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The Emergence of a New Sculptural Style

Statues in the Greek Archaic Age1 had been characterized by a stiff posture imitating the style of standing figures from Egypt. Egyptian sculptors had gone on producing this style unchanged for centuries. Greek artists who made free-standing sculptures, on the other hand, had begun to change their style by the time of the Persian Wars, and the fifth century B.C. saw new poses become more prevalent in this genre, continuing an earlier evolution toward movement visible in the sculpture attached to temples2. Human males were still being generally portrayed nude as athletes or warriors3, and women were still clothed in fine robes.4 But their postures and their physiques were evolving toward ever more naturalistic renderings. While archaic male statues had been made striding forward with their left legs, arms held rigidly at their sides, male statues might now have bent arms or the body's weight on either leg5. Their musculature was anatomically correct rather than sketchy and almost impressionistic6, as had been the style in the sixth century B.C. Female statues, too, now had more relaxed poses7 and clothing8, which hung in such a way as to hint at the shape of the body underneath instead of disguise it. The faces of classical sculptures, however, reflected an impassive calm9 rather than the smiles that had characterized archaic figures.

Sculpture in Bronze

Bronze10 was the preferred material of the sculptors who devised the daring new styles in free-standing sculpture in the fifth century, although marble was also popular. Creating bronze statues11, which were cast in molds made from clay models, required a particularly well-equipped workshop with furnaces, tools, and foundry workers skilled in metallurgy. Because sculptors and artists labored with their hands, aristocrats regarded them as workmen of low social status, and only the most famous ones, like Pheidias, could move in high society. Properly prepared bronze had the tensile strength to allow outstretched poses of arms and legs, which could not be done in marble without supports. (Hence the intrusive tree trunks and other such supporting members introduced in the marble copies made in Roman times of Greek statues in bronze. These Roman copies of the sort commonly seen in modern museums are often the only surviving examples of the originals.)

The Sculpture of Myron and Polyclitus

The strength and malleability of bronze allowed innovative sculptors like the Athenian Myron12 and Polyclitus13 of Argos to push the development of the free-standing statue to its physical limits. Myron, for example, sculpted a discus thrower14 crouched at the top of his backswing, a pose far from the relaxed and serene symmetry of early archaic statuary. The figure not only assumes an asymmetrical pose but also seems to burst with the tension of the athlete's effort. Polyclitus' renowned statue of a walking man carrying a spear15 is posed to give a different impression from every angle of viewing. The feeling of motion it conveys is palpable. The same is true of the famous statue by an unknown sculptor of a female (perhaps the goddess of love Aphrodite) adjusting her diaphanous robe with one upraised arm. The message these statues conveyed to their ancient audience was one of energy, motion, and asymmetry in delicate balance. Archaic statues impressed a viewer with their appearance of stability; not even a hard shove looked likely to budge them. Free-standing statues of the classical period, by contrast, showed greater range in a variety of poses and impressions. The spirited movement of some of these statues suggests the energy of the times but also the possibility of change and instability.

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