by Claudia Moscovici
Greek art was perhaps the first—and certainly the most influential art in the Western tradition–to capture the essence not only of the human spirit, but also of the human form, with all its movement and powers of expression. In Greek art, we feel, even the body seems infused with a soul. Myron’s famous sculpture of the discus thrower, Discobolos (c. 450 B.C), which is of the same era as the better known works of the sculptor Pheidias, displays the beauty, poise, force and movement of a young man’s efforts to launch the discus he holds in his hand. The sculpture is not entirely naturalistic—in the sense that athletes who would try to assume the same position would not be able to throw the discus very far. Nonetheless, it captures the elegance and athleticism of the male body in the first blush of youth. Part of this sculpture’s naturalism lies in the way it conveys movement and emotion through the positioning and poise of the body. This artistic video on classical sculpture by Philip Scott Johnson highlights this phenomenon:
More generally, classical Greek and Hellenistic sculptures rarely look stiff or contrived because of the way in which the human form is balanced: often in a position of counterpoise, with the weight shifted upon one leg, which allows sculptors to reveal the muscular curvatures of the body.
While classical Greek sculpture tends to focus upon the beauty of the human form, Hellenistic art—the art of the empires founded by Alexander the Great’s followers—places increasing emphasis upon the expression of emotion. The kinds of feelings represented in Hellenistic sculpture, however, are not those of everyday people in ordinary circumstances. Rather, Hellenistic art usually exhibits the emotions of extraordinary individuals engaged in tragic conflicts. To offer one well-known example, the sculpture Laocöon and his sons (175-50 B.C.)—executed by Hagesandros, Anthenodoros and Polydoros of Rhodes–immortalizes the story of a priest who is being punished by the gods for forewarning the Trojans not to accept a giant horse which, as it turns out, carried inside it enemy soldiers.
This sculpture was rediscovered in Rome in 1506 and many art historians believe that what was found was not the original sculpture, but a Roman copy. Whether or not it is the original work, The Laocöon Group made a strong impression upon Italian Renaissance sculptors, especially Michelangelo. Laocoon is frozen in an image of terrible anguish since his punishment consists of having to witness two gigantic snakes emerge from the sea and suffocate with their coils his beloved sons. Hellenistic art, at least in this representative sculpture that would become a favorite during the Renaissance and the Neoclassical periods, privileges the expression of a kind of emotion that is at once mythical and dramatic: mythical in its literary and religious references, dramatic in its depiction of human tragedy.