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Idolizing

The Cycladic Spirit is a handsome, thoroughly self-indulgent book by a serious archaeologist responding in an art-historical sort of way to the products of a culture that has to be judged from the barest of evidence: in the author’s words the book is “an elegy for a lost world.” There is archaeology here too, the “background material,” but the most space and thought are devoted to the Greek marble Cycladic idols of the third millennium BC now so well represented in sale rooms and private collections and, sometimes less visibly, in public museums.

Renfrew’s enthusiasm is unquestionable. On the first page of chapter one the epithets roll out—“surpassing quality,” “remarkable,” “astonishing,” “breathtaking” (twice). Thereafter the text conceals the struggle between the careful prehistorian, who is suspicious of all subjective and most stylistic and unquantifiable judgments, and the enthusiast. It is, thus, a book for both art connoisseur and archaeologist, erring on the side of art: the page numbers, tiny and set at the inside top of each page, betray the dread hand of Design, as though the book was to be looked at, not read and used. But the pictures, mostly in color, are superb.

The most important natural resource of the Isles of Greece in antiquity was white marble. It still need not be quarried; you can just pull it off the hillsides in splinters and chunks. It was not easy to work, but patient application of similar rocks, and the fortuitous, presence in one of the islands (Naxos) of something even harder (emery) and on another (Melos) of obsidian, meant that it was possible to do something with it, to exploit its clean, crystalline surfaces. Some of the earliest inhabitants of the islands fashioned what were probably marble pebbles into plump female figurines not unlike those which seem to have been the aspiration of early artists at other places in early times. But in the third millennium BC far simpler stylizations of the human figure, in small flat idols shaped like a fiddle, gave place to more advanced but quickly stereotyped forms. These must have been closely determined by the material—flakes and splinters of marble—and available techniques—abrasion. It was a time-consuming process but early man seems to have had more time on his hands than we do, and, for all we can tell, the production of these idols for purposes of cult practices was one which the community would support. But it must be said that the purpose for which the idols were used remains obscure. As Renfrew writes:

If the Keros site had been properly excavated when the first finds were uncovered we should have known whether it was a sanctuary or a burial site. We might have known if the life-sized Cycladic figures…were made for use in sanctuaries, possible as the effigies of a divinity, or were manufactured simply for the grave. Yet it is the lamentable reality that not one of the several life-sized sculptures now known comes from a properly documented excavation. Each has been ripped from its archaeological context and separated from the accompanying finds that might have given it meaning for us and that would have allowed careful interpretation.

The end product was characterized by flat, streamlined forms and contours for recumbent figures of women. From the position of the feet, we can see that they were not meant to stand, and ingenious ways of making them do so ignore the simple fact that the artist could easily have made them stand if he or she had wanted to. Renfrew points to a few where one figure seems to stand on the head of another, a posture (if taken literally, which it should surely not be) surely more grotesque for an upright position than a recumbent one. If all the Cycladic ladies were laid end to end we should probably not be much surprised.

The figures demonstrate an almost complete submission of form to material and technique; something unthinkable in classical Greece two thousand years later. (The islanders were not of Greek race at this date, any more than the other inhabitants of the Greek mainland and Crete.) In a way this resembles the work of African artists in wood, constrained by cylindrical material and the action of the adze. So it is not surprising that artists of a hundred years ago were attracted to the Cycladic idols as much as to African art. Very possibly the idols account for elements of Modigliani’s anorexic women, and of his carving master Brancusi’s smooth marbles.

We all recognize that every age will require its own interpretation of the arts of the past; every commentator is constrained by his background, training, temperament, and (surely unjustly) judges himself incapable of making due allowances for his limitations. But we ought to be able to decide what it is that has made the Cycladic idols attractive to artists or to a hardened archaeologist like Renfrew—not that professionals should be denied their enthusiasms, but they seldom have the nerve to allow them into print. “Pure form” has been a good rallying cry for a long time. The white marble is pure, too, in another way; for all that the subjects are naked women it would be difficult for any post-classical viewer to imagine less sexy images. Being both Greek and marble also seems to give them the edge over African wood to the European connoisseur.

Renfrew even tries to draw close parallels with archaic Greek sculpture and architecture to demonstrate the essentially shared classic canon. Yet the conceptions are totally different, and there is no more canon—or systematic set of rules and proportions—displayed in the idols than is conjured by observation of shared forms in the products of separate workshops in a limited area over a fairly limited period. There can be no end to drawing circles and triangles over such figures to give an illusion of design, or to pretend to deliberation by sculptors where there is nothing more than repetition, tempered by that indefinable sense of proportion that is shared by all serious craftsmen in all places and most periods (even when it is being deliberately rejected). Variety of canon is more remarkable here than conformity. In these matters Renfrew is cautious but cannot quite resist the exercise of trying to construct a systematic typology for the idols.

In common with most (almost all?) instances of the inspiration of contemporary artists by the arts of a past and unconnected culture, what is influential is superficial appearance and not essence—if by essence we mean the original appearance and setting, the intention of the artist and the response of his customer. Intention and response may indeed be unknowable in this and many another case, but appearance can be retrieved. Many of the idols bear traces of paint upon them, and the odds are that most were painted, with eyes, hair, body markings. Nothing could more easily distract from the pure white forms admired today. Archaic and Classical Greek sculpture and architecture present a similar case; we do not even try seriously to share antiquity’s appreciation of the colored forms and moldings. When Henry Moore eventually visited the Parthenon he was deeply impressed, as he had not expected to be, by its openness and sense of space. He was lucky not to have seen it as it was in antiquity, barely visible except at close range, with colored architecture and sculptures, on a rock not bare and noble but cluttered with other buildings and monuments, cunningly placed and designed, no doubt, but designed for quite other effects.

Sense of space” is another of our war cries, especially for minimalist creations, and we may readily apply it to the splendid Riace nudes, two Classical bronzes set magnificently in a broad bright room in the Reggio Museum in Southern Italy. Give them back their three-foot round shields, and spears, and put them shoulder to shoulder with a few similar figures crammed into a niche in a crowded Greek sanctuary, and you have to look for quite different qualities, probably far more admirable than any subjective response to a craving for space in a constipated modern world. If a modern artist would like to be really innovative, what if he tried to recapture some element at least of the intentions of ancient art, so far as we can understand them, and not simply be moved by appearance, for or against? A matter of translation, not forgery. Renfrew helps bring us back to the Cycladic society for which the idols were made, and this is a start.

But there is another problem posed by this book. It is mainly illustrated by objects in a private collection and acquired in recent years, that is to say, apparently the product of illegal excavation, since Greek law prohibits the private sale of excavated works of art. They are largely redeemed by being still (or again) in Greece and in a fine specialist collection (the Goulandris museum in Athens) which can bid to be a scholarly center for the study of Cycladic art in a way that none of the public museums of Greece could be or seem to wish to be. The objects are more accessible to scholars than much that has been scientifically excavated in recent years, most of it thereby destined for invisibility and nonpublication.

All excavation means the destruction of the immediate surroundings. Tomb robbers destroy totally; nonpublishing archaeologists hardly do better. Robbers’ finds commonly get published; excavators’ often do not. The Archaeological Institute of America would not let many of these objects onto the pages of their journal (will it be reviewed there, I wonder?); well-intentioned but selective and ineffectual (I fear) high-mindedness about recognizing the existence of certain objects and the interests of uncensored scholarship can seem to be at loggerheads and leave many of us in a quandary.

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