A Closer Look at Ancient Greek Vases

The exhibition Picturing Narrative: Greek Mythology in the Visual Arts offers a relatively rare opportunity to view eight of the Kemper’s Ancient Greek vases. The Kemper owns 30 Ancient Greek vases and fragments, 21 of which were given to the University in 1904 by Robert Brookings and Charles Parsons. Most of these were selected and brought to St. Louis for display at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition by celebrated art historian Wilhelm Furtwaengler, in collaboration with Halsey C. Ives, professor of drawing and director of the St. Louis School and Museum of Fine Arts. As with many vases owned by European and American museums, the Kemper’s were discovered in parts of Southern Italy colonized by the Ancient Greeks.

A neck amphora by the Long-Nose Painter, dating to 540-525 BC, depicts Theseus fighting the half-man, half-bull Minotaur with his bare hands.

Installation view of a neck amphora by the Long-Nose Painter, dating to 540-525 BC, depicts Theseus fighting the half-man, half-bull Minotaur with his bare hands. Photo by Kemper Art Museum.

Basically zero people are allowed to touch museum artworks, but Laura Gorman, former objects conservator at the Saint Louis Art Museum, is one of them. She has worked on a number of the Kemper’s Greek vases over the years, including the ones in the Kemper’s collection. “When you have the opportunity to handle these vases, as a conservator does in the course of treating them, you realize how beautifully they were constructed.  These potters were very skilled!  The quality of the painting varies quite a bit, but the potting is almost always first rate.”

The shape of each pot corresponds to a specific purpose: amphoras were used for carrying and storing food or beverages; lekythos were used for storing oil; kylix were used to drink wine; oinoche were used for pouring liquids, usually wine; etc. Ancient Greek vessels were painted in a number of ways, but the ones in this exhibition depict mythological subjects in various capacities. In the exhibition, we see both black-figure and red-figure painting. In black-figure painting, painters formed the silhouettes of figures using a very concentrated clay slip, which turned black during the firing process, while the background remained red. Artists incised in and painted on the black slip to create detail. A second technique, red-figure painting, appeared around 530 B.C. and gradually replaced black-figure painting. In the red-figure style the figure was left red, while the background was painted with the black slip—the artists basically painted in the negative space. Artists preferred the flexibility and relative ease of this technique—they could use a greater variety of lines and colors to produce more naturalistic forms.

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A lekythos (500-490 CB) by the Diosphos Painter before conservation. Photo by Heather White.

The Diosphos Painter's lekythos after having been cleaned of surface dirt and accretions, and losses have been inpainted.

The Diosphos Painter’s lekythos after having been cleaned of surface dirt and accretions, and losses have been inpainted. Photo by Heather White.

The mastery of these Greek potters and painters is still apparent, thanks to conservators like Laura. The cardinal rule in modern conservation is to never do anything you can’t undo, but this wasn’t always the case. “These vases have been in collections for hundreds of years and almost always have been restored, usually badly, so it is very satisfying to take them apart and remove the old restorations, clean them up and put them together using modern materials, and restore them in collaboration with curators.”

A bell krater (mid-4th century BC) by the CA Painter, currently on view in the exhibition Picturing Narrative, before conservation.

A bell krater (mid-4th century BC) by the CA Painter, currently on view in the exhibition Picturing Narrative, before conservation. Photo by Heather White.

The same bell krater seen under UV light during treatment.

The same bell krater seen under UV light during treatment. Photo by Heather White.

During the conservation process, curators and conservators must consider the context in which the object will be seen. For instance, vessels which will be displayed in a museum must look “museum quality”; whereas vessels that will be examined for scholarly purposes are more useful when the wear and tear is visible so scholars can more easily track the history of the vessel. Such ancient objects carry a lot of history in even the tiniest detail.

A crack on the CA Painter bell krater before the overpaint was removed.

A crack on the CA Painter bell krater before the overpaint was removed. Photo by Heather White.

The same area of the bell krater with the overpaint removed.

The same area of the bell krater with the overpaint removed. Photo by Heather White.

Stop by the Kemper before the exhibition closes on January 4th, 2015 to get a closer look at the variety of Ancient Greek vessels now on view!

By Allison Fricke, assistant educator

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