Friday 21 December 2018

Black on Red, Red on Black: Figure it Out by Elisabeth Storrs

Have you ever thrown a vase? Not in anger but on a potter’s wheel? One of my protagonists in the Tales of Ancient Rome saga does both. In imagining her story, I realised I had a problem - I could always experience smashing a plate, but I had no idea how to fashion ceramics.

Adokides Painter- Bilingual Amphora

Once I started researching, I found myself delving deeper into the methods used in Greece and Etruria to produce both mundane and exquisite pottery. 

The earliest means of producing ceramics was by working clay by hand through either coiling strips or pinching a hollow to form a vessel. The poorer classes would have made their own pots in this way until cheap earthenware was mass produced by using moulds.

The potter’s wheel was believed to have been introduced in Mesopotamia in 6000 BCE and was quickly adopted throughout the ancient world. By the Classical age (C5th BCE), the invention consisted of a turning platform about a metre above the floor connected by a long axle with a heavy flywheel at ground level. This was kept rotating by kicking the fly wheel with the foot which left both hands free to shape the clay.

Bucchero ware
The mechanics of throwing a pot was not all I learned. There was chemistry, too.  Etruscans were famous for their thin-walled, glossy black pottery known as ‘bucchero’ which could be decorated with elaborate designs applied to the semi-hard clay using stamps. The black colour of bucchero was achieved by ‘reduction’ i.e. establishing a very high temperature within the kiln then closing the vents to reduce the oxygen rather than the heat. When the atmosphere was charged with carbon monoxide, the red of the clay converted to black due the presence of iron oxide. Indeed, the clay of the Etruscan regions of Italy was rich in iron which helped this process.

The Etruscans were famous for high quality bucchero ware and terracotta sculptures which were exported throughout the Mediterranean. They were also enormously fond of Attic vases. Some Etruscan grave sites were riddled with thousands of vessels depicting mythological tales in beautiful tracery upon either a black or red background. Many were imported from Greece or created by Etruscan craftsmen who were heavily influenced by Greek immigrant artisans.

There were two Attic vase techniques: the black figure Corinthian method originating in the C7th BCE followed by the more sophisticated red figure Athenian style.

Black figure kylix - Amasias Painter
Potters who created black figure vases painted characters in black silhouette on the surface using a liquid known as ‘slip’. Fine lines were incised into the surface to provide contour and detail. White paint was applied to represent women’s skin. Both white and red were used to highlight details such clothing, hair or weapons. The pots were then subjected to a complicated three-phase firing process which involved varying the temperatures within the kiln at different stages to effectively apply the oxidisation process. This generated the red colour of the underlying surface, and the glossy black of the figures who were always shown in profile.

Over time the Etruscans moved away from the Corinthian style to use the ‘pseudo red figure’ technique that involved painting the clay black before adding red silhouettes and scratching lines to achieve definition. They also produced their own distinctive pottery style with figures painted red on white.

Red figure stamnos - Menelaos Painter
In contrast, ‘true’ red figure vases were produced by applying a technique first used in Athens around 530 BCE. Here, the figures were created in the original red-orange of the clay using a fine brush. This allowed for greater detail because lines could be drawn rather than incised. As a result, the painted scenes were more detailed and realistic. It also allowed artists the opportunity to work with greater perspective by depicting front, back and three-quarter views, therefore producing a three dimensional effect.

Black and red figure painting gave rise to a number of identifiable potters and artists. Some are known by their actual names due to the fact they engraved their signatures on the bottom of the pots e.g. Exekias. Others remain anonymous but their styles are clearly identifiable resulting in historians attributing them with soubriquets e.g. the 'Andokides Painter'.

Exekias was a potter and painter who lived in Athens between approximately 545-530 BCE. He is considered one of the greatest Attic vase painters, specialising in black figure ceramics. He was innovative, experimenting with new shapes and painting techniques. Fourteen signed works by Exekias survive with many others identified due to his stylistic method. The signatures vary from ‘Exekias made me’ to ‘Exekias made and painted me’ which has given rise to a theory he only acknowledged decorating those pieces of which he was particularly proud.

'Exekias made me'

One of Exekias’ most famous works is the so-called ‘Dionysus Cup’, which I saw in the Munich Antikensammlung in 2016. It depicts the tale of the pirates who attacked the wine-god on a sea journey to Athens. Dionysus caused vines to entwine the mast, causing his frightened assailants to dive overboard, whereupon they were transformed into dolphins. Instead of portraying the deity at the height of the conflict with his kidnappers, Exekias shows Dionysus reclining at a feast with the dolphins cavorting around him. The scene exudes a sense of peacefulness and poetry. Exekias has given the ‘wine coloured’ sea a vivid coral red shade by using a special clay slip that turned bright red when fired. This was the first time the technique was introduced. In Attic times, his composition was revolutionary. Today the cup is one of the most famous Greek vases.

The Dionysus Cup- Exekias
The Andokides Painter is believed to be a pupil of Exekias. He is also considered to be the ‘inventor’ of the red figure method. His style has been attributed to various pieces even though most remained unsigned. Academics have dubbed him the ‘Andokides Painter’ based on the signature ‘Andokides’ that appeared on 16 pieces within the collection. One of the most famous vases signed by Andokides is the Herakles bilingual amphora found in the Etruscan city of Vulci. Bilingual vases are important evidence of the transition between red and black figure techniques. They depict the same subject in the two different styles on opposite sides of one vessel. There is debate as to whether both sides of the Herakles Amphora were painted by the one painter or whether the black figured side was rendered by the Lysippides Painter, another student of Exekias.

No matter what Attic technique is used, I never fail to be delighted by the scenes and characters depicted upon the surfaces of plates, cups, jugs and vases: a mythological narrative about gods, mortals and monsters locked forever within kiln hardened clay.

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the Tales of Ancient Rome saga. Learn more at More examples of Attic vases can be found on her Pinterest board.

Images are courtesy of The Met Project,Wikimedia Commons and my holiday snaps!

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