27 Νοε 2009

displaying modernity iv

Hellenicity was to be espoused by artists such as the painter Nikos Hatzikyriakos Ghikas who – though his work may look superficially cubist – repeatedly claimed that Hellenic continuity remained his artistic reality: Greek light, landscape (turning every stone into a piece of sculpture), the precedence of light over colour and geometry over contour, proportion and spirituality, all eternal gifts of the land of Greece to its inhabitants. For some critics, Ghika’s work constitutes “a metaphysics of Greek nature”.

Greek modernists had nonetheless been quite successful in establishing connections with the West – mostly the vibrant Parisian circles – through the good services of a number of Greek ex-patriots who were active there. In 1934, Christian Zervos, the Greek émigré who established himself in France in order to become one of the leading art critics of his time, had published his L’Art en Grèce, an eclectic album of photos of Greek artefacts from the third millennium to the fourth century BC, published on the occasion of the IVth International Congress for Modern Architecture, which was organized in Athens in July 1933.

In the book’s polemic introduction, Zervos argues that Greek art is a single phenomenon, spanning from the depths of Aegean prehistory to the present day, and expresses his anger at ‘those historians of art who never showed some sincere affection towards the radiant youthfulness of Greek art’. A loving turn towards this art, he continues, would assure those art historians a grand advantage in view of what he calls ‘their illusions of the library’. In this and his later texts, Zervos is thus channelling into the heart of modernist Paris the angst of his fellow-Greek intellectuals who saw Hellenic prehistory, especially the by then much-admired Cycladic art, being usurped by international modernism as an anti-Classical, thoroughly un-Greek phenomenon. According to Zervos, it was the land itself that generated Greek art, it was the landscape that formulated ‘the Greek spirit’. A Cycladic figurine, he claims, a vase, a bronze artefact from the Geometric period, an Archaic statue, all anticipate those elements essential to the style of the Parthenon. The subsequent publication of L’Art des Cyclades in 1957, dedicated to Christos Tsountas, establishes scientific knowledge regarding the culture and its figurines, which he styled ‘poems in marble’.

And this is how, as treasured possessions of mankind at large, as splendid “poems in marble” and as the majestic prequel to Classical art, that these artefacts are exhibited today in the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, the world’s largest Cycladic collection in private hands. You can watch a virtual tour of the Cycladic Gallery, showing at the Museum’s own website (click on the image above for a link to the page), starting in the depths of time – it would seem – to place the viewer in a sea of calm waters and playful dolphins, and then inside the museum’s ostentatious Cycladic Gallery, where the figurines are shown detached from any archaeological or anthropological context (which at any rate would be admittedly difficult to produce since all artefacts must be assumed to come from illicit excavations), but are, instead, projected against dark backgrounds, imposingly lit, as if beamed down from an extra-terrestrial world dedicated to aesthetic perfection.

This is precisely the reading for Cycladic art that Christian Zervos had so strongly supported: abstract though beautiful, un-Greek though ever so Classical and positively “Hellenic”.
displaying modernity: i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii.

20 Νοε 2009

displaying modernity iii

Cycladic art appealed to the modernist desire for the 'primitive', seen of course from a western perspective. The Cycladic figurines portrayed mortal or divine beings of strikingly human form, and well within the human scale (we estimate that the largest among the figurines come pretty close to what at the time must have been life size). They portrayed social functions and attitudes, not specific individuals, but they may have stood en lieu of people, in the same way voodoo-dolls are thought in some cultures to encapsulate a person's 'aura'.

At any rate, Modern artists, who - it should be noted - missed vital information, for example the extent to which colour was part of a figurine's appearance, turned to the abstract form of Cycladic figurines in their effort to create a new means of expression.

Prehistoric art, as well as 'primitive' art of their time (African, Oceanic, Native American) interested the Modernists, so much so that several frequented Museums or Auction Houses where such artefacts were exhibited or offered for sale; in fact Modigliani, Giacometti and Picasso are known to have owned African works of art, and Moore was famously photographed handling a Cycladic figurine at the British Museum. They took Cycladic sculptors to have mastered natural form through their intellect, thus identifying the essence, not the superficiality of their prototype. The essential was what Modernists sought to express through their art. Though the result of a slight misapprehension, and construed on the basis of a westerner's pre-conceived notions, modernist appreciation of Cycladic art was nevertheless deep, so much so as to become meaningful.

For them – for us – this was (and is) 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 taken for solely “Greek”). Centuries of over-abuse had trivialised the Graeco-Roman artistic ideal, which now looked conventional and overtly graphic; Greece had now become ‘the enemy’ (a phrase I am borrowing from Henry Moore).

In 1926 the pioneer ethnologist Georges-Henri Rivière had published his polemic archaeologisms, where he celebrated the death of ‘the Greek miracle’; intriguingly, the final blow had been dealt, according to him, by that ‘parricidal daughter of humanism’, archaeology herself. Archaeology, claimed Rivière, had finally woken the korai with Khmer smiles that lay sleeping under the foundations of the Parthenon; excavation had uncovered pre-Pyramid Egypt, pre-Columbian Americas, China’s empires; and he concluded: ‘we have joined to this broader knowledge the disgrace of artistic liberalism: enough of worthless eclecticism!’ This manifesto was political as well as aesthetic; it expressed a frustrated call for a break with tradition, a demand to contemporary culture to change the way it views itself through its perceived past. For those critics and artists Cycladic art was inspiring because it was not Greek – as a matter of fact it stood as a negation of the Greek norm.

In the meantime, Greek intellectuals were striving to establish a new cultural and political identity for a new nation-state, anxious to broadcast what I have called elsewhere its own “singular antiquity”.

Prehistory was, on the other hand, a very different case altogether. 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. Following Schliemann’s discoveries, Greek archaeologists set off to investigate Greek history through systematic excavation and thorough publication of finds. Their reaction to widespread orientalist attitudes of the time led to the concept of a timeless ‘Greek spirit’, running across Greek history from the depths of time to the present day, and the notion of Greece being the cradle of European civilization.

So, by the 1930s, when Greek intellectuals were embarking on a self-confessed route to a “new humanism”, Greek nationalist rhetoric had produced a very strong narrative for Greece’s historical and cultural physiognomy: it was based on the nation’s antiquity, its natural and uninterrupted continuity, and above all its very ... Greekness, untouched by time and remaining untainted through the ages. Greek intellectuals in the 1930s regressed easily to hellenocentric radicalism, actually reviving the environmental determinism of the beginning of the century.

It was now somehow becoming obligatory for Greek intellectuals or artists to declare their fascination with the landscapes of Attica, the colours of Greek nature and, above all, the sea. The Aegean becomes at this time – and remains to this day – the new point of reference for the Greek consciousness; it is given primacy of place in poetry, significantly in the works of Odysseus Elytis, whom one of the strongest theorists of this generation, called “a mystic dawn over the Aegean”. A new mythology emerges from the waves of the Aegean and the rocks of its islands, a new Hellenic physiognomy, to be credited with all the precious qualities of a vibrant – and quickly idolized – spirit, usually referred to as Hellenicity.
displaying modernity: i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii.

13 Νοε 2009

displaying modernity ii

This stress on continuity, from Cycladic to Classical art, and from then on to Byzantium and Modern Greece, has been essential to the construction of Greek national identity in the late nineteenth and throughout the twentieth century, and remains in use with no signs of subsiding. Greek culture (as monitored through its expression in art) and history (as evidenced by its declaration through culture) are emphatically poised to begin in the depths of prehistory and culminate with us, modern Greeks, ambivalent as we might be when we come to face challenges such as the end of modernity, or perceived threats such as globalization.

Clearly, however, Cycladic art was not always readily accepted into the Greek sequence. Cycladic figurines have been known since the 18th century, when they were viewed as obscure artefacts of uncertain significance.

It was only later, by the end of the 19th century, that research undertaken by such pioneers of Aegean Archaeology as Theodore Bent and Christos Tsountas established their true identity (as Cycladic antiquities from the Bronze Age), and date (the 3rd millennium BC). Even then, Cycladic figurines failed to attract the interest of scholars (or collectors for that matter). Until as late as the 1920s or so, antiquity was still viewed through the looking glass of neo-classicism: compared to later Greek art, Cycladic culture seemed primitive, and its art was dismissed as barbaric. New views on art, professed by the artists of the time, and further research, now undertaken on more scientific grounds, established Cycladic Art as a truly remarkable cultural phenomenon, of historical as well as aesthetic value.

What archaeologists term the 'Early Cycladic Culture', flourished on the islands of the Cyclades from about 3200 to 2000 BC. According to archaeological evidence, during the 3rd millennium BC the Cyclades were relatively well populated, organised in small communities. The islanders were good sea-men, and communication between the islands was frequent. The islands' mineral resources allowed to the people of the Cyclades the production of tools and weapons, while the abundance of white, good-quality marble encouraged its wide use for the creation of artefacts and implements of functional or symbolic nature. Among these, the figurines are – to us, today, – by far the most distinctive Cycladic creation because of the great numbers in which they are found, the variety of sizes and types and the significance we may assume they held for their owners.

Although the marble statuettes obviously represent human, mostly female, figures, we may not be certain as to whether they represent mortals or immortals. The figures are nude and, though schematic, are marked by an idiosyncratic realism. The torso is complete, bearing the crucial parts of the human anatomy. An emphasis is often placed on genitalia and facial features, notably a long, triangular nose.

Other examples can opt for a sometimes striking realism. Eventually, then, archaeology 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.

What is beautiful about Cycladic art? To the eyes of a 5th-century Athenian, a Cycladic head may have looked absurd. 18th- or 19th-century aesthetes judged them simply “unsightly”, “repulsive”, “appalling”. Our established understanding of the culture that created these artefacts enables us, today, to grasp their importance as material remains of a flourishing civilisation. What attracted Modernists to Cycladic art, however, was not their appreciation of archaeological or anthropological data (and as a matter of fact these have been considerably revised since the days of Picasso and Modigliani).

Photos of Cycladic artefacts taken from C. Renfrew C.: The Cycladic Spirit; Masterpieces from the Nicholas P. Goulandris Collection (New York).
displaying modernity: i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii.

9 Νοε 2009

Παγκοσμιοποίηση & Εθνική Κουλτούρα

Η ημερίδα «Πολιτισμός, Παγκοσμιοποίηση, και Εθνικές Κουλτούρες» που διοργάνωσε ο Σύνδεσμος Υποτρόφων Α.Γ. Λεβέντη (Ελλάδας) στις 4 Φεβρουαρίου του 2008 έδωσε την αφορμή να συγκεντρωθούν τα κείμενα που παρουσιάζονται εδώ. Στις τοποθετήσεις των ομιλητών εκείνης της ημέρας προστίθενται και νέα κείμενα, ώστε το ολοκληρωμένο, πλέον, βιβλίο να επιχειρήσει μια – πρώτη – απάντηση στο ερώτημα: κινδυνεύει αυτό που ορίζουμε ως «εθνική κουλτούρα» από την επικράτηση της Παγκοσμιοποίησης;

Πρόκειται για ένα θέμα αιχμής, που απασχολεί ευρύτατες ομάδες του ελληνόφωνου κοινού. Πέρα από τους εμπλεκόμενους επιστημονικούς κλάδους (ιστορικοί, αρχαιολόγοι, ανθρωπολόγοι, πολιτικοί επιστήμονες, κοινωνιολόγοι), ο διάλογος περί παγκοσμιοποίησης προσελκύει το ενδιαφέρον των Μέσων Μαζικής Ενημέρωσης και των «μη ειδικών».

Δεν είμαι σίγουρος ότι οι απαντήσεις σε τόσο ρευστά ζητήματα είναι δεδομένες ή εύκολο να δοθούν∙ ελπίζω όμως ότι τα κείμενα που ακολουθούν προσφέρουν ένα πρώτο δείγμα διαλόγου για ένα θέμα που ενώ συζητείται συνεχώς, δεν προσεγγίζεται με την ψυχραιμία και την εγκυρότητα που απαιτείται. Κεντρική θέση στη διαμάχη, ως βασικά επιχειρήματα των αντικρουόμενων πλευρών, όσο και τελικά διακυβεύματα της ίδιας της διαμάχης αυτής, αποτελούν αφενός το παρελθόν, ως συλλογικό κτήμα και ιδεολογικό έρεισμα, και αφετέρου η μνήμη, ως συγκρουσιακός τόπος μεταξύ των «ιδιοκτητών» του παρελθόντος και των διεκδικητών του.

Οι εργασίες του τόμου κινούνται γύρω από αυτούς τους δύο άξονες:

Ο Σ. Πεσμαζόγλου μιλά για την «αντι-παγκοσμιοποίηση», την προβολή δηλαδή των εθνικών στοιχείων από τους εγχώριους παράγοντες, με τις πολιτιστικές, πολιτικές και κοινωνικές συνέπειες που αυτό έχει για την περίπτωση της Ελλάδας.

Ο Γ. Χαμηλάκης απαντά στο ερώτημα κατά πόσο απειλείται η εθνική κουλτούρα και μνήμη, καταλήγοντας στο συμπέρασμα ότι οι ίδιοι οι όροι της παγκοσμιοποίησης (για παράδειγμα οι ηλεκτρονικές επικοινωνίες και το Ίντερνετ) ενισχύουν το εθνικό φαντασιακό.

Η Α. Τηλιγάδα στρέφεται προς το – πολυπλοκότερο – παράδειγμα της Κύπρου επιχειρώντας να διερευνήσει τις διεργασίες για τη «διάσωση» της εθνικής ταυτότητας από την απειλή του (παγκοσμιοποιημένου) Άλλου στον χώρο του Πανεπιστημίου.

Ο γράφων πραγματεύεται τις προκλήσεις που δέχεται το οικοδόμημα του κλασικού πολιτισμού, αλλά και το επιστημολογικό πρόγραμμα της Αρχαιολογίας, υπό το βάρος των πιέσεων της αγοράς πολιτισμικών αγαθών (τουριστική βιομηχανία, προβολή πολιτιστικής κληρονομιάς κοκ).

Τέλος, ο Δ. Παπανικολάου γράφει για τον τρόπο που η ρητορική περί εθνικής «ιδιομορφίας» εφαρμόζεται στη δημιουργία και την σχηματοποίηση της εθνικής κουλτούρας από την οποία στη συνέχεια και αναπαράγεται, κοινότοπα, είτε – σήμερα – ως όπλο κατά της παγκοσμιοποίησης είτε έναντι άλλων απειλών όπως, παλαιότερα, η αφομοίωση από τον δυτικό τρόπο ζωής.

6 Νοε 2009

displaying modernity i

Here is the first part of my lecture "Displaying Modernity: Cycladic Art as a 20th c. (Cultural) Phenomenon" which was co-sponsored by the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and the Modern Greek Program, and delivered at the University of Michigan on October 28 (Greece's National - OXI - Day nonetheless!). I'm grateful to Vasilis Lambropoulos, Artemis Leontis, Laurie Talalay and everybody in Ann Arbor for their warm welcome).

Aesthetics was essential in forging the concepts of the “classical”, the “Greek”, or indeed the “Hellenic”, and Classical art – the glistening torsos, the half-ruined temples, the whimsically coloured vases – became powerful tools in an intensive exercise in cultural symbolism. Besides these, however, the Greek nationalist imagination sought to appropriate other forms of Greek art, not actually Hellenic as such, but powerful enough in order to convey the messages it wished to promote. Furthermore, by extending its hegemony over the art of the Minoans, for example, and the Mycenaeans, or indeed the earlier art of the Cycladic islands, Greece claimed a suitably significant and aesthetically pleasing prelude to its classical self.

My topic is Cycladic art, its appropriation by Greek nationalism and modernist aesthetics at the same time: seen through the filters of the highly romanticized Greek rhetoric in the 20th c., it comes out as thoroughly “Hellenic”, though if we are to believe its modernist enthusiasts, it is anything but. These opposing claims have resulted, I would argue, in Cycladic art’s re-emergence – as a matter of fact in its outright creation – as a full-blown 20th c. cultural phenomenon, both in Greece and the modern world at large.

Cycladic art as an archaeological, historical, as well as an artistic phenomenon, has long now been used as the first milestone in the long and fascinating saga of Greek (Hellenic) Culture, as this has been constructed by the modern Greek state in the last couple of centuries or so. In this continuum, [Cycladic] plays counterpart to [Modern], by standing at the far end of a sequence of arts and ideas, as well as the men who expressed the latter through the former.

The conviction that life speaks through art permeates Greek archaeology, surreptitiously having acquired the status of a self evident truth:

One of the most popular Greek museums, the Benaki, maintains in its most recent guidebook that, starting off with the Prehistoric room (including a small number of Cycladic figurines and other third-millennium artefacts), ‘the visitor will follow, step by step, the historical development of Hellenism as it unfolds through the millennia’. Talking as it does of an ‘exciting journey’ and a ‘true epic’ this idiosyncratic statement offers an eloquent description of the way modern Greece undertakes its own archaeology, as an exercise – often painstaking but ultimately rewarding – in deep soul-searching and courageous self-cognition.

And it is the Benaki Museum, the Hellenic museum par excellence, which – in its own words – strives to illustrate ‘the character of the Greek world through a spectacular historical panorama’, as advertised by its own website. The blurb goes on to specify the time span covered: ‘from antiquity and the age of Roman domination to the medieval Byzantine period, from the fall of Constantinople (1453) and the centuries of Frankish and Ottoman occupation to the outbreak of the struggle for independence in 1821, and from the formation of the modern state of Greece (1830) down to 1922, the year in which the Asia Minor disaster took place’. It is clear from this text that, throughout Greek history, only the contributions of the Hellenes to Greek culture and art are legitimate; all others are conquerors waiting to be charmed by the Greek spirit rather than likely to advance it.

The recently refurbished permanent exhibit at the Benaki Museum spans from Cycladic art to the two Nobel and the one Lenin prize won by Greeks, all for poetry, and ends with a Karagioz screen and figures looming in the background, a spectre, as its Cycladic counterpart, of another culture familiarized by the Greeks through tradition, translation, and inertia.

displaying modernity continued: ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii.