How the Greeks Put Life into a Stone

How did those old Greek sculptors put life into their statues?

To start with, they took a good look at the human body. Two things were noticeable right off: one, the way the frame adjusted to the shifting of the body’s weight. It was as if the shoulders were like a scales (the kind blind Justice holds) that dipped to one side or the other in response to what the hips did, which were another scales. For instance, if the weight of the body was on the right leg, the right shoulder fell, as though itself trying to rest on that hip.

That was what the bone support system did. The other thing that struck them was how the muscles acted. If a muscle was at work—if it lifted or pushed or supported a movement—it puffed up, contracted, stood out through the skin covering above it; whereas if it was at rest, it lenthened, shrank, all but disappeared under the skin.

So now if you made a figure resting on one leg instead of two and got the skeleton armature and muscles right, it would immediately look “realistic”—more so than figures had ever looked. One side of the statue would be tightened, would seem to be in tension, while the other side would look relaxed. Everywhere there would be variety and contrasts as the two sides approached or departed from symmetry. And all this “life” was given to the statue even before the sculptor tried to represent voluntary movement, i.e., the stone man’s action. This was so successful by itself that sculptors mostly didn’t even care anymore about the action. Many antique figures aren’t doing much of anything. They just stand there and show what gravity is doing to their beautiful anatomy.

This “tipped scales” device—one shoulder falling, the other rising; one hip up, the other down—gave such spectacular, such sure naturalism, to the figure, that it was copied thousands and thousands of times in the classical world.

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6 Responses to How the Greeks Put Life into a Stone

  1. rich says:

    Thanks for this “tipped scales” hint. Like kind of a subtle curving S-line.

    It’s hard to imagine that the two examples you give us here were colored in any way – I hope they were spared.

  2. rich says:

    P.S.
    I once colored “statues”, I’m guilty myself…

    What’s “Schaufensterpuppen” in English?
    I’d just tranlate it with “shop-window puppets”:
    A friend of mine had a shop and among all kind of stuff, he was selling clothes too.
    Those puppets, or “sculptures” are very expensive, and I think they were beyond his budget.
    But he got a bargain: kind of vintage puppets, from the 50ties, secondhand, all of them masculine, quite muscular, they were funny, and he got those to an affordable price.

    One day he had a sale, “Schlussverkauf” and he wanted something original, an attention-grabber.

    I had an idea:
    Put one of those head first. Then add a caption that says: “Everyone’s staggered, here comes THE seasonal sale”…

    So I put this puppet, with some clothes, topsyturvy into the shop window…and I PAINTED that puppet’s head complexion in kind of an intensified RED, like blood accumulating in a person’s head, a person who had to stand on his head during a prolonged time.

    I think it was a funny advertisement.

    So I wonder, dear Swallows, with your sculpuror’s eye:
    How do you look at Schaufensterpuppen??

  3. wrjones says:

    This pose still looks good.

  4. 100swallows says:

    Rich: That was a very venial sin of yours, coloring the Schaufensterpuppen (manikins?),so I wouldn’t have confessed it as statue painting. And your idea sounds wonderful. I hope the upside-down doll didn’t look too tortured though.
    My sculptor’s eye has sometimes been puzzled (if eyes can be puzzled)by those manikins. Some are very accurate, clearly made from casts of real people. And others are so nearly sculpture it is hard to say why they are NOT. What is it they lack? They never seem to be about to move. There is no tension, no variety. The difference IS what sculpture is about. Put your finger on it, how about?

  5. rich says:

    My question has been answered very much to my satisfaction, Swallows.

    It made me ponder about the difference between an artist and an artisan, a piece of art and an artifact, about things of art and things artificial, or the German version of “Kunst” und “künstlich”.

    Just love to read your writings…you must be a born teacher.

  6. 100swallows says:

    Rich: Thanks, fella. I’m a lucky dog to have you in the classroom.

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