Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 24, 1999
Anthony Snodgrass Homer and the Artists: Text and Picture in Early Greek Art New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 186 pp.; 63 b/w ills. Paper $19.95 (0521629810)

Anthony Snodgrass has written a little book on a large subject. Just 8 1/2 × 6 × 9/16 inches and 186 pages including index, Homer and the Artists: Text and Picture in Early Greek Art takes within its compass such vexed dilemmas as the introduction of writing to Greece, the dates of the Iliad and Odyssey, the relation of Homer’s poems to lost epics of the Trojan cycle, the great bard’s standing in the cultural contexts of the eighth through mid-sixth centuries b.c., indeed, the very meaning of the word “Homeric” itself. And all this but serves as necessary framework for the main thesis of the book: the relationship between image and text in early Greek visual art. In the process, Snodgrass also produces an essay that, by its example, shows a much needed balance between the objective and subjective in the writing of art history.

Snodgrass argues for the autonomy of visual art in the Geometric through mid-Archaic periods, seeking to free it in the eyes of modern scholarship from dependence on Homer in particular and from all textual/verbal sources more generally. Given this aim, Snodgrass’s approach may seem oddly inverted in that he focuses his efforts more on the literary evidence to disprove the connection rather than on the visual material to establish its self-sufficiency. The method makes sense, however, given the dominant status modern scholars have awarded to Homer. In fact, the bard’s very prestige itself has caused much of the trouble. Today usage of the word “Homeric” is so widely applied that it has come to be synonymous with anything early Greek: " ‘Homeric age,’ ‘Homeric times,’ ‘the Homeric world,’ ‘Homeric Greece,’ ‘Homeric art,’ ‘Homeric archaeology’ " (p. 7) are but a few such epithets demonstrating Homer’s position as sole proprietor of early Greece. “Homeric archaeology” is particularly telling in the current context. All roads may lead to Rome, but does every heroic scene on a Geometric pot illustrate a couple of lines from the Iliad and Odyssey? For that matter, even if there is a literary source behind such a scene, does it come from these works or from another in the now lost network of oral, vernacular legend that was old even in the eighth century b.c.? Homer may have come to be the rhapsode par excellence, but in the Geometric age he was one among many. Snodgrass disclaims any expertise in Homeric scholarship, stressing his focus lies in the visual arts, but one of his most effective accomplishments in this book may well be in the contextualization of Homer’s poetry within its own literary tradition.

In careful, comprehensive exegesis, Snodgrass shakes loose many an old chestnut of “Homeric” iconography. The depictions of the Aktorione/Molione twins who appear in a number of works of the eighth century and later do not rely on the two brief references to them in the Iliad. The visual artist is at pains to show them as Siamese twins, a detail the modest Homer leaves out. A scene often read as an illustration of the abduction of Helen on an Attic Geometric bowl now in the British Museum, London (inv. no. 1899, 2-19.1) is similar to a composition on a Minoan gold ring, close enough in fact to suggest a formal and iconographic connection in the visual arts extending back some 700 years. Certainly nothing demands that Homer be the source. Even the oft-illustrated Attic Geometric oinochoe whose neck is decorated with a portrayal of a shipwreck (Munich inv. no. 8696) may not have anything to do with Homer’s account of Odysseus’s disaster at sea described at Odyssey 12.417-425. In the final analysis there is no scene in early Greek art that is incontrovertibly and directly drawn from the verses of either the Iliad or the Odyssey. Snodgrass further contends that even in choice of general subject matter there is no “disproportionate privileging” of Homer’s epics as an artistic source in preference to other now lost works of the Trojan saga. This is true even in the first half of the 6th century, thus discounting the often held belief that a major expansion of the two Homeric epics took place at this time; although the number of scenes from the Trojan saga in general did grow, those drawn from the Iliad and Odyssey, if anything, decline in number.

It would be misleading to suggest that Snodgrass neglects the visual material itself. He stresses that the problems facing the painter and the poet are not the same; their solutions thus will differ. The early Greek artist in particular was constrained in his attempts at depicting myth. He did not enjoy the long tradition of oral poetry that the rhapsode did. He was relatively unpracticed at presenting character, and the medium in which he worked further limited him; nor did he have the luxury of narrative discourse. Snodgrass does not present new material in covering this ground, but he is correct to emphasize the independence of the visual artist and to remind us of the genius of such inventions as synoptic narrative. The artist inevitably shared the same subject matter as the poet, but his realization of it was visual, not verbal. This is not always remembered in classical scholarship, as all evidence is marshaled in the service of textual analysis.

Admittedly, Snodgrass is not always fully successful in his efforts to divorce visual image from literary source, as, for example, in the story of the blinding of the cyclops Polyphemos. He is right to point out that this legend, although made famous by Homer, is hardly unique to him. But it is difficult to accept that the artist of the Eleusis amphora who so boldly painted Odysseus and his men stabbing the drunken, one-eyed giant did not know Homer. Or is this reviewer simply another victim of the “prestige of Homer” in looking at this icon of early Greek art? Here one realizes the degree of subjectivity that is inevitable in dealing with the questions Snodgrass poses; not only are the various factors affecting the relationship between text and image complex, at this early period they are further fraught with shortcomings of evidence. Snodgrass does not hide this problem under false claims of “scientific” objectivity, however. He is meticulous in establishing his criteria for judgment and in laying them before the reader; he is equally honest in emphasizing that differences of opinion are inevitable. This approach represents a refreshing turn in recent art-historical writing on classical art. Snodgrass does not attempt the unlikely, “the definitive statement,” and he may be challenged as a result. His method of source citation will irritate some, for example: He makes no attempt at encyclopedic coverage and even eschews the use of individual footnotes, collecting references instead at the end of his text. But Snodgrass does not want to close the debate; he wishes to engage it anew. This he accomplishes, challenging standard beliefs on almost every page. The one old saw the book does uphold is that good things do indeed come in small packages.

Rhys Townsend
Clark University