Comparison of Greek Demosthenes and Japanese Shunjobo Chogen Portrait Sculptures

by Erin
Written October 30, 2006

The sculpture of Ancient Greece clearly illustrates the incredible skill and talent of Greek artists. By the Hellenistic period, Greek artists mastered not only excellent and realistic rendering of humans, but also an exceptional portrayal of emotions. The portrait sculpture of Demosthenes by Polyeuktos exemplifies Greek brilliance in depicting a highly realistic person. However, the Greeks were not the only ancient civilization with such extraordinary abilities. The Japanese also demonstrated excellence, such as in the portrait statue of Shunjobo Chogen. Both portrait sculptures are physically and emotionally remarkable depictions of individuals.

The large bronze portrait of Demosthenes is truly significant because it redefined Greek portraiture – the actual appearance and personalities of an individual were illustrated. Demosthenes was a delicate man who fought Macedonian imperialism, got captured, and committed suicide. Rather than idealizing Demosthenes’ figure and displaying him as a great leader with an air of utmost sangfroid and an incredibly fit, muscular body, Demosthenes is aged and slightly hunched over. The detail of his face displays the wrinkles of an aging man and the beard typically used in Greek sculptures of older men. He stands with his weight shifted to one leg, and the drapery of his garments is very convincing. His hands are clasped timidly at his waist, denoting uncertainty or anxiety. Emotions are also presented in his facial features. His eyes and mouth give him an expression of sadness or defeat. The posture and emotions in this portrait justly represent Demosthenes at the end of his life, after years of fighting and finally being defeated.

Also a striking representation of a great man is the smaller Japanese painted cypress portrait sculpture of priest Shunjobo Choben. He is also presented slightly stooped over and very aged, as opposed to many other Japanese sculptures, which are very straight-backed. His face is very finely detailed with wrinkles of age clearly evident. There are heavy bags under his barely-open eyes which suggest weariness after a long life. His lips are drawn slightly downward, emphasizing his weariness. He is holding prayer beads lightly between his fingers, symbolizing his role as a priest. Like in the Greek sculpture, the folds in the garments are realistic and account for the body beneath the clothing. Overall, Shunjobo Choben is portrayed as old and frail, similar to the portrait of Demosthenes, but much more pronounced.

Painstaking detail, dramatic facial expressions, and realistic body language give the two portrait sculptures life. The realism is not only skillfully rendered but is also highly aesthetically pleasing. The striking similarities between the sculptures from two very different societies demonstrate that artistic mastery was not limited to only the ancient western civilizations. While the Greek sculpture of Demosthenes is clearly an outstanding sculpture, the Japanese sculptor who created the portrait of Shunjobo Choben obviously was an artist of tremendous skill as well. Although there were slight differences in choice of medium and size – due to personal or cultural taste – both sculptures are notable artworks worthy of recognition for their masterful representations of individuals in sculptural form.

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