THE ARCHAIC PERIOD
The term “archaic” was invented in the 18th century by art historians to characterize the transitional period of Greek art between the Geometric (9th to 8th century B.C.) and the Classical Period (5th to 4th century B.C.).
The chronological scope of the Archaic Period covers roughly the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. (700-500 B.C.). The end of the Persian Wars (479 B.C.) marks the transition to the subsequent Classical Period.
The term “archaic” initially had an evaluative meaning and it was believed that it was simply the “primitive” prelude to the great Classical art, especially the plastic arts. Now, the term only has chronological significance and refers to the considerable cultural, social, economic, and artistic transformation of the Greek world during the 7th and 6th centuries B.C.
The rapid growth of the population in the 8th century B.C. and the need to find more resources led to the breakdown of social structure by race or tribe. This resulted, on the one hand, in the great expansion of Greek commerce through the Mediterranean and, on the other hand, in the rise of the city-state, which emerged as the main core of political and civic organization in Ancient Greece, with aristocratic, oligarchic, or tyrannical systems. In addition, with the help of legislators, laws were enacted, which aided in more effective and fair governance of the city-states and attempted to resolve the ongoing disputes within them.
The official foundation of Panhellenic competitions, already at Olympia by the 8th century B.C. (Olympia, 776 B.C.), Delphi (Pythia, 590 B.C.), Isthmia (Isthmia, 582 B.C.) and Nemea (Nemea, 573 B.C.), and of local games, with the most famous being the Panathenaia (Athens, 566 B.C.), as well as of religious-political associations, the so-called Amphictyonies (Delphi, Panionium, etc.), played a predominant role in the strengthening of relationships between the city-states.
Both in the civic and religious centers the city-states and tyrants, e.g. Peisistratos in Athens and Polycrates in Samos, competed in the foundation of impressive structures and in the execution of public building programs.
The rapid growth of trade, particularly with the East, and colonization, i.e. the establishment of numerous colonies and trading stations throughout the Mediterranean coastline, resulted in the wider use of the alphabet (it had already been introduced in the 8th century B.C. by the Phoenicians), and of coinage by the Lydians, so as to facilitate commercial relations.
The adaptation of the alphabet for the Greek dialects for other than commercial purposes led to the wide spread of the written word, with the recording of the Homeric epics, the appearance of lyric poetry, the first attempts at a systematic record of history (logographers), and the effort to understand the World (Ionic natural philosophers).
The encounter of the Greeks with Eastern civilizations enriched Greek art with new expressive means. In the 7th century B.C. (Orientalizing Period) the Greeks adopt Egyptian and Eastern iconographic themes and decorative styles (kouroi, mythic beings, like griffins and sphinxes), however adapted to their own artistic sense. The earliest phase of Archaic plastic arts (Daedalic) is characterized by frontality and disproportion in the rendering of the body parts, but progressively the trend towards more naturalistic rendering becomes prevalent, satisfying with the so-called “latent movement” one of the most fundamental demands of ancient Greek art: “ζωτικόν φαίνεσθαι”, i.e. to appear as if the image lives or moves.
From the ceramic workshops of the 7th century B.C. the Corinthian (Protocorinthian) and the more conservative Attic (Protoattic) pottery stand out. Initially at Corinth (7th century B.C.) and later at Athens (around 620 B.C.) the black-figure style emerges, i.e. the method of decorating vases with black figures and incision for the rendering of the details. Corinthian ceramic products dominated in the Mediterranean markets until the first decades of the 6th century B.C., when they gradually gave their place to the higher quality Attic black-figure vases, which were decorated by great painters such as the Nessos Painter, Sophilos, Lydos, Amasis, and Exekias.
The red-figure style of pottery, in which the figures remain in the red color of the clay and appear on a black background, was invented in Athens around 530/520 B.C. The most important artists are the Andokides Painter and the three “Pioneers”, i.e. Euphronios, Euthymides, and Phintias.