The Narrative Tradition in Art: Evidence and Examples from the Neolithic and the Hellenistic Periods
Artists have existed since long before the dawn of civilization and the beginnings of recorded history, and the subject matter chosen for depiction in paintings has at once been highly varied and remarkably similar as civilization progressed and societies same and went. Wildly disparate styles have led some to emphasize color and the abstract while others attempted to paint exactly what was seen, and buildings dominate some paintings while landscapes dominate others; at the same time, there have been similarities in that paintings always represent the world as seen by the civilization producing the art, and thus people and certain other elements are almost always well represented. Art is a way of mirroring life, and of displaying features of importance to a given people, and representations of men and women and the objects and creatures they interact with are thus highly important.
Art can also be a way of explicitly telling stories -- of sharing narratives between individuals in a society and, indeed, sharing them well beyond the boundaries of space and time that contain any given society. Just as the representation of man himself is as old as the act of painting (though the representation of women is possibly even older), the act of depicting narratives extends well past human memory. One of the earliest examples of Neolithic art contains a narrative scene, as does a piece of Greek pottery from several thousand years later.
The scene of the Deer Hunt in Catal Huyuk, Turkey, is a remnant of life in the Anatolian civilization that existed in the sixth millennium BCE, showing a scene that was of great importance to the people n terms of their sustenance, survival, and their interactions with the world around them (Kleiner 2010, p. 12). A funeral krater -- a large vase-like vessel -- found at the Dipylon Cemetery in Athens, Greece depicts a very different scene related to the vessel's usage; a funeral procession and a scene of mourning are depicted in this eight-century BCE artifact, demonstrating the importance of death in the Greek understanding of life and also revealing many details about how society viewed the mourning process and show of grief (Kleiner 2010, p. 88). Both of these works of art contain narrative scenes, telling part of a story that can be woven into the larger acts of the civilizations that produced them, while at the same time each retains highly distinctive characteristics that are equally revealing about the values and beliefs of the cultures in which the works were created.
Not a great deal is known about the Anatolian civilization that existed in Turkey around 5750 BCE. Archaeological evidence and fossil/bone remains make it clear the red deer were a highly important part of the subsistence culture, however, and it is almost certain that the animal were used for their meat as well as for their fur and their horns for clothing and other uses (Whittle 1996, p. 324). The site where this painting is found is actually a fortress of sorts, demonstrating the importance of military prowess and protection in the culture that is also evident from the weaponry depicted in the painting itself (Hamblin 2006, p. 25).
There is far more known about the ancient Greek culture than there is of the Anatolian Civilization five thousand years its senior, and thus the art produced by the Greeks in the last millennium before the start of the Common Era is more easy to situate in its historical context. Despite the glorification of the Trojan War and other epic battles, this period was not accustomed to the same machineries of war typically associated wit the ancient Greeks, and the krater's depiction of chariots is indicative of their more peaceful and austere designation (Snodgrass 2000, p. 433). This krater was also created during the time when Athens was transitioning in the way people interacted with each other, and these changes are likely what led to the development of democracy in the city-state rather than vice-versa, as certain depictions of the relations of people on the krater demonstrates (Cartledge & Millett 1998, p. 14-5). Both pieces of art are thus uniquely related to their time and place.
Despite the vast differences in culture and in time period that exist between the Deer Hunt and the Dipylon krater, there are some significant similarities in these two works of art. First, in terms of simple subject matter and in the narrative elements of the painting, there are both abstract and concrete similarities. Both works of art show man in relation to various other elements in their society, and thus demonstrate the importance of these other elements and of man's relation to them. There are also representations of current technology in both works of art, moving from bows and arrows in the Deer Hunt to the chariots of the krater's procession.
There are also some stylistic and aesthetic similarities between these two artworks that are interesting to note. The relative proportion of various figures in the artworks, and particularly the relation of the proportions of the size of the human figures to the sizes of other figures, indicates varying levels of importance of man and these other figures. In the Deer Hunt, the figures of the Deer are much larger than the figures of men, and not in proportion to the differences that existed in reality. This most likely signifies the recognition and perspective of the artist that the deer were of greater relative importance than were the men, in the instance of the hunt itself. On the krater, humans are also outsized by the horses pulling chariots on one level, and on another portion of the krater the differences between human figures themselves are quite obviously significant, and though these figures are essentially indistinguishable from each other it is clear that some of these individuals are of greater importance in the funeral and mourning scene being presented than are others.
In addition to the many similarities that exist between these two artworks, of course, there are also a great many differences. The painting of the Deer Hunt is much simpler in its portrayal of the figures and is also less "busy"; there is not as much ornamentation as exists on the krater, which makes the figures themselves stand out quite sharply. The excessive ornamentation in the form of geometric designs and other visual elements that exist on the krater, in the meantime, serve to situate the human events depicted in a larger and more complex pattern of life that is explicitly recognized and rendered by the artist.
Then there are the more obvious yet equally profound differences in the subject matter of the two works of art. While both of these artworks depict narratives that reflect the civilizations' interactions with their world, these interactions are highly different. The Deer Hunt appears to be at once celebratory and reverential of the act of hunting and ultimately (it is presumed) killing the deer, but shows the deer in a position of prominence over the men. The subject is truly a reflection of man's relatively small status in nature, that places him perhaps on par with the deer but certainly no greater. On the krater, even though some of the men are outsized by the horses, the same positioning is clearly absent, and instead it depicts man's manipulation of his environment and his reactions to the natural event of death. Man, that is, is the absolute focus of the krater in a way that is definitely not the case in the Deer Hunt, where man is one element in a world in which he is outsized.
Scholarly interpretations of the Deer Hunt have focused on the painting's position with others on the walls of the military fortress. There is an accompanying painting that has alternatively been interpreted as a hunting dance or as a scene of military conquest, and this interpretation definitely informs an interpretation of the Deer Hunt itself (Hamblin 2006, pp. 25-6). As a hunting dance, it confirms and emphasizes the reverential aspect observed in the Deer Hunt itself, making it more ritualistic and more explicitly celebratory, whereas viewing this accompanying painting as a military triumph emphasizes the violence and aggression of the Deer Hunt (Hamblin 2006, pp. 26).
Though more is known about the Greek culture that produced the krater found at the Dipylon Cemetery, there are still many different interpretations of various elements of this piece of art. The chariots, for instance, have been interpreted variously as stylistic representations of the two wheeled chariots that did exist at the time but that might not have been entirely familiar to the Athenian culture at the time, or as the four wheeled wagons that would have been familiar to this culture (Snodgrass 2000, p. 433). Though this difference might seem negligible, it has definite implications on the overall interpretation of the artwork,…