This exhibition in Berlin explores how art first affirmed the centrality of the individual that laid the foundation of Western culture
Currently underway in Berlin at the Altes Museum and open to the public until September 2020, “Tough Types. Portraits of Ancient Greeks” is a fascinating foray into classical art in a genre little known to the general public: portraiture. It might seem like a topic for specialists, however it is actually a great opportunity to investigate the origins of Western civilization. In fact, the portrait defines the beginning of our humanistic culture that placed man at the centre, a measure for the entire Universe.
Realistic portraits – as a representation of the individual in the reality of their facial features – are exclusive to Western culture. Moreover, the first seeds sprouted precisely in Greece, although it would take time to elaborate a concept that would later be fully developed only in the Hellenistic age (4th century BCE) and generally in relation to the figure of Alexander the Great.
When the portrait arose, the Macedonian leader was yet to be born. We are in Classical Greece of the 5th century BCE, and it is precisely during this initial phase that the curators of the exhibition focused their attention. The most interesting nucleus consists of about 20 works, quite diverse in terms of materials, coming from the Munich Glyptothek, currently closed for restoration. The collections on loan include not only marble busts but also vases, reliefs and also copies of the famous Riace Bronzes – works that allow us to reconstruct the genesis of the type of portrait. Although we lack some key knowledge, as most of these portraits are Roman copies, what we have is enough to give us an idea of this complex and protracted phenomenon.
As a matter of fact, the process that led to the representation of a face in its true physiognomy has been rather long. It is the result of that pragmatic aspect that was typical of Greek culture from the beginning, meaning the ability to place ourselves in front of reality and represent it for what it is, without preconceptions or dogmas that descend from above. Among the ancient peoples of the Mediterranean, the Greeks were the only ones to pose the problem of truth and to investigate the world without the filters of the supernatural – they were the first to develop a world view detached from the cult of authority. They were also responsible for the conception of philosophy as an open mind and without preconceptions and the elaboration of an art that imitates nature. Their artistic representations aimed to create the illusion of reality while the sculptures perfectly reproduce the structure of the body. They would also tackle the problem of the representation of the human face in a similar way.
Among the other peoples of the ancient world, such as in Egypt or in Mesopotamia, the recognizability of an individual did not come from the features of the face but above all from the engraved name and from external elements such as crowns, tools of the trade or symbols of power. For example, the Egyptians used the crown to qualify the pharaoh, and his name below indicated the specific sovereign represented. In this case, facial features did not matter because the individual himself was not important.
However, we should point out that even in Greece, when this art began, the portrait did not represent a real face. No face could realistically have those characteristics of proportion and harmony which for the Greeks of the classical era was an indispensable requirement of art. Moreover, in the 5th century BCE, the moral value of the subject took precedence over the persona. Greek artists tried to use the portrait to represent not real physiognomies, but rather the ethical and moral characteristics of the person, such as wisdom, courage, culture, and the sense of justice.
The representation of the face is therefore individualized, albeit not in the sense of a realistic reproduction of facial features. The portrait is an expression of the moral and psychological peculiarities of the subject. This art, as we now know it – meaning the exact and detailed reproduction of the physiognomic features of an individual – would come about later in Hellenistic culture. This marked the moment in which the classical world slipped away and Western man began to have a conception of a self detached from the group. It was then that the somatic traits would become important, defining the individual.
Anna Maria Calabretta