India has a rich and complex history spanning thousands of years. India was the only major Asian
culture known to have been visited by the Ancient Greeks and Romans. As such, they have carried
with them this air of mystery and exoticism throughout time. Many Asian cultures were often seen
this way, as somehow exotic and mysterious. However, this is just because their works have always
been different from what was being made in the rest of the world and as a culture, they function
differently to the West. Their artworks reflect this and are both unique and exuberant.
Indian art as a whole refers to the different artistic expressions created in the historical regions of the Indian subcontinent, including modern-day India, Bangladesh, and areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It covers several art forms, historical periods and influences. Archeologists have found evidence of
prehistoric rock art in India, an early art form consisting of carvings or drawings on cave rocks. Some
of the oldest examples are called the Bhimbetka petroglyphs found in central India and are believed
to be at least 290,000 years old. In very similar ways to Southern African rock art, many of the ancient
Indian rock art examples also feature representations of animals and humans. The oldest examples of
these date from about 7000 BCE.
Traditional Indian art usually had a religious character that was depicted and Buddhism, Hinduism and
later Islam, have been a common theme throughout the centuries. The pieces often feature
mythological, human and animal forms and had elaborate ornaments. Unlike other areas influenced
by Islam, Indian art never abandoned figurative representations. Architecture in ancient India focused
mostly on religious buildings. Many Hindu temples featured very distinctive towers in the form of
truncated pyramids and had elaborate ornamentation with hundreds of sculptures.
Buddhism originated in India at some point during the 6th century and this very much influenced the
art that was being made. Religious artists made sculpture pieces from stone and bronze. They also
produced magnificent examples of Indian cave art, with entire temples being carved in stone and
decorated with Greek-influenced columns and sculptures. By the 5th century CE, sculpture was a
common practice among Indian Buddhists and Hindus. What is unique here is that the general area of
India and surrounds is the home of several of the world’s major religions, so it’s not really surprising
that most of India’s art is centered on religion. Around 300-200 B.C., the Buddhists began to erect
large stone pillars at important places. These pillars were often topped with a figure of a lion. The lion
was a symbol of power for Indian rulers. Other pillars had figures such as lotus’s, bulls and elephants.
Hindus also made carvings of the gods that were shaped like humans but often with many arms or
heads to show that they could take different forms. In northern India, these images were carved into
rocks. In southern India, they were made into bronze statues. When Islamic rulers took over North
India, they forbid the worship of carved figures shaped like humans so many of them were destroyed.
Hinduism continued to be the focus of art creation for centuries, with sculptures of Shiva and other
deities as well as huge stone temples like the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, built in the 11th century.
India became a British colony in the 19th century, which had a big impact on their art. The British
established art schools that promoted European styles in the country but ironically, back in Europe
there was a large demand for Indian art objects. This resulted in local artistic traditions merging with
foreign influences. After India’s independence in 1947, artists have searched for new styles.
Contemporary Indian art has been international in its scope and very experimental and it is deeply
seated in a long and rich history.
Ancient Japanese Art includes a wide range of styles and expressions, ranging from ceramics, sculpture, painting, and calligraphy on silk, paper, woodblock print and more. It has a long and rich history and begins around 10, 000 B.C. when humans began settling in the region. Historically, Japan has been subject to very sudden invasions of new and alien ideas. The term alien here refers to the “other”. In essence, everyone outside of Japan. It is appropriate to say this because Japan has, both geographically and culturally, were very different from their neighbors. Perhaps this is because they separated by a mass of water and as an Island, were quite isolated. Over time, the Japanese have developed the ability to absorb, imitate and assimilate those elements of foreign culture into their artistic preferences.
The first examples of complex art in Japan were produced in the 7th and 8th centuries and were linked to Buddhism. In the 9th century, Japan began to free itself from the cultural influence of China and developed indigenous forms of expression. From this point onwards until around the 15th century, both religious and secular art flourished. After the Onin War which lasted from 1467-1477, Japan entered a period of political strife both socially and economically. This lasted for well over a century and in the shift in political climate saw religious art fall somewhat to the wayside, with secular, representative art coming to the fore. With this came a development and interest in ink painting, calligraphy, poetry, literature, and music as forms of self-expression and entertainment.
Painting as an art style was and still is the preferred artistic expression in Japan. Even today, as they did in ancient times, the Japanese wrote with a brush rather than a pen and their familiarity with the use of the brush techniques has made them particularly sensitive to the aesthetic values of painting. With the rise of popular culture in the Edo period, the style of ukiyo-e woodblock prints became an important art form and its techniques were refined to produce colourful prints. These prints were used to spread information – everything from daily news to issues of school books. The Japanese have always thought that the use of sculpture was a much less expressive and empathetic way of making art as the use of sculpture in Japan had almost always been used in the service of religion and with the decline of traditional Buddhism, sculpture too fell away from the mainstream. The Edo period marked the triumph of political and military power of the Tokugawa, who moved the countries capital to Tokyo and closed all doors to contact with foreigners. Great attention to science and techniques was given in this period. It lasted from around 1603 till 1868. It is also known as the final period of Traditional Japan and was a time of internal peace, political stability and economic growth under the shogunate (military dictatorship.)
Something the Japanese are most well known for would be their ceramics. They are regarded as being some of the best in the world and represent the first known artifacts from Japanese culture. In this and in architecture, the Japanese have always expressed clearly their ancestral preference for natural materials and the harmonious interaction between interior and exterior space. This translates into the materials used to build their homes, the subject matter they chose to paint and represent and also the mirroring of natural elements into the interior space. Ancient Japanese art has grown and evolved in many different ways since the 7th century but none more so than in their own identity. They have undergone many shifts and changes throughout time and it has all influenced the way they make their art and what they make their art about. Moving away from religious depictions made room for more representations of nature and harmony and allowed them in more contemporary times to push boundaries freely and expressively
The art that came from the Ancient Chinese was heavily influenced by the idea of all things natural and spiritual. In many ways, it shares characteristics with Japanese and Indian art. These are typically referred to in the umbrella term of Ancient Asian art. Yet each have their own unique characteristics and show the culture and history of its origins. They all start around 653 BC and end late into the grand scale of art history, coming to an end around 1900 AD. This was likely due to that being the start of man’s true industrial expansion. They also placed value on showing the stories of everyday people as opposed to revering those in power. We will explore the intricacies of Ancient Japanese and Indian art in further blogs but for now let us focus on Ancient Chinese Art.
Chinese art takes a great deal of influence from great philosophers, teachers, religious figures and political leaders. It covered a vast and ever-changing geopolitical landscape and the art it produced over three millennia is, unsurprisingly, just as varied. Despite continuous technical developments as well as changes in materials and tastes, there are certain qualities inherent in Chinese art which make it possible to describe in general terms. It also makes it possible to recognize no matter where or when it was produced. These essential qualities include a love of nature, a belief in the moral and educational value of art as well as an admiration for simplicity and the appreciation for accomplished brushwork. There was also a loyalty to much-used and loved motifs and designs, from lotus leaves to dragons. Chinese art has tremendously influenced its neighbors in East Asia. Its reach even extended across the world through their work in ceramics, painting and jade work.
Ancient China produced many types of beautiful works of art and different eras and dynasties had their specialties. Chinese philosophy and religion have an impact on artistic styles and subjects. There is a concept that refers to The Three Perfections and refers to the arts of calligraphy, poetry, and painting. Often these would be combined together in art. It is a concept that became important with the Song Dynasty. Ancient Chinese considered writing to be an important form of art. Calligraphers would practice for years to learn to write perfectly, but with style. Poetry was an important form of art as well and great poets were famous throughout the empire. However, all educated people were expected to write poetry. During the Tang Dynasty, poetry became so important that writing poetry was even a part of the examinations to become a civil servant and work for the government. Painting was typically inspired by calligraphy and many paintings featured landscapes of mountains, homes, birds, trees, and water. Amongst these art forms, the Chinese specialized in silks, lacquers, and pottery. One of the most notable aspects of Ancient Chinese art was the construction of the Terracotta Army. It was created for the burial of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang to protect him in the afterlife. It consists of sculptures that make up an army of soldiers. There were over 8000 sculptures of soldiers and 530 horses. Every single sculpture was life-sized and highly detailed. Each soldier has his own uniform, weapons, armor and each one even had his own unique face.
An important difference between China and many other ancient cultures is that a large proportion of Chinese artists were not professionals. Many were gentlemen amateurs who were also scholars. They were students of Confucius and his principles and were often men of literature who also published poetry. For them, art was a means to capture and present a philosophical approach to life. For this reason, the art they produced is often minimal and without false details. Art throughout most of China’s history was meant to express the artist’s good character and not merely as a means to display their skills. There were, of course, professional artists too, as there are today. They were employed by the Imperial court or wealthy patrons to decorate the walls and interiors of their buildings and tombs. Of course, there were also thousands of craftsmen who worked with precious metals and crafted objects of art for those who could afford them. However, they were not regarded as artists. In ancient China, the real arts of merit were calligraphy and painting. Even back then the art world was plagued by questions of what is and what is not art.
Because of this connoisseurship of art, more and more people became collectors of it. Texts were even printed to help guide people on the history of Chinese art with helpful rankings of the various merits of past artists. In a certain way, art became quite standardized, with conventions to be adhered to. Artists were expected to study the great masters and copy their works as part of their training. One of the most famous and long-lasting sources of advice on judging art is the six-point list from 6th-century art critic and historian, Xie He. They were originally published in the now lost Old Record of the Classifications of Painters. When viewing a painting, the viewer should consult the list to determine the merit of the painting. It is as follows:
These rigid rules of art creation and appreciation were there largely due to the belief that art should somehow benefit the viewer. The idea or acceptance that art could and should express the feelings of the artist themselves would only arrive in more modern times. That is not to say that there weren’t the occasional eccentric outliers who ignored social convention and created works in their own, original way. There will always be these people who don’t abide by the rules of convention. There are cases of artists who painted to music, not even looking at the painting. There was one who only painted drunk and another who used his fingers and toes to paint. Innovation is always present, even in a society that thrived off of structure. One does need both, to ensure balance.
The topic of ancient Roman art is very broad, spanning over almost 1000 years and 3 continents, from Europe into Africa and Asia. The first record of Roman art dates back to 509 B.C.E with the first formation of the legendary Roman Republic. Roman art encompassed a broad spectrum of media, from marble to painting, mosaic and gems, silver and bronze work as well as terracotta. The city of Rome itself was a melting pot of culture and influence. The Romans had no problem adapting other artistic styles from the Mediterranean cultures that surrounded them. For this reason, it is common to see Greek, Etruscan and Egyptian influences throughout Roman art. Despite their knack for adopting other styles, there is still something very “roman” about Roman art. In fact, one of the larger challenges of art history is identifying what that is.
Greek art had a significant influence on Roman art. After conquering Greece, Rome adapted much of Greece’s culture and artistic heritage. They even imported many of Greece’s most famous works to their own lands. The Romans were quite taken with Greek culture. The Roman poet Horace even famously said that “Greece, the captive, took her savage victor captive.” Many Romans commissioned versions of famous Greek works and sculptures from earlier centuries. The Romans did not believe that having a copy of artwork was of any less value than having the original. The copies did typically have some variation though, with small changes made to them. These changes were often made with a sense of humour, turning the more serious and somber elements of Greek art on its head. For example, a famously gruesome Hellenistic sculpture of the satyr Marsyas being flayed was converted into a Roman dining knife handle. The irony here is clever, as the tool used in the flaying is now the structure itself. This demonstrated not only the owner’s knowledge of Greek Mythology but also a dark sense of humour. This shows that the Roman artist was not simply copying, he was adapting in a conscious and clever way. It this ability to adapt, convert and combine elements with a touch of humour that makes Roman art distinctly “Roman”.
The founding of the Roman Republic, as we know it, occurred after the last Etruscan king, Tarquinius Superbus, was overthrown. The Etruscan civilization is the modern name given to the civilization of ancient Italy. During this period, the Romans were governed by magistrates, who were elected annually. There was also an overarching ruling body of the state referred to as “the Senate”. Eventually, this system broke down and civil wars ensued between 100 B.C and 42 B.C. The wars ended when Augustus defeated Mark Antony in the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. During this era, art was produced in the service of the state, depicting public sacrifices or celebrating victorious military campaigns. Portraiture depicted the common goals of the Roman Republic, which was about hard work, age, wisdom, being a community leader and a soldier. Patrons of the arts would deliberately choose to have themselves represented with balding heads, large noses, and extra wrinkles. This demonstrated that they had spent their lives working for the Republic as model citizens. The would show off their wisdom with each wrinkle and furrow of the brow.
Augustus’s rise to power signaled the end of the Roman Republic and the formation of Imperial rule. Roman art shifted here to represented the power, status or wealth of the ruler and his family. The different periods here were named after the ruling families at the time. Imperial art often referred back to the Classical art of the past, again borrowing heavily from Greek culture. The term “Classical” is often used when speaking about this type of art. It refers to the smooth lines of the work, the elegant drapery, idealized nude bodies, highly naturalistic forms, and balanced proportions. The Greeks had spent centuries perfecting this practice and the Romans simply continued the effort. There was a dynamic shift here. In this case, figures were idealized and people no longer wanted to be shown as wise, wrinkly old men but rather young, powerful warriors.
We, unfortunately, know very little about the artists making these works, especially during the Roman period. There is a significant lack of documentary evidence such as a contract or letters. The evidence we do have refers more to famous Greek artists of the past. As a result, historians will refer not to specific artists but consider them as a largely anonymous group. The Romans were an adaptive group of people and this really was their defining characteristic, when it came to art anyway. They had a remarkable ability to adapt, to take in and uniquely combine influences over centuries of practice. This is truly what made them distinct.
Ancient Egyptian art is approximately five thousand years old. It emerged in ancient Egypt from the civilization of the Nile Valley. Their art was expressed in paintings and sculptures. They were highly symbolic and intended to keep the culture alive and prospering. Ancient Egyptian art will typically refer to the two and three-dimensional art that developed from 3000 BC and was used up until almost the 3rd century. It is notable that many artifacts from the era have survived the test of time and it is due to the excellent craftsmanship and materials of the age as well as the extremely dry climate of the area.
A lot of what we know about the Ancient Egyptians comes from their art. From their many pieces of art, sculpture, pottery, and architecture we can learn about what they looked like, the jobs they worked and even the clothes they wore. Over the span of those years, their art changed very little, despite moving through six different eras of rule. Art is an essential aspect of any civilization and once the basic needs of food and shelter have been accounted for, it tends to blossom as a way of expressing community beliefs, religious ideologies and cultural nuances. Much of their artwork emphasized their devotion to their religion. For example, they would fill the tombs of the Pharaohs with paintings and sculptures that would help guide them into the afterlife. Temples particularly were a popular place for art as a sign of worship and reverence to their gods. The first forms of Egyptian art represented animals, human beings and supernatural figures inscribed on rock walls. These early images were fairly crude in relation to later developments but they still reflected the most important value of Egyptian culture and consciousness. This was the concept of balance. Because many of the surviving forms of sculpture and art come in the form of tombs and monuments, we are particularly aware of their focus on life after death as well as the preservation of knowledge.
Egyptian society functioned mainly on the concept of harmony and balance which was known as ma’at. This came into being at the dawn of creation and was the matter that, in their eyes, sustained the universe. All Egyptian art reflects this ideal because it mirrors the world of the gods. The same way these gods provided gifts to humanity, the artwork too was imagined and created to provide a use. Egyptian art was always first and foremost a functional piece. No matter the aesthetic quality of it, its purpose was to serve as a home for a spirit or a god. For example, an amulet would have been designed to be attractive and beautiful but was not the driving force of its creation. It was beautiful because it needed to be worthy of housing a spirit or giving protection to a tomb. All tomb paintings, temple tableaus and even home and palace gardens were created so their aesthetic forms suited their function. In many cases, this function was a reminder of the eternal nature of life and the value of personal and communal stability and balance.
Because of the highly religious nature of Ancient Egyptian civilization, many of the great works of art depict gods, goddesses, and Pharaohs, who were also considered to be divine beings. As mentioned, Ancient Egyptian art is characterized by the idea of order. Clear and simple lines combined with simple shapes and flat areas of colour helped to create a sense of order and balance in their art. They used vertical and horizontal reference lines in order to maintain the correct proportions in their work. Political, religious as well as artistic order was emphasized. In order to clearly define the social hierarchy of a situation, the artist would draw or paint the figures in sizes that were based on their importance and not necessarily from a logical perspective point. For example, the Pharaoh would be drawn as the largest figure in a painting no matter where he was standing and his servants, animals and even nature was represented as being smaller.
The Egyptians are famous particularly for their giant works of sculpture. Some examples of this include the Great Sphinx of Giza and the statues of Ramses II at the Abu Simbel Temples. The statues are over 60 feet tall and the Great Sphinx of Gaza is over 240 feet long. Their smaller and more ornate sculptures were made from a variety of rich materials, from alabaster to ivory, wood gilded with gold, limestone and sometimes even solid gold. They would use crushed precious stones to colour and tint the works and would work primarily in blue, black, red, green and gold.
The Ancient Egyptian culture, in general, was actually highly advanced and their art forms reflected that. They were capable of creating statues and monuments on a scale never seen before and they recorded everything on paper made with river reeds, called papyrus. They invented and used a system of writing we know as hieroglyphics and used this as a form of documentation. It is only because of their near fanatical need for knowledge that we know as much about them as we do and the advancements that they made to art and technology lived on for longer than their actual civilization did, which was by no means a small period of time.
Ancient art is more of an umbrella term that refers to the many different types of art that were produced by the advanced culture of ancient societies. These refer primarily to ancient China, India, Mesopotamia, Persia, Palestine, Egypt, Greece and Rome. The art of pre-literate societies is normally referred to as pre-historic art and doesn’t actually typically fall into this category. This is also referred to as the Stone Age. For the sake of these writings and to create a clear, cohesive image of the timeline of mankind, we are going to cover the Stone Age as part of ancient art, for it was there that the journey really started.
Between approximately 5000BC and 300AD “advanced” civilizations emerged. An “advanced” Civilization is generally considered one with written language and they thrived in regions like Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Mexico and Asia, amongst many others. Mesopotamia is a historical region of Western Asia which is now more commonly known as the area which houses Iraq, Kuwait, parts of Northern Saudi Arabia and parts of Syria and Turkey. Art played an important role in these growing societies by providing a means of enforcing religious and political order. For example, one of the most famous works of art from Mesopotamia, which, as a land, was often referred to as the “cradle of civilization” is the Code of Hammurabi. This was a set of laws carved in stone and adorned with an image of King Hammurabi and the Mesopotamian god Shabash. It was created to govern and exemplify the importance of the law in the land. Similarly, the art of ancient Egypt includes symbolic imagery alongside text, which is referred to as hieroglyphs, that tell the stories of rulers, gods and goddesses. Although prehistoric humans made art as far back as 40,000 years ago, ancient art is considered to be the foundation of all of art history with many of its techniques, forms and subject matter continuing to be explored by the art of today. Art reflected the culture it came from and can give us so much insight into civilizations and cultures long dead.
In the next few weeks we will explore the different ages associated with Ancient Art in much more depth, but for now, let’s look at what they are briefly about.
Stone Age 30 000 B.C – 2500 B.C
The first Ice Age ended around 10 000 – 8000 BC and the first permanent settlements started popping up. Which meant that life was not necessarily about surviving the deadly cold anymore. There were obviously still great dangers but humanity was in a critical phase of development. Life was about the survival of the human race more than anything else so most pictorial depictions and artifacts that come out of this era feature fertility icons, goddesses associated with women and birth, the hunt and the group. Natural resources were always utilized and many things involved stone in some way. Cave paintings, etchings and sculpture were the primary mediums.
Mesopotamian 3500 BC – 539 B.C
The Mesopotamian era was largely associated with the emergence of ‘advanced’ civilization, although there is some evidence to consider that the first attempts at writing and language started in the Stone Age. Warrior art was key here and many things were carved or narrated into stone. There are three key things to consider here in Mesopotamian art. First was the impact of the socio-political organization systems of the Sumerian city-states, and of the Kingdoms and Empires that succeeded them. The second was the role of organized religion in the affairs of the state and the third was the influence of the natural environment. Each of these three concepts influenced the art that was made and was usually a response to things that had occurred within those bounds.
Egyptian 3100 B.C – 30 B.C
The ancient Egyptians heavily revered the gods and represented them in any way they could. Monstrous temples and monuments were built in awe of the gods and a common theme that ran throughout their art was the thought of an afterlife. Tombs were ordained with priceless jewels and painted with ornate images and hieroglyphs. Egyptian Art reached a high level of painting and sculpture and was both highly stylized and very symbolic. One could stare at a wall of Egyptian art for years and still never fully understand the intricacies of the symbolism.
Ancient Greece 850 B.C – 31 B.C
The case for art reflecting culture is nowhere truer than in the case of the ancient Greeks. Through their temples, sculpture and pottery, the Greeks incorporated a fundamental principle into their culture. This was the principle of arete. To the Greeks, this meant excellence and the ability to reach one’s full potential. Ancient Greek art emphasized the importance and accomplishments of human beings. Even though much of Greek art was meant to honour the gods, those very gods were often created in the image of humans.
Roman 500 B.C – 476 A.D
The ancient Roman way of art was to capture the beauty of life. In many ways they were Realists and it is here too that scholars writing worldly philosophies and epic novels found their place. Their art was practical in many ways and exhibited the gentle quality of man and nature but also the fury and majesty of the gods. It also encompasses a massive spectrum of work, ranging from marble, silver and bronze sculpture to painting, mosaic work and terracotta pots.
Indian, Chinese and Japanese 653 B.C – 1900 A.D
Works from these regions typically took on a serene, almost meditative quality and much of it was about self-introspection. Many of the developments of Eastern art parallel those of Western movements, in fact, in general, they made the developments a few centuries earlier. Much like the Western world, Eastern art was a melting pot of various cultures and societies and they borrowed and took influence from these many cultures and religions. From Buddhist art to works coming out of Korea, Thailand and India, there is an abundance of history present here.
Byzantine and Islamic 476 A.D – 1453 A.D
This emerged primarily from the depths of the Roman decline and the Byzantine Empire flourished under the rule of Emperor Constantine the Great. They borrowed heavily on Greek art and culture and decorated the capital city with elaborate Greek statues, exquisite gold and marble art and mosaics that glorified the Christian religion. Their focus lay in these heavenly mosaic works but also in the impeccable, finely detailed designs on their architecture. They embellished everything with rich, gold mosaics and this carried across both Byzantine and Islamic culture.