Fragments of Antiquity

“THE COROPLAST’S ART: GREEK TERRACOTTAS OF THE HELLENISTIC WORLD.” Curated by Jaimee P. Uhlenbrock. At the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University, July, 1991.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, June 21, 1991.)

“The Moon rose full, and the maidens, taking their stand around the altar…”

As I walked through this lovely show of small terracotta figurines from ancient Greece, I kept thinking about those lines from Sappho–the last remaining fragments of a lyric poem that, whole, must have been almost too beautiful for words. All that we know of Greece has come to us in ruins–armless, headless, faded, fallen, broken, battered, lost in translation. What we have are fragments, fragments that have lost almost everything–except their poetry. But, generation after generation, that poetry has never lost its thrilling, visionary gleam.

The Coroplast’s Art, now at Harvard’s Sackler Museum, is a show of 50 small works in clay from the Hellenistic world–late fourth to the first century B.C. During that time, thousands of these small figures were made, cast in molds by artists known as coroplasts–modellers in clay. The figurines were modelled in terracotta, a low‑fire clay, then bathed in white chalk and gypsum, painted, and baked to hardness in a kiln. After firing, they were decorated with color: black, rose, red and yellow ochre, Egyptian blue, and gold–pigments that have long since disappeared. Now, the figurines are once again the color of the clay–a pale but still somehow luminous pinkish muddy brown.

There are figurines of dancers, wrestlers, satyrs, dwarves, winged victories, Eros, Aphrodite, Nike, Pan. But most of the figures are standing women, draped in long flowing gowns. I was especially fascinated by four of these little women, who seemed to me to represent an archetypal human journey of tranformation and growth.

A Standing Draped Girl, ca. 300 B.C., found in Athens, looks sad, pensive, and withdrawn. She looks down, with downcast eyes, and clutches at her gown, so it’s pulled tight around her. Completely draped by heavy fold of cloth, she seems enclosed, confined. There’s just the slightest suggestion of a woman’s form within–like a moon behind the clouds.

By contrast, Standing Woman with a Fan, also ca. 300 B.C., looks up. Like the girl, she is draped. But now the contours of the cloth reveal a living, breathing body beneath the veil. She holds one hand behind her back, and in her other hand she holds a circle–a fan, or perhaps a mirror. Her gaze is inward and serene, and she clearly possesses what  William Wordsworth called

“that inward eye,
Which is the bliss of solitude.”

Next, a Standing Draped Woman from Myrina in the later 3rd century B.C. She looks out. Her body is completely draped, but her gaze is directed out, into the world. She stands up straight and strong, with one arm raised, as if about to speak. Finally, a Flying Nike from 180 B.C., also from Myrina. She once had arms and wings; they are long since broken and lost. But she has not lost her air of supreme self‑possession, and the smile of Venus still plays about her face. Like her sisters, Nike is draped, but the drapery which flows over her strong, rounded body reveals more than it conceals. You can see her breasts, her belly, her hips, her legs. One leg presses forward ‑‑ a small, sure step into the real world. She is completely, radiantly, alive.

All of these small figurines were humble, everday works of ritual art, mass‑produced from humble clay, made to be used as offerings to the gods and goddesses of fertility and the underworld; many of them were discovered in graves, buried, like memories, underground.

The coroplast’s art was a minor art, and these are very minor works of art; the great artists worked in marble. But The Coroplast’s Art is a rich, evocative show, because these tiny fragments of ancient Greece were once part of something glorious. And if you look closely, you can almost see it ‑‑ radiant, alive ‑‑ the way you can almost hear the ocean when you hold a seashell close up to your ear.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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