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Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Arts & Letters

Silent Witnesses

Silent Witnesses: Early Cycladic Art of the Third Millennium BC, Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, New York, April 9-June 15, 2002.




Cycladic art has been especially appreciated by modernists such as Picasso and Modigliani, who saw in the simply incised figures a kind of fulfillment of their esthetic ideals of purity and integrity of form. As a result, the valuation of Cycladic art was based on connoisseurship of a certain sort – it was the form and not the function that was considered important. While such an understanding may have made sense to the artists who were so deeply won over by early Cycladic art, the sense of the culture was lost in speculation about the objects’ formal attributes. Tragically, the very popularity of the figures caused the sites where they were found to be looted thoroughly in the 1960s. According to the well-written and -illustrated catalogue, 90 percent of the artifacts – the storage jars and various pottery shapes, as well as the figurines and necklace beads – cannot be linked to a specific site.

This lack of context for most Cycladic art deprives the viewer of the necessary reference to its originating culture. There is considerable sophistication about formal development, and several sculptors of groups of work have been recognized by stylistic similarities in the art. Yet the loss of context is more or less inestimable; art based upon appreciation of style alone does untold damage to our understanding of its function in the society in which it was made. Silent Witnesses makes it clear that the reason for the loss – the trade in stolen goods – is tragic and ongoing; the hope of the exhibition is to bring attention to the problem and underscore the need for private collections to be donated to museums, so as to further education and to have collectors take some responsibility of what in many cases are looted antiquities. The show attempts to illuminate this situation by mounting the exhibition in three parts. In “Simple Beauty,” the early Cycladic preference for direct expression is investigated in jars, beakers, and containers; the culture’s interest in the human form is examined in “In His Own Image”; and grave goods excavated from known sites are displayed in “Silent Witnesses.” These three views offer the spectator a complex and stimulating view of an early Cycladic art whose subtle expressiveness remains attractive to the contemporary eye. At the same time, the social and cultural information that archeologists and scholars have been able to glean from the artifacts and figurines is also presented. One of the saddest things about the show is the paucity of speculation it can support, something the show’s curator Christos G. Doumas is aware of and addresses in his essay.

Because so little is known about the art beyond its distinguishing features, it is hard to do justice to its ensnaring beauty. Or rather, beauty is all we can talk about since we know so little about the culture that produced it. Patterns of burial record the inclusion of personal objects such as jewelry, vessels, and tools, which may – or may not – indicate belief in an afterlife. Children seem to have been buried without possessions; the position of the corpse was truncated, folded in upon itself, the pose perhaps resulting from the way the body was carried to the gravesite. Very little is known about such things as furniture, presumably built with wood, a perishable material. Rock drawings represent men with a deer or dancing, but give little specific information about the habits of the Cycladic people. The artifacts and art is there, but we cannot do more than speculate on the social lives that produced them. In a sense, then, we are simply admirers of what we do not much understand; this is a failure, not so much of imagination, but of information.

That being said, the exhibition goes a good distance toward educating the public. In the “Simple Beauty” component of the show, the emphasis is on the outstandingly direct design of the early Cycladic period. A collared jar from the early Cycladic I period (c. 3200-2800 BCE) is a wonderful exercise in texture: the base is covered in herringbone patterns separated from each other by vertical lines, while the collar rising up from the bowl has two sets of zigzag patterns on its neck. The clay vessel is imperfectly fired but nonetheless quite beautiful, evoking symmetry and a sense of real balance. There are also beakers, tall conical shapes that flare out and up before ending in a thin lip encircling the top of the form. These are made of marble and have two vertical perforated suspension lugs; what their exact use was for is not known. One beautiful pyxis (container) also stands out; it was made in the early Cycladic II period (2700-2300 BCE). It has a lid whose edges slightly overlap the rim on which it stands; its general shape is that of a compressed sphere, with two double horizontal suspension lugs. Again, the archeological context is not available, so there is no way of being sure of its purpose.

“In His Own Image,” the part of the show devoted to Cycladic figurines, offered the viewer the Cycladic art with which we are most familiar (the title refers to the figurative nature of the sculptures and does not suggest a religious reference). The marble sculptures ranged from a schematic work from the early Cycladic I period, which is completely flat and of the “spade-shaped” type with a neck issuing out of a nearly trapezoidal body, to a female figurine from the same period, which has a nose in relief, two indentations for eyes, breasts in relief, and a sharply incised line marking the pubic area. In its exaggerated hips, the sculpture seems to have something in common with the Venus figures of Neolithic culture. There is a striking male figurine of a harp player from the early Cycladic II period; the figure sits on a stool, his almond-shaped head thrown way back so that it is nearly level with the horizontals of the legs. The left hand is thrust out to grasp the harp, and the nose and ears are rendered (other facial elements, such as eyes and hair, were most likely painted, as there are traces of paint on the surface). Some of the female figurines are extraordinarily beautiful; tall and narrow, with the noses, breasts, and arms modeled in relief and the legs separated by a narrow slit in the marble, these figures radiate a world of unreality, of spiritual expression. Based on similarities of detail, a number of sculptures can be attributed to a single hand, although of course no actual artist’s name is known.

The disastrous effects of looting are addressed in “Silent Witnesses,” the final part of the exhibition. The Greek archeologist and author of the catalogue, Christos G. Doumas, is eloquent on the subject of the loss: “If archeological finds are taciturn even when properly excavated, we can imagine the damage caused to them by their improper and violent removal from the environment that kept them safe for thousands of years. Besides the physical damage they may incur, the destruction of their context strips them of their identity and forces them to remain silent.” Doumas goes on to identify Kavos Daskaleiou, on Keros, as the site most ravaged by looting: “some scholars consider it the greatest archeological disaster in the twentieth century.”

Damage is extensive and irreparable – in the cemetery of Akrotiri, on the northeast coast of Naxos, 24 graves were explored by archeologists, who found that four had been plundered earlier and another 20 opened and looted a short while before they had arrived. Despite the widespread theft, the items in this grouping of artifacts can be linked to a particular gravesite; they are generally no different in kind from the other work shown. There are collared jars, small female figurines, necklace beads, containers, and violin-shaped figurines. Not all the graves were broken into, affording the excavators the chance to see a burial site intact. This part of the exhibition addresses the context in which the early Cycladic figurines were found; the objects seen here give the viewer a sense of what was buried in the graves along with the figurines.

Silent Witnesses is an informative show, in that it educates the audience as much as possible about the meaning and context of work we too often see torn from its cultural origins. At the same time, it is exciting to see these 5,000-year-old sculptures pass on their great dignity of form to a contemporary audience. Although it surely does the art damage to see the figurines outside a meaningful environment, the beauty of the sculpture is evident no matter what. Most likely, a merger of esthetic appreciation and scientific knowledge is needed to fully understand not only the elegant shapes but their function in Cycladic culture. Sadly, it may no longer be possible to derive much more knowledge than what we now know. Cycladic culture was preliterate, and so we have no writing or texts to illuminate it. The Onassis Foundation has mounted a wonderful show, whose very integrity creates the unhappy awareness that detail and depth of knowledge are only partial. Nonetheless, Silent Witnesses offers the remarkable chance to make contact with a culture that has produced some of the most moving, and mysterious, art that we know.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to greekworks.com, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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