Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 16, 2020
J. Michael Padgett, ed. The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase-Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C. Exh. cat. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017. 448 pp.; 348 color ills.; 18 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300225938)
Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ, March 4–June 11, 2017; Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH, July 8–October 1, 2017

This splendidly illustrated exhibition catalog is devoted to one particularly prominent Attic vase painter, the so-named Berlin Painter. Whereas an exhibition on one artist may still count as a logical choice by curators of an art museum, such a focus on the oeuvre of one individual has become highly unusual within scholarly approaches to Greek art and visual culture over recent decades. The catalog addresses both an art-museum public and scholars of Greek art and archaeology. Nevertheless, a large part of this book responds more specifically to the interests of vase painting research in Sir John Beazley’s connoisseurial tradition—a tradition that has indeed been abandoned by a large majority of today’s scholars. The publication of such a catalog, remote from major trends in current scholarship, is clearly good news—at least if we take diversity as a value in itself.

Among the individual contributors of this volume, some try to address explicitly the obvious anachronism of such an endeavor, either by proposing a metadiscourse on the uses and shortcomings of connoisseurship (see the excellent essay by Nathan Arrington) or by linking the book’s focus on a single artist-craftsperson with current scholarly concerns, above all the cultural-historical perspective on visual culture (see the well-written overview on Athenian cultural history and the possible links to the Berlin Painter’s iconographic choices by Jenifer Neils, albeit with rather limited conclusions). Others address the archaeology and sociology of “high-end” craft and image-making (see Jasper Gaunt’s contribution on the Berlin Painter’s collaboration with different potters, and especially Dyfri Williams’s comprehensive study on the workshop structure of Athenian red-figure vase production) and the market-oriented study of artifact production; for instance, David Saunders’s essay shows the unsurprising predominance of shape over iconography in the distribution of Athenian vases on the Italian market. Other papers stand in neat continuation of the “Beazleyian” tradition: the essay by J. Michael Padgett, which provides a general overview of the Berlin Painter’s oeuvre and a characterization of his “art” in its diachronic development; the essay by John Oakley, which situates the Berlin Painter’s long career within a somewhat fluctuating network of connected potter-painters while noting at the same time a long-term continuity in pot-painter workshops from the Pioneer style (as especially represented by Phintias) through the Berlin Painter and his “pupil” the Achilles Painter down to the Phiale Painter; and the essay by J. Robert Guy, which presents the oeuvre of the little-known Painter of Goluchow 37, which is closely connected with the Berlin Painter’s earlier phases. The same may obviously be said of the substantially extended attribution lists presented by Padgett and Guy. Finally, Alan Shapiro’s rich essay on the Berlin Painter’s Panathenaic amphorae takes up more iconography-related questions that entered vase painting research in the 1980s.

Thanks to the editor’s policy, diversity might be said to characterize this collection of papers best, especially if this volume is compared to its “forerunner,” Dietrich von Bothmer’s The Amasis-Painter and His World (J. Paul Getty Museum, 1985). In the book under review, authors from a range of career stages more or less follow the attributionist tradition; some work mainly in the field of Attic vase painting and others within a wider spectrum of topics. The attempts to integrate attributionist research within the broader pursuits of contemporary scholarship perhaps do not all go as far as one may have wished, and sometimes they merely provide the data for interesting questions without taking up these questions themselves. The research published in this book bears a huge potential for two topics in particular, on which I would like to comment further: firstly the ancient history and sociology of craft, and secondly the role accorded to the ancient individual.

With respect to the first of these, the papers by Gaunt and Williams dealing with workshop structures around the Berlin Painter (and beyond) provide much useful information. One may wish only that the authors had drawn some more general conclusions themselves. How does the relative mobility of individual craftspeople, both within single workshops (between different tasks in the production process, namely potting and painting) and between different workshops, and the relative stability of some workshops that we know to have existed over a rather long period of time (as in the case of the Berlin Painter/Achilles Painter Workshop) contribute to our understanding of the organization of such a high-quality and high-quantity ancient craft as the production of Attic painted pottery? What (if anything) does it tell us about individual social mobility, about the factors of economic success/failure, about the place of innovation within the context of a tradition-bound craft, and about the place of individual artistic creativity within a craft for which arguably only technical skill counted— technical skill, however, that may (within a broader understanding of techne) have included what we tend to take (perhaps erroneously) for a wholly modern phenomenon, namely “art”? Every scholar interested in such questions would find much to think about in this book, even if it does not provide many straightforward answers.

The ancient individual constitutes another logical focus of the book in its devotion to one painter. Yet is this a blind continuation of attributionism despite the fundamental critiques that have been formulated since the 1980s, or is this rather a high-risk/high-gain attempt to strike ahead of the curve of the communis opinio? Both might be correct in some sense. The author having been dead (according to Roland Barthes’s famous dictum from 1967) for quite a long time now, it seems to be high time for the (creative) individual to make a comeback in more contemporary scholarship. Padgett’s chapter on the Berlin Painter and Guy’s chapter on the Painter of Goluchow 37 each take on a perspective of such an individual through the lens of their respective oeuvres. Does this lens provide views that pass beyond their output of painted vases? The readings proposed in this volume do not succeed in describing these individuals in any other respect than as vase painters—and, arguably, talking about these individuals “as we know them” (see Padgett’s title, “The Berlin Painter: As We Know Him”) amounts to exactly this: only as vase painters and only through the product of their craft do we know them. But despite these limitations, does archaeology ever get closer to an ancient individual?

Attempts to approach the individual through the study of Attic vase painters over recent decades have shown a particular interest in the handful of vase painters’ name inscriptions that identify figures involved in elite activities, especially the symposion, which was the main context for the usage of such vases. In doing so, scholars approached the individual mainly as a consumer. This scholarly focus on the consumer, or (if we are talking of images) on the recipient, is not limited to vase painting. To what extent does the inventory of objects found in a tomb show the individual needs of that buried person specifically? To what extent does the choice of mythological themes on the walls of a Pompeian house reflect the interests of its owner? Such commonly asked questions equally direct the search for the ancient individual toward the consumer of material/cultural goods. Often (but not always) such inquiries lead to disappointingly imprecise and scarce results.

Attic vase painting, at least if coupled with deep connoisseurship of the kind shown by several authors of this volume, might enable us to approach the ancient individual as a producer of material/cultural goods while at the same time shifting the focus from the upper-class individual (as the archetypical consumer) to the world of banausoi, or manual laborers. And this is, I think, a most promising endeavor. However, in order not to fall back on approaches of the past, in which the vase painter is conceived simply as a free artist, one should remain aware of the fact that the general frame of what is being produced—drinking or eating vessels, cups or pots, with or without figural decoration, with complex mythological imagery or with simpler pictures—is set by the market and not by the individual producer. Here, it comes as a slight disappointment that formulations locating the distinctive characteristics of a painter’s oeuvre on the account of their personal preferences (e.g., naming the Nolan amphora as the Berlin Painter’s favorite shape) are found throughout the volume.

However, even if we refrain from overstating the extent of free choice on the part of the craftspeople, there is still enough room left for the individual potter-painter’s intentional and knowing design of their own products. A clear-cut division of labor between the designers of products and their producers (humans and/or machines), which is typical of modern industrial mass production, leaves little room for individual creativity on the part of the producers. Over time the production of goods became a dull activity, and the final products of this rigorously structured process reflect mainly the needs of consumers and tell us virtually nothing about the world of producers. Serial production of Attic painted vases, which are often very similar but never exactly the same, obviously functioned differently. Focusing mainly on the consumers and on the reception side (as is practiced by scholars who have turned away from attributionism, for fear of anachronism) may therefore itself be accused of anachronistically projecting a modern (industrial) anthropology of making back onto Greek antiquity. Although here too the market defined the craftspeople’s tasks in correspondence with the buyers’ needs, fulfilling those tasks required problem-solving abilities from the craftspeople, not only in technical matters but also in what we would today rather call artistic matters (both of which nevertheless constitute different aspects of Greek techne). The fact that the vases attributed to the Berlin Painter are often very easy to recognize even by the nonconnoisseur offers direct proof of the great part of creative individuality that is inherent in these sophisticated artifacts. This should give enough justification both for the present volume, despite its seemingly outdated scholarly agenda, and, speaking more broadly, for the pursuit of the much-maligned connoisseur’s approach.