Articles About Art - The Archaic Kouros
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The Archaic Kouros*
The earliest monumental statues known in Greece are technically mature and sophisticated and
have nothing at all in common with the Minoan-Mycenaean figurines. They seem to have had their
origins in an established sculptural tradition. Since the date of the earliest known examples of
Greek monumental sculpture coincides with the Greek resumption of trade relations with Egypt,
where monumental sculpture had been practised two thousand years before the Greek classical
era, it seems plausible that the Greeks' initial inspiration should derive from this tradition.
Lower Egypt in the area of the Nile delta was divided among twelve feudal lords (vassals) of
the Assyrian empire. Round about 664 BC one of these local rulers, Psamtik (or Psammetikos, as
he was known among the Greeks), was banished from his area by the other eleven.
He regained power with the assistance of the Ionians and by this means Egypt was officially
brought under the influence of the Greeks. Psammetikos ruled from 664 to 610 BC, and during this
time he encouraged Greek traders to visit Egypt and settle at Naukratis in the western delta where
he needed both the military and the commercial expertise of the Greeks.
Egypt had a particular fascination for the Greeks, but the Egyptian influence made Greek art
no less original. On the contrary, whatever the comparison drawn between archaic Greek and
Egyptian technique or form in monumental statuary, Greek sculpture remains, in both style and
meaning, a definitive statement of a unique cultural identity and independence, and not merely an
artistic acknowledgment of indebtedness to other perspectives.
The stylistic consistency of Egyptian art had its roots in the Egyptians' religious and magical
beliefs. The Greeks, many of whom must have had access to Egyptian workshops (Carpenter
1960: 8), learnt the technique of carving a life-size figure from quarried four-sided blocks of stone
from them, but there was much of the spiritual content of Egyptian art that the visually-minded
Greek could not assimilate. For example, the parted legs of the Egyptian figure, which probably
had an abstract, symbolic significance, were initially interpreted literally in the Greek kouros
figure as simply a standing man, and only many centuries later was this stance developed into
either a standing pose or a walking movement. The Greeks did not make sculpture to commemo-
rate the dead, and visualised their gods in completely human guise. So in Greek art there was no
clear distinction between the religious and the secular: a work of art served divine and mortal
Like the Egyptian male figure, the Greek kouros was the representation of a male youth,
depicted frontally, both feet planted firmly on the ground, with rigid knees, and the left leg placed
slightly in front of the other. The arms are pendant, but held closely against the thighs. The fists
are clenched with the thumbs pointing down. The vertical character of the square block from
which the figure was hewn was retained.
As in Egypt, the Greek kouros was carved from a single huge block of quarried marble, faced as a rectangular pier measuring about 360 x 90 x 60 cm.4 On this the bodily contours of front,
rear and lateral profiles were roughly blocked out, and the marble then cut back to this outline.5
The interest in carving monumental, larger than life-size colossi, like those still to be seen lying
incomplete in the countryside of Naxos, shows in particular the influence of Egyptian monumental
If we look at the early Greek kouros, for example the Kouros of Sounion (c. 610 BC), and then compare it with Egyptian sculpture, it becomes clear that, despite the similarity of posture, the Greek kouros is unlike the Egyptian models. The Egyptian statue is more naturalistic and the anatomy is more rounded and true to life than the Greek statue, whose anatomy is an
assemblage of highly articulate, equally sharp and shallow grooves.
Although an Egyptian influence or inspiration is undeniably present, the Greek sculptors
were no more trying to emulate Egyptian sculpture than Greek builders were trying to emulate
Egyptian temples. The Greeks actually wanted to compete rather than copy; they wanted to assert
their own identity and not merely be indebted to the artistic invention of the Egyptians.
The differences between the Greek kouros and the Egyptian statue are not merely a matter of
anatomical style either. The standard Egyptian male figure wears a pleated skirt and distributes
his weight irregularly between the right leg, which is straight and vertical, in line with the torso,
and the left leg, which is often placed unnaturally far forward.
Despite the position of the left leg, there is no movement in the Egyptian figure; it remains
static and almost off-balance, as if on the verge of falling over backwards. In many Egyptian
statues a stone support at the back keeps the figure erect, as do solid stone supports or screens
between the legs and arms. Thus the figure has not fully emerged from the block from which it is
hewn and can be regarded as a relief, albeit an extreme form of high relief.
Apart from its basic scheme, virtually all other features of the Egyptian statue were
iiscarded in the Greek kouros:
(1) The kouros was presented naked (except for a belt in some instances).
(2) The left leg is placed much less forward and the right leg is immediately behind the left leg so
that the body weight is evenly distributed and the impression is created that the figure is
(3) The kouros is freestanding; it has neither back support nor screens between the legs, which
means that it is independent and isolated in space.
The fact that the kouros seems to have undergone a formal evolution from which it emerged in
approximately 650 BC as a fully developed, colossal marble figure cannot be explained, however,
without taking account of the contact made by the Greeks with the Egypt of Psammetikos.
Therefore it must be borne in mind that, apart from the choice of proportions, the archaic
sculptor applied the method which he had learned in Egypt, which consisted in marking out a grid
On a block of undressed stone, then drawing the front, back and profile sides on the four vertical
planes, and finally chiselling away the stone until the kouros is freed from the block. No attempt
is made to hide the fact that the origin of the kouros is a block of stone. To walk round the kouros
is to walk round four corners.
The restriction of carving a life-size figure from a four-sided block resulted in the rigid frontality characteristic of the very early Kouroi, such as the Archaic Kouros in New York (c. 615-590 BC), the Kouros from Sounion (c. 610 BC), the Kouros of Melos (c. 560 BC), and the Kouros from Volomandra (Attica, c. 560 BC). In these works the main volumes of the figures are grouped along a vertical axis and face in the same direction. In this way maximum extension in the visual plane was achieved and a view of the figure least susceptible to foreshortening was created. The figure was conceived as an object in a box and appears as a solid, compact mass without internal spaces. As a solid mass, it occupies space without entering into any intimate relationship with it.
The movement of these early figures was severely restricted and their axial rigidity resulted
in a stillness and immobility - qualities characterising much of the statuary of archaic civilisa-
tion, and ultimately evoking a timeless and universal quality.
The New York Kouros is depicted frontally. It is a directionally straight composition in which the underlying structure is not an organic but a schematic one. Although even in the beginnings of Greek sculpture the Greeks seemed to be able to visualise volume, they did not quite know how to give visual expression to the relationship between the substructure and the surface forms. The figure is defined by its contour line; by this it is given intelligible shape. The interior structure is not convincingly defined by the surface forms, which are not modelled but incised in an entirely linear manner. They thus appear as flat linear patterns on an undifferentiated smooth surface. Note the stilted stiffness of the bearing; the flatness of the planes of the torso; the shallow modelling of the anatomic features; the enormous eyes spread over the entire width of the narrow face - the upper lids almost flush with the plane of the forehead; the short harsh lips; the absurdly shaped ears set quite unnaturally, having been created independently and attached to the main mass of the block, an observation that confirms our contention that this sculpture does not lack solidity. The sculptor was, however, as yet incapable of integrating the underlying structure with the surface forms. For each distinguishable feature, linear schematic patterns (schemata) were devised. Each detail, such as ears, hair or curls, was a self-contained entity with its own defining boundary line. In the same way a canon was also devised for anatomical details such as the pectoral and the abdominal muscles. These parts were differentiated by distinct demarcation lines.
This seems strange. But if we stand back and reflect on the matter, it seems only natural that
the discovery of components should precede an understanding of their integration into an organic
The works of the archaic period were thus characterised by a distinct symmetry and directional straightness in the treatment of details, and by a decorativeness which was limited in depth. However, the archaic linear formulation persisted far into the classical era, as late as Praxiteles, despite an increased observation of natural appearance.
In comparison with the New York Kouros, the Anavysas Kouros (before 490 BC) shows a considerably more lifelike and organic appearance, despite the theme and pose being more or less the same. The figure is marked by a far greater vitality and its proportions are more natural: the head is smaller, the neck shorter; the hips are wider; the lower leg is more in proportion with the upper leg; the body has thickened, and the profile view of the figure shows a greater coherency with the frontal view. The block has been carved in greater depth and we observe the beginnings of a gradual release of the human form from the four-sided block. This can be noted particularly in the protruding chest and buttocks and in the resulting curves and countercurves when we view the figure in profile. The contours of the body are more continuous and flowing, and the transitions from one part of the body to another are softer and not as angular as in the New York Kouros, which was carved about one hundred years earlier. Details, such as the ears, eyes, wrists, ankles and fingers, also appear far more natural, because of the organic unity of the composition and the greater understanding of the underlying structure. The hair is still stylised and so are the kneecaps and the calves, details which, on the whole, are difficult to portray naturalistically.
* Drawn from notes compiled by R Becker & E Basson for the University of South Africa