10 DECEMBER 1948, Page 26

The Art of the Greeks

Approach to Greek Art. By Charles Seltman. (Studio Publications. 25s.

ANCIENT Greek art is unique in one accidental respect that has nothing to do with its quality. The accident is that some of the greatest masterpieces of visual and plastic art in the world came frpm a people whose literature and history have long been pre- eminent among the humane studies of the western world. The result of the accident is that the study of these works of art has been the Prerogative less of the professional art critic than of scholars from universities and museums—men whose intellectual background, if not their main preoccupation, is the study of dead languages and ancient hostory known collectively as " the classics." Consequently works on Greek art tend to be written in a different climate of thought from works on the art of almost any other time or place. The difference may be described by words like " donnish ' or " academic " ; and it may be illustrated by the observation, for instance, that although a university don writing on Greek art may pay his respects (a little self-consciously, perhaps) to the ideas of Roger Fry or Eric Gill, it is unlikely that Roger Fry or Eric Gill would have paid much respect to the ideas of the university don.

A few academic experts, specialising in the fine arts of ancient Greece, have succeeded in breaking down those barriers. Beazley • on vase-painting and Casson on sculpture come to mind as notable instances ; and to these it seems, fair to add the name of Seltman. Mi. Seltman is primarily an expert on what he calls " celanne," bravely reviving a useful word without being- quite brave enough to tell us how to pronounce it. By way of illustration of what has been said above, it might be suggested that his interest in the subject was initially historical ; he is the outstanding expert in Eng-

land on the historical interpretation of ancient coinage. But this has not prevented him from paying appreciative attention to the aesthetic values of his own and neighbouring fields of study. For the stimula- tion of his ideas in this direction he pays graceful tribute to Jacqueline Chittenden, to whom this book is dedicated ; and there are two or three specific acknowledgements of her influence in the text, which suggest that it might be excusable to imitate Mr. Seltman's example of adapting a classical poem to her praise and to add that her contributions are "Pata ptev, eaxa i.oe." (Few, but roses). The result is as attractive and comprehensive a critical appreciation of Greek art throughout its history as could possibly be put into I20- pages of text. In addition the photographs are mostly new and admirable.

These are the routine praises of excellence ; but there is more to be said, for Mr. Seltman has dared to have new ideas. 'The most interesting and fundamental of these is the application to his subject of the categories of poetry and prose. The distinction between the formal perfection of an archaic kouros and the lush charm of a hellenistic Eros is obvious to any observer ; so is that between a black-figure vase and a third-century scent-jar ; and so is that between any of them and a Cnossian fresco or a Mycenaean engraving. But it is not so easy to perceive what these distinctions have in common, and at the same time what it the nature of that overwhelming " Greekness " which even the most distinct of these works - retain in common with each other, as well as with many other works of Greek art which lie chronologically or geographically outside the range of classical Greece: works for instance such as the winged goat in silver and gold mounted on- a Silenus, which Mr. Selman illustrates as obviously Greek though it comes from Persia, or such as-the paint-. ings produced many centuries later by Greeks like El Greco or Ghika.

Mr. Seltman's categories may not completely account for such distinction and continuities, but they go beyond anything written by his academic predecessors. They may even help to account for the transitions of taste to which Greek art has been so fascinatingly subject ; for instance, for the emergence of archaic sculpture from total disregard in the days of Livingstone's The Legacy of Greece to a tremendous vogue in tfie decade dominated by our greatest formalistic poet, T. S._ Eliot. If this is so, even hellenistic art, now so little regarded, may one day be due for a come-back. After all, its chief defect in comparison with the classical and pre-classical periods is merely that far too much of it survives ; and that defect Mr. Seltman's judiciously selected photographs help to overcome in