Archaic forms inspired array of modern masters

In their quest for pictorial inventiveness, modern artists at the beginning of the 20th century looked at non-Western, tribal art or the art of prehistoric civilizations for a way out of naturalism and the classical aesthetic that had prevailed in Western art for centuries. Art from Africa and Oceania became extremely popular and the most innovative artists of the time, such as Picasso, Derain, Vlaminck or the German expressionists, all borrowed formal elements from the so-called «primitive» cultures in their work. However, the so-called phenomenon of «primitivism» in modern art did not just include tribal art. It extended to prehistoric and Archaic art such as Egyptian, ancient Cycladic or pre-Colombian art and the art of ancient Anatolia. Stripping the art of those civilizations from its historical context, modern artists found in the art of the distant past a common symbolic meaning: The schematized and abstract forms of antiquity expressed the formal purity that they so longed to capture in their own work. The recurrence of similar shapes amid different civilizations was proof of the immutability and universality of all great art. Modern art was seen as part of this continuum. Like the art of the past, it claimed to be archetypal, universal and pure. «The Shape of the Beginning,» an exhibition currently on display at the Museum of Cycladic Art to celebrate the museum’s 20th anniversary, shows this complicated relationship that modern artists had with the art of the past. Contrary to most exhibitions on «primitivism» in modern art, it leaves out the influence of tribal art (African art is the usual protagonist) and focuses exclusively on the ways in which modern artists were inspired by the art originating from the ancient Mediterranean cultures (from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Anatolia as well as ancient Cycladic, Minoan and Cypriot art). Curated by Friedrich Teja Bach, a professor at the University of Vienna, in collaboration with Maria Toli, an archaeologist at the Museum of Cycladic Art, the exhibition juxtaposes ancient artifacts with works by some of the greatest masters of modern art – including Rodin, Derain, Matisse, Brancusi, Giacometti and Picasso as well as Alexander Archipenko, Hans Coper and Richard Armitage and the contemporary architect Santiago Calatrava – to indicate affinities both in terms of form and content. The exhibits have been gathered from 29 museums around the world. The exhibition is arranged thematically. It shows how motifs like the spiral, the grid, the labyrinth or the bull appear in ancient and modern art alike and examines how formal qualities such as flatness, schematization or the interest in materials bring modern and ancient art together. In some cases, the similarities are impressive. The bird-like shape of a ceramic vase by Picasso is, for example, very similar to a vase originating from Skyros and dated from the early Geometric period (10th century BC). The tectonic form of Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture called «Skull» resembles a bust of a king dated fom the early Ptolemaic period. An oblong sculpture from ancient Egypt (end of the 15th century) has the same emphasis on mass and solidity as Andre Derain’s sculpture of a «Seated Man» from 1907. In both cases, the sculpture seems to be part of the stone, not carved out of it. There are also elegant sculptures by Brancusi (his «Bird,» carved out of gray marble, is one of the exhibition’s highlights), whose sparity and schematization instantly bring to mind the marble Cycladic figurines. In the eyes of modern artists the spare, archetypal forms of Archaic art were the opposite of the allegorical, narrative art that was modeled after Classical and Renaissance art. They were shapes considered to be closer to the spiritual; an expression of the collective unconscious that was stifled by centuries of academic art. For the surrealists, Archaic art expressed a liberation from the rules of logic and a return to the world of myth and the origins of mankind. For artists that were simply interested in the properties of art itself (shape, surface, mass), it provided a new lexicon of visual properties. In the early 1930s the periodical Cahiers d’Art, published by Christian Zervos, dedicated an entire issue on prehistoric and Archaic Greek art. By then, the enthusiasm with African art had waned, but the appeal for the «primitive,» primeval and instinctual element that had initially led artists to look at tribal art lived on. The interest in Archaic and prehistoric art is a cultural projection of the early 20th century on the past. As such, it tells more of modern artists’ perception of ancient art than of the historic accuracy surrounding Archaic art itself. Modern artists’ perceptions were often marked by fallacies. Although «The Shape of the Beginning» focuses on the similarities between modern and Archaic art it also shows that the interest in Archaic art was based on a myth. The painted red and blue facial features on the cast of a Cycladic figurine in the exhibition overturns our notion of the white, spare surfaces of prehistoric, Cycladic sculpture. Had those painted features survived to today, modern artists might not have taken the same interest in Archaic sculpture. Our understanding of art and the history of art is filtered through our cultural constructs. The exhibition at the Museum of Cycladic Art suggests that we look at the affinities between modern and ancient art under this provision. It therefore raises interesting questions of meaning and interpretation while also offering a visually rich and diverse display of unique objects and works of art. «The Shape of the Beginning» at the Museum of Cycladic Art (4 Neofytou Douka, 210.722.8321) through September 16. Sponsored by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

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