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Thursday, January 15, 2004

Arts & Letters

A Practical Diety

From Ishtar to Aphrodite: 3200 Years of Cypriot Hellenism, Onassis Cultural Center, New York City, October 23, 2003-January 3, 2004




The glass-enclosed stone fountain in the center of the Olympic Tower in midtown Manhattan drops one floor below the building’s atrium. Follow the sheet of water down the stairs, and it leads you to the entrance of the Onassis Cultural Center. Through the glass-paneled doors, past the elegant torso of Aphrodite and the figurines of broad-hipped fertility goddesses, the water bubbles up as if fed from an underground spring.

This was the backdrop for From Ishtar to Aphrodite: 3200 Years of Cypriot Hellenism, an exhibition of statues, cult objects, pottery, and jewelry retrieved from archeological sites around Cyprus. The objects dated from the Chalcolithic and Bronze Ages through the late Hellenistic period, yet the geometric abstraction of their design and the organic, tactile quality of the materials made many of the pieces seem at once otherworldly and contemporary. There are art-historical reasons for this sense of familiarity: the influence of ancient Mediterranean culture on modernist art is well-established. Yet the site of the exhibition was also important: the fountain encased in vitrine-like glass at the rear of the cultural center and the austere distribution of beautiful objects in their brightly lit cases together hinted at both the persistence of certain ancient experiences — descent into grottos where springs or pools suggested the waters of life — and our distance from them. Naturally, the fountain’s placement when the Olympic Tower was built had to do with formal considerations remote from ancient cults of love or divine inspiration — but there it was all the same. The iconography of the fountain has a life of its own. So does the iconography of Aphrodite, of course, and, for this reason, although the exhibition served as a general introduction to the archeological riches of Cyprus — many pieces had never before been exhibited outside the island — the images of the goddess were primary.

Largely because of its rich copper deposits and location within the trade routes of the eastern Mediterranean, culture on Cyprus was remarkably cosmopolitan, with traces of Phoenician, Mycenaean, Mesopotamian, Syrian, mainland Greek, and Alexandrian influences evident over its long, pre-Common Era history. Each influence contributed to the development of Aphrodite’s cult, and this exhibit made it possible to trace the different stages of figures devoted to her, or, more accurately, to the line of goddesses that eventually settled into what became a recognizable figure. Although Hesiod has Aphrodite born from the sea-foam of waves in the wake of the castration of her father, Heaven, she probably emerged from a meeting of fertility gods indigenous to Cyprus and Ishtar, a Mesopotamian goddess associated not only with fertility, but also with restoring the dead to life. Many of the earliest fertility figures found over the years — bulbous, fairly abstract, pre-Bronze Age — do, however, come from the district of Paphos, another traditional birthplace of Aphrodite.

With waves of immigration — from Anatolia, and later from Mycenae and Phoenicia — the fertility figure elongates and flattens into something resembling a Joshua tree, gradually acquiring facial features and the headdress signifying Ishtar’s journey into the underworld. This goddess has no need for a mouth; she communicates through her bodily fluids, like a postmodern Freudian dream. By the Late Cypriot Period II (ca.1450-1200 BCE), she is poised between abstraction and naturalistic femininity: her nose and breasts narrow to spearhead-like points, her hips round like stacks of wheat, and her genitals show prominently through the slanting lines of her skirt. She holds her arms under her breasts and stares with the round, oversized eyes of a bird. Although she does have lips, at this point, they are hardly sensual. She appears to be a functional rather than an erotic goddess: she assists in the community’s survival rather than in the individual’s pleasure. By the seventh century BCE, with the influence of mainland Greece, she stands clothed in nothing but her jewelry. Her belly has rounded slightly, her shoulders slope a bit, but she is still straight-backed and frontal, soldiering for the womb. The curved, womanly figure of the Late Hellenistic period was retrieved from the sea, fittingly enough, and her features were softened and smoothed by the currents over the centuries, with the left breast worn down as if countless hands had caressed it. The statue is said by art-historical tradition to be modeled after the work of Praxiteles, but it is pleasant to think of it as modeled after the whim of nature.

A hundred years ago, Henry Adams lamented the intervention of technology in the Western experience of maternal love and sexuality (as personified by the Virgin Mary and Aphrodite), and this process of mediation has, if anything, only accelerated in recent years with the development of video, the Internet, and ultrasound imaging, among other things. This accounts, in part, for the fascination of certain objects on display at the Onassis center, which do not merely represent sexuality, but materialize and embody it. That is, breasts, hips, and genitalia, as well as certain elements of body jewelry and headdress, seem to have concretized initiatory practices and practical knowledge, and to have served as conductors of divine power in sexual experience and family life in ancient cultures. The idea of a culture pervaded by sexual awareness and practice has its appeal, at least as a fantasy, but in the harsh living conditions on Cyprus, particularly during the earliest periods of settlement, these were matters of utter seriousness. The Cypriot Aphrodite is a practical deity, associated with the copper mining that was so important to the island’s economy, as Jennifer Webb notes in her essay from the exhibition’s catalogue, “From Ishtar to Aphrodite: Transformation of a Goddess” (pp. 15-20). Astarte on the Ingot, so-called because the goddess’s nude figure is perched on a copper ingot, protected mines and fertility. (Her counterpart, a small male deity also perched on an ingot, is included in the exhibition [cat. fig. 2, p. 22]). The marriage of Aphrodite to the god of fire, Hephaestus (patron of all crafts, especially metallurgy), in later tradition can be seen as a step back, at least from a contemporary perspective. The completeness of the Cypriot Aphrodite is one of the revelations of the exhibition at the Onassis center: she stands at the center of the natural and social economy of the island, a divine mediator in the processes of procreation and production, of the body’s experience and the exterior experience of work.

From Ishtar to Aphrodite was organized around images of Aphrodite and her predecessors, but much of the exhibition was devoted to tomb offerings. Of particular interest were a ceramic kylix, or drinking cup (Cypro-Geometric I, fig. 46), painted in wave patterns, and a Mycenaean painted krater with dolphin-like fish sporting about. A hammered bronze jug and sword, and a charming bronze lioness with front paws crossed and tail coiled, attested to the ingenuity of Cypriot bronzework, and to the importance of the metal to the economy. Other pieces were intriguing for the glimpses they offered into the mythic traditions and daily lives of the ancient Cypriot people. A ceramic centaur (Cypro-Geometric III/Cypro-Archaic I, 800-700 BCE, cat. fig. 49) stood with arms upraised in a common if as yet not fully understood gesture, its long torso and body elegantly balanced (appearing to be a much more benign creature than the centaurs of later Greek mythology). A miniature bathtub (Late Cypriot IIIA, cat. fig. 38) indicated a curious transitional point in domestic history: the introduction to Cyprus, by Aegean settlers, of bathrooms. A bronze strigil, a simple curved tool for scraping mud and oil off the nude body after exercise, pointed to a culture of the body and male-erotic beauty that, unfortunately, one can only glimpse today through a screen of twenty-first-century sexual and cultural politics. A large fragment of a Hellenistic terracotta statue of a woman featured a stylized elongation of the neck and a wavy headdress. Her chiton was transparent over her young figure; whether she was a young aristocrat or one of the temple prostitutes known to have practiced on the island remains enigmatic.

The Hellenistic figures — of Apollos, priestesses, comic figures from the theater, naturalized figures of Aphrodite — returned exhibition-goers to the familiar pleasures of high classical art and civic life: Cyprus had, at this point, absorbed waves of immigrants from the Middle East and the Aegean, and assimilated into Hellenic civilization, acquiring its language, alphabet, and cultural forms. From Ishtar to Aphrodite had the distinct achievement of providing the visitor with a sense of the richness and complexity of this ancient Cypriot history. For this reason alone, the exhibition was important.

Christopher Moylan is a poet and associate professor of English at New York Institute of Technology; he also writes art criticism for a number of print and online publications.
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