Sunday, 21 February 2010

The Lost World of Old Europe

For several years now I have been aware that the most engaging and involving exhibitions are often the small shows that you tend to happen upon when you are trying to capture all the big arts events in any museum or city. This is clear to me as I reflect on the exhibitions we saw in New York last December. The real revelations came in exhibitions in places we had never visited, on subjects we had never addressed. Two of them are long closed - The Origins of El Greco: Icon Paiting in Venetian Crete  that was at the Onassis Cultural Center and Jain Images of Perfection  at the Rubin Museum of Art. Even though they are gone, I'll say a few words about them here.

We went to the Jain show first. When we were in Indian a couple of years ago, we were introduced to several religions and aspects of religions we had never experienced. One of them was the Jain Temple at Ranakpur, a immense structure with the most fabulously elaborate decoration we had seen anywhere in the world. While we knew a bit about the Jain religion from what our guide in India had told us, the exhibition at the Rubin included paintings and sculptures that elaborated on the stories of the Jain holy figures and provided history for the religion at the same time that it totally omitted any reference to the elaborate and extraordinarly temples built for the religion. We also visited the smaller exhibition of a few leaves from Jain manuscripts that the Metropolitan Museum had mounted in conjunction with the Rubin show. They also provided some background for the Jain religious figures but somehow avoided paying homage to the temples as well.

The Origins of El Greco was at the Onassis Cultural Center at 645 Fifth Avenue , but with an entrance on East 51st St. While the attraction was primarily the small number of remarkable early paitings by El Greco, before he went to Venice and way before he went to Spain, the exhibition really afforded the opportunity for a re-evaluation of the later icon painting that I was always taught in school was derivative and of little interest. On the contrary, these later icons from Crete demonstrated how their painters drew from sources in Italian painting at the same time they stayed true to the traditions of the icon, with the result that the paintings were both familiar and innovative. Painters like Angelos and Nikolaus Tzafouris from the 15th century and Michael Damaskenos from the 16th made works that we found engaging, intriguing, and powerful, appropriate sources and contemporaries for the young El Greco, whose early work is astounding even when fragmentary.

The third exhibition we found exciting continues on view until April 25. It is The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley, 5000-3500 BC at the relatively new Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, associated with New York University and located in a townhouse at 15 East 84th Street.  Borrowing objects from Bulgaria, Romania, and Moldova, the exhibition presents an amazingly sophisticated culture that flourished in southeastern Europe before ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. This was material and history completely unfamiliar to us and a revelation not only in the fact that such a civilization existed, but in the astounding beauty of the objects chosen to represent it in this display. Fortunately, I was able to photograph several of the objects and can show them here.

The exhibition was displayed in two modestly sized galleries, plus an introduction in the foyer that included a helpful map. In the smaller gallery were shown sculptures, most of them depicting the human form. Here is where the fired clay figure called "The Thinker" ( 5000-4600 BC, National History Museum of Romania, Bucharest) was shown with a related female figure. Naming it the "Thinker" forces one to think of Rodin's sculpture and I think detracts from the evocative humanity of the poses of the two figures, which look like a pair/couple.

The exhibition labels describe several different figure types the are understood to be characteristic of different cultural groups and geographical locations. Some figures are far less human-looking than the two above, but nonetheless suggest not only figures, but possibly their status.

Several instances occur where several figures, generally female. were clustered within an architectural or other grouped context, suggesting societies or religious or other organizations. Apparently, because there ae so many sculptures of female figures in these groups, there is has been some thought that the society was in some way dominated by women, or at least matrilineal.

While these small figurines are very impressive, the most amazing work in the exhibition is the pottery. Pottery in a wide variety of beautiful shapes, some with close fitting lids, decorated with geometric designs or animal and human figures, suggests both a sophistication of decorative taste and a specialization in the use of the vessels. Most of the pottery dates from between 4200 and 3500 BC.

Some of the vessels are anthropomorphic and suggest the works found in ancient Meso- and South America, although the similarities are no doubt coincidental.

In this larger gallery there were quite a few gold objects in wall cases, attesting to the metal working ability of these Danube peoples. Large quantities of gold jewelry found in an area of multiple tombs led scholars to understand that the culture was a hierarchical one in which the rich people wore the gold. Also the labels describe their ability to smelt copper and use it to make axes, knives, and jewelry in large quantities They had extensive trade routes, enabling them to get precious Aegean spondylus shells for their jewelry and precious items.

Around 3500 BC this culture seems to have disappeared and scholars do not know why, although the usual ideas of invaders from other lands, climate change, deterioration of the farmland, internal strife, all may have played a role.

One of the things that makes this exhibition so exhilerating is the fact that it is shown in two galleries and in a townhouse, rather than a huge museum. The intimacy of the setting enables one to look more closely at the objects and, just because there's nothing you have to get to in this building, it is possible to concentract on this subject, which was a total revelation to me, and about which am still nearly completely ignorant. While I and others had doubts that it made sense to create this new Institute within New York University, this exhibition indicates the potential it has to bring new revelations to its audience. I am thankful that I saw a review of the show in the New York Times before our trip. Too bad it was in the Science rather than the Art section.

No comments:

Post a Comment