Ancient World, Antiquities, J. Paul Getty Museum

Acrobatic Feats of the Ancient Wine Party

An eye-catching vase fragment provides a glimpse at the stunts of the Greek symposion

Fragmentary Mug with a Youth Drinking from a Wine Cup, 510–500 B.C., attributed to near the Theseus Painter, vase-painter; and to the Heron Class, potter. Greek, made in Athens. Terracotta, 6 1/4 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 76.AE.127. Gift of Lynda and Max Palevsky

Fragmentary Mug with a Youth Drinking from a Wine Cup, 510–500 B.C., attributed to near the Theseus Painter, vase-painter; and to the Heron Class, potter. Greek, made in Athens. Terracotta, 6 1/4 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 76.AE.127. Gift of Lynda and Max Palevsky

What in the world is this man up to? Yoga? Leap frog? Twister?

After discovering the strange pose on this skyphos—an ancient Greek wine cup—our interest was piqued. We turned to David Saunders, curator at the Getty Villa, for the story.

Numerous scenes on Greek vases, he explained, show drinking cups being held in artful balance during the symposium (symposion), the ancient Greek wine party. Here, for example, is a youth acrobatically balancing a wine cup, and here is one clutching his drink while propped on one leg and a walking staff.

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Left: Wine Cup with a Reveler, about 480 B.C., Makron. 2 15/16 x 9 7/8 x 7 5/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 86.AE.292. Right: Storage Jar with a Youthful Dancer, about 480 B.C., attributed to Berlin Painter. 12 1/16 x 6 3/4 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 86.AE.187

Our reveler takes the notion of drunken balance once step further, however. In the first publication on this fragment, art historian (and then-Getty curator) Janet Grossman puts it like this:

Recall that in The Odyssey acrobats amused the guests of Menelaos at the wedding feast held for his son and daughter. Acrobatics and balancing tricks were common entertainment, but, on vases it is usually drinking cups that are balanced, not the symposiast [symposium participant] himself.

Such high jinks probably found their way into the drinking activities as well. Pointing out the figure’s exposed nether regions, David drew a comparison to this cup at the British Museum, which is said to depict “the fistfights and disorderly conduct that result from passing beyond Dionysos’s recommended three kraters of wine,” especially when such excessive drinking “merges into an ensuing komos,” a kind of ritualistic wine-fueled Conga line.

Still, we can’t be sure exactly what this figure is up to. “I’ve long wondered whether this particular posture has a name,” David said, “or if he’s trying to imitate something.” However, we still don’t know. The inscription above the figure offers no help—it appears to be a Greek nonsense word. Drunken gibberish, perhaps?

Fragmentary Mug with a Youth Drinking from a Wine Cup (detail), 510–500 B.C., attributed to near the Theseus Painter, vase-painter; and to the Heron Class, potter. Greek, made in Athens. Terracotta, 6 1/4 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 76.AE.127. Gift of Lynda and Max Palevsky

A smudged fingerprint provides tantalizing evidence of the ancient vase-painter. Fragmentary Mug with a Youth Drinking from a Wine Cup (detail), 510–500 B.C.

As for the painter of this now-fragmentary cup, evidence suggests he might have been having just as much fun as the limber symposiast. For one thing, he painted it in “Six’s Technique,” a style of multi-colored painting on black that represented the avant-garde of Athenian vase painting in the 500s B.C. “Did the artist share the acrobatic drinker’s ‘look what I can do’ exhibitionism?,” David wondered. A close look reveals that the painter also left a smudged fingerprint. Perhaps he’d also had a bit too much?

Whether they filled their skyphos a little too full or were just in the moment, this fascinating fragment reminds us that the ancient Greeks were not all democracy and intellect. They definitely knew how to throw—and paint—a party.

Do you know what this figure is doing? Share in the comments below.

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Further Reading

The Colors of Clay: Special Techniques in Athenian Vases, Beth Cohen, with contributions by Susan Lansing-Maish, Kenneth Lapatin, Jeffrey Maish, Joan R. Mertens, Marie Svoboda, Marion True and Dyfri Williams. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006

“Six’s Technique at the Getty,” Janet Burnett Grossman, in Greek Vases in the J. Paul Getty Museum: Volume 5. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1991

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      A Chat with Photographer Tomoko Sawada

      A conversation about Japanese matchmaking traditions, self-portraiture, clothes, and identity.

      When did you start photographing yourself?
      I began making self-portraits when I was 19. It was an assignment for a photography class. I can’t even explain in Japanese why I liked them so much. It was instinctual. It’s as if I knew that this was going to be my style, that this is what I wanted to do. And I’m still doing it because I love the self-portrait, but I don’t know why. 

      What themes are you exploring in your work?
      I’m interested in the relationship between inside and outside. If you wear a sexy dress or if you wear kids clothes or casual clothes, people treat you differently. Even though you are you no matter what you wear. It’s that relationship that makes me think. 

      My new work is from when I was living in New York. When I was in New York, people didn’t think I was Japanese. Sometimes they thought I was Korean or Chines or Mongolian. Even Singaporean. It was funny, when I would go to the Japanese market, they would speak to me in English. When I went to the Korean market, they would speak to me in English again. I don’t seem to look Japanese outside of Japan. I was surprised because I think I look totally Japanese. It’s funny that people’s points of view are totally different.

      Could you talk a little about OMIAI, the series that represents a traditional Japanese matchmaking technique.
      OMIAI is a tradition that is somehow still working today. Usually, there is a matchmaker and photographs are exchanged before meeting. If both sides are interested, they can meet for lunch or dinner accompanied by their parents and steps for marriage proceed from there. In the old days, some people chose their marriage partner just through photographs, without even meeting each other. 

      When OMIAI was exhibited in Japan I saw people making various comments in from of the work. People would say things like, “she looks like a good cook; surely she would prepare delicious meals every day,” or “ this girl could be a perfect bride for my son,” or “I can tell she would not be a good housewife,” or “she’s such a graceful girl; she must be the daughter of a decent family.” Comments like that. 

      What was the process of making that work?
      I gained 10 pounds before I started taking the pictures, and in six months I lost forty pounds, because I wanted to look different in each photo. I wanted to change the way my legs looked. 

      Every weekend I went to the hair salon and put on a kimono. Then I went to the photo studio on the street in Japan. I would take a picture and then change my clothes to western dress. Then I would go to the studio again the next weekend. 

      Did you tell the photographer how you wanted it done?
      I told him I was an artist and wanted to make photographs with him. I told him to think that each weekend new girls would show up to make the OMIAI. I didn’t want him to think of me as the same girl who came every weekend. He understood the concept. 

      We had fun. While he was taking pictures, his wife would tell me how to lose weight. She gave me many tips.


      Tomoko Sawada’s work is on view at the Getty until February 21, 2016 in “The Younger Generation: Contemporary Japanese Photography”

      02/11/16

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