BMCR 2012.09.27

Kykladen: Lebenswelten einer frühgriechischen Kultur

, Kykladen: Lebenswelten einer frühgriechischen Kultur. Darmstadt: Primus Verlag, 2011. 348. ISBN 9783863120160. €39.90.

This exhibition catalog arrived in my mailbox the same day world media were stirred by Günter Grass’s ominously plaintive poem “Europas Schande” (“The shame of Europe”). The German intellectual was protesting the harsh austerity measures imposed on Greece by her European peers after a year of extreme crisis that also has had a serious impact on how this country managed its cultural heritage. Grass is thinking of Greece as an achronic entity whose cultural wealth, still the pride and joy of many European museums, is a paragon of European values.

“Zur Armut verurteiltes Land, dessen Reichtumm
Gepflegt Museen schmückt: von Dir gehütete Beute…”

Grass was obviously trying to stir the German public to reassess seriously the role of the country and its tradition for European civilization. He was perhaps consciously provocative in his proposition that the numerous and precious antiquities in European museums are essentially “booty.” Although thinking of Greek antiquities in Germany and Europe as “booty” is arguable, his lines urge us to ask what would have been the fate of European civilization, had it not been for this “booty” and what it stands for? On what grounds does Europe bring to its knees a country, whose most valuable capital is dispersed all around Europe?

I do not know how Grass’s ideas resonated with the German or other publics. However, one cannot help thinking of these questions, and many more, when it comes to assessing cultural events such as the exhibit on Cycladic civilization in Karlsruhe (dates: 12.17.2011-4.22.2012) and the accompanying exhibition catalog under review here (I was not able to visit the exhibition). In all respects the catalog is a wonderful scholarly companion to what seems to have been a no less masterfully crafted and presented exhibition. And this is what one has come to expect from the Badisches Landesmuseum. Solid precedent has already been set by the equally exquisite exhibit at the Badisches Landesmuseum entitled Zeit der Helden: Die “dunklen Jahrhunderte” Griechenlands 1200-700 v.Chr., (10- 25-2008 to 2-15-2009), the accompanying catalog of which is a valuable tool for researching and teaching preclassical Greece.

In this review I will not focus on matters of content, organization, the visual apparatus, or the unquestionable scholarly merits of this impeccable book. Instead I will comment on three aspects of the book (and the exhibition that inspired it) that I believe are of interest for readers of BMCR.

My first point has to do with the title of the exhibition and its catalog. In what terms is Cycladic civilization a “frühgriechisch,” that is, an “early Greek” civilization? If this term refers to geographic space, it is highly unconventional, insufficient, and misleading to say the least. In classical studies, at least, the term “frühgriechisch” refers to the first half of the first millennium or Early Iron Age, sometimes even to the last centuries of the Bronze age (e.g. ed. Georg Rechenauer, Frühgriechisches Denken, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2005 or in N. Himmelmann’s article “Über einige gegenständliche Bedeutungsmöglichkeiten des frühgriechischen Ornaments” in Abhandlungen der geistes- und socialwissenschaftlichen Klasse der Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur in Mainz 7Wiesbaden, 259-346). But here viewers and readers, especially those not versed in Aegean prehistory, are invited to conceptualize, or at least to put to work a framework of reception or interpretation of Cycladic civilization in terms of the vastness of connotations contained in “Greece”, “Greek” etc. An example: in the introductory essay, Katarina Horst invites readers to think of the proportional system of Cycladic figurines in terms of the Polykleitan canon, and she seems to think seriously that “Die Klassik beginnt im 3. Jahrtausend” (quoting the conclusion of a seminar in Heidelberg on. p. 15). The anachronistic evocation of the “classical” values does not really help readers navigate the rough waters of Aegean prehistory. Is there anything inherently “classical” in any artifact of the Cycladic civilization? I believe it is no longer necessary to evoke “Die Klassik” in order to make sense of a prehistoric civilization. On the other hand, one might brush this off as a marketing gimmick—it makes sense, after all, in Germany where “die Klassik” is still active as an object of study and reflection. Yet, if this is the case, it is a misleading gimmick. It evokes various problematic—and unfortunately still not entirely resolved—aspects of the history of the discipline of archaeology and its political uses and abuses both within and outside Greece. In this case I think of the recurrent essentialist approaches to the history and prehistory of Greece (see especially Sofia Voutsaki, “The “Greekness” of Greek Prehistory: An Investigation of the Debate 1876-1900” in Pharos 10, 2003, 1-5- 122, and the essays in J. Cherry et al. Prehistorians Round the Pond: Reflections on Aegean Prehistory as a Discipline, Ann Arbor 2005). The problem is not only historiographic or terminological, and I will not attempt to dwell on it here.1 But in this day and age of widening horizons, the title and tenor of the exhibition and the catalog should reflect the symbiosis and alignment of the Cycladic world with its immediate context of the world of the Balkans, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Near East (addressed in the exhibition catalog in hefty essays by Susan Sherratt and Jörg Rambach).

My second comment has to do with the fact that each and every ancient artifact in the exhibition catalog (pp. 240- 333) is unprovenanced and was lent by European collections formed in the last two centuries. The ongoing story of illegal excavations and illicit trade of antiquities is well known and duly acknowledged by professor Harald Siebenmorgen in the preface of the exhibit. Unfortunately the inclusion of properly excavated artifacts (that is, retrieved in controlled circumstances of excavation, preservation, etc.) was not possible because of the unfortunate refusal of Greek authorities to lend antiquities for the exhibition. In the preface of the catalog, professor Siebenmorgen mournfully explains that in Greece, authorities still take issue with the inclusion of artifacts from private collections or the art market in what was a pivotal exhibition on Cycladic civilization held at the Badisches Landesmuseum in 1976 (p.6). He also hints at other complications but not in sufficient detail.2 However this may be, the fact is that this exhibit missed a unique opportunity for exploring the implications of its conceptual premises and its constituent parts. In other words, I expected some reflection at least on the meaning of efforts (like this exhibit) to showcase an entire civilization through unprovenanced artifacts alone. What story do these artifacts tell? And what does this mean for the ongoing work, hard and costly as it is, of archaeologists in the field? They produce artifacts and knowledge that create a “parallel universe” of sorts, an alternative empirical field that is, by default, at once antagonistic and supplementary of the other. This situation is problematic because the unprovenanced artifacts in and of themselves have a very interesting story to tell about the last century and a half. This story is only hinted at in this exhibition catalog (I presume also in the exhibition) and my view is that it is time that the recent history and archaeology of clandestine excavations and illicit trade is more explicitly historicized as well. Perhaps it is time that exhibitions governed by the need to offer a pleasing and innocuous spectacle to their visitors begin to raise unsettling questions about our world.

The ensuing problems are practical, philosophical, ethical, museological, cognitive, and scholarly. This is so, because despite the best intentions to the contrary, any showcasing of unprovenanced objects contributes to their excessive and dangerous aestheticization. And this brings me to my final comment. The last essay in the exhibition catalog focuses on the dialogues of major adherents of the primitivist vein within modernism (Archipenko, Moore, Arp, etc.) with the Cycladic figurines. The visitors of the exhibit witnessed a characteristic sample of the artistic products of this encounter, which are also included in the catalogue (pp. 326-333, nos. 131-141, with no. 142 being the famous head of a Cycladic statue in the Louvre, inv. no. MA 2709, a piece repeatedly studied by modernists and others). The point here is to showcase the potency of Cycladic art, its radiance, and its formative input on some influential figures of our world. Unfortunately, I am afraid that modernism here is evoked with the same premises and aims as “Die Klassik” in the introductory essay, that is, this is an effort to enhance interest in the products of Cycladic art and its creative spirit. Given the richness of conceptual tools at our disposal (archaeological, anthropological, art historical) I ask: is this approach truly necessary? Doesn’t it amount to a special pleading? Modernist primitivists had their own agenda, aims, and premises and they are largely at the source of a stance towards Cycladic art that disregarded its cultural and temporal specificity—they very essentialism that I refer to above as a problematic aspect of the exhibition and the catalog. The juxtaposition of Cycladic sculpture with modern art does make sense, and is welcome, but the exhibition catalog does not go far enough in raising questions and problematizing these complex phenomena.

Despite the quibbles I raise above, I will end on a positive note. The exhibition catalog reviewed here is a valuable tool for studying, teaching, and reflecting on Cycladic civilization, its current problematic status, and its reception, dispersion, and construction by both specialists and laymen in the last two centuries. It may be too early but I already look forward to the next exhibition on Cycladic Lebenswelten at the Badisches Landesmuseum.


1. The same essentialism underlies the concept and organization of the pivotal exhibit “Greek Art of the Aegean Islands” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Nov. 1, 1979-February 10, 1980 (also shown in the Louvre in April-September 1979 under the title “Mer Égée: Grèce des Îles”). No. 1 in the exhibition catalog is the “Cycladic, Neolithic, fourth millennium BCE” statuette, MET 1972. 118.104 (Bequest of Walter C. Baker, 1972), followed by twenty five Cycladic artifacts dating to the third millennium BCE. See exhibition cat. Greek Art of the Aegean Islands, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1979, p. 45, no. 1.

2. “Es ist schmerzlich, dass die zuständigen griechischen Behörden, anders als viele der griechischen und internationalen Fachkollegen, trotzdem kein Vertrauen in unser Tun gefasst haben. Eine kurzfristig von Griechenland erhobene Forderung, von der die Zusage der Leihgaben abhängig gemacht wurde und deren Erfüllung gar nicht in der Macht des Landesmuseums lag, besiegelte schliesslich das Ende der erstrebten Kooperation” (p. 7 of preface written by H. Siebenmorgen).