30 Ιαν 2009

Δέντρα στην Αθήνα

Διαβάστε, σχετικά, το άρθρο της Λ. Κέζα στο Βήμα της Κυριακής εδώ.

23 Ιαν 2009

Grèce mensongère

The Greek-born collector, essayist, and art-critic Christian Zervos (1889-1970) is well known for his love of Cycladic art. Indeed, it was through his efforts, consummated in his monumental L’Art des Cyclades, published in 1957, that Cycladic artefacts entered – for better, for worse – the realm of collectable art, and quite a European form of art at that. The volume, dedicated to Greek archaeologist Christos Tsountas, establishes scientific knowledge regarding the prehistoric culture and art of the Cyclades and in particular the splendid figurines, which Zervos called “poems in marble”. In the late nineteenth century, Tsountas’ systematic excavations, on behalf of the Archaeological Society of Athens, had produced a considerable number of sites and finds, but it was only in the mid-1930s that Cycladic art began to be studied as a whole. Following an inevitable lull during World War II, the systematic excavation of the Cyclades was resumed in earnest in the late 1940s, generating a wider interest at home and abroad among scholars and collectors alike. Thus, according to Christos Doumas, “by the early 1960s Cycladic culture had firmly staked its claim to a place among the major civilizations and its study became increasingly thorough”.

Between 1926 and 1960 Christian Zervos was the editor of Cahiers d'art, a periodical specializing in contemporary art. He was an ardent supporter of Pablo Picasso and devoted many issues of the Cahiers d'art to his work. By the time of his death, he had published twenty-two volumes cataloguing Picasso’s oeuvre, to which eleven more were added posthumously.

In this post (excerpted from a paper I published in 2006)* I shall be looking very briefly into an earlier essay by Zervos, on Greek art and its predecessors, first published in 1934, as an introduction to his L’Art en Grèce, an eclectic album of photos of Greek artefacts dating from the third millennium to the fourth century B.C. Zervos expresses a number of interesting ideas in this piece, indicative of his love of Greek art (in both its pre-classical and classical embodiments). More to the point, Zervos’ flamboyant text constitutes an idiosyncratic attempt to establish a link between modernism and classical antiquity by highlighting the qualities of the former (say abstraction) in the latter – however absurd this might have sounded. The reasons for this lie, I would submit, to the author’s commitment to his own Greek identity and his interaction with intellectuals in Greece in the 1930s; for it was mostly he, along with the Greek-born French art-critic Tériade, who were channelling Parisian ideas into Greek intellectual life. Behind the hyperbole of his text, and its self-assured, portentous rhetoric, there hides a novel ideological strategy by Greek intellectuals (and their Hellenist friends), to reclaim the respect of the international community for their spiritual homeland.

Although in his text Zervos is freely referring to Cycladic as an earlier – “pre-classical” – form of Greek art, the former was not always readily accepted into the Greek canon.

When first discovered, in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, Cycladic figurines were thought of as primitive idoletti, unimportant creations of barbarous tribes. A nineteenth-century scholar described one Cycladic head as “repulsively ugly”, presumably because it looked nothing like the Belvedere Apollo.

Eventually, Tsountas and his colleagues helped establish Early Cycladic Culture as one of the main stages in Aegean prehistory.

It took, however, a much more circumspect way before Cycladic craft was accepted as “art” in the twentieth century. Specifically, it had to be discovered by some of the leading exponents of the modernist movement in art, such as Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi, Amedeo Modigliani or Henry Moore, who saw in it what they had already found in other “tribal” or “primitive” arts, past and present: it was abstract, lucid, and essential.

This was the “new beauty”, to replace the by then conventional, over-abused, and trivialised models of Renaissance art, itself based on the Graeco-Roman tradition (usually though taken for solely “Greek”).

Taken up by the Academy, Classical Ideals now seemed decidedly redundant. For the modernist sculptors and painters, who ransacked museum galleries and antiques shops searching for things primitive, Greece and the Renaissance were “the enemy” (a phrase I am borrowing from Henry Moore). Their stance was political as well as aesthetic. Their break with tradition expressed their disaffiliation with the way contemporary culture formed and communicated an established truth.

For Picasso, Modigliani, Moore and the rest, Cycladic art was inspiring because it was not Greek – as a matter of fact it stood as a negation of the Greek norm. Gradually, however, and as Cycladic culture was more and more accepted into the realm of Hellenism, those boundaries became blunter. Moore himself was to revise his earlier resolution not to allow any Greek influence into his art – a move that today is seen as “a return to Humanism”. True enough, for both the artist and his audience – including critics – Cycladic, for all its fundamental difference in concept and outlook from the orthodoxy of Greek art, remained an early phase of that art.

In Greece proper, however, matters were viewed from quite a different angle; Greek intellectuals were fighting their own demons, in an effort to establish a new cultural and political identity for a new – though ever so old – nation-state. Since the last decades of the nineteenth century, archaeology had been uncovering traces of Greece’s prehistoric past, including the cultures that flourished in the Aegean. In the 1870s Heinrich Schliemann had shown that Homer’s Troy was not merely a myth, and proceeded to do the same with Agamemnon’s Mycenae, this time on Greek soil. Greek intellectuals were initially indifferent, if not hostile to Schliemann’s cavalier attitude and enthusiastic conviction that he had “gazed upon the face of Agamemnon”, Mycenaean civilization however was to be attached to the Greek sequence very soon, and so were its Minoan and Aegean counterparts. As it has recently been shown, Greek archaeologists, notably Tsountas, were inspired by the narrative for Greek history constructed by Paparrigopoulos, and set off to investigate the early history of Greek race and cultural identity – the Greekness of Hellas. Gradually, the concept of a timeless, omnipresent “Greek spirit” emerges, as well as the notion of Greece being the cradle of European civilization.

In the 1930s, continuity in Greek art seemed to be in need of very little proof indeed. L’Art en Grèce was published on the occasion of the IVth International Congress for Modern Architecture, which took place in Athens in July 1933.

Zervos acknowledges that in the title pages of his book, which he dedicates to a number of Greek archaeologists and architects who provided them with access to sites and photographic archives under their authority. Following a short declaration on the notions of antiquity and his enthusiastic introduction, Zervos offers a pictorial survey of Greek art from the Neolithic period to the 5th century B.C., with an appendix on Byzantine art.

Then, we find a number of témoignages by poets, painters, architects and contemporary art-critics, including architect Le Corbusier and critic Maurice Raynal, where the essence of Greek art is further explored.

As stipulated in the book’s preliminary matter, Zervos approaches antiquity as a source of spiritual guidance and consolation: it “broadens the notions of humanity”; it “empowers our invocation of the infinite”; it “emphasizes emotion”; it allows for an expression “accessible but very pure” at the same time. Greek antiquity in particular, is presented as a discourse on life and its many manifestations, an authority “whose limitations and definitions of life are furnished with such a vast perspective that they cease to be restrictive”.

So far so good. Zervos’ main piece, however, undertakes an attack against those “art-historians who never showed any frank affection towards the radiant youthfulness of Greek art”, even though it could have assured them a great advantage over “their illusions of the library”. Zervos strives to show that, however academic or stale some periods in Greek art may be (he admits that towards the end of the Classical period this is often the case), its splendour and originality are overlooked by modernists (“les esprits frappés au coin du modernisme”). Our contemporary aesthetics, he claims, allow us to appreciate the beauty of Cycladic sculpture, since its abstraction echoes our sensitivities. The “spiritual gymnastics” to which we are imposed by modern art enable us to understand pre-classical art while at the same time misleading us to discriminate against its classical culmination. Who is to blame? Scholars, for one, who failed to see that early Greek art is equally significant: “A Cycladic figurine, a vase or a bronze artefact of the Geometric period, a statue or a pot of the Archaic period, do they not contain already the essential elements of the style of the Parthenon?” he exclaims, to conclude that it befalls his generation to “embrace every form in which beauty has manifested itself and cast a longer gaze over Hellenic art, from its origins to its classical culmination”. In these days of moral and spiritual crisis, he maintains, Greek art may offer us “a lesson of emancipation regarding the conditions of our life.” The masterpieces of Hellenic art will educate modern “eyes and hands”, since they are expressions of an art at the same time spiritual, psychological and supple (“plastique”), like the Greek language itself. Why the Greeks? Because they – alone in human history – were able to manage their collective consciousness, so as to express themselves in such poignancy; the civic collectivity of Greek city-states triumphed over the isolated limitations of the individual, allowing to powerful personalities and complete characters to develop themselves. By cultivating a “novel morality”, based on the ultimate rapprochement between the individual and society, as this was achieved by the Greeks, modern man is bound to regain the “essential foundations of social life” is Zervos’ argument and final plea.

Seventy-odd years later, it is really difficult to ascertain whether Zervos’ text sounded at all convincing to the ears of the ardent modernists of his time. His emotive prose performs giant leaps in coherence and historical consistency. He equates, as many are in the habit of doing to this date, society with its art (assuming that the latter is a direct expression of the former), artefacts with their portentous, read-in “meanings”, and quite implicitly – though ever so vigorously – the Greek with the Hellenic. What is more, while he strives to show that Classical Greek art is bestowed with all the spiritual and ideological qualities his generation discovered in prehistoric art, he does not feel he needs to prove, even merely to state, that prehistoric art from Greece is actually Greek, or rather Hellenic. Organic continuity in Greek art – pre-classical, classical, byzantine – is thus taken for granted, and used to redeem Classical Greece in view of its prehistoric self. Only implicitly does Zervos give a reason behind the singular (if not uniform) grandeur of Greek art: it would have to be the natural spectre, the landscape. Neither the customs, nor the mores, religion, law even; no other factor determined the Greek spirit more poignantly than the landscape, the plains, the mountains, the sea, and above all the light, the light of Greece. Continuity of landscape is all we need to establish the uninterrupted sequence of Greek art-history, even if we cannot really argue that it was the same “collective consciousness” of the Greek city-state that actually produced the spirituality of Cycladic sculpture. Though instrumental in his argument for the value of Classical Greece, Zervos avoids discussion of his central premise, that prehistory and history in Greece partake of the same “spirit”, presumably because for him this is self evident.

In attacking scholars of his time for neglecting pre-classical Greece, as well as modernist critics for basing their love of prehistoric art to their abhorrence of things classical, Zervos may have been striking closer to home than one might suspect: for it was in Zervos’ very own Cahiers d’art (and in the issue’s initial volume) that pioneer ethnologist Georges-Henri Rivière published his polemic archaeologisms, referring to archaeology as the “parricidal daughter of humanism”. Under the images of two African sculptures, Rivière, who was to become known as one of the leading museologists of his century, declares that “the Greek miracle” has run its course; archaeology has finally woken the korai with Khmer smiles that lay sleeping under the foundations of the Parthenon, the Parthenon of Maurras and Winckelmann; excavation has presented us with pre-Pyramid Egypt, pre-Columbian Americas, China’s empires; and he concludes: “we have joined to this broader knowledge the disgrace of artistic liberalism: enough of worthless eclecticism!”

It is against this aggressive anti-Western stance of the modernist avant-garde, and their polemic anti-classicism, that Zervos directed his fervent response eight years later. He was not alone: in the same 1934 volume where Zervos voices his angst, Le Corbusier states his own témoignage from Greek antiquity: we, the IVth International Congress for Modern Architecture, have been there, he broadcasts, to ancient Greece, we have found it intact on its isles, amidst its ruins, we tasted its essence and we experienced its intrinsic drama. He talks of a “discovery of Greece”, not of the kind professed by Rivière and his fellow radicals, what he refers to as an “arbitrary”, false archaeology, producing a deceitful academic façade, a fabrication he calls “Grèce mensongère.” Rivière had insisted that the actuality produced by archaeology may deprive Greek antiquity (he is explicitly referring to King Minos) from its legends, though in order to re-institute its historical integrity. Le Corbusier does not seem interested: we will, we can re-discover the Greece that “possessed the heroes and created the gods.” Evidently, Le Corbusier’s modernist convictions would allow for a certain romantic extravagance; it was he, we recall, who in 1923 had compared the Parthenon to modern automobiles (intending it as a compliment to both). Ever since his first visit in Greece and to the Parthenon in 1911, Le Corbusier had been impressed by the synergy of volumes in Greek architecture, and their visual plasticity under the natural light. This he repeats in 1934, drawing, as Zervos did, on their collective memories from a splendid summer cruise to the Greek islands in order to establish the – otherwise self-evident – importance of Greece in modernity. Further to his earlier notion of modénature, Le Corbusier now turns towards the twin concepts of proportion and scale, expressing in his view the harmonious balance between the secular and the divine, the sense of human scale within the cosmos. Maurice Raynal was more explicit in the same volume: it is this light, he concludes, that accentuates the plastic qualities of the line in Greece, be that on the delineation of a mountain, or a column, or a pediment. “This line appears to us as a measure of poetry.”

This strongly emotive language evokes the enthusiasm of Greek intellectuals over the potency of the Greek landscape and its mystical powers. Through their politically unstable, and in parts quite shallow rhetoric, monotonously repeated for the benefit of anyone who would care to listen, Greek intellectuals and their fellow-Hellenists attempted to develop a bi-focal strategy: on the one hand, to prove – or merely state – that Greek art was still valid as a stimulus to modernity, that the “Greek miracle had not yet outlived its life-cycle”; and on the other to claim the Greekness of what had recently come to be highly valued by European modernists: Greek prehistory. This is a conscious effort on behalf of Greek thinkers, at home and abroad, to claim the ethnic origin of prehistoric Hellas, in order to consolidate its (and theirs) European identity. As the international avant-garde was appropriating Cycladic art, in particular, it was fitting to remind them that what they treasured so much was actually Hellenic, therefore they had Greece to thank for it. Modernity had espoused Greek Neolithic and Cycladic art because it was not Greek; Zervos was now arguing that the Europeans should learn to love it because of its Greekness – its Hellenicity to be exact; and with it, restore Classical Greece to its former glory.

Since archaeology was being claimed by modernity, as one of the modern sciences par excellence, Greek modernists had to come up with an archaeology of their own. Greek modernist intellectuals, like their fellow-compatriot painters and poets, constructed their vital space allowing for the ample presence of Greece’s past. For the Greek Right, which proceeded to take an ever hardening line after 1936, Hellenicity became (and in some respects it still remains) a yardstick for patriotism, a disciplinary measure against its political opponents, and a means to curtail intellectual contacts with the West. Accusing all progressive intellectuals of cosmopolitanism, materialism, or – more crucially – communism, conservative thinkers – who came to consider antiquity as their home turf – pushed for a closed, xenophobic Hellenicity, one more readily prone to their control. Whereas for the Greek Right modernity constituted a mortal danger for the nation’s values, for the Greek avant-garde diachronic Hellenicity became a confirmation of their Europeanness and was, in result, seen as part of their modernity. Rather than a symptom of the nation’s embarrassing parochialism, its devotion to antiquity could pass as the main trait of its singularly modern nature – idiosyncratic but admirable nonetheless.

As Greece emerged from Ottoman occupation as a no-man’s-land between the Orient and the Occident – a utopia produced by the orientalist fantasies of the West – modernist ethos was embraced as a means to achieve the new state’s modernization. Under the stern European gaze – often disapproving or seemingly so – Greece strove to re-invent itself, once left to its own devices. Greek archaeology, or rather archaeology in Greece, had been conscripted in the strategically important mission to re-construct the nation’s history. By a bold leap of faith, any archaeological evidence was thought to enhance the notion of a glorious, coherent, and continuous past, by way of contributing to scientific knowledge about it; hence Zervos’ own admiration of Tsountas and his discoveries in the 1957 L’Art des Cyclades. As far as he was concerned, Cycladic art would be the perfect exponent of Classical Greek values now that the art of that period was falling from grace, overburdened by the damning accusations of academism and stagnation. Though this kind of archaeology may be criticized (and indeed it has been) as severely handicapped by internal incoherence, this is mainly due to the way (western) historians have been taught to treat cultural expressions of nationalism.

What Greek archaeologists such as Tsountas and intellectuals such as the 1930s Generation and Zervos were aiming at, was to compromise the “objective” modernity of their culture, as it was produced by the scientific rigour of archaeology, with the “subjective” antiquity of their homeland, as it was brought into existence by their collective national imagination. As Benedict Anderson has acutely pointed out, it is such kinds of paradoxical situations, inherent in the structure of nationalist thought yet unable to be remedied by it, that help us identify the nation as a “political community” imagined by its members. In Greece, this process of imagining the nation was subject to an instinctive urge to embrace modernity (which for many may have simply meant “modernization”), while at the same time placing an emphasis on the nation’s Hellenic identity (in the hope that Greece’s glorious past was to guarantee it a splendid future). For Greek intellectuals, the West had to be conquered, not merely joined, therefore they strove to construct a national artistic idiom which would be modern and un-Western at the same time. In this, predictably, they emulated ideological developments elsewhere, namely in new states in Asia and Africa emerging after a long anti-colonialist strife. As a nation-state of the “second generation”, Greece was bound to structure its national identity on an antithesis to occidental orthodoxy, even though Greek intellectuals themselves thought of their nation (and the state accommodating it) as genuinely “European”.

This explains, I would think, the central position of Cycladic art in the narrative for a primordial Hellenicity. For the Greek nationalist imagination, the silent, featureless, poignantly blind faces of the Cycladic figurines functioned (they still do) as double-faced mirrors reflecting the country’s “antiquity” and its “modernity” at the same time. Paradoxical and irrational, contrived or even blatantly untrue, these notions are expressions of a frustrated nation living besides itself. Archaeologists are invited to imagine these notions into being, “discovering” affinities to be integrated in the grand scheme of things, thus producing a new time-space continuum which, when projected to the future, becomes the nation’s structured past. The archaeologies of Tsountas and Zervos, of scientists, intellectuals, and laymen alike, fall well into this category, as do those of Le Corbusier, Raynal, and many more sun-struck hellenophiles who eagerly share their notions.

*D. Plantzos, “Grèce mensongère”: Christian Zervos and the rehabilitation of Cycladic Art, in N. Stampolidis (ed.), Genethlion; Museum of Cycladic Art Anniversary (Athens: Museum of Cycladic Art 2006), 335-45.

Cycladic artefacts illustrated in this post belong to the Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens.

16 Ιαν 2009

Is there a translator in this museum?

Since I was revisiting the Acropolis the other day, on the first dawn of the new year, here's a note I wrote some time ago for the other acropolis site, regarding a remarkable piece of architecture which keeps eluding the attention of its present-day keepers and lies "in disgrace" hidden from public view:

In the land where the past is eternally present, where the unburying of antiquities has become a national quest, one is surprised to find some of the remains of this very past buried anew.

Certainly, this particular piece is not just any odd block of the Erechtheion architrave, but one now adorned by an Ottoman inscription, reminding us just who was running things up on the Acropolis in the not so distant (though ever so un-classical) past. Yannis Hamilakis has talked about this piece in his Nation and its Ruins and elsewhere, though since 2000, when he first saw it and photographed it, the “violated” piece of marble has become even less conspicuous. At a time of extensive restoration and overall cleaning-up of the proverbial “sacred rock” this block now lies buried under a mass of gravel, accidentally (?) fallen over it. Needless to say, the custodians of the nation’s relics are busy elsewhere.

9 Ιαν 2009

monumentalizing the present

Admittedly, the recent riots in Athens made us all reflect on the uses of our monumentalized past (and its tangible symbols), since they involved some ot the city's most splendid listed buildings. The Academy, the University Central, the National Library, the School of Fine Arts, the National Museum, all faced clear and present danger by angry youths who chose to express their disaffiliation from Greek society through fire. Although the rioters expressed their anger mostly against banks and department stores, at least one library was torched (that of the Law School, by accident it would seem, owing to its being situated above a fancy shop specializing in top-dollar menswear). Still, many Athenians and frustrated visitors despaired in the sight of a National Library or Museum under attack (these attacks never materialized, though it seems that some of the rioters did try to attack such august targets). Many feared that the Nation's treasured monuments, the pinacles of Athenian neoclassicism and the precious few remains of the glory that was Greece were under attack by the youth of Greece itself, turning their back to the past (or is it the future?).

The exhilarating torching of the city's Christmas tree - a monument to our collective determination to celebrate Christmas and "have a good time" no matter what - was a poignant blow to the state's obession with monumentalizing itself: many enjoyed the symbolism of the event, many were shocked by what they saw as unecessary cruelty.

The displaying of a banner calling for "resistance" up on the Acropolis, an act of protest with a recent more famous precedent, was castigated as "blasphemous" by the usual champions of public order and good taste overall, and the vandalism of public buildings and statues was mourned by most of us - if only when one considers the hefty restoration costs.

What I found most interesting, however, was that at the time when angry protesters destroyed public monuments - erected in honour of events and institutions that they felt had nothing to do with them - or appropriated others (the Acropolis) in the hope that their voice might be heard, NEW monuments were in the process of being erected in Athens; and no, I don't mean the new Christmas tree hastily erected by our defiant mayor...

A new public monument emerged on the fateful crossroads where young Alexis lost his life, shot by a policeman who, apparently, "had had enough with those spoilt brats who'd better stay home". One by one, or in unison, people of most ages and backgrounds came to the site of Alexis's death in order to bring flowers, to light candles, or to display letters dedicated to his memory.

While municipal services were busy elsewhere, and riot police was entrusted with the protection of the city's site of festivities, some other Athenians re-named, albeit unoficially, the street where the boy was killed. Although it started as a pre-modern declaration of veneration, the monument produced is thoroughly modern. Little by little, the site became a "site", with a clear outline, visitors, snap-shot takers (incuding myself, of course) while unseen curators covered the exhibited notes in plastic to preserve them for posterity.

Even though the recent sad events appear as a break with the past, some, at least, of their protagonists assume roles so familiar to us from this very past they try to denounce. Monumentalizing collective ideology, often prone to emotive declarations of belonging, is a feature typical of the "modern man" (and woman). A monument to its past (recent or ancient) symbolizes an imagined community's reason of being and embodies its history, or rather the historical necessity of its existence. Paying one's respects to Alexis's monument (or rather to the monument of the site of his death, an event that led to the riots that are in fact monumentalized here) is a way of expressing allegiance to the (presumed) common cause.

So, brothers, do not despair. The Museum, one of modernity's central pillars, is alive and well. Yes, some museums might perish here and there; yes, some sites might get to know the "wrong kind" of appropriation; and, true, most of the rioters and sympathizers wouldn't be seen dead in a museum or a national heritage site (unless they carried a banner of protest). So what? As long as NEW monuments are created the good old way, not everything has been lost. Curators will always be needed and conservators will get new assignments.

In the meantime, the makeshift window-case in downtown Athens functions as a proper museum exhibit should: it creates a suitably sterilized artefact, an appropriately demarcated display, a virtual exhibit whose symbolisms amount to more than the sum of its parts. Sooner or later, a diligent hand is bound to add the necessary "Do Not Touch" sign.