Exhibition Review

The Berlin Painter. Princeton and Toledo

FIGURE-DECORATED POTTERY, produced in  great quantity in Athens and other centres  during antiquity, constitutes one of the most  challenging areas of study for scholars of  Classical art and archaeology.1 The black and red-figure examples provide the largest  surviving corpus of visual material from the  ancient Greek world. Although vase imagery  supplies abundant information about mythology,  athletes, women, drinking parties and  religious rituals, and vase shapes indicate  particular functions such as mixing, pouring,  drinking and storage, rather less is known  about the workshops that created these often  extraordinarily beautiful forms or the artists  who decorated them with varying degrees of  success. 

Sir John Beazley (1885–1970), the Oxford  scholar who classified and attributed  many hundreds of Athenian vases, assigned  ‘names’ to unsigned works based on a particular  vessel’s location, iconography or other  factors.2 Since Beazley first identified the  Berlin Painter (initially called ‘The Master  of the Berlin Amphora’) in 1911, the number  of works assigned to this red-figure vase  painter now totals more than three hundred.3  Interest in the painter’s ‘elegant, approachable  style has never lessened’, and includes  publications devoted to individual vases, to  associations between the Berlin Painter and  other artists and to Beazley’s own drawings  of the figures on the vases.4 

The exhibition The Berlin Painter and his World: Athenian Vase-Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C., shown first at Princeton University Art Museum (closed 11th June), where this reviewer saw it, and opening this month at the Toledo Museum of Art (7th July to 1st October), was organised by J. Michael Padgett. It is the first exhibition ever to examine the painter’s oeuvre. Bringing together a total of eighty-four objects, including fifty four vases attributed to the painter and a handful of bronze and terracotta figurines, the exhibition and accompanying catalogue use objects and images to situate the artist within the historical, political and social climate of his day. Like his contemporary and possible rival, the Kleophrades Painter (Beazley’s ‘painter of power’), who collaborated with a potter named ‘Kleophrades’, the real name of the Berlin Painter (Beazley’s ‘painter of grace’) remains a mystery. Nonetheless, there is a great deal to be gleaned about him from careful observation of the vases themselves. As a ‘pot painter’ who specialised in decorating vessel shapes other than cups – among them amphorae (for wine storage), kraters (for mixing wine with water), psykters (wine-coolers) and lekythoi (oil containers often associated with mortuary practices) – his long career extended from c.505 to the 460s BC.

Beazley and others have isolated the ‘early’, ‘middle’ and ‘late’ phases of his output, and the painter’s most skillful and innovative pieces are thought to belong to the earlier stages of his career. Subjects range from the Olympian gods and goddesses, such as those assembled round a dinos (a cauldron-shaped vessel) of c.485–475 BC to witness the departure of Zeus (cat. no.39; Fig.81), to heroes, athletes, musicians and episodes related to the Trojan War. Vases by the Berlin Painter have been discovered in Athens (primarily on the Acropolis), elsewhere on the Greek mainland, and at a number of ancient sites across Italy. It may surprise some to learn, according to David Saunders in his catalogue essay, ‘The Distribution of the Berlin Painter’s Vases’, that ‘shape repeatedly appears to have been the most important factor for the distribution of the Berlin Painter’s vases’.5 Also unexpected, yet quite noticeable among the vases on view, are more than a handful that appear to have sustained some sort of damage over time or were fired incorrectly in antiquity. Most, if not all, of the best works attributed to the painter are included in the exhibition, with significant loans from collections across Europe and the United States. Each vase has been splendidly illustrated from multiple views in the catalogue. At Princeton, the exhibition filled two rooms painted Wedgwood blue, and visitors were confronted at the entrance with the painter’s ‘name vase’ – a large amphora (81.5 cm. high) discovered in the ancient Etruscan town of Vulci in 1834 and dated to c.500 BC (no.4; Fig.80). The vase is decorated on both sides with satyrs, the hybrid followers of Dionysos, wielding musical instruments. The satyrs’ names are inscribed: Oreimachos (‘mountain fighter’) and Orochares (‘rejoicing in mountains’), and the former is gracefully posed with Hermes and a fawn. In the same gallery was a slightly smaller red-figure amphora portraying Athena on one side and Herakles on the other (no.5). The large scale of these two vases is striking, especially in relation to the many others that were on show in the same space, such as the 41.5 cm. high Citharode from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (no.15). Also exceptional is the vast range of different shapes chosen for embellishment by this painter and the care with which so many of them are decorated. Consider the hydria from Vienna (no.33; Fig.82) on which Apollo and Artemis stand either side of a burning altar; their bodies, and even the fiery flame, gently follow the natural curvature of the vessel – a sophisticated pairing of pottery form and painted image. The wall-texts were composed with a non-specialist audience in mind, and covered everything from techniques of potting and painting and the connoisseurship and attribution of Greek vases to ancient life, trade and distribution, and mythological figures.

In keeping with Late Archaic and Early Classical Greek art, including large-scale sculpture, the Berlin Painter seems highly concerned with details of anatomy, drapery and movement. There are, however, two characteristics that set him apart from the other painters highlighted in the exhibition. The first is that his compositions feature an individual figure (or group of figures) set against an austere all-black background on each side of the same vase. Such ‘spotlit’ figures, as they are often described, may be lightly framed in red, placed atop a simple ornamental ground-line, or suspended unframed within the available space. The second characteristic of the painter is the tendency to connect solo figures on opposite sides of a single vessel in obvious or not-so-obvious ways. For example, Perseus pursues the Gorgon Medusa on an amphora of Panathenaiac shape (no.9); Zeus armed with a thunderbolt fights a helmeted giant (perhaps Poryphyrion) holding a shield and spear (no.37) on the sides of a neck-amphora and Zeus chases Ganymede around the surface of a bell-krater (Fig.83). The vases in both galleries were well lit from above, to maximise viewing and minimise the glare caused by the black gloss surfaces; and in nearly every instance the objects were displayed with both sides clearly visible, enabling the viewer to observe their pictorial unity.

Despite all that may be discerned from the vases themselves, questions remain that are difficult to answer. Was the Berlin Painter one person or several? Was he (if he was in fact a he) a potter as well as a painter? Did the painter oversee the firing of his vessels after investing such careful attention in decorating them? Was the painter literate, and capable of adding the inscriptions? Why was the painter so drawn to particular figures and subjects in addition to those already mentioned, among them animals, religious settings and Nike (the personification of Victory), to the near or complete exclusion of others? The catalogue accompanying the exhibition, whose contributors include many luminaries of the field, goes a long way towards answering these and many other questions, based on the surviving evidence. But to what extent ancient Athenian vases and their painters reflect the priorities of contemporary society, the specific tastes of buyers and consumers at home and abroad, or the artistic preferences of the painters themselves, may well be questions that will forever stay unanswered.

1 Catalogue: The Berlin Painter and his World: Athenian Vase-Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C. Edited by J. Michael Padgett. 448 pp. incl. 348 col. + 18 b. & w. ills. (Princeton University Art Museum and Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2017), £50. ISBN 978–0–300–22593–8.

2 J.H. Oakley: The Greek Vase: Art of the Storyteller, London 2013, pp.27–29.

3 J.D. Beazley: ‘The Master of the Berlin Amphora’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 31 (1911), pp.276–95.

4 Padgett, op cit. (note 1), p.x; D.C. Kurtz, ed.: The Berlin Painter: Drawings by Sir John Beazley, Oxford 1983.

5 D. Saunders, in Padgett, op. cit. (note 1), p.124.