Old-Time Modernity: Cycladic Art at the Met


New York City has added another jewel to its glittering cultural crown, and it takes up little more than one medium-size wall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

You’ll find the wall in the Belfer Court, the first space on the right as you enter the Greek and Roman Galleries from the Great Hall. Walk too fast and you may miss it. Slow down and prepare to be stunned by the largest display of ancient sculpture from the Greek islands known as the Cyclades ever seen in New York. It is titled “Cycladic Art: The Leonard N. Stern Collection on Loan from the Hellenic Republic.”

Five large vitrines, usually three pairs of shelves each, cover the wall, their red felt interiors setting off the gleaming white chiseled marble of 120 figures and vessels. The shelves are dominated by around 70 small, spirited female figurines or idols, averaging around 16 inches in height and in one rare piece reaching just over four feet. These are the glory of Cycladic art, distinguished by their stylized forms, folded arms and blank faces — except for little wedge-shaped noses — also by their understated sensuousness and reverberating stillness. They’re like tuning forks.

The vitrines also contain some relatively large stand-alone heads, without bodies, that resemble miniature versions of the giant heads of Easter Island. And there are numerous vessels: vases, bowls, plates and a few palettes, including two that are narrow, delicate and slightly curved and seem cut from a single leaf of leek. Five additional pieces occupy five individual vitrines nearby, and another 36 pieces can be seen in a vitrine in the Greek and Roman Study Collection on the mezzanine, overlooking the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court.

All 161 works were made in the Cyclades, a group of small islands in the Aegean Sea east of Greece between roughly 5300 B.C., or the late Neolithic period, and 2300 B.C., the beginning of the Bronze Age, a span of time also referred to as Early Cycladic I and II. The figures especially are among humanity’s greatest achievements, grave and cool yet instantly familiar and even essentially realistic, like skeletons. It seems like they might fold up, like draughtsman’s dummies.

They were collected starting in the early 1980s by Leonard N. Stern, chief executive of Hartz Mountain Industries, who as a teenager was enthralled by the Cycladic art at the Met. Stern has given his collection to Greece and in a deal worked out between him, the Met and the Greek government, most of them will remain on view at the museum for the next 25 years — with select works periodically returning to Greece — and a possible extension of the loan for 25 more years. The display has been curated by Sean Hemingway, head of the Met’s Greek and Roman Department, and Alexis Belis, one of its assistant curators.

Cycladic sculpture begins the great tradition of Greek sculpture that is seen as culminating in the Classical sculpture of the Greek Golden Age, centered on Athens, nearly two millenniums later. They are also an important origin of Western abstraction. Like African sculpture, they were colonial plunder, ensconced before the turn of the 20th century at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris, where they influenced modern artists like Constantin Brancusi, Amedeo Modigliani and Picasso.

The basics of the figurines’ postures and poses rarely change: Their arms fold across the middle of the torso, one above the other, just below austere indications of breasts. These arms usually end in four short, shallow incisions, fingers that look like paintbrushes or tassels, but indicate hands. The inverted triangles incised across the female figures’ lower abdomens resemble bikini bottoms. The curves usually come into play in the thigh and lower leg area.

The smooth, mask-like faces with their wedge noses sit atop long, tapering necks. Often their heads tilt back, gazing upward, meditatively if not worshipfully, toward the stars. In other instances, the faces look straight ahead, and convey more contemporary nuances. For example some might almost be caricatures of women in wet bathing suits at the beach, shivering a bit, trying to get their kids to come out of the water. I’m always surprised how some figures can bring to mind New Yorker cartoons.

The purposes of the Cycladic figures remain largely mysterious. They were made in a time before written language, and the great majority of them were dug up by people looking for something to sell. These searchers had little regard for the niceties of the archaeological discipline, such as when, where, with what and how deep (in the ground) the pieces were found. Some of them were discovered placed horizontally in graves and tombs, part of burial rituals. Others may have served as fertility idols or been used in private shrines. They might also have been toys, which speaks to their immense charm and accessibility. They remain among the most popular forms of ancient art.

Encountering Cycladic figurines for the first time can be a significant rite of passage for the art-oriented of today. The sight can teach you in an unforgettable instant that much of what we call modern is really nothing new. But part of Cycladic modernity is relatively recent: The figures were not originally bare white marble; most were painted — hence the palettes. Faint blushes and infinitesimal flakes of color can be found on some of the figures and there are prominent areas of pale orange and red brushstrokes on a few of the plates.

Seeing so many figurines in such proximity has its own kind of shock. We learn that this figurative formula accommodated an unusual range of proportions, emotions and body language, encouraging a kind of elemental connoisseurship. You can’t help but notice and compare.

In the top two shelves of the first vitrine you can almost see the style coming into focus. Two headless figures have blocky guitar or violin shaped bodies; another two have arms cocked at the hips, opening little spaces at the elbows and one of these has breasts that evoke closely placed bricks. A round bottomed figure suggests an inflatable bop bag toy with lovely curving arms and hands that seem folded into her armpits.

Sometimes the folded arms look like matchsticks, sometimes they are fleshier, even relaxed, almost naturalistic. The arms slip up and down the torso somewhat precariously, resembling cummerbunds in some pieces and dropped waistlines in others. The most extreme displacement of the arms is found in the last of the big redlined vitrines: a figure with no torso, so the crossed arms are just below the chin, as if our idol is carrying small logs for building a fire.

The Stern Collection of Cycladic Art turns the Belfer Court into one of the Met’s greatest galleries. The tradition that begins with the Cycladic sculptors is generally seen as reaching its apogee many centuries later when their Golden Age descendants finally arrived at an accurate if idealized treatment of the human form. I doubt I am alone in thinking that this idealized realism lacked something and that Greece’s sculptural tradition was never better than in the hands of its Cycladic forebears.

Cycladic Art: The Leonard N. Stern Collection on Loan From the Hellenic Republic

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; (212) 535-7710; metmuseum.org.

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