BMCR 2002.09.24

Personal Styles in Early Cycladic Sculpture

Pat Getz-Gentle, Jack de Vries, Personal styles in early Cycladic sculpture. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2001. 1 online resource (xxi, 190 pages, 136 unnumbered pages of plates) : illustrations, maps.. ISBN 9780299172039 $45.00.

Getz-Gentle’s latest study of Early Cycladic marble figures develops her earlier (as Pat Getz-Preziosi) Sculptors of the Cyclades: Individual and Tradition in the Third Millennium BC (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1987) [hereafter SC ]. Her work has moved away from the archaeologically-defined typologies (for example, the Kapsala, Spedos, and Dokathismata varieties)1 to the identification of and the attribution to the anonymous creators of these figures. She has drawn attention to the use of color to decorate the figures, and the figural varieties, such as harpists, flute-players and male figures. These engaging and (to the modern eye) visually-exciting figures have been noted and celebrated since at least the late eighteenth century. They have formed part of public and private collections and have been the subject of major international exhibitions.2 G-G’s work has transferred the figures’ study from the domain of the archaeologist to that of the art historian.

Since the appearance of SC there has been a sea-change in the study of the Cycladic sculpture, marked by Colin Renfrew’s publication of the figures in the N.P. Goulandris collection,3 and a case-study of the impact of looting on the material culture of the Early Cyclades (D.W.J. Gill and C. Chippindale, ‘Material and intellectual consequences of esteem for Cycladic figures’, American Journal of Archaeology 97 (1993), 601-59 [hereafter GC]).4 The present book had clearly gone to press by the time that the new catalogue for the N.P. Goulandris Foundation — Museum of Cycladic Art [hereafter NPGM] had appeared, though there are a limited number of cross-references.5 Also missing is Susan Sherratt’s recent Catalogue of Cycladic Antiquities in the Ashmolean Museum: the Captive Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).6

In the latest study G-G makes it plain that she ‘felt that it was … necessary to respond in some fashion to recent criticism of my work, especially to the serious charges that my approach is insufficiently rigorous and that some of the pieces I had earlier attributed to particular sculptors could be forgeries’ (p. xv). Her response and reflections are presented in five main chapters: ‘Cycladic sculpture from the Late Neolithic through the Transitional Early Cycladic I/II phase’; Early Cycladic II Sculpture; two chapters on specific sculptors (Early Cycladic I Plastiras figures; Early Cycladic II reclining folded-arm figures); and a final chapter on measurements (by Jack de Vries). Issues such as function and display, composite figures, and attribution are revisited. The book is copiously illustrated with line drawings and photographs, though readers will find it useful to have SC to hand.

One change in G-G’s approach has been the abandonment of the term ‘Master’ in favor of ‘Sculptor’ (though still in upper case). In G-G’s earlier work, she explained: ‘The term master is used throughout … to denote a craftsman who was thoroughly competent in his profession although not necessarily highly skilled or capable of producing masterpieces’ ( SC, p. 62). The use of this term for Cycladic had been challenged: it may be appropriate for the language of ‘high art’ but not for what is likely to have been a humble craft (GC, pp. 651-52). G-G reports that her methodology and terminology were not borrowed from Morelli or Berenson, or from Beazley — the obvious close precedent for identifying ‘Masters’ amongst the makers of ancient Greek artefacts; she reverts to what she now considers to be more art-historically neutral language (pp. xv-xvi). She adds to her list of attributions and to her named (anonymous) ‘sculptors’ (e.g. ‘The Bent Sculptor’ (pp. 70, 155-56); ‘The Karo Sculptor’ (pp. 70-71, 156-57); ‘The Karlsruhe/Woodner Sculptor’ (pp. 74-79, 158); ‘The Rodgers Sculptor’ (pp. 80, 159)), though she has avoided the past practice of naming newly identified ‘sculptors’ after the present proprietor of the type specimen (p. xvi).

The material consequences of looting mean that a distressingly small percentage of Cycladic figures come from secure archaeological contexts. In 1993 it was suggested ‘some 85% of the funerary record of the Early Bronze Age Cyclades may have been lost through this unscientific search for figurines’ (GC, p. 625), and Cyprian Broodbank has observed ‘some 90 percent of all figurines now known are without secure context’.7 This loss has many intellectual consequences, which do not need to be repeated here. Chippindale’s and my concern was that the ‘Masters’/ ‘Sculptors’ might be too much a modern fiction, possibly based on forged figures. We saw two of the ‘Masters’ (‘the Doumas Master’ and ‘the Naxos Museum Master’) as secure in archaeological terms since five pieces for each had come from secure contexts (or been confiscated from looters in circumstances that would suggest that they were genuine); to these two may now be added ‘the Goulandris Sculptor’ with four pieces (three excavated on Keros and one from Naxos) from secure archaeological contexts. To our list of inadequate ‘sculptors’ where no single piece comes from a secure archaeological context can be added ‘the Kalrsruhe/ Woodner Sculptor’, and ‘the Rodgers Sculptor’. Only 32 pieces (14%) of the 232 that appear in G-G’s checklists for the sculptors have been derived from a specified, secure, archaeological context, according to Broodbank’s and our reckoning.

G-G may feel that this concern for the archaeology of the corpus is a distraction which blocks her search for the career of artists. ‘It is partly their reliance on quantifiable data that makes it difficult for some to accept as genuine Cycladic objects that do not come from authorized excavations. There are no accepted tests to demonstrate authenticity; only occasionally can a scientific analysis expose a fraud’ (p. xvi). Yet she provides the very reason why archaeologists are concerned about the intellectual consequences of looting. In 1993 we placed the ‘Stafford Master’ in a list of ‘Insecure Masters’ (‘There are eight masters we class as insecure because they offer only one or two works of secure context’, GC, p. 637). G-G had earlier discussed this ‘Master’ in fulsome terms, ‘an accomplished sculptor of Chalandriani-variety female figures’, ‘an artist with a very confident and boldly stylized approach to the human form’, whose name piece (from the Frederick Stafford collection, said to be from ‘Paros’ and on loan from 1984 to the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge (Mass.)) was ‘perhaps the finest example, attributable to his hand’ ( SC, p. 123). The ‘Stafford Master’ (or ‘Sculptor’) does not appear in the present volume; G-G explains, ‘as many as four complete figures I had previously ascribed to him, including his name-piece’ had been removed ‘because I have come to regard them as forgeries’ (p. 104, and n. 216). The residue of ‘the Stafford Master’ is now defined as ‘the Louvre Sculptor’ (pp. 169-70); by our definition this carver remains in the list of insecure sculptors as only two pieces come from excavated contexts. Revelations about known forgers in the Cyclades, such as Angelos Batsalis (‘Niotis’) (1885-1953), show we must be cautious about any pieces that have surfaced as long ago as the First World War.8

The name-piece of ‘the Stafford Master’, now discarded as a forgery, came with a reported find-spot of ‘Paros’ — a warning that such information should not be given any credence. Such ‘said to be’ find-spots are provided for 40% of the figures in G-G’s latest checklists. The phenomenon of ‘drifting provenances’, whereby in different publications and exhibitions the reported find-spot changes (GC, pp. 621-22, Table 9), again occurs. Some figures that now reside in the N.P. Goulandris collection are provided with find-spots in G-G’s checklists, though the most recent catalogue of the collection states ‘provenance unknown’ (NPGM 598 = cat. no. 229 = G-G p. 160, no. 11, ‘Naxos’; NPGM 281 = cat. no. 214 = G-G p. 163, no. 27, ‘Naxos’; NPGM 206 = cat. no. 233 = G-G p. 168, no. 3, ‘Keros’?). In other cases G-G states that there is no recorded find-spot, though the collection’s handbook provides one (NPGM 105 = cat. no. 185, ‘possible provenance Donousa’ = G-G p. 155, no. 5; NPGM 654 = cat. no. 217, ‘possible provenance Naxos’ = G-G p. 159, no. 4; NPGM 282 = cat. no. 223, ‘possible provenance Koufonisia’ = G-G p. 159 no. 3). The information can even be contradictory: one piece (NPGM 257) is said to have been found on ‘Naxos’ (G-G p. 157, no. 4) or ‘Koufonisia’ (cat. no. 227), a small island off Naxos. Which publication is to be believed? Can any of this information be trusted? What is it based on?

If such information is corrupted, or fatally flawed, it begins to be impossible to understand the centres where these figures were made. Take this statement about one of the named sculptors: ‘Nothing is known of the find places of the other works attributable to the Bent Sculptor. Nevertheless, I believe he was probably a Naxian’ (p. 70). However, the one piece excavated by J.T. Bent in the late nineteenth century came from Antiparos (‘it is not likely to have been made there’, p. 70). G-G also believes that ‘the Goulandris Sculptor’ came from Naxos (p. 91). Her theory is supported by 23 samples which underwent isotopic analysis and which suggested a marble source in south-east Naxos (pp. 91-93, Table III, Chart C). G-G goes further: ‘seventeen [samples] have such similar signatures that their marble must have come from one circumscribed area, possibly from a single outcrop … Indeed, among these seventeen are several small groups … that are so close as to suggest that they belonged to the same four or five larger pieces of marble’ (p. 91). Yet not one of the four archaeological secure pieces was analyzed (nos. 7, 14, 75, 76), and there is no absolute certainty that those figures (or fragments) analyzed were ancient (even if the marble came from Naxos). What percentage of the oeuvre of ‘the Goulandris Sculptor’ can be expected to survive? What proportion of figures derived from a single block quarried in the third millennium BC can one reasonably expect to appear in the modern extant corpus today? What proportion of figures made from a given block by a modern forger can one reasonably expect in the modern corpus today?

The lack of archaeological context means stories about the careers of these sculptors can only be speculative fictions. It is impossible to say that one piece comes from early in a career, whereas another reflects ‘mature’ work (cf. p. 86, chart A). In the case of ‘the Karlsruhe/Woodner Sculptor’ — for whom no pieces were found in a secure archaeological context — it goes far beyond the evidence to state: ‘The Karlsruhe/Woodner Sculptor was evidently a member of a group of unusually keen and energetic artists who lived and worked around the same time and were in contact with one another’s work, either as contemporaries or through the overlapping of careers: of fathers and sons, for example’ (p. 77). Nothing of the sort is ‘evident’, of course, and it is misleading to present these kinds of statements as if they had any factual basis.

The issue of proportions and canon is discussed by Jack de Vries (Chapter 5: ‘Pattern and precision. Taking the measure of Early Cycladic II Spedos Variety figures’; see also p. xvii-xviii). Many of the figures were re-measured for the study, and de Vries highlights discrepancies with measurements given by Colin Renfrew. It is disconcerting to find that a third set of measurements is provided in the N.P. Goulandris collection catalogue. Which are the most reliable? It is here re-asserted that ‘the sculptors of Spedos variety figures did follow a simple four-part, compass-drawn formula, at least through the rough stages of the production process’ (p. 121), and the doubts we raised about this methodology are not addressed (GC, pp. 641-47).

At the start of the volume, G-G outlines what she thinks will be the latest criticism of this her latest study. She does not see the link between privileging this category of ancient artifact and the encouragement of looting in the Greek islands. ‘The solution to the problem of looting lies in education and excavation, not in the suppression of material, and not in the condemnation of collecting, which has the effect of driving collectors into anonymity and making them reluctant to share their objects with scholars and the general public’ (p. xvii). This statement could have come from the pen of a collector or a dealer in antiquities.9 G-G fails to realize that illicit objects will have lost their archaeological context for good whether or not their private collectors share their collection with scholars. G-G also draws attention to the problem of the history of figures once they have surfaced. The name-piece of ‘the Rodgers Sculptor’ is reported as ‘from English coll., after World War ιι’, though G-G adds, ‘information I distrust’ (p. 159, no. 2). How much of the information about pieces circulating in the murky world of the private collector should be distrusted? How does G-G discern which statements are to be trusted?

This book, published by a university press, may give some confidence to those who collect Cycladica. G-G does not seem to have realized how profound are the intellectual problems when dealing with material devoid of archaeological context. Stephen Dyson has made the point well (in response to GC): ‘In their hungry pursuit of decontextualized objects, the museums have ignored these [intellectual and scholarly] implications, and increasingly have helped to build a reconstruction of the artistic past whose scholarly foundations may be laid in quicksand’.10 This book benefits from G-G’s many years of diligent study of the Cycladic figures, and her enormous accumulated knowledge of them. But that expertise sinks in the quicksand that we simply do not know for over 80% of the things we call ‘Cycladic figures’ where they were found, in what kind of archaeological context and of what date or even whether they are actually ancient objects at all.

Supplementary tables and internet resources to support this review are available on my website.

Table 1. Security of archaeology for named Cycladic sculptors.

Table 2. Measurements (in cm) of Cycladic figures in the N.P. Goulandris collection.

Table 3. Archaeology for items in the exhibition Early Cycladic Art in North American Collections.


1. See C. Renfrew, ‘The development and chronology of the Early Cycladic figurines’, American Journal of Archaeology 73 (1969), 1-32.

2. For example, J. Thimme (ed.), P. Getz-Preziosi (trans. and ed.), Art and Culture of the Cyclades in the Third Millennium B.C. (Karlsruhe, 1977); P. Getz-Preziosi, Early Cycladic Art in North American Collections (Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1987). I have yet to see the catalogue for Silent Witnesses, an exhibition of Early Cycladic material at the Onassis Cultural Center in Manhattan (9 April to 15 June 2002).

3. C. Renfrew, The Cycladic Spirit: Masterpieces from the Nicholas P. Goulandris Collection. (London: Thames & Hudson, 1991).

4. See also C. Chippindale and D.W.J. Gill, ‘Cycladic figurines: art versus archaeology?’, in K. W. Tubb (ed.), Antiquities: Trade or Betrayed. Legal, Ethical & Conservation Issues (London: Archetype Publications Ltd, 1993), 131-42.

5. C.G. Doumas, Early Cycladic Culture: the N.P. Goulandris Collection. (Athens: N.P. Goulandris Foundation; Museum of Cycladic Art, 2000).

6. Some of the details in the catalogue correct G-G’s information. For example, one of the Ashmolean figures, said to be from Naxos (1929.27), was purchased in Athens by R.M. Dawkins in 1907 not 1917 as stated (p. 154, no. 12).

7. C. Broodbank, An Island Archaeology of the Early Cyclades (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 58.

8. See M. Marthari, ‘Altering information from the past: illegal excavations in Greece and the case of the Early Bronze Age Cyclades’, in N. Brodie, J. Doole and C. Renfrew (edd.), Trade in Illicit Antiquities: the Destruction of the World’s Archaeological Heritage (Cambridge: McDonald Institute, 2001), 161-72, esp. p. 166.

9. On this phenomenon see C. Chippindale and D.W.J. Gill, ‘Material consequences of contemporary classical collecting’, American Journal of Archaeology 104. 3 (2000), 463-511; C. Chippindale, D.W.J. Gill, E. Salter, and C. Hamilton, ‘Collecting the classical world: first steps in a quantitative history’, International Journal of Cultural Property 10.1 (2001), 1-31. For the political implications: D.W.J. Gill and C. Chippindale, ‘The trade in looted antiquities and the return of cultural property: a British parliamentary inquiry’, International Journal of Cultural Property 11.1 (2002), 50-64 .

10. Stephen L. Dyson, Ancient Marbles to American Shores: Classical Archaeology in the United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 277.