Saturday, July 29, 2023

Cycladic Figures from the Metropolitan Museum: Art from Magic


The Cyclades is a group of about 30 small islands in the Aegean Sea that seemed to form a circle around the island of Delos - the birthplace of Apollo. These marble figures date from a culture that existed from about 3000 to 1000 BCE on these islands.

Nobody really knows what function these figures used to serve for their Cyclades' creators. During this period of human history, in this part of the world, 'art' always seemed to serve some practical, magical or religious purpose. All archaeologists can tell us is that these figures were almost always female, they were painted and they were placed in graves. Yet, there is strong evidence that the figures were owned throughout the lifetime of the person into whose grave they were ultimately placed and not everyone was buried with such a figure.

Magic preceded art, art served magic and art was then liberated from magic. We who view these figures now can no longer share the beliefs that these figures served. But, we can see in these figures how objects created to serve some magical function also possessed the potential for what we now call artistic interpretation or meaning, beyond the intentions of their creators. Indeed, one could argue that it is impossible to recapture the ancient belief system behind the work and that all we can do is to derive a meaning which was not meant to be placed into the object originally. Modigliani, Brancusi and Henry Moore were, in fact, greatly influenced by these figures and were inspired to create their own meaningful forms of visual engagement based on them. So what makes these figures so appealing and compelling to us?

First, the posture of the figures, the way their heads tilt upward and backward - to me, I have always interpreted this as representing a type of ecstasy or joy of inner transformation: the point at which reflection and insight finally kick in to change one and help one rise to a higher and more humane level of being. When one moves from the mundane and predictable to a level of joy, liberation, tolerance, mercy, understanding and fraternity. When one overcomes all the patterns and habits that others have chosen for one, and begins to live for the eternal.

The folded arms represent repose, a posture of looking inward. I can no longer remember the poet from Chicago who wrote this, but one poet said that a corpse with folded arms makes it look like a person diving into him/herself. These figures give off the same impression with their folded arms. The head tilts upward, involuntarily, reflecting a change from inside that will reflect in the person's outward behavior from this point onward. The figures used to have eyes and mouths painted on to them, and now the lack of eyes and mouth helps to create the impression that the figures are looking inward. Indeed, one has to wonder what these figures might have looked like painted and speculate that, perhaps, the paint would have ruined for us the luster of the marble and the impact of a pure, tranquil style.

The elongated necks which contribute to the tranquil style probably represented some type of magical purpose or it might have reflected a beauty trend of that culture and time. Yet, we can also see a slight anxiety in some pieces: the anxiety involved in questioning the extent or possibility of our inner development, wondering whether meaningful change is possible or whether we are all condemned to live as we were wired and raised. Can we merely understand why we do what we do or is it possible to transcend everything…these figures can represent the type of inner change one suspects might exist.  

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