What the Sumerians did for art

“What the Sumerians did for art”

by P.W. via “The Economist

GOLD-encrusted and splendid, Tutankhamun’s tomb changed perceptions of archaeology in Europe and the United States on its discovery by Howard Carter in 1922, and the resulting wave of Egyptomania influenced everything from fashion to furniture. “From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics”, a new exhibition at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) in New York, explores the impact that the Tutankhamun hoard had on two near contemporaries of Carter, Leonard Woolley and Henri Frankfort, who worked on separate digs in what is now southern Iraq—as well as the public response to their finds.

The pieces that the English Woolley and the Dutch Frankfort uncovered were from the Sumerian civilisation (c.3100BC-2100BC) and helped change the public perception of ancient societies and artefacts. They included jewels and luxury goods at Ur (Woolley) and dozens of stone carvings from the nearby Diyala Valley (Frankfort).

Woolley’s team struck gold, literally and metaphorically, in 1927. A large cemetery was uncovered with 1,800 graves, including 16 that were said to be royal tombs, since they contained bodies ornamented with precious materials. The remains of Queen Puabi, buried with a retinue of murdered servants to ensure her care in the afterlife, became Woolley’s Tutankhamun. Her elaborate gold headdress, topped by a spectacular star-studded comb, was reconstructed by Woolley’s wife, as was the queen’s cloak of long strands of semiprecious stones. An imagined facsimile of the queen wearing this garb was soon on display at the British Museum.

The stone figures (pictured) found by Frankfort’s mission, which started work in 1930, depict men with huge eyes and bare chests. Their long skirts seem to have been made of feathers or leaves, though scholars now say the material was cotton tufts. From the first Frankfort referred to them as sculptures not artefacts. For him, as for thousands after, they were works of art.

Following Carter’s example, the two archaeologists sought to ensure maximum publicity for their finds, and were rewarded with some lurid news stories. “Evidence that the Queen of Ancient Ur was clubbed to Death,” screamed a 1928 piece in the Washington Herald. “Grim Tragedy of Wicked Queen Shubad’s 100 Poisoned Slaves,” ran a 1934 account in thePhiladelphia Inquirer. Agatha Christie’s 1935 mystery, “Murder in Mesopotamia”, was inspired by Woolley’s dig.

ISAW’s fascinating, tightly packed show has many jewels and ten of the stone figures, as well as contemporary archaeological records with detailed drawings and measurements, on-the-spot diaries and photographs of the teams. In a second room are works by 20th- and 21st-century artists who saw the stone carvings, among them Henry Moore and Alberto Giacometti. But this display, while attractive, is unpersuasive: an artist can see an object, even be captivated by it, without it having a lasting influence; yet such an influence is claimed. While the drawings Giacometti made in 1935 from Sumerian sculpture on view at the Louvre are of some interest, it was Etruscan art that more powerfully influenced his work. As for the cast-concrete Moore figure from 1929 that is on display, the fact that the work’s folded hands may owe something to the Sumerian statues does nothing to support the idea that Moore’s subsequent more celebrated sculpture was similarly influenced.

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