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In describing Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini wedding portrait, signed and dated by the artist in 1434, Ernst Gombrich wrote: “For the first time in history the artist became the perfect eye-witness in the truest sense of the term.” But is this actually the first instance? In the late sixth century BCE an Athenian vase painter signed his name “Smikros egrapsen” (Smikros painted it) on a red-figure stamnos now in Brussels that depicts an otherwise typical Athenian symposium, namely, young men lounging on couches, wine cups in hand while being entertained by female courtesans. The central of the three symposiasts, his head thrown back as he enjoys the sound of the flute player, is none other than Smikros, as the inscription tells us. Like Van Eyck, but nearly two thousand years earlier, Smikros is both depicted in the image and is the declared maker of it. Whereas no one questions the authority of Van Eyck to insert himself into an aristocratic wedding, poor Smikros is usually considered to be some sort of elite wannabe, imagining himself in a milieu where no lowly potter or painter of pots could possibly enter.
Most scholars of Greek art have taken these signatures at face value. The young Smikros (a nickname meaning “shorty” in ancient Greek) was a vase painter who signed at least three other vases produced in the period of the so-called Pioneers (so-called because they were first to achieve expertise in the new red-figure technique, circa 520–500 BCE), who also managed to become a participant in the elite male drinking parties that characterized ancient Athens. Other so-called Pioneer vases show men named as potters (e.g., Euphronios) or painters (e.g., Euthymides) participating in activities associated with aristocrats, such as “courtship” of young boys and music lessons involving the lyre. Scholarly opinion continues to differ as to the status of ancient vase painters and potters. Since several potters and painters dedicated expensive marble statues and reliefs on the Acropolis, it can be argued that they acquired enough wealth to be considered members of the jeunesse dorée of ancient Athens. Others insist that imagery of vase painters at the symposium is imaginary—that they are poseurs who never dined in this elite fashion.
The latest and most imaginative take on this issue is that of Guy Hedreen, who argues in The Image of the Artist in Archaic and Classical Greece: Art, Poetry, and Subjectivity that “Smikros” is not a real individual at all, but a sort of pen name for the better-known and more prolific Pioneer vase painter Euphronios. Since their styles of painting are practically indistinguishable at times, it is generally assumed that Smikros studied under Euphronios, although qualitatively the works by Smikros are considered inferior. Hedreen posits that the few signed vases, including the Brussels stamnos that is normally considered one of the better paintings by Smikros, are instances of “pictorial inventiveness” by Euphronios, who takes on the pseudonym as a kind of symposium joke. Hedreen compares this fabrication to Dada artist Marcel Duchamp’s depiction of himself as Rrose Sélavy in a famous photograph by Man Ray (1920). Such subjectivity on the part of a pot painter would be highly unusual, as there are no other secure cases in Greek art (in spite of Hedreen’s equation of Epilykos with Skythes). While admittedly we know little about the reception of Greek vases in antiquity, it is notable in this context that most extant Attic red-figure vases were exported to Etruria, and one then wonders how such “jokes” would have been understood by an Etruscan clientele.
In two chapters, Hedreen attempts to contextualize what would be the unique phenomenon of Euphronios’s fake signature within the ambit of Archaic iambic poets who assumed the personae of alter egos in their first-person poems. Hedreen writes, “Fictionalization of self, pseudo autobiography, self-incorporation of creator into creative work . . . are significant features of early Greek poetry” (54). Indeed, an earlier storyteller, Odysseus, fictionalized his narratives when he was received by the Phaeacians (Odyssey, Books 9–12) and the swineherd in Ithaca (Odyssey, Book 14). However, unlike Euphronios, Odysseus had compelling reasons for concealing his identity when he came ashore in potentially dangerous lands.
In his fourth chapter the author examines the image of the divine craftsman Hephaistos, who equipped his magical creations with invisible bonds to ensnare the gods: his mother Hera on a miraculous throne and the adulterous couple Aphrodite and Ares in bed. Both were acts of revenge on the part of Hephaistos, whose mother had thrown him out of Olympos on account of his lameness, and whose promiscuous wife was conducting an affair with the god of war. Hedreen emphasizes the physical imperfection and social marginalization of the smith-god and asserts that the popular theme in Attic vase painting of his return to Olympos, drunk and atop a mule, demonstrates how even a lowly outcast can enter heaven by means of his technical skills.
In chapter 5, Hedreen takes on what he calls “the mother of all Athenian vases,” the François Vase in Florence signed twice by Kleitias (painter) and Ergotimos (potter). Here he tackles some of the thorniest issues concerning the iconography of this vase. What is the nature of the heavy jar lugged by Dionysos? Why is an image of pygmies fighting cranes featured on the foot of the vase? Why do the names of the competitors in the chariot race conducted by Achilles for his slain lover Patroklos not jibe with those recorded by Homer in the Iliad? Where does the crane dance led by the hero Theseus take place: Knossos or Delos? Hedreen offers well-argued and persuasive answers to these iconographic conundrums.
The topics considered in the next chapter are frontality in Greek vase painting, representations of artisans at work, and the social hierarchy of workshop scenes. Hedreen examines in detail several unique vases. An aryballos (oil flask) signed by Nearchos as potter shows three lusty satyrs masturbating; the frontal one, Hedreen argues, evokes the external spectator and the artist. However, given that the flask was used as an accoutrement of a buff young athlete, perhaps the user and viewer are the objects of the erotic attraction of these satyrs. On two drinking cups decorated with eyes, eyebrows, and noses (so-called eyecups) and inscribed with the name Psiax (known from other signatures as an innovative vase painter) Hedreen imaginatively argues that the cups are in effect grotesque self-portraits of the painter.
Names on vases occupy the next chapter, in which Hedreen makes the case for the inventiveness of vase painters in making up personality-appropriate nicknames for satyrs, nymphs, courtesans, and others. One could conclude from this practice that the painters are not only literate but well educated such that they could invent the nymph named “Love to Drink” or “Shaft-Pleaser” for the masturbating satyr. The same can be said of the painter named Peithinos (“the Persuader”) whose unique cup in Berlin shows three scenes of courtship, one mythological in which the hero Peleus forces Thetis to succumb, and two others in which persuasion is the key to success. Hedreen concludes his book by claiming that “everyone will agree that the inscription Peithinos egrapsen is a lie.”
In as many years, three books published by Cambridge University Press address identity and ancient Greek artists: Jeffrey M. Hurwit’s Artists and Signatures in Ancient Greece (2015); Hedreen’s The Image of the Artist in Archaic and Classical Greece; and an edited volume by Kristen Seaman and Peter Schultz, Artists and Artistic Production in Ancient Greece (2017). The first and the third present strong cases for the role of artists as social agents who rose above their banausic status to hold more elevated positions in Athenian society. Despite the similar titles, Hedreen’s book is different, explicitly defining the inventive narrators and artists of ancient Greece from Odysseus to Hephaistos and Kleitias to Euphronios, as tricksters, poseurs, and exceedingly clever liars. According to Hedreen, phrases like “I am Odysseus” or “Smikros painted me” cannot be taken at face value and should be deeply interrogated to uncover their true meanings. While it is certainly true that ancient Greek poets and painters were brilliant fabricators of fictitious narratives, to call them creative liars may be extreme. Their craft, after all, was to entertain, and whether their topic was the Trojan War or their own life experiences, they were surely attempting to be credible to their audiences. If we doubt the existence of Smikros (and what of the other thirteen vases attributed to his hand?), should we also question the numerous signatures of artists on other media such as sculpture, coins, gems, paintings, and mosaics? If this Smikros was an invention, it is difficult to fathom how a man with the same name could have made a signed dedication to Athena on the Acropolis (IG I3 718, not mentioned in this book) contemporaneous with one by Euphronios as potter (IG I3 824). One wonders how Hedreen might explain these votive offerings: Two by the same painter, only one using his pseudonym? Or two different artists, as logic would suggest?
Director, American School of Classical Studies at Athens