekythoi were the forerunners of the superb wall paintings on the Macedonian graves which the land of the Hellenic north is only now gradually giving up.