Greek Sculpture and the Problem of Description

By Dillon, Sheila | The Art Bulletin, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Greek Sculpture and the Problem of Description


Dillon, Sheila, The Art Bulletin


A. A. DONOHUE Greek Sculpture and the Problem of Description Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 278 pp.; 43 b/w ills. $80.00

Alice Donohue's new book examines the historiography of stylistic description and its role in scholarly interpretations of ancient Greek statuary by focusing on a few of the earliest and perhaps best-known stone statues of draped women in Greek art: the statue dedicated by Nikandre on the island of Delos and the small-scale "Lady of Auxurre" now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. Donohue, professor of classical and Near Eastern archaeology at Bryn Mawr College, is one of the few classical art historians in the United States whose work focuses specifically on the historiography and intellectual history of ancient Greek and Roman art, a research interest that has already resulted in a volume of papers, edited with Mark Fullerton, entitled Ancient Art and Its Historiography (2003), based on two colloquiums organized for the Annual Conferences of the College Art Association in 1997 and 2000. Her new book, "preliminary to a broader examination of the historiographic structures that have shaped the way we think about the art of ancient Greece and Rome" (p. xi), developed from Donohue's first book on the concept of the xoanon (a venerable image) and early Greek sculpture (Xoanon and the Origins of Greek Sculpture, published in 1988). The focus here is on what Donohue calls "the problem of archaeological description" (p. 1) and the artificial distinction implicitly made in most archaeological publications between description and interpretation. As Donohue demonstrates throughout the book, how statues are described has had a significant but mostly unacknowledged effect on how those statues are perceived and interpreted.

Donohue sets out the aims and premises of the book clearly in the first chapter. She is concerned with explicating the ways in which the intellectual interests and concerns that shaped and informed the creation of the modern discipline of classical archaeology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries continue to have a profound effect on how we write the history of ancient art today. Donohue's command of this intellectual history is impressive, and she has done all students of Greek art a tremendous favor not only by bringing so much of it to our attention but also by translating extended sections into English and including the original language in the footnotes (here Cambridge University Press should be praised for allowing the notes to be printed where they could be of most use to the reader).1 She argues that the quest of these early practitioners for scientific and intellectual rigor in methods of analysis-in part, an attempt to escape the specter of antiquarianism and the charge of dilettantism-resulted in the system of description, comparison, and interpretation that is still very much with us today. Ulrich von WiIamowitz-Moellendorff and Johann Joachim Winckelmann, names familiar to most classical archaeologists and art historians, play leading roles in her analysis, as do somewhat more obscure but no less important figures such as Otto Jahn and Georg Zoëga. The connection between ancient art and classical literature-and the subsequent matching of physical remains with things mentioned in the literature, particularly by Pliny and Pausanias-was a major focus of this early scholarship.

Despite some differences in their methods and stated aims-Zoëga, for example, took what might be considered a more "archaeological" approach, while Winckelmann's interest was in writing a synthetic history of ancient art-all these early scholars implicitly conceptualized description as something prior to and separate from interpretation, a move that Donohue considers deeply problematic. The contrast between the perceived interests and aims of archaeology and those of art history-for example, style as an objective diagnostic trait versus style as a signifying aesthetic trait and the role of description in both-is a recurrent theme throughout the chapter, providing, in fact, an overarching interpretative framework for the book as a whole. …

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