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Reviewed by:
  • How to Read Greek Vases
  • Ann Steiner
Joan R. Mertens. How to Read Greek Vases. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010. Pp. 176. $25.00(pb.). ISBN 978-58839-404-0.

At first glance, this book looks like an example of a familiar, traditional genre: the museum catalogue of some greatest hits, directed at the general public, meant to make the collection accessible and to provide the purchaser with a beautiful volume to consult and display. Although it certainly explains selected examples from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s (MMA) large collection of ancient ceramics, this work has a different goal: to engender more than familiarity. The second in a series begun at the MMA, the title situates the volume as a howto manual—How to Read a Greek Vase. It hopes to enable the interested pupil to see that active engagement with Greek vases will yield more rewards than passive reception of a simple explanation. For a thoughtful reader, the volume provides, through examples, a very general template for how to derive meaning from visual art in general. While it will be difficult for the amateur to conduct future readings as deeply as the expert author, the general principles will serve as an excellent guide.

The “reading” of the title implies a semiotic approach to art, the understanding that visual language is not literal, but is a code that can be unlocked to yield meaning. The volume itself does not identify any particular theoretical approach and is devoid of jargon. It is a lesson in translation and the rewards of careful parsing—of shape, imagery, technique, and cultural context. Rather than try to teach us Greek myth or Greek history through vases, the entries show us how to look in detail, carefully and lovingly, so that we see how to derive meaning from shape, decoration, and the entire package.

The volume is beautifully produced and illustrated generously; it is unbeatable at the low price of $25.00. The photos are important complements to the real thing in the MMA, as they allow the close readings of the book’s title to take place. As three-dimensional objects, Greek vases are very hard to see and appreciate in a museum setting. The addition of all kinds of interesting comparanda to the MMA vases is a terrific plus. One does not need to be at or near the MMA to find the book useful, but it would be a shame to miss the opportunity to see the subjects in the flesh after engaging so closely with them as one learns to read them.

The entries are written by an expert, but pitched at the general reader. The information is accurate and reliable. It is not scholarship per se, however, and does not claim to be. There are a total of thirty-five entries, beginning with examples from the Bronze Age and going into the Hellenistic period. While the majority of examples are Athenian black and red figure (Nos. 9–31), the examples selected make clear the wide variety of fabrics and functions that fall under the label “Greek vase.” The entries can be read selectively, one at a time, but they enhance one another if read in groups.

There is a narrative that goes throughout the book in the sense that with each new fabric or style, the author provides some general background on the history and culture that created those products. For example, the first of the entries on Bronze Age containers gives an overview of the palace cultures in the mid- to late-Bronze Age. The first and second of the nine examples of Attic black figure introduce the technique and the art of decorated vases in the context of large-scale art sculpture. The broad scope of the collection is impressive, as it ties together what many viewers might not understand as related because they look so different, for example large-scale geometric grave markers and tiny perfume vessels. [End Page 138]

Although it lays out the aims modestly, the introduction is excellent. In addition to going over some basic introductory information—identification of artists, writing on vases, why vases are effective aesthetically, their anchor...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9234
Print ISSN
0009-8418
Pages
pp. 138-139
Launched on MUSE
2012-12-04
Open Access
No
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