By Pedro Azara
Artists always turn to their predecessors for inspiration. The impact of Mesopotamia on Modern Art was as significant as it was unexpected. But it was a case of artists being inspired by “art” that had been created thousands of years earlier and for completely different purposes.
The ‘Golden Age’ of archaeological excavations in Mesopotamia came from the 1920s until the end of World War II, when Iraq and Syria gained their independence from Britain and France. During this period Sumerian and Akkadian artworks and texts became increasingly well known as information spread widely through both scientific and popular publications, academic conferences, and temporary exhibitions.
Publicity surrounding Mesopotamian art aimed in part to counter the impact of Egyptian finds, such as those made by Howard Carter in the tomb of Tutankhamun, and to promote the idea of so-called Sumerian, which is to say non-Semitic, “art” as the origin of Western art, whose history had developed along both Biblical and Greco-Roman lines.
Earlier, Assyrian and Babylonian “art” had a major impact on the West from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, as a result of biblical knowledge and progressive Western penetration into the Ottoman Empire. Stolid and monumental Assyrian and Babylonian sculpture and reliefs were the Biblical world come to life. But Sumerian and Akkadian cultures were something completely different.
The spread of Sumerian and Akkadian art took many forms. There were, for example, the fine black and white photographs by the well-known Argentinian photographer Horacio Coppola, who produced a monograph on Mesopotamian art for the French journal Cahiers d´Art, published in 1935. Exquisite photographs of Sumerian worshipper sculptures in the monographs by famed art historian Henri Frankfort quickly gained status as canonical textbooks. There were also documentaries and plaster-cast copies that attempted to draw a parallel between “primitive” Sumerian-Akkadian art and that of Greece and Rome.
Artists were already fascinated by the first “primitive arts” to reach the West, thanks to colonial conquests. They were attracted to works whose forms, expressions, and compositions were different from the classical canon but not to the extent of seeming strange, even if some scholars initially judged them as clumsy. Writers such as Georges Bataille defended primitive art as a manifestation of the magic and sacred, at a great remove from the intention of Modern Western art, which had no instrumental goals. Thus allowed Sumerian-Akkadian “art” was allowed to become part of the history and origins of Western art.
The majority of these artists were Surrealists. However, they were not all interested in Sumerian-Akkadian art for the same reasons, nor captivated by the same type of works. A number of modern works were created in response to newly discovered Mesopotamian artefacts. These works, in turn, helped lead to a new way of looking at statuary and texts originally thought of as inferior to those of Greek and Roman cultures – then considered the summit of art. This perspective, however, deflected the magical-religious meanings of Mesopotamian sculpture and emphasising their “artistic” condition, comparable with that of any Western culture, presenting them not as magic fetishes but as works “of art” — in spite of the condescending attitude implied by such a change of status.
We may define at least four different groups of modern approaches to Sumerian images and texts:
The figure (shape and expressivity): Sumerian-Akkadian statuary — magical-religious, sacred and funerary in character, created to be unseen by human eyes, were markers of the limits between the visible and invisible worlds. These works were interpreted for formal or expressive reasons by a series of Modern artists. For example, in 1935 the British sculptor Henry Moore wrote one of the first positive articles on Mesopotamian art and created a number of works showing that influence, as did another British sculptor, Barbara Hepworth. The Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti visited the Louvre many times to see the seated sculpture of the Ur III king Gudea. He drew Gudea repeatedly and even owned a plaster replica.
During the early 1950s the Dutch-American painter and sculptor Willem de Kooning’s contemplation of a Sumerian worshipper statue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art ignited the well-known series of paintings and drawings called Women. <INSERT FIGURE 15> And the Catalan artist Joan Miró’s infatuation with Sumerian art influenced some of his early 1960s sculptures, something unnoticed until recently, in spite of many books on Mesopotamia in his library.
Composition: the distribution of figures and engravings on the surface of Sumerian and Akkadian cylinder seals and their lack of compositional limits influenced several artists, such as American sculptor David Smith in his well-known Medals for Dishonor series and other small bronze plaques. Cylinder seals also influence the German painter and designer Willi Baumeister, who collected Mesopotamian artifacts, particularly at the end of the 1930s, as a new way of expressing reality, particularly in terms of the interaction between figures and space.
Writing: ‘Oriental’ calligraphy, Egyptian hieroglyphs and cuneiform signs were judged to be primordial forms of writing. They were also capable of healing the rift between languages and writing systems so as to achieve a universal written language that would limit the difference, or the rupture, between things and the words used to designate them.
The pictographic origins of certain cuneiform signs was perceived, by the Belgian painter Henri Michaux, for instance, as the inscription or imprint of the essential features of things. The enigmatic character of cuneiform writing — and the difficulty of the Sumerian language — helped create the perception that cuneiform writing was both the veiled expression of hidden truths and a veto to their understanding. Several centuries earlier Egyptian hieroglyphs had been similarly regarded as the repositories of mystical knowledge.
The myth: Mesopotamian myths are mostly known from very late written versions recovered from first millennium BCE. Despite this, they have been considered as the first myths, the first reflections on the human condition and on man’s place in the world between the dead and the gods.
During the Second World War, a number of artists, like Baumeister, sought answers to the violence in Mesopotamian myths and in Genesis. Two myths were prevalent: the construction of the Tower of Babel in the Bible, and The Epic of Gilgamesh, known since the end of the nineteenth century. For architects Bruno Taut and Le Corbusier, the tower of Babel, without its aura of accursedness, was considered as a model of infinite, but at the same time, ordered growth. The city of Babylon, freed from its Biblical demonization was also considered, via Herodotus’ accounts, as one of history’s first metropolitan cities. These were influential visions of utopian urbanism.
Sumerian items have not lost their appeal as a source of inspiration for contemporary artists such as the Palestinian Maliheh Afnan who draws enigmatic writings inspired by cuneiform signs. But most who are interested in Mesopotamian iconography, as the French artist Cyprien Gaillard, use it to denounce the fragile or lost condition, due to wars, greed or abandonment, of sites and symbols in most Near Eastern countries.
Pedro Azara is an architect, curator, and professor of aesthetics at the ETSAB School of Architecture in Barcelona. The relation between Sumerian art and Modern art has been treated in an exhibition From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics, co-curated by Jennifer Y. Chi and myself with professor Marc Marín as assistant curator. It will also be the theme of an upcoming exhibition Sumer and the Modern Paradigm at the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona (Spain), on display from 26th October 2017-27th January 2018.
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