Classical vs Hellenistic Periods in Development of Ancient Sculpture

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Over the centuries, art in ancient Greece had evolved in a variety of ways. The idealized way of creating art morphed between generations, creating new art styles. This evolution is recognizable between the Classical period and the Hellenistic period, specifically between two statues in particular: The Statue of Hermes and Dionysus and the Statue of Laocoon. While they share some similar qualities, many stylistic preferences changed between the two periods.

Compared to earlier art from Greece, the Classical and Hellenistic periods produced more life-like statues. Statues from the Archaic period took stylistic inspiration from Egyptian art, creating an exaggerated appearance. Classical and Hellenistic sculptures were more faithful to the human form than the previous periods. However, the two eras still have differences with who was chosen to be represented in sculpture. During the Classical period more “ideal[ized]” forms were depicted (Agard, 341). Beauty and youth were highly valued, and the art created during this time illustrates that. The Statue of Hermes and Dionysus is one example of this; both faces represented in the statue are flawless. One would expect this from a young child like Dionysus, but one may expect some lines or other imperfections on the face of the older Hermes. During the Classical Period, formulas were designed to determine proportions through the use of mathematics. Many artists utilized these formulas in order to recreate these perfect proportions within their own art to carry out this “scientific vision” (Kidd).

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At the time there was an obvious emphasis on formulaic artwork, and it was utilized to portray rulers and deities, helping to establish their power and influence. As time went on and Greece entered the Hellenistic period, accurate depictions of people were more prevalent. Imperfections and signs of aging were embraced and implemented into art-making it truer to life. The Statue of Laocoon shows more mature faces, specifically Laocoon himself who has lines on his forehead and around his eyes. If this sculpture were made during the Classical period, those details would likely not have existed, and he could have looked a similar age to his sons. During the Hellenistic period, a wider range of the population was depicted in art, including children, the elderly, and people of different ethnicities (Vout, 397). Artists didn’t feel the need to portray perfect examples of people, gravitating towards creating more diverse artworks. It was possible to see people outside of the patrician class be represented in artwork during this period, making artwork from the Hellenistic period a more diverse and varied than the Classical period.

How emotion is displayed is another element that differentiates Classical and Hellenistic sculpture. In Hermes and Young Dionysus, their expressions are static and stoic. Hermes has a neutral expression and Dionysus is looking up at him with a similar guise. Compared to Laocoon and His Sons, the tone of this sculpture is tranquil, which is a theme in other Classical sculptures. Many sculptures share this calm, fixed quality and exhibit figures with facial expressions that do not reveal emotions. During the Hellenistic Period, the opposite was true. Statues like Laocoon and His Sons clearly illustrate the pain and anguish they are experiencing through their facial expressions. The three men have open mouths and furrowed brows, indicating to the viewer that they are suffering. This statue in particular has a “horrific theatricality” that is fitting for the scenario that is playing out (Howard, 422). During this period, statues might not have always exhibited expressions as severe as this example, but there was often some emotion that was indicated in the features of the face.

Movement displayed within these two periods also contrasts with each other. During the Classical period, sculptures began to stray from strict symmetry like what was found in the Archaic period, demonstrating their ability to show a shift in weight in the human body with techniques like the “Praxitelean curve” (Kidd). Artists began implementing poses that were calm and fixed. The statue Hermes and Young Dionysus has Hermes leaning against his sword with his younger brother looking up at him. Most sculptures during time shared this still quality, exhibiting very little movement. This lack of motion adds to the calm and regal quality statues from the Classical period possess. Hellenistic sculptures are far more expressive and gesticulated. The statue of Laocoon and His Sons is a great example as the three human figures “evoke high tension” as their bodies are writhing, attempting to escape the serpents attacking them (Liverani). The way in which their bodies and limbs are positioned creates movements between the figures, adding to the suspense the viewer is experiencing. During the Hellenistic period, it was common to see sculptures in contorted poses, suggesting movement and creating an intense and emotional mood. The exuberant stances complemented the expressions displayed, making the sculpture’s impact even more profound. Artists from this period not only show mastery of human proportions but a knowledge of how bodies move.

There is also a thematic difference between Classical and Hellenistic art. During the Classical period, there was an emphasis on religious themes. Sculptures were often dedicated or depicted deities, religious figures, or nobility (Agard, 341). In the case of the statue Hermes and the Young Dionysus, the Greek god of trade, heralds, and merchants, Hermes, and the god of harvest, wine, and fertility, Dionysus, are represented. Artwork from this time was often created in the hopes that it would please their gods when placed within a temple. Hellenistic sculpture often incorporated themes like sleep, suffering, and death. In the case of Laocoon and His Sons, it is obvious than the three men are in distress as they are being assaulted by snakes. With their intense movement and expression, sculptures from the Hellenistic period were able to better explore more intense human emotions than those from the Classical period.

Sculptures from the Classical and Hellenistic periods share many qualities while also being distinct from one another. Elements like tone, movement, and theme are what set these two periods apart. Artists from both periods were able to excel in certain techniques, which were used to their advantage when depicting their subject matter. The style established during the Classical period set the foundation for the Hellenistic period, where the standards were built upon making art from each time unique.

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