Ancient Greek Abstract Art

The title of this post will most likely strike the reader as nonsensical. The canon of Graeco-Roman art, populated with statues of athletes, friezes of battles, a Pompeian fresco or two of dancing fauns, seems to leave no space for abstraction. Most of us think of classical art as uniformly figurative, and we perceive this mimetic tradition as unbroken until the nineteenth century, when experimental figures like J. M. W. Turner begin to display an ever-lesser interest in the minute reproduction of the visually perceptible world.

The likes of Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, it is commonly thought, deal the final blow to the formerly unchallenged tradition of representational art as they start to paint pure abstractions, art bearing no trace of reference to anything recognizable. This straightforward narrative of linear development is challenged in a striking story told by Pliny in his Natural History. In a fascinating anecdote, surprisingly little-known given the extraordinary evidence it presents, Pliny introduces us to the world’s first abstract painting, composed by the celebrated painters Apelles and Protogenes in the fourth century BC.

The story goes as follows. Apelles, the most accomplished painter of all time according to Pliny, once visited the studio of the likewise respected Protogenes, curious to see the works he had so far only heard rumors of. He found nobody there except an old slave and an empty canvas ready for painting. Instead of telling the slave to inform Protogenes of his arrival, Apelles simply drew an exquisitely fine line on the empty canvas and left. When Protogenes returned and examined the line, he instantly knew that Apelles had been there, as only he could have drawn something that perfect.

In reply, Protogenes drew an even finer line in different color upon the previous one and went out again. Soon, Apelles returned and found himself surpassed in Protogenes’ reply. He took up another color and drew an even finer, barely discernible line upon the previous two, leaving no space for anything more delicate to be executed, and left. At this point, Protogenes conceded defeat and went out in search of Apelles to finally make his acquaintance. Left behind in the studio was a piece of abstract art.

Sharing the fate of the vast majority of classical art, not a single painting by either Apelles or Protogenes has survived until the present day. Some believe that we can catch a glimpse of Apelles’ work in the Pompeian Venus Rising from the Sea, speculating that it is a copy of the artist’s renowned version of the motif.

So far, there is nothing exceptional in this story. The Natural History is full of such more or less believable anecdotes of artistic dexterity. Pliny, marvelling at the extraordinary verisimilitude in the finest examples of realist painting, relates how horses would neigh when confronted with Apelles’ painting of a horse, and how birds would peck at Zeuxis’ likeness of grapes. Apelles’ Pollock-like technique of throwing a wet sponge at his canvas to create the effect of foam sounds more unorthodox, yet ultimately results in a meticulously realistic reproduction of the recognizable world as well.

Apelles’ and Protogenes’ painting makes no such attempt at mimesis. This would still be nothing surprising in a mere display of artistic skill, and so far the story has not suggested that the painters perceived their competition as anything more. But in a tantalizing twist at the end, Pliny recounts how Apelles and Protogenes thought it appropriate to treat this exercise as a finished work of art, and how it was displayed to an admiring and appreciative public, even only recently at the Imperial palace on the Palatine:

Among the most elaborate works it had all the appearance of a blank space; and yet by that very fact it attracted the notice of everyone, and was held in higher estimation than any other painting there.

audio … [tabulam] spatiose nihil aliud continentem quam lineas visum effugientes, inter egregia multorum opera inani similem et eo ipso allicientem omnique opere nobiliorem.
Naturalis Historia 35.36.83

(Full Latin text available on the Scaife Viewer)

Although the fame of the artists and the virtuosity manifest in the minuteness of the lines must have contributed to the painting’s charm, these features were not of most interest to the ancient audience according to Pliny. It was rather the very emptiness of the painting that was admired, and it was its very blankness that earned it the estimation as the finest piece of art in the exquisite Imperial collection. The abstract composition was clearly perceived as art. The three solitary lines were weighed with reference to the surrounding figurative pieces and chosen as the finest among them. The spectators perceived the abstract, non-representational piece as capable of giving the same kind of aesthetic pleasure as the figurative art they were used to, and they even found the pleasure derived from contemplating this absence of presence in some way superior. For a modern reader, this anecdote conjures up the extraordinary image of ancient Romans crowding around and admiring a minimalist abstract painting, oblivious of the surrounding portraits of gods and goddesses.

The simplicity of The Magic of Color (Joan Miró, 1930), showing three circles of different size and color on a vast empty surface, is a modern parallel to the almost bare canvas once exhibited on the Palatine.

Unsurprisingly, the story of Apelles and Protogenes’ experiment did not gain particular traction with early modern artists. Its oddity and simplicity provided little opportunity for opulent classicising compositions and were for a long time overshadowed by tales such as Apelles’ painting and falling in love with Alexander’s mistress Campaspe, subject of numerous renaissance and baroque nudes. One may expect a sudden surge of interest in the anecdote to appear with the emergence of abstract art, yet it does not seem to have resonated with early avantgardists except Guillaume Apollinaire.

In a short 1912 article, Apollinaire writes on the elusiveness of the subject in cubist art and calls this absence of representation ‘pure painting’, providing admirers with ‘artistic sensations due exclusively to the harmony of lights and shades and independent of the subject depicted in the picture’. He finds a precedent of such practice in the piece by Apelles and Protogenes, yet nevertheless calls cubism ‘an entirely new plastic art’, apparently uninterested in tracing continuities and eager to portray the avantgarde as a revolutionary breakthrough.

Apollinaire was right in not ascribing too much weight to Pliny’s story and treating it as nothing more than a fascinating curiosity. The painting by Apelles and Protogenes was an isolated case rather than an example of a flourishing abstract tradition in ancient Greek art. The fame of the artists and the ancient admiration of finesse must have been pivotal in enabling this extraordinary, one-off abstract exhibition.

Yet this does not mean that we should not take the story seriously. Rather, it can serve as a reminder that simplistic, traditionalist narratives often overlook the most fascinating details, in the case of art history negating the variety and diversity of artistic expression. Western artbooks skimp over the striking impressionism of Song Dynasty splashed-ink paintings, preceding Turner’s first works by over half a millennium. Women like Georgiana Houghton and Hilma af Klint painted pure abstractions before Kandinsky and Malevich but still gain little recognition for their work. Just so, visitors to the Imperial palace were capable of enjoying ‘artistic sensations due exclusively to the harmony of lights and shades’ long before the first cubist exhibition.

Hilma af Klint’s The Ten Biggest No 7 (1907) predates abstract attempts by Kandinsky, Picabia and others.

Alex Tadel is a recent graduate from an MSt in Greek and Latin Languages and Literature at the University of Oxford. Stationed in Ljubljana, Slovenia, she is taking a short break from academia and working as a freelance writer, researcher and tutor.