BMCR 2021.01.09

Aegean Bronze Age art: meaning in the making

, Aegean Bronze Age art: meaning in the making. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xv, 248. ISBN 9781108429436 $45.00.

This richly illustrated book is not a usual introduction to Aegean Bronze Age art for archaeologists; it does not aim at presenting a traditional history of Minoan and Mycenaean arts and hardly contains any study of Aegean iconography. Instead, the concept of this volume is a fresh, unconstrained approach to selected artistic features viewed from a phenomenological perspective and by using mainly Bronze Age Crete as an experimental ground. As the author, a renowned expert of the archaeology of Minoan Crete, mentions at the beginning, this volume evolved from teaching Ancient Art at the University of Toronto. In this study, he deliberately transgresses the common view of Aegean art as an ancient art by focusing on artefacts in their relation to action, praxis, and performance. The intention of the author is “to mobilise the rich material of the Aegean to create an approach that carries wider weight” (p. 30), an attempt that results in thought-provoking insights into ‘material processes’ of Aegean art from anthropological and art-theoretical perspectives. In short, this is a book for readers interested in anthropological theory and its application to Aegean art.

In Chapter 1, entitled “Theorising ‘Meaning in the Making’”, the author defines his goal. After demonstrating his approach of ‘scaffolding’ Aegean artistic objects, he sketches three selected thought-provoking models of explaining creativity of art: ‘biological monism’, ‘sociocultural non-dualism’, and ‘cognitive non-dualism’. The succeeding five chapters are devoted to different ‘praxeologies’. Each chapter is bipartite and consists of developing suitable art-historical categories followed by the presentation of Aegean examples in chronological order. Chapter 2 deals with different aspects of modelling of three-dimensional artistic objects such as figurines, architectural models, miniature vessels, votive limbs, and other small-scale substitutional artefacts. After a theoretical introduction, in which, amongst other issues, the difference between retrojective ‘models of’ and projective ‘models for’ is highlighted, a survey of Aegean examples of modelling reveals a large variety of substitutional forms, functions, and meanings. The subject of imprinting in Chapter 3 is associated with Aegean seals and, because of their small format, was connected with phenomena of miniature art and the reproduction of imagery at reduced scale. As the author points out, immediacy was attained by the intimate association of Aegean seals and signet-rings with the human body and the tactility of their impressions. In Chapter 4, variants of combining are discussed: the juxtaposition of different elements and materials, hybrid creatures in seal images, and the phenomenon of skeuomorphism, i.e. the cross-craft interaction of material and form, mainly by imitation in another material. Chapter 5 deals with phenomena of containing by analysing ‘strategies of containment’ in Aegean burial forms, storage vessels and rhyta, as well as different house forms and resident-visitor dynamics under such aspects as material and content, accessibility, and controlling flow and movement. Chapter 6 on fragmenting is dedicated to the vulnerability of objects, i.e. the creative potential of a fragment, such as a deliberate destruction, fragmentation or iconoclasm. With regard to the Aegean, phenomena of ritual breakage or smashing of offerings, mainly figurines and vessels, and the taking away of fragments as tokens of participation are discussed. The final chapter deals with the mobility of creativity in aesthetic production, the dynamics of temporal mutability between process and product, and related subjects. The book ends with endnotes, a bibliography, and an index.

This volume deals with Aegean art from a remarkable and stimulating concept. The author combines material culture and cultural anthropology by applying methodologies taken from a reformed art history of the early 21st century to Aegean art. By this approach he touches upon a multitude of theoretical, phenomenological layers of perception, resulting in an astonishing variety of aspects of Minoan art that can be included or associated with the selected five main subjects. The author does not analyse Aegean art, but instead has merely selected aspects of art, giving more weight to his methods of analysis than to Aegean art itself. Although readers adhering to a different methodological background might be tempted to talk of very general, less specific, almost universal, and possibly even superficial aspects, one can equally view them as deeper dimensions. For example, at first sight, one may doubt whether the observation that in Inuit societies miniatures were seen not as images, but as the actual origin of real objects, brings us closer to an adequate understanding of Aegean figurines and terracotta models. However, by this example of relationality and the reversed interaction of microcosm and macrocosm, the author points to a particular view on the macrocosm and a centralised world-consciousness by the palace of Knossos (pp. 64–65).

Although the book is useful for readers interested in art (and art theory) in general but also for Aegean archaeologists, when seen in its entirety, it is unclear to whom it is addressed. When, for example, the author emphasizes that Minoan peak sanctuaries were cult sites and “certainly not settlements or sites of any other function” (p. 47), it is obvious that the text is not written for Aegean archaeologists; but, at the same time, the author presents detailed information on Minoan figurines and their find-places that is hardly of interest for art historians. In the ‘Aegean parts’ of the chapters, the author addresses many questions for whom his theoretical considerations are of no relevance. This results in a combination of abstract theory and a ‘traditional’ archaeological presentation, whereas the part ‘in between’ is neglected. Thus, the book combines two very different fields which, at least occasionally, do not really relate to each other.

The methodological “detour through some important theoretical terrain” (p. 28) in each chapter is sometimes more extensive than the occupation with the Aegean examples themselves. Of course, this can be useful for both art historians and Aegean archaeologists, but the latter may gain the impression that the author tries to develop a kind of hyper-abstract formula for explaining Aegean art when he speaks of “a single defining ontology” (p. 201). Although the main subject of this book is methodology, it must be highlighted that the author neglects the vivid development of methods applied to Aegean art in the past and only rarely enters current discussions of Aegean iconography.[1] When, for example, Alois Riegl is mentioned in the text (pp. 4, 111), this is not in connection with his seminal article on the Minoan golden relief cups from Vapheio (Riegl 2000). This singular focus on the most modern methodologies might disturb even art historians. Nonetheless, despite the fact that readers who are unfamiliar with, or uninterested in, approaches of ‘material processes’ could be disappointed by this book, the observations by the author open fresh perspectives on Aegean art. The focus on unexpected questions and new methods makes this book a courageous, challenging essay.

A vivid rivalry of different methodological approaches is highly welcome and, in the end our understanding of Aegean art only can profit by that. When seen from a more traditional point of view, it is obvious that, by the concept chosen by the author, several important aspects of Aegean Bronze Age art remain disregarded. Although one could argue that Mycenaeans did not possess any marked artistic inventiveness, it is regrettable that arts from the palatial Mycenaean mainland are almost totally missing in this book. Additionally, what is glaringly neglected in this study on Aegean art are aspects of iconography, multi-figural scenes with their highly versatile forms and meanings. In this book, by the term ‘art’ the author mostly means artefacts, not images and their ‘artistic language’. From this unusual focus evolves a strongly restricted view of Aegean art by excluding what Minoan and Mycenaean arts are famous for and most demanding for Aegean archaeologists. Hybrid creatures form the only exception, discussed in the chapter on combining, a rather atypical group of pictorial motifs in the Aegean. Thus, one could raise the criticism that this book presents a thematic selection limited only to the outer hull of what can be defined as ‘art’ in the Aegean Bronze Age.

It is notable that, with his concept of ‘creativity’, the author adheres to the model of an individual ‘creative artist’ in Bronze Age Crete. Additionally, when he proposes an explanation of the abundance of mural paintings at Neopalatial Knossos and Akrotiri by “a lot more visitors in a time of increased interregional trade” (p. 163), this reflects a somewhat naive understanding of visitors of ‘art’, reminding us of modern tourists visiting a museum. One may doubt whether categories such as ‘a fine work of art’, ‘a masterpiece’, “Minoan seals of exquisite beauty” (p. 187), and the hazardous term ‘freedom’, traditionally associated with modern art(ists) and frequently used in this study, really were relevant for the Aegean Bronze Age. Would it not be more suitable to talk, especially during the Neopalatial period, of the creation of original artistic concepts, iconographical conventions, and pictorial formulae by palatial artists that were more or less standardised, disseminated, imitated, creatively handled, simplified, misunderstood, or deliberately altered? Aegean iconography presents a plethora of examples for these mechanisms.

Given the complex development of Minoan art throughout Middle Minoan IIB–Late Minoan IB, it is a great simplification to talk of “the apparent primacy of seals in the development of figurative imagery” (p. 97), a rigid, one-sided view to which probably nobody studying Aegean iconography will subscribe. Although, the author draws attention to the basic difference between two- and three-dimensional art in his theoretical considerations, confusion is caused by his undifferentiated use of the term ‘wall painting’ for both contrasting media: Minoan mural painting on the flat wall and stucco relief images (pp. 6, 95–97, 124); the latter essentially share many artistic features with minor relief art, including seals. Additionally, it would be interesting to know the consequences drawn by the author from his very stimulating observations, worked out in several of his praxeologies, on the role of Knossos in the production of art during the Neopalatial period but, unfortunately, this is outside the scope of this book.

In contrast to other studies on Aegean art with a focus on theory, the author is well aware of chronological and other archaeological problems, although simplification and generalisation are inherent to this methodology. It is wholesome that the author filters the material and the archaeological evidence for his phenomena in a very critical way, for example, by pointing to our insecurities of defining ritual breaking when he concludes: “to suggest that fragmentation was a significant semiotic strategy in the Bronze Age Aegean is to overstate the case” (p. 185). A few mistakes deserve correction: the depiction of Bes/Beset on a seal-stone from Petras is spectacular, but definitely not “the only Aegean example known so far” (p. 106). In the mid-fifteenth century, the site of Akrotiri on Thera was not ‘Mycenaeanized’ (p. 188), but remained a deserted area below volcanic material. Additionally, it is problematic to speak of “the quasi-total absence” of the sphragistic use of seals on the Mycenaean mainland (pp. 91, 193) (see Panagiotopoulos 2014).

It is a difficult task to write an introduction to Aegean art that contrasts the character of a handbook, such as the volumes by S. Hood (1978), P. Betancourt (2007), and J.-C. Poursat (2008, 2014), that present the material and its artistic milieu, and this is also not the intention by the author of the present book. Instead, this volume has the great merit of looking at Aegean art from several new perspectives and of focusing on distinct qualities of the arts mainly from Minoan Crete. Readers who are interested in Aegean (including Mycenaean) art and iconography, but less familiar with issues such as “the aesthetic dimensions of technical action” (p. 194), probably will be disappointed by this volume, lacking as it does any closer look at Minoan landscape-painting and bull-leaping scenes and avoiding any mention of the monumental stone relief at the Lion Gate of Mycenae. Nonetheless, the author presents a theory-based and sometimes theory-centred, but always thought-provoking analysis of Aegean art.

Bibliography

Betancourt, P.P. 2007. Introduction to Aegean Art. Philadelphia.
Hood, S. 1978. The Arts in Prehistoric Greece. Harmondsworth.
Panagiotopoulos, D. 2014. Mykenische Siegelpraxis, Athenaia 5. Munich.
—. 2020. “The ‘Death of the Painter’. Towards a Radical Archaeology of (Minoan) Images,” In F. Blakolmer (ed.), Current Approaches and New Perspectives in Aegean Iconography, Aegis 18. Louvain-la-Neuve, 385–406.
Poursat, J.-C. 2008. L’art égéen 1. Grèce, Cyclades, Crète jusqu’au milieu du IIe millénaire av. J.-C., Paris.
—. 2014. L’art égéen 2. Mycènes et le monde mycénien. Paris.
Riegl, A. 2000. “The place of the Vapheio cups in the history of art (1900),” In Ch.S. Wood (ed.), The Vienna School reader: politics and art historical method in the 1930s. New York, 105–127.

Notes

[1] For a short history of the methodologies of analysing Aegean iconography, see Panagiotopoulos 2020.