New York

“The Amasis Painter and His World”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is a case in which the critic must talk more about the historic significance of the exhibition than about the work exhibited.

In ancient and primitive cultures artists did not sign their works, and the profession of painter or sculptor or whatever was usually an inherited one and socially indistinguishable from crafts like harness-making or blacksmithing. An artist was taught the canon of his tradition, and the idea of personal innovation was antithetical. In other words, art did not involve the element of self-expression that for us has been its sine qua non.

In Greece in the 6th century BC the prototype of the attitude that we have known as Modernism arose—the prototype whose influence on European thinkers in the 18th century formed our Modernism. The essence of it was the emphasis on personal sensibility as a value in itself. In literature it resulted in the subjective lyric poems of Sappho and Anacreon. In the fine arts, a small clique of potters and vase painters began to sign their works and present them as unique forms of self-expression. Within this milieu connoisseurs could easily recognize the individual style of Exekias, Amasis, or Euphronios, and they could appreciate these artists’ innovations and the developmental sequences within their oeuvres. An ideology like that of 20th-century Modernism—emphasizing progress, creativity, and individuality—remained in effect in ancient Greece for about 300 years. (At that point political and social changes brought about the somewhat regressive Alexandrian period, a period like Post-Modernism, when, instead of innovation, earlier elements of the tradition were reprised in variant forms.)

Amasis was central to this prototypal movement. Dietrich Von Bothmer, chairman of the Metropolitan’s Department of Greek and Roman Art and curator of this exhibition, believes that the signature “Amasis” belongs to the maker of the amphorae themselves and not the painter of the black-figure panels that appear on them; John Boardman, on the other hand, is sure that they “are the same man” In either case, both the potter Amasis and the Amasis Painter were part of the milieu of advanced Athenian artists who first began self-consciously to sign their work. Amasis (as I will call painter and potter together, following Boardman) was the main rival of Exekias, by all accounts the most impressive of all Attic black-figure vase-painters. (Exekias twice satirizes Amasis in his paintings.) Although little is known about Amasis, he may have been from Egypt, and dark-skinned. His work developed in three major stages, from small, delicately figured panel amphorae to increasingly robust larger ones. Although he often depicted scenes of everyday life (somewhat unusually giving equal emphasis to male and female figures), he was throughout his career a master of Dionysian subject matter.

The very idea of exhibiting 65 works by a single artist who died approximately 2,500 years ago is fantastic. This was the first one-person show of a Greek vase-painter, and it was intensely appropriate. The custom of the one-person show is based on the idea of the unique value of individual creativity, a concept that was first consciously acted out by Amasis and his contemporaries. The impression is that a circle has somehow been closed; at the end of Modernism, we have been given an opportunity to encounter its fresh and strong beginnings.

Thomas McEvilley