Archive for the ‘Greece’ Category

Art History

January 4, 2015

Professor Christopher Roy of the University of Iowa opened my eyes to the place of African efforts in the art world pantheon.  His lesson began with a look at H.W. Janson’s quintessential art history text book “The History of Art.”

The historical overview in Janson’s sweeping tome went like this: Chapter One: Magic and Ritual, the Art of Prehistoric Man, Chapter Two: The Art of Egypt, Three: the The Art of the Near East, then the Aegean, the Classical Greeks, the Romans, Mediaeval art, the Renaissance, the Mannerists, etc. on up to today.  Here was humanity’s aesthetic progress rising from primordial beginning to sophisticated present.

Janson’s opening “prehistoric” chapter included several images of African wood carved sculptures alongside images of Paleolithic cave paintings.  Professor Roy pointed out that all the African sculptures had been made within 50 years of the book’s publication.  Hmmm.

Here was a bad attitude hiding in plain sight.

Later, when studying redware, I found that old sources of information can offer more than stale, ossified opinions.  For example, there is something fresh in reading about “current trends in American pottery,” including an “up and coming” woman named Adelaide Alsop Robineau.

Of course, it doesn’t always come out roses.  Charles Fergus Binns holds a respected position as the founder of Alfred University’s vaunted ceramics program in 1900.  Might a pottery book in his words offer interesting kernels of insight?  His opening chapter on pottery’s historical overview mirrored Hanson’s ‘primordial to sophisticated’ trope.  Binns began with a discussion of American Indian pottery:

“It must always be an open question how much credit for artistic feeling can be given to primitive races…  Crude and unprepared clays were used for the most part but the makers could scarcely have been conscious of the charming color-play produced by the burning of a red clay in a smokey fire.  The pottery of the Indians is artistic in the sense of being an expression of an indigenous art and much of it is beautiful, though whether the makers possessed any real appreciation of beauty is open to doubt.”

He then proceeded from this ‘primordial’ beginning to Classical Greek pottery, then the Romans, etc. etc. etc…

Old knowledge is a valuable resource, not to be ignored lightly.  Just never confuse old knowledge with bankrupt ideas.


The History of Art, Second Edition.  H.W. Janson.  Prentis Hall/New York.  1977.

The Potter’s Craft.  Charles F. Binns.  Van Nostrand Co./NY.  1910.

A Greedy Cup

April 15, 2012

It was grotesque.  It was a curio.  A whimsy.  It was any odd ball ceramic item (using these descriptive terms) that didn’t easily fit into otherwise serious functional categories.  Humor often had something to do with it.  Such items seemed to proliferate in the 18th -19th centuries; the puzzle jug, the face jug, the toby jug, mugs with a model frog or lump of shit in the bottom, whistles, ring jugs, toy figures, fuddling cups (somewhat earlier), etc.  Perhaps clay just brings out a particular sense of humor in people…

These “grotesqueries” tended to be made by and for the unwashed masses.  The upper crust had it’s own selection of  “follies.”   These were in no way limited to extravagances like the entire rooms of porcelain made for Augustus the Strong – or even ceramic items at all.  The 14th century Count Robert of Artois excelled in bizarre garden statues that squawked like parrots at passers by and conduits that “wet the ladies from below,” etc. etc. etc.

But back to pottery.  The penchant for curiosity was, of course, universal to every culture with a ceramic history.   Nor was production of such whimsies confined by era.  During the Greek Classical era (500bc) a unique drinking cup was made on the island of Samos.  The intent, seemingly, was to discourage over consumption of wine.

This was the “Greedy Cup.”  It had a tube running up the length of its stem and into the bowl of the cup.  A hollow column in the bowl covered the tube.  A small hole was pierced in the column.    If the cup was filled too full, the pierced column and inner tube design would allow enough hydrostatic pressure to create a siphon, sucking out the entire contents of the cup (onto the lap of the poor sot holding it).

Some believe that anything this ingenious had to be designed by a mathematician.  The most famous mathematician of Samos was Pythagoras, so the cup was also credited to him.

Pythagoras as potter specializing in practical jokes?  That’s a curious, maybe even grotesque, notion.


If These Pots Could Talk.  Ivor Noel Hume.  University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2001.

Early American Pottery and China.  John Spargo.  The Century Co./NY.  1926.

A Distant Mirror, The Calamitous 14th Century.  Barbara Tuckman.  Ballantine Books, New York.  1978.