New York Review of Books
May 24, 2017
Only twice in modern times have museums surveyed the career of a single Greek vase painter, and both shows were at major international institutions (the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1985 and Berlin’s Staatliche Museum in 1990-1991). Thus it is a marvel that the more modest Princeton University Art Museum has assembled a vast selection of the works of the master referred to as the Berlin Painter, who lived in Athens in the early fifth century BC. Curated by J. Michael Padgett, the show charts the development, over some four decades, of an artist whose name, nationality, and even gender remain unknown, but whose distinctive and confident illustration in the red-figure style stands out as clearly as any signature.
In his pioneering research on attic vase painting, the Oxford art historian Sir John Beazley devised the label “Berlin Painter” in 1911 in honor of a large lidded amphora decorated by this artist that is housed in Berlin’s Antikensammlung. He assigned thirty-seven other works to the same artist on the basis of the unique line they shared, which he described as “thin, equable, and flowing,” and various features of the depiction of the human form. By now several hundred vases have been attributed, more or less confidently, to this artist’s hand, many recovered from the graves of wealthy Etruscans in western Italy. More than fifty can be seen in the Princeton show, along with pots by the equally talented Kleophrades Painter—who, because of the similarity of their styles, is thought to have been the Berlin painter’s teacher—and by other, later artists who clearly took their inspiration from these two masters.
The Berlin Painter began working at the end of the sixth century BC, when the red-figure technique of vase painting—in which black glaze fills the background, leaving silhouettes of unglazed red ceramic to form the image—was just starting to replace its inverse, the black-figure style that had prevailed earlier. The possibilities offered by this new medium clearly intrigued the artist, who began to expand the black background and diminish the red subject to a single, static figure—a lyre-playing singer with his head thrown back in musical ecstasy, a young athlete holding a discus. These figures seem to float, anchored to the physical world only by the short geometric band on which they plant their feet. In some cases, even this tiny hint of landscape disappears.