Dirección: Jennifer Y. Chi & Pedro Azara, con Marc Marín
Coordinación: Jennifer Babcock
Conservadora: Angela Nacol
Montaje: Misha Leiner (CoDe) , con Pedro Azara y Marc Marín
Filmaciones: Marcel Borràs
Música: Joan Borrell
Catálogo editado por la Princeton University Press, 2015
Fotos: Tocho, ISAW, Nueva York, 9 de febrero de 2015
Se puede consultar la página web de la exposición desde hoy
TEXTOS ORIGINALES DE LA EXPOSICIÓN
Nota: Los textos definitivos son más breves
“An artist whose eye had been educated by the Egyptian, the Sumerian and the Cycladic” (David Sylvester on Alberto Giacometti, 1966)
"For me, Sumerian sculpture ranks with Early Greek, Etruscan, Ancient Mexican, Fourth and Twelfth Dynasty Egyptian and Romanesque and early Gothic sculpture, as the great sculpture of the world. It shows a richness of feeling for life and its wonder and mystery, welded to direct plastic statement born of real creative urge.... [I]ts greatest achievement is found in the free-standing pieces ... and these have tremendous power and yet sensitiveness.... See the alabaster figure of a woman which is in the British Museum ... with her tiny hands clasped in front of her. It is as though the head and the hands were the two equal focal points of the figure--one cannot look at the head without being conscious also of the held hands. But in almost all Sumerian works the hands have a sensitiveness and significance; even in the very earliest terracotta figures, where each hand seems no more than four scratches, there is a wealth of meaning there." (Henry Moore, “Mesopotamian Art”, The Listener, 1935)
"From 3378 BC (date man´s 1st city, name and face of creator also known) in unbroken series first at Uruk, then from the seaport Lagash out into colonies in the Indus Valley and, circa 2500, the Nile, until date 1200 BC or thereabouts, civilization has ONE CENTER, Sumer, in all directions, that this one people held such exact and superior force that all peoples around them were sustained by it, nourished, increased, advanced, that a city was a coherence which, for the first time since the ice, gave man the chance to join knowledge to culture and, with this weapon, shape dignities of economics and value sufficient to make daily life itself a dignity and a sufficiency."
(Charles Olson, "The Gate and the Center", Human Universe)
(Charles Olson, "The Gate and the Center", Human Universe)
“The eye, in […] Sumerian fixes (jesus, in these glyphs, how, or stones, how, with any kind of device, the eye takes up life (contra Greek, Rome, even, Byzantine)” (Charles Olson, Selected Writings).
1. From Ancient to Modern
eOverview of material in Gallery One explaining the selection of material
If the accepted history of western art, since the Renaissance, is the story of an approach to mimic natural beings and to dilute the borders between illusion and reality, like in the Greco-Roman times (as it was thought), the arts of image, since the end of the 19th century, have turned their back to this ideal. Instead, art should recover its overwhelming power to influence the world without being a replica of it, it should have its own world, like in “primitive” or “archaic” times. The discovery and the exhibition of the so-called primitive artifacts (or arts), due to the western colonial powers in Africa, Asia and Oceania, and a new gaze on “pre-classical” arts in Europe (on Iberian art, for instance), by artists such as Braque and Picasso, helped them to find ways of studying the vital structure and shapes of the world without reproducing their appearance, giving way to such artistic movements as cubism.
New visions of the inner and outer worlds, translated in new shapes and compositions enter the world of art at the end of the 20´s. It was the time of the first important western archaeological missions in the Near East, when it became part of colonial powers after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire that, since the 16th century was dominating areas that are now part of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel, and belonged once to Mesopotamia. Sumerian anthropomorphic figurines, statues and reliefs were considered the first manifestation of an artistic way to look at the world, and to express it in simple and “truthful” shapes. Exhibited in museums, they fascinated European surrealistic writers and sculptors before the Second World War, such as George Bataille, Alberto Giacometti, Henri Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and North-American painters, sculptors and poets in the 50´s such as Willem de Kooning, David Smith and Charles Olson. These painters, sculptors and poets saw in the Sumerian art and poetry the translation, in a powerful way – as in the gaze of the statues-, of primitive, original and lost energies and values. A new path for the history of art was being opened.
Since the fifties, Sumerian art has not lost its fascination. The loss and destruction of Mesopotamian art and architecture, during the last and still existing civil wars and invasions in the Near East, has poignantly alerted Iraqi artists like Jananne al-Ani and Michael Rakowitz, about the erasure of human memory and the hideous face of cupidity that does not stop until it takes power of lands, and their inhabitants, their richness, and their memories. Sumerian art can be a mirror in which we may not want to see our reflected face.
1 bis. Henry Moore and Alberto Giacometti
Artists who began their carrier still connected to classical lessons knew that they had sometimes to return to the artistic roots. If art was and still is an interpretation of what is happening inside or outside us, art had to look at previous answers or clues brought by the art of the past in order to find a way to look at the present. Greco-Roman art was too infused with values related to an academic –a limited, biased and domesticated- vision of the art and the world, but art from earlier times could offer an unconditioned and honest view of our world and our thoughts and feelings. Among these original or primeval works of art, Sumerian sculptures, that were beginning to be displayed in museums at the end of the 20´s, were outstanding and still partially unknown examples-so unexploited and full of intriguing solutions to the mysteries and problems of human existence-.
Both artists the Swiss Alberto Giacometti and the British Henry Moore, who belonged to the second wave of avant-garde artists, began their artistic carrier in the 20´s. For them, the discovery of Sumerian sculptures was a revelation. They felt that something essential to the understanding of human life was hidden and offered in them. After breaking with academic teachings, Moore found in the Sumerian sculpture the simplicity and expression of life “with no decorative trimmings (which are the sign of decadence, of flagging inspiration” –as he wrote in 1935 on his commentary of Christian Zervos´s book L´art de la mésopotamie (one of the first publication by an art historian on Sumerian “art” judged as art)-. He was fascinated too by the relation he discovered in Sumerian statues between the head and the clasped hands, even these were small, because he found “a wealth of meaning there”. Austere heads and clasped hands were a sign of true humanity.
Sumerian bold heads, as in the statues of Gudea, the neo-Sumerian king of Lagash, shown at the Louvre Museum in Paris, were also what call the attention of Alberto Giacometti. Giacometti was only interested in reflecting human condition. For him, human beings were walking shadows, always passing by. They had no features, no faces and no bodies that could be grasped. But there was a time when human beings were seen as earthly, solid and well shaped beings. Their heads, the most important part of a human body, were not like two dimensional elongated shapes, like in modern men and women, but they were three dimensional, perfectly modelled elements. They had no troubled limits, as if they were shaking or if they were shattered by destiny, but they stand noble, alone and assured. They were an indication that human beings were related to the visible and invisible worlds, that they were not overwhelmed by them. A fierce human condition was embodied in the Sumerian heads, and these were studied again and again, as Egyptian sculptures too, by Giacometti, maybe as an expression of what had since happened to the dismantled and thinned human beings.
2. De Kooning and Sumerian Art
Willem de Kooning was a Dutch artist, born in the early 20th century, who emigrated to the United States of America long before the Second World War. His art, nevertheless, exploded in the late forties. All of a sudden, ferocious male and menacing women invaded his paintings. The female representations he began were not new. Picasso, in his surrealistic period, in the 20´s and 30´s, had already painted images occupying the whole surface of the paintings of vagina dentata women waiting for their male victims. They inspired de Kooning. But he was also fascinated by ancient female iconography, from Paleolithic until ancient times. Between 1950 and 1953, de Kooning brushed six large seminal female paintings (and complementary series of colour drawings and engrabvings), Woman I to Woman VI, plus a few more Women images not just standing frontally but shown in action or motion. These paintings are considered to open the doors to Abstract Expressionism. Abstract they are not: but recognisable grotesque female images are submerged in a rain of short intense brushes, as if defining and destroying the bodies. These emerged with difficulty from the continuous strokes, charged with pigments, de Kooning used to attack the surface with the same fury as the aggressiveness the painted female beings expressed.
As de Kooning once said: “The Women had to do with the female painted through the ages”. Among those ancient Venuses images, de Kooning was apparently attracted by two Sumerian worshipper statues shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. At first, the violent brushes may seem to have no real connection with the smooth surfaces of Sumerian sculptures. But then, the large eyes, the fixed gaze, and those small arms with clasped hands under the breasts, that appeared under the violence of the painted, cannot but evoke similar features in Sumerian statues, even the meaning, inevitably, is different. Sumerian human figures were not aggressive but humble in front of blinding divinities.
3. Jananne al-Ani
An Iraqi-Irish artist, living in London, whose works deals partly with the biased image westerners have of near eastern human geography, Jananne al-Ani thinks also about the loss of memories. A loss that it is not caused by time or the natural material condition of us and our creations –as it happens with ancient items and structures that the archaeologist looks for and exposes under the light of the sun and the light of modernity- but by intentional destruction: a destruction pursued to erase memories. Shadow Sites II –one of the best recent video art in the world- is a video installation that shows that desert –an icon of near eastern spaces, dreamed and feared at the same time by the westerner traveller- is not a desert. Subtle layers of past and present remains –archaeological structures, agricultural interventions, military camps, roads and landing areas- reveal that deserts have been and are populated and are, so, a place where traces of human beings are registered, a place of memories. Untitled May 1991 [Gulf War Work] is a collection of black and white photographs, images related to memories of the artists and of people living in Iraq, that show what was important to feel the attachment to a land, and what is being lost and destroy by the incessant series of wars that are plaguing the Near East since the 80´s. Among those family photographic portraits that traces ties and losses –a picture acquires importance when the portrayed disappears for ever-, Sumerian artifacts, that may look far away from us, but are or were familiar to people who feel that these are the roots of their culture, which give meaning to it, and which destruction, that is affecting the Middle East for thirty five years now, can be equated with the destruction of families and memories.
4. Michael Rakowitz
Michael Rakowitz Jewish parents are from Iraq from where they had to exile in the sixties. And Iraq and its conflictual perception in western countries is a main theme or concern for Rakowitz art. The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (Recovered, Missing, Stolen) shows life size reproductions made of cheap cardboard of Mesopotamian artifacts (sculptures, and Sumerian ones, mostly) displayed on a sinuous table that evokes a path. This allusion is not gratuitous. The title of the installation is a translation of the name of the Babylonian processional way. In ancient times, it lead to the temples; in Rakowitz installation it drives us to nowhere, to the destruction and loss of part of the collection of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, badly protected from pillage by North-American troops during the Second Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The reproductions shows some of the temporary or definitively missing masterpieces. Made with every day Iraqi products boxes, that can be bought in markets and shops in Baghdad, used as papier maché, they symbolise the disposable condition of these manufactured items, thrown away after being used, as well as of Sumerian artifacts badly treated like trash –because of cupidity and ignorance- by robbers and invaders: they symbolise the loss and lack of knowledge of the past, and the recognition and acceptance of the “other”, that affects our modern culture based on oblivion.
Rakowitz is an enduring Beatle fan; but he does not accept to “let it be”.
5. Ur and Sir Leonard Woolley
Ur is a place and is a mythical place where dreams, fears and hope were located. Contrary to other Sumerian cities, like Eridu, for instance, the city of Ur never disappeared from the western imaginary of the East, and had been present in dreams, before its full “discovery” by archaeologists –a relative discovery as it was known by local tribes, and it had already been described by eastern and western travellers before the 20th century-. The reason was simple: Ur was Abraham city, as he Bible said. It was called Ur of Chaldees. In spite of Abraham being a mythical figure, the biblical connection was the reason for looking for and exploring this ruined and abandoned since the end of antiquity city –there were other more real, mundane, human reasons: Ur was on the way to the British Indian colony.
The first exploration and exploitation began in the middle of 19th century. On behalf of the British Museum, John Taylor, vice-consul in Basra, collected first bits and beads. The full exploration of the site, against thanks to the British museum, did not begin until 1919, when the Arabic part of the Ottoman Empire became a British Colony, in spite of British promises given to Arab tribes for an independent kingdom if they fought successfully the Ottoman troops which they did during the First World War that ended in 1918. The University of Pennsylvania, jointly with the British Museum, entered the archaeological mission in 1922, under the direction of an independent British archaeologist Charles Leonard Woolley who was trained by Arthur Evans, of Mycenian, Trojan and the Minoan palace fame, and excavated with T.H. Lawrence –Lawrence of Arabia- at Karkemish before going to Ur. The mission lasted until 1934, when the last campaigns switched to the greater control of the Oxford trained Katherine Menke, who married Charles Leonard in 1927. At first, before been married, and in spite of the scandal that apparently might have caused the presence of an unmarried woman (a widow, in fact, “who was not looking for a husband”, wrote Woolley) working in an all-male team of archaeologists in the middle of the desert –as the director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum wrote to Leonard Woolley, afraid of a puritan reaction from the wealthy donors who were funding the mission-, Katherine Menke helped for free Leonard Woolley with the drawings of the finds, acted as a guide to the visit of rich North-American travellers to such an extended and hardly understandable site, cleaned the mission house and “kept them [such a band of young archaeologists] up to standard”, as Leonard Woolley wrote in a letter, whatever this sentence meant. After the wedding, Katherine Woolley received a higher salary than Max Mallowan which did not pleased at all Agatha Christie-, and was the main responsible for the fanciful reconstruction of Queen Puabi´s accoutrement.
New campaigns should begin nowadays but the political situation is still unstable. Military aerial bases around the site offer protection though, even if the vibration caused by military jets endanger the decaying mud structures. The work undertaken was stunning. About four hundred workers, and a team of archaeologist and epigraphic scholars, were able, digging ten of meters at high speed, to put under light and to interpret, sometime wrongly, most of the time accurately, the different levels of the successive cities of Ur since the fourth millennium. His aide was Max Mallowan, a young archaeologist to whom the older Agatha Christie, who visited the Ur site, married. Christie described the life at the mission and Katherine personality in the known Murder in Mesopotamia crime novel published in 1936. The Ur mission entered the imaginary of the past thanks to a most unusual Mesopotamian find. An extremely large cemetery of more than one thousand and six hundred tombs, from different periods, with sixteen underground tombs lavishly enriched with golden funerary offering, that Woolley immediately described and promoted, rivalling with the previous Carter discovery of the Tutankhamen tomb in Egypt, as the Royal Tombs of Ur, unearthed in 1927-1928. Some of the outstanding tombs had architectural features like vaulted structures build of cooked bricks. But, apart from their richness, what grasped most the minds of the scholars and readers were the unexpected numerous bodies of sacrificed men and women, either previously drugged or slain, in the tombs or just in front of them. The gory description of the finds were related by the press to the cruelty of Sumerian that led Abraham to leave Ur! The finds were partaken between London and Philadelphia, and Baghdad, thanks to Gertrude Bell, an English woman in favour of the Iraqi people who founded the Baghdad Museum to hold the Ur finds. As Iraq was a colony, and rules were established by colonists against “native”, the divisions of finds (half for Baghdad, half for Philadelphia and London), mostly in bad conditions, were not always just or justified.
6. Puabi: The Archaeology
Who was Puabi? Puabi was an ereš. This means she was a queen. But she might be a priestess, or even a “noble” lady. The Sumerian sign indicating her position has different meanings. If she was a queen, she might have been the leader of Ur, at the beginning of the Third Millennium, and not just the King´s wife. Her name, written in cuneiform signs, was first read Shu-ab, but now a better transliteration says, in Akkadian, Pu-abi or Pu-abum, which means Word or Mouth of the Father (Ab, like in any other language, like English Father or Papa, means Father); no mention to any relevant husband in order to qualify Pu-abi. She was a short middle aged lady of about forty years old. Her unviolated and too large tomb (4,35 x 2,8 meters), that Woolley numbered as PG 800, was containing rich funerary offerings, not only gold and semi-precious jewels, worn by the deceased –among them a complicated headdress and a heavy cape of beads that could not have been used during her life, due to its weight-, but also musical instruments like a lyre, ornamented with a bull head –a symbol of the underworld gods-, and three more persons, described as assistants, and was preceded by a ramp covered with chariots, oxen and the skeletons of fifty two “assistants”, poisoned or violently killed on the spot or in another place, whose bodies, laying in foetal position on one side, were partially protected against decay for the length of the funerary rituals –climate was and still is hot and very humid, and soil is mud-. Nowadays no-one really knows where Queen Puabi´s tomb was located.
7. Puabi: The Myth
In spite of the denigrating judgement Léon Legrain -the epigraphist at the Ur mission who worked on the restitution of Queen Puabi´s ornaments-, gave on Katherine Woolley reconstruction of Queen Puabi´s fragmented and squashed skull, her work was most difficult to undertake and was remarkable. She was able to model a head based not only on the cranium but on features from different “native” women. She gave the Queen large eyes, which could have been inspired by the opened eyes of the Sumerian worshippers, and the taste of the time: the pictured fashioned ladies had eyes like prunes with an intense darkened gaze.
Most of the jewels Queen Puabi was wearing were found in pitiful condition as her body. Strings had vanished and semi-precious beads laid scattered all around. The colourful patterns of a few necklaces and bracelets could be sensed, but in most cases what was found was a mess of multiples beads. It was almost impossible to decide how they had been linked together. Katherine Woolley began to undertake hypothetical reconstructions of headdresses, diadems, bracelets, necklaces, brims, belts and bands, among others. This first and urgent restauration –not only of Queen Puabi´s accoutrement, but of a whole bunch of jewels belonging to attendants killed and buried in the so called Royal Tombs of Ur-, done at the mission house, allowed the jewels to be taken out of Iraq without mixing them. The reconstruction or restitution was then continued by a female team at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and by Legrain himself. Meanwhile, James Richard Ogden, a known British jeweller that contributed financially to the mission, recomposed the jewels that remained at British Museum.
How Katherine Woolley and James Richard Woolley were able to order the scanted beads in an harmonious way? How they were able to get the intuition about the type of jewel beads belonged to? A beautiful and convincing diadem, restored in the late 20´s, was certainly not a diadem. The beads and ornaments belonged in fact to three necklaces or bands. If Katherine Woolley had a diadem or tiara in mind maybe it was due to the fact that tiaras became fashionable in the art deco world. Archaeological finds since the discovery of Troy, Mycenae and the Tutankhamen tomb were full of brims, diadems and elaborated tiaras. And these had an impact in the design of jewels in the 20´s and 30´s. Queen Puabi would have worn a tiara as wealthy ladies –following what ancient queens were supposed to wear- were buying tiaras as the one designed by Paul Poiret, the well-known French tailor who launched the haute-couture fashion.
What the written press emphasized was that the jewels from the Royal Tombs of Ur could have been worn by ladies from the 20´s. This was not a surprise. On one side, the reconstruction or interpretation of the dismantled beads might have been influenced by images of art-deco tiaras, and at the same time, Queen Puabi´s brims and diadems could have an effect on the design of modern jewellery. We might never know what inspired Adrian Adolph Greenburg (known as Adrian) the design of the elaborated diadem that Greta Garbo wore on the 1934 Mata Hari film. But she looked like Queen Puabi with all her regalia, which could not be a surprise: after all Garbo was playing a seductive spy, and oriental young women, in the Orientalist dream, were the embodiment of fatal seduction.
8. Puabi: The Press
Although archaeologists have published their discoveries more or less regularly since the mid-19th century, it was not until the first part of the 20th century that archaeological finds were announced, not only in academic journals and foot-note plagued publications for specialists, but in the press and then broadcast by the radio. The spreading of photography in the press, and the fact that Leonard Woolley took care to take or order pictures of the excavation steps and finds, which was not usual in the archaeological world, let publications like the London Illustrated News to promote a definitive and attractive image of the Ur mission and discoveries. The London Illustrated News was a respectable magazine, where known and good writers published, and where large photographs were given much importance. Archaeology was a main field for this magazine. Even if Ur was not the only Mesopotamian site which received graphic attention, a sort of photographic memory of the work at Ur was established. But there were other massive publications. By the 20´s, popular news on archaeology forgot about stratigraphy to deeply descend into the more attractive world of gossip. Howard Carter used the press for his benefit to promote his Egyptian discoveries, launching or increasing Egyptomania. Leonard Woolley did the same immediately after the first discoveries in Ur. He spent time writing texts that were sent to the press. The most forgotten now newspapers from dusty small North-American towns published, sometime in a column, sometimes in more than one page, Woolley texts astutely written to attract the most general reader. The words were simple; the titles, flashy. He discussed with the University of Pennsylvania and the British Museum when, where and how to even announce future spectacular findings he was feeling would happen. Thanks to the press and the radio –Woolley wrote and read quite a few texts on his finds for the BBC-, he was able to raise the public interest because he dealt with four main issues. These allowed the papers to put saucy titles spectacularly written in front or centrefold pages of newspapers and magazines: one of the main topic was the most savage or gory aspects of human sacrifices for the Queen Puabi and other royals or nobles funerary rituals in Ur; following Woolley, the press insisted on the lavishness of the finds equal to the most golden Egyptian funerary treasures; the modern appeal of some of the objects that could have been worn by modern women and that could appeal to modern taste was also outlined. But Woolley knew that what readers would appreciate most was the fact that Ur was the city of the mythical patriarch Abraham as described in the Bible. The relationship between the Bible –known or read substantially in the States and in Britain- and what was called then the Bible Lands (Mesopotamia, Iran and the Levant) was crucial for the first archaeological missions. The Bible was the guide, and archaeologists were looking for the cursed Mesopotamian cities and kingdoms since the 19th century. We may never know whether Woolley believed in what the Bible says, or whether we was just using biblical information to awaken the general public attention, but head news in the press even explained the well-known Abraham migration from Ur to the north of Mesopotamia and to Egypt as an horrified reaction of escape in front of the bloody human sacrifices in honour of Queen Puabi that would have been carried on in the centre of the city of Ur. It was suggested that the history of western civilisation was conditioned by Queen Puabi´s last days.
9. The Diyala valley: Tell Asmar, Tell Agrab, Ischali and Khafaje
By chance, certainly, the finds of each North-American and/or British archaeological missions in Iraq before the Second World War have their own characteristics. If Ur has delivered the most known Sumerian jewellery, and Kish a stunning collection of pottery covering millennia, the Diyala valley is known for its sculpture –the aesthetically and technically most satisfying for a modern eye, and best preserved- and its unique religious architecture and urban structures. Even if the oval temple at Khafaje has been considered a paradigm of Sumerian sacred architecture, very few with the same oval plan typology –encircling rectangular volumes- have been located in other locations.
Diyala is the name of a river, northeast of Baghdad, crossing Iraq and ending into the Tigris. Four main archaeological sites have been excavated: Tell Agrab, Tell Asmar, Ishchali and Khafaje. The missions, planned by the Chicago Oriental Institute, began in 1930 and lasted until 1937, followed by short interventions by the Oriental Institute and the University of Pennsylvania. The area was far away from the known Sumerian sites in or near the southern marshes of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers (Ur, Uruk, Tello, Eridu, etc.), but a sudden flow of antiques in the souks of Baghdad, considered authentic and known to come from sites near Baghdad, showed that the Sumerian culture reached more to the north than expected (much later discoveries, in Syria, such as Ebla, confirmed that stylistic “Sumerian” artifacts were produced outside the marshes where the mythical Eden was supposed to be located). The missions were led by Henri Frankfort a known art historian and archaeologist, specialist also in Ancient Egyptian culture, who wrote the still published best and most used book of Ancient Near Eastern architecture. Known sumerologists such as the poet and epigraphist Thorkild Jacobsen –who showed that Sumerian “poetry” could be appreciated by modern readers, even if sometimes translations are far away of the original texts- participated. Nine books were published in which architecture and sculpture were presented as relevant “arts”. Their number was insufficient. There are still thousand unpublished items.
The Diyala mission is known for the stunning collection of Sumerian sculptures found in Tell Asmar and Khafaja. Our knowledge of Sumerian images is still based on this discovery, which is displayed in the Oriental Institute in Chicago, the UPennMuseum in Philadelphia and in the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad –where the sculptures have not suffered from the devastating looting of the Museum in 2003, and are still shown, even if the museum is closed to the public because it is located in a too dangerous area. A few others statues, sold by the Oriental Institute –the 1929 crash was still waving in the early 30´s-, are in other North-American museums (Worcester Museum, Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, etc.). The sculptures, broken or not were found buried in temples: the Abu Temple at Tell Asmar, and the Nintu Temple al Khafaje. They were and they still are one of the first early Sumerian sculptures ever found. They were soon considered the first sculptures in (western) history of art: the origin of (sculptural) art. The reason was that their massive aspect, their wide eyes, let the historians and the archaeologists to define them as primitive. There were primitive because they were ancient –they were primeval- and because, judged from a naturalistic or mimetic point pf view, they were looked as true representation of primitive native people, or of divinities in a primitive anthropomorphic embodiment. These sculptures had an interest from ethnographic and artistic point of view. Today, the sculptures are considered substitutes of human beings –without being their portraits. They are not “sculptures” –a word that belong to the western art vocabulary that designates human creation with specific functions: to please and make people think, as Kant defined them. They were “idols” or fetishes, items infused with magical powers. Placed in temples, they magically help the donor to be under the constant protective gaze of the divinity –“represented” or figured by a sculpture too. The clasped eyes and wide eyes could symbolised adoration, supplication or respect to the invisible gods made visible through their statue. But, at the same time, these donor substitutes, located in different part of the temples, were also objects to be adored by others donors entering the temple, as they were able to be in contact with the divinity, something out of reach to mortals.
The discovery of such amount of statues that seems, by looking at the way they had been shaped, to belong to different times, and the care applied to their study have established an almost definitive chronology to the history of early Mesopotamia and of Sumerian art, still used today.
10. The so called “Sumerian Problem”
Sumerian: an ethnic group or a language? The question that is being debated since years has profound consequences that reveal our way to look at the world, ancient and modern. The Bible and Herodotus wrote about Babylon and Assyria but did not mentioned (at least in a recognisable way) the Sumerians. When the first cuneiform tablets, found in the north and central Iraq were found, transliterated and translated, it was discovered that the transcribed dead language was a Semitic language – called Assyrian or Babylonian in the 19th century, later Akkadian. Tablets fascinated people. The texts reveal a vision of the world unknown but not too different from the one in the Old Testament -the “bible” or essential book for the exploration of the Ancient Near Eastern sites. But around 1870, some epigraphists decided that tablets unearthed in the south of Iraq –an area lately explored because of the heat and humidity, and because it was thought that no remains would be ever discovered in such barren land- should have been written in a totally different language, using the same cuneiform syllabic and symbolic writing (signs that can be mostly drawings of the designated items or just syllabic sounds). This new language was called, following an Akkadian name for the southern lands, Sumerian.
In the 19th century European vision of culture –a vision that tragically still exists-, there had to be ties between religion, language and ethnicity. Each ethnic group had to have their own language and their own land. So, Sumerian was considered not just a language but also the name of an ethnic group that was speaking Sumerian. As tablets written in Sumerian were unearthed at first in the south of Iraq, it was thought that Mesopotamia, in the fourth and third millennia, when Sumerian disappeared as a spoken language (if it had ever be spoken and not just written), was populated by two different ethnic groups: Sumerian and Akkadian. These were in constant wars. Sumerian were the first, latter conquered and oppressed by the Akkadian empire found by Sargon I established in his new capital, Akkad –a city that has never been found yet, and may rest under some neighbourhoods in Baghdad-. But the so called Third Dynasty of Ur, liberated and united the Sumerian city-states, under their new fall due to the emergence of Babylon at the beginning of the second millennium. This convincing and clear (hi)story was, in fact, a projection of European 19th century nationalistic wars in the Mesopotamian fantastic history. The truth might be far different: maybe akkadians and Sumerian were just an invention. There were tribes, certainly, talking Sumerian, Akkadian and maybe other language, without any notion of a land that belonged to them and their adscription to any ethnic group.
The European 19th vision of Mesopotamian history was distorted even more in the German emperor educated entourage at the beginning of the 20th century. The Nietzschean view on the relation between the feeble and the spiritually strong people had an important impact on the some of the German vision of how the societies should be structured. At first Mesopotamian culture, which means Assyrian, Babylonian and Akkadian, was considered the origin of western culture that arrived to Europe through the Greeks and the Bible. This conception allowed European nations to colonize with no ethical questions large parts of the fading and then failed Ottoman Empire. After all, if European and North-American culture had roots in the Ancient Near East, it was just and justified to conquer it, to return to it, to get what once belonged to western culture: a reencounter between two temporarily divided human groups. But there was a problem. How could the Western superior culture have roots in a Semitic culture and ethnic group? The solution was obvious. Western were not the descendants of Semitics but of people, far different because they did not speak any Semitic language: the Sumerians! This explained the need to explore and to conquer the south of Iraq. This explained the fascination for Sumer, the need of it. And the Bible was right. The Garden of Eden was located in the south, in Sumerian land, not in any Semitic –Jewish- propriety.
11. Henri Frankfort and Sumerian Art
Western art, ancient and modern, was always art: a human creation for the sole pleasures of the senses that at the same time was able to make the connoisseur with good taste think on the ideas or concepts embodied in sensible and good looking shapes. Art was related to nature. It has to duplicate it, because nature, as a divine creation, was beautiful, or it had to beautify it if the opacity of matter was switching off the light infused in natural shapes. All western art theory was based on notions like this. This theory was wrong: artworks were not made for art´s sake before the 19th century, but the idealist art theory established then was applied to any western creation, ancient or modern.
Since mid-19th century, colonialism brought to the most important European art centres (Paris at the head) ancient and modern artifacts from non-western countries that were created based on different criteria. Their function was different too. African and Oceanic sculptures appeared thanks to the World Fairs dedicated to the exhibition of rare “exotic” goods in the hands of western colonial powers. In those days, some artists were trying to break the mimetic criterium, allowing art to relate to the visible world in a manner which would not produce a reflection of it. The exhibition of what considered ethnographic material that was illustrating about the “primitive” mind, had a tremendous impact on artists like Picasso and Braque. Some artists like Gaugin had already left for “exotic” islands, looking for new ways of living and creating. To the Hegelian theory of art, Greek and Roman Art was art; Egyptian, Persian and Babylonian, in spite of being considered imperfect art, incapable of reflection the enlightening power of ideas, belonged to the realm of art. But what was Sumerian art? Did it belong to the history of (western) art, like any other ancient art?
It seems, at first, that Sumerian finds were considered primitive crafts. They belonged to the realm of ethnography. They had no aesthetics qualities. They were not produced to be aesthetically appreciated. They were documents on primitive human beings and primitive behaviours. The discovery of human sacrifices in the so called Royal Tombs of Ur increased this somehow depreciative judgment.
12. Sumerian Art in Context
Works of art are in special spaces: art galleries, exhibition spaces and museums. They are display in a way that they maintain a distant relationship with the people. They stand to be perceived in order to raise sensations, feelings and questions among the meaning they embody. Works of art, except when they have been created for specific locations, have no relation with the space in which they are located. The space is like an empty box, a white cube, a neutral environment without any qualities.
To display an archaeological object in a museum is a way to transform it into a work of art. Protected by a showcase, or standing on a base, it is exists to be looked upon. Be it grouped, o being alone, its appearance, its aesthetics qualities, and the message or content its shape may deliver, are the reason for its existence. It is a being to be seen. It cannot be touched or manipulated. It has no other function apart from been aesthetically appreciated. It is a true image, to stand out of our reach.
But ancient items, such as the Diyala statues, the Ur jewellery or the Kish vases were not created to be looked, at least by human eyes. Statues were shaped for certain spaces: temples, palaces or simple dwellings, and tombs. Most human beings were not allowed to enter the temples –nor palaces-, at least to reach some of the rooms where statues were located. And no one could ever enter a tomb once it was sealed. So the true meaning of the Sumerian images cannot be grasped by looking at them in museums. Statues had a clear religious or magical function. They had a real power. They did not stand passively waiting for a viewer to judge them, as it happens in museums. Statues mediated between mortals and immortals, between visible and invisible beings, between human and divine spaces. They articulated both worlds, established barriers and connections. They allowed both world to establish ties without mixing them. Statues were substitutes. They replaced human beings in a place, a temple or a tomb, a place that could not be reached by any human being, at least a place where he or she could not stay. By standing in the place of a mortal, the statue allowed the divine powers embodied in the temple, in places out of reach to human beings, to be transferred to the human being “represented” –substituted- by the statue. This function gave a strong power to the statue. As the statue was in contact with divine powers, it was infused by them. So it held them too. It became a sacred image. It was like a divine image. This means that it could be adored as any cult statue. Adored, prayed, touched, and not just looked as any work of art.
What gave meaning to the statues were the spaces where they were located. They depended on the context. In order to understand its function, the statue could not be perceived alone, but had to be understood as a part of a complex spatial organisation. Its position or location in the temple, in the path that led from the entrance to the core of the temple defined what a statue was or was standing for. Out of its own space, a statue was nothing. It loses its meaning a power. It became just a stone.