10, December 2012 § Leave a comment
Twice every year, The Louvre Museum (Paris, France) offers a special opportunity to fine art and art history students all over the city – a few Friday nights during their extra hours to present works in the museum, in their first language, in their own words. The fine artists create new pieces, based on works on display in the museum, and exhibit their work alongside their inspiration. Art history students express their passion for some of the best art history has preserved for the world by presenting them, after months of research and preparation, for anyone who comes to the museum on those nights ready to listen.
This year’s theme is “What do you see?” And I am honored, as a current Art History student studying at The American University of Paris, France and as an alumna of The Aegean Center of the Fine Arts, Paros, Cyclades, Greece, to be participating in this special occasion for the second time.
When I mentioned this project to one of my previous professors on Paros, he asked if I would share this experience on The Aegean Center blog, which seems more appropriate than ever considering the work I am presenting this year – the Cycladic Figurines. Yes, that’s right; after a year and a half in Paris studying art history, I chose to focus my presentation on some of the earliest works of Ancient Greece. Something must have stuck… thank you, Jeffrey Carson.
Of course something stuck! Three and a half years ago now, when instead of going straight to college, I chose to take a gap year and attend The Aegean Center, I never could have guessed I would be here now, in Paris, about to present at the Louvre. My time in Italy, studying the Italian Renaissance almost entirely through on-site lectures, and then Ancient Greek art in Athens and on Paros, again, seeing first-hand what I was studying… well, I cannot really explain how much that defined me outside of the obvious: I am an art history major, on an ancient art track, and a fine arts minor in Paris today.
Following the presentations, AUP students are asked to write a short essay about their experience in order to receive credit from the university (following).
By happy coincidence, the final JOP night was the same night as The Aegean Center Student Showcase – hey, if I could not be on Paros that night, awe-struck by the creativity and skills of a new generation of artists, might as well be standing in the Louvre in Paris, explaining to whomever happened to stop and listen why he or she should be awe-struck by some of the earliest figurative work in history!
Thank you, Aegean Center, for getting me this far. I expect this is only the beginning…
With love and gratitude,
(A Paper By: Stephanie Dissette)
For this season’s “Les jeunes ont la parole,” it was my pleasure to present the Cycladic figurines of Pre-Classical Greece. While not my first choice, these figures were amongst my preferred works, as they embody much of why I am here today, in Paris and at AUP – tying-in with the Ancient Art and Architecture course I am currently enrolled in and the Ancient Art track I chose within my Art History Major; and perhaps even more importantly, keeping me connected to Greece and Greek art, my “roots” for why I chose to study Art History to begin with. The theme for this season, “What do you see?” also perfectly accompanied my presentation in particular, as the Cycladic figurines come from approximately 2800-2300 B.C., a period which has virtually no written documentation. This allowed me, as I was studying, and my audience, as they were viewing, to acknowledge an important part of Art History – a lot of what we consider historical fact will only ever be guesswork; in which case, though there are of course those who make a point of becoming experts in the field, anyone’s guess is as good as another’s, so long as one has evidence to support one’s theory.
And so, to begin my presentation I would always ask the audience to look closely at one or more of the figures in front of them, and explain to me what they saw, encouraging all suggestions given and recommending they start out very simply. Reminding my audience that I am a student, I would explain a bit about what it means when we give a formal analysis of a work, and invite them to follow in suit without fear of giving an incorrect perspective. Again, I find these figurines perfect for this sort of exercise in their simplicity – with less “action” or distraction in front of them, the audience is forced to stick to the basics. In this case, many discussed the gendering (about 40% said male, about 60% female), the shape and size, the material used (mostly when prompted), and the prominent noses and strange folding of the arms. Many, of course, also looked on with blank stares until I fed them a few possible answers. My favorite description came a couple of times, which was a comparison to the heads of Easter Island – brilliant! This proved to be the perfect introduction, allowing me to continue with a more in-depth analysis and investing my audience in a stake of the “final answer,” which was of course that there is no right answer.
But without getting too stuck on that, I would proceed by telling them about the Cyclades, the Eastern Greek Islands where the figures originated and where most of them were found. I offered two maps: one of grander Greece and the Aegean region, allowing a placement within Europe and one that focused in on the Cyclades Islands, and offered a close look at Paros, the island where the marble originated. Usually, I would take a moment to express that these figures are essentially the root of all Greek figurative sculpture and that Parian marble is still considered one of the best types in the world, was used all the way into the Late Hellenistic period in Greece (with sculptures such as the Venus de Milo), and that one can still visit the Ancient Marble Quarry on Paros. With the maps still in front of my audience, I would also explain the connection these islands shared with each other and even out as far as Egypt, Crete, and Turkey through trade routes, which may help explain some of the influence the figures might have received from other cultures as well as some of the influence they had on future figurative sculpture. Not every group I presented to really needed all of these details, but I did try to get as much of this information as possible to provide a context for these figurines which we know so little about, so few people have ever seen or cared to stop and notice, and to express why one should care about them at all. Whether I made it this far or got stopped in mentioning the Venus de Milo (which many a time required me to give a mini-lecture on that sculpture instead), this always connected me with the next big point: across the board, the grand majority of historians who wrote about the Cycladic figures believe them to be female. I was able to point out the delineated pubic triangles many of the figurines shared, as well as the apparent breasts. For a counter-example, I brought out images of two similar figurines from around the same era that historians believe to be male, as they are missing those two main components. Strangely enough, both of those figures are active, one playing a flute and the other a harp, whereas the female sculptures seem only occupied by holding themselves. This brought up the question, what is there purpose?
Now, here I usually pointed out the stands holding up all of the figurines, and asked my audience if they felt any of these figures could stand on their own. The consensus being no, I also drew their attention to the strangely angled heads of the figures, and suggested that should they be lying down on their backs, the figures would be well supported by their heads. Again, it was time to reiterate that everything I was suggesting is entirely my own perspective based on the many different sources I drew from, and that especially from here on out everything I could offer would be opinion-oriented. Drawing on an old professor’s perspective and words, I offered this phrase to my audience: “Out of the womb, into the tomb; out of the tomb, into the womb.” I argued that the arms crossed around the front of the figures emphasized the fertility or even possible pregnancy of the figures; and considering that nearly every figurine found by archeologists (our only reliable source in excavation) were found in tombs. To me, this combined with their inability to stand, made these figures the perfect symbols of the cycle of life, and perhaps made them an invaluable part of the burial ceremony of the early Cycladic Greeks. This would also explain why they are found in so many different sizes and levels of finishing – should they be a necessary item for burial, no matter what class or income, everyone would need one.
Finally, though this sometimes mixed into to other areas of my presentation, I would focus on some of the stranger questions relating to the figures. While I previously discussed the odd shape of the head, it was also necessary to explain why the only obvious facial feature was the nose. Here is when I would point out Figure 9, which still retains just enough of its original paint to delineate the drawing in of an eye and eyebrows. There are a few others that show paint markings on the face, and one that shows some within the incisions between the toes of a figure. This always opens up a wonderful conversation about the painting of sculpture, something that very few people seem to be aware existed quite commonly in Ancient Greece. There were also those who seemed unconvinced by my fertility argument, referring to other examples we have of “fertility goddesses,” all of whom are very voluptuous. This is another difficult question, and all I could draw upon was my own experience. Keeping in mind the Greek mentality throughout all of what we call Ancient Greece was idealism, I referred to the kore and kouros figures, the idealized versions of Greek youths, considered the best that society had to offer at the time. Then I talked a bit about the Greek diet, which especially in the Cyclades relied mostly on fish, local weeds, and wine – all very light, non-fattening foods. Perhaps the Greek fertility goddess would be slim and fit, whether or not she is meant to symbolize pregnancy or abundance.
Overall, the best aspect of my experience was when someone walked away saying they were impressed, they had never known anything about these figurines or this time period in art before and now know and care about it, and that they were interested in continuing on through the room in chronological order to explore what came after these beautiful, simple figures. I thoroughly enjoyed sharing my opinions with all that were willing to listen and encouraging my audience to have their own critical opinions of what they see when they explore art. Participating in this exercise at the Louvre always makes me appreciate Paris, museum culture, and my decision to study Art History more. I am honored to have been a part of this season’s “Les jeunes ont la parole,” and look forward to participating again in the future.