What happens to ancient artifacts after they’re dug up by archaeologists is more complicated than the casual museumgoer might realize. “From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics,” a thought-provoking exhibition at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, tells a fascinating tale about the 20th-century discovery and interpretation of some extraordinary objects made by Sumerian artisans about 4,500 years ago.
Neatly compacted into two small galleries, the exhibition focuses on about 50 artifacts from about 3000 to 2300 B.C. that were unearthed in the 1920s and ’30s in what was once Mesopotamia and now is part of Iraq. The artifacts include gypsum statuettes, lavish jewelry made of gold and colored stone beads that adorned the entombed body of Queen Puabi, and pottery decorated with geometric patterns.
The display of ancient works is amplified by materials documenting their excavation by two separate teams: one was led by the eminent British archaeologist C. Leonard Woolley whose expeditions started in 1922, in Ur, a city in the ancient region of Sumer. The other was by Henri Frankfort, a Dutch-born archeologist and classical art scholar whose expeditions began in 1930, in the Diyala River Valley.
Artifacts from both expeditions are accompanied by archival material, including photographs and drawings of found objects. There are also breathless newspaper accounts echoing the excitement over the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt. Finally, a selection of works by modern and contemporary artists show yet other angles of interpretation. The exhibition was organized by Jennifer Y. Chi, the institute’s chief curator, and Pedro Azara, a professor of aesthetics at Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Spain.
The most striking objects are the figures of standing men and women carved from gypsum and up to about a foot tall that were unearthed by Frankfort. The best preserved have inlaid, oversized eyes under arched brows, giving the impression of happy surprise. The figures typically have their hands clasped in front, and they wear ankle-length skirts. Some of the men have long, rippling hair and beards. One man, sculpted from alabaster, is bald and beardless and his head and slightly pudgy face are rendered with remarkable naturalism.
Woolley viewed these objects as works of art rather than as ethnographic artifacts. As several writers in the indispensable catalog observe, he appropriated the language of formalist aesthetics from modern art discourse. He and his colleagues worked diligently and systematically to be scientifically accurate about the facts, but it’s not likely that the Sumerians thought of their creations as art. They did not have “art” or “sculpture” in their vocabulary. If anything is certain, it’s that living human eyes were meant never to see the contents of Puabi’s tomb after its closure. To be absolutely true to Sumerian intentions would be to not uncover the queen’s grave in the first place.
As these objects found their way into museums in Europe and the United States, modern artists responded to them. A second gallery presents some examples, including two seated female figures with hands clasped Sumerian style by Henry Moore and, by Alberto Giacometti, sketches of “Gudea, prince of Lagash, seated statue dedicated to the god Ningishzida,” a sculpture of a man wearing a cylindrical, domed hat that’s in the Louvre.
Most surprising is one of Willem de Kooning’s furiously painted women from 1953-54. A wall label posits that the series was at least partly inspired by a Sumerian statuette of a luxuriantly bearded man that de Kooning probably saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the statuette is one of the most impressive pieces in the present show. De Kooning once noted that his women grinned “rather like the Mesopotamian idols.”
The plot issues become more complicated in a part of the exhibition revolving around Queen Puabi’s extravagant get-up. Displayed on a black, featureless mannequin, it’s a spectacular ensemble including a headdress of crisscrossing bands, with leaves and flowers attached, all wrought from gold with marvelous delicacy, and beads made from colored stones that fall from the neck and shoulders to the hips.
When Puabi’s garments were exhibited in the late 1920s and early ’30s on a mannequin with the head of a beautiful woman, journalists wildly speculated about the queen’s fate and character. Using the name initially assigned to her by archaeologists, a full-page spread in The Philadelphia Inquirer carried a the blaring headline “Grim Tragedy of Wicked Queen Shubad’s 100 Poisoned Slaves.” Scholars debated the accuracy of the reconstructed outfit, and they are still arguing about that today. Some think a series of gold rings hanging from a hip-level beaded girdle might have been a separate belt.
The exhibition brings us up-to-date with works by two contemporary artists. “Untitled May 1991 [Gulf War Work]” (1991), by Jananne al-Ani, who was born in Iraq and lives in London, is a grid of black-and-white photographs representing Sumerian artifacts, members of the artist’s family and news images relating to the 1991 United States operation Desert Storm.
“The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist,” a project by Michael Rakowitz, a Chicago artist of Iraqi descent, consists of papier-mâché sculptures made of Middle Eastern packing papers and newspapers. Each is an actual-size representation of a specific object looted from the National Museum of Iraq after the United States’ invasion.
In postmodern style, Ms. Ani and Mr. Rakowitz reframe these antiquities in personal and political terms. In the future, no doubt, such ancient artifacts will be reinterpreted again according to the values of succeeding generations of scholars, artists, critics and journalists. It’s a never-ending story.
An art review on Friday about “From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics,” at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in Manhattan, omitted one of the two archaeological expeditions in what was once Mesopotamia on which the exhibition focuses. In addition to C. Leonard Woolley’s, the exhibition also examines Henri Frankfort’s.
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