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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the May 28, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Rocking the Cradle of Civilization
It’s the eyes that linger longest in memory. Large,
limpid, intelligent eyes that reach out to us across a breathtaking
span of 5,000 years.
At New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, ancient figurative sculpture
and marvels of decorative arts have been assembled in the heartbreakingly
timely exhibition, "Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium
B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus." In its expansive and
beautifully installed survey of the flowering of the world’s earliest
civilizations in Mesopotamia — present-day Iraq — these sculptures,
instruments of learning, and fabulous bodily adornments reach out
and seize the viewer with their presence and passion.
The exhibition of some of the oldest expressive art in the world allows
us to share the cultural achievements of Sumerian civilization as
it evolved in the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. This
is where the first city-states and urban societies emerged, along
with the birth of written language and law. The show also traces the
cultural expansions and interconnections that resulted from trade
and conquest between the wealthy Ancient Near East and outlying societies.
The exhibition features 400 ancient works of art — including sculpture,
jewelry, vessels, weapons, inlays, cylinder seals, and tablets —
all displaying the quality of the art of Mesopotamia. History is manifest
here in artifacts, maps, and texts that you can really comprehend.
There is also a marvelous artistic thrust, a melding of figurative
representation with an abstract and fantastical flair that is simply
scintillating. The design flair of this exhibition carries through
from the fabulous gold bull’s head that cheerfully supports the Lyre
of Ur to another strikingly abstract bull’s head sculpted in copper,
discovered in the Barbar Temple of Bahrain, which now appears on that
nation’s bank notes.
That an exhibition that was six years in planning would prove so timely
is a blessing and a curse. It allows us to experience and appreciate
the marvelous accomplishments of one of the most creative periods
in the history of art, which took place in the fertile crescent, with
modern Iraq as its epicenter. It also allows us to mourn the most
recent instance of 5,000 years of continuous warfare: the effective
sacking of Baghdad during the invasion of Iraq by a U.S. led force,
in April, 2003.
Four days of looting at the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad by Iraqis,
from April 8 to 12, and the burning of the National Library, came
after months of intense lobbying of the U.S. administration by top
museum professionals around the world, all pleading for protection
for these shared treasures of our earliest civilization. But while
Baghdad’s Ministry of Oil was strictly guarded by soldiers and tanks,
looting of the museum went unimpeded.
"Baghdad is awash with people offering antiquities, real and fake,
to foreigners," wrote a reporter for the London Guardian in early
May. "In the markets, at street corners and roundabouts, statues
and seals said to be more than 5,000 years old are on offer. The market
in fakes is sophisticated and many of them carry the markings of the
Iraqi National Museum." Even Doonsbury’s college kid Jeff arrived
back from his CIA mission in Baghdad with a 4,000-year-old scroll,
purchased from looters, that he and roommate Zipper were ready to
post for sale on E-Bay.
Even as the looting was underway, museum professionals around the
world came together to condemn the catastrophic losses. Eventually
a military and civilian team was dispatched, headed by U.S. Marine
Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, to try to stabilize the situation and begin
the recovery effort. This team’s preliminary report, made on Friday,
May 16, indicates that losses were not as numerous as first feared
and may amount to less than 50 important items (see sidebar on page
31). But just a week after this somewhat optimistic assessment, on
May 23, the New York Times reported the wholesale looting of many
of Iraq’s major and formerly protected archaeological sites. "In
two weeks, they have ruined all the work that was done over 15 years,"
archaeologist Susanne Osthoff told the Times.
When "Art of the First Cities" opened in New
York in early May, the timing could not have been more agonizing.
At the press opening on Monday, May 5, some 170,000 items from the
National Museum in Baghdad were missing and feared lost in a disaster
whose scale was suspected but still unknown. The Metropolitan Museum
took the unusual measure of presenting its director, Philippe de Montebello,
exhibit curator Joan Aruz, associate director Mahrukh Tarapor, along
with Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, and the British
Museum’s Ancient Near East curator John Edward Curtis. The group spoke
before the press and a gathering of museum professionals and lenders
to the exhibition from throughout the Middle East.
"If the original reports of rampant looting and senseless destruction
prove true, the devastating loss to world culture is incalculable,"
said de Montebello. "That this dazzling artistic record of one
of the cradles of civilization may have vanished is a staggering blow
to history and art alike."
"The patrimony of Iraq is also the patrimony of the world,"
MacGregor told the gathering. Next came Curtis, just returned from
a UNESCO mission to Baghdad, who was able to report that most of the
portable objects were removed from the museum’s cases before the war,
but 30 to 40 significant and less portable items were still missing
— plus 15 he saw smashed on the premises. Among the most significant
items stolen seems to be the Iraqi treasure commonly known as "The
Sacred Vase of Warka" (a key monument that is represented in the
Met’s exhibit by a mural-size illustration), and an Akkadian bronze
statue base of 160 kilograms which, Curtis said, that would have required
four or five men to remove.
Visibly upset, Curtis described for the museum professionals the vandalism
he had witnessed and the manner in which the national museum’s administrative
offices were "trashed."
"Every paper, every computer disk, every photograph, every negative
was pulled out and thrown on the floor and trampled," and some
piles appeared to him to have been prepared to be burned. "We
museum professionals know that the loss of our documentation and paperwork
is like losing our arms and legs," he said.
Curator Aruz explained how the "Art of the First
Cities" was originally conceived in 1997 to mark the new millennium
with a celebration of our collective connectedness and debt to "the
cradle of civilization." Yet even then, she knew her show about
Iraq would have to be assembled without the participation of Iraq,
already under sanctions from its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Iran was
also excluded, for legal and political reasons, from the outset. Over
the six years of subsequent exhibit planning, she explained with understatement,
"these geo-political factors did not ebb."
The Met’s associate director Mahrukh Tarapor traveled widely throughout
the friendlier nations of the Middle East to gain support and loans
of art. Then came September 11, 2001, and negotiations became further
complicated and politicized. Exhibit planning was temporarily brought
to a halt. She credits a gesture by Kuwait to proceed with an important
loan as playing a healing role in promoting the realization of the
"From our point of view it is beyond comprehension that an exhibit
that began as education has suddenly become an exhibition that is
poignant in its tragic timeliness," said Montebello. In a coda
to his introduction, he expressed the hope that "my words prove
to be melodrama and not the truth," noting that four U.S. tanks
were now stationed at the looted museum.
Finally, in a triumph of cultural — and diplomatic — cooperation,
"Art of the First Cities" has brought together items from
the collections of museums in Bahrain, France, Germany, Greece, Japan,
Kuwait, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Syria, Turkey,
United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, U.S., and Uzbekistan. The loan
from the Syrian Department of Antiquities in Damascus was truly an
eleventh-hour affair, successfully negotiated after the cessation
of armed combat in Iraq, with three objects deemed critical to the
exhibit received into the curators’ hands just 48 hours before the
exhibit opening. Described as "a 48-hour miracle," curator
Aruz called this "a great benediction of this exhibition."
Arranged thematically within a chronological framework, the exhibition
features the remarkable art of Syria and Mesopotamia — the "land
between the rivers" Tigris and Euphrates — where, at cities
such as Uruk, Ur, Mari, and Ebla, monumental architecture made its
first appearance. In these first urban centers, writing was invented
(partly to keep up with the prosperity) and superb objects were made
for temples, households, and the royal court. In this engaging art,
goats, bulls, leopards, and snakes rear up and take on human characteristics.
Some animals exhibit a sly grin while serving platters of food and
goblets of wine. Tiny pictorial cylinder seals, barely an inch high,
are shown alongside their product; rolled across a piece of clay they
render marvelous miniature relief scenes of men, women, animals, and
plants rendered in exquisite and evocative detail.
Much of the show’s most opulent treasure comes from excavations led
by Britain’s Leonard Woolley, between 1922 and 1934, at the ancient
city of Ur. Of the 1,800 graves he excavated were 16 "Royal Tombs"
containing the treasure of an age. Back then Western imperialists
apparently thought nothing of claiming Mesopotamia’s treasures for
itself, carrying its "loot" back home to London, Philadelphia,
Paris, and Berlin.
One of the most famous excavations in Iraq, the excavations at Ur
were co-sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania Museum (UPM) and
the British Museum. One quarter of the extraordinary Sumerian artifacts
now reside in the UPM collection in neighboring Philadelphia. The
British Museum received one quarter and the National Museum of Iraq,
founded in 1923, received half.
Among the UPM items featured at the Met is the magnificent bull-headed
lyre found in a burial at Ur. The large instrument has been restored
with its sweeping wooden bow headed by a gold bull’s head and decorative
inlaid panel of images in gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and shell. It
is stringed for the occasion; the show’s recorded audio guide lets
you listen to the sounds of heavenly string music from Mesopotamia
while admiring the dramatically beautiful instrument.
These royal burials attest to the fabulous wealth of
the cities and their inhabitants. One of the most important works
found at the Royal Tombs at Ur (dated circa 2900 B.C.) is the world-famous
"Standard of Ur" which portrays, in glorious mosaic, themes
of Sumerian kingship. The double-sided casket tells an epic tale:
the trials of warfare are depicted on one side, and a celebratory
banquet on the other. This is the first time this treasure has been
exhibited outside the walls of the British Museum since it came into
the collection from Woolley excavations of the 1920s.
Since the advent of Islam, the human figure has been banished from
representation in the visual arts, but even in the third millennium
B.C. we can identify the gifts of abstraction and ornament based on
natural motifs. Even the least vain of 21st-century women is likely
to swoon over the Royal Crown of Puabi from her tomb at Ur. (Numerous
attendants were buried with her.) The gold, lapis lazuli, and carnelian
headdress is on display with gold hair ribbons, earrings, pins, beaded
cape, and strings of beads so gorgeous they give new meaning to the
concept of "treasure."
Impressive even amidst of such bounty is a gallery that houses six
stone votive figures. The dimly-lit room is designed to resemble the
type of inner sanctuary where only priests, as intermediaries between
the people and the gods, would have been allowed to worship. Clad
in layered robes that look like they could have been made of feathers,
each standing figure has their hands clasped before them. And even
though the sockets of these figures’ oversize eyes, once inlaid with
lapis lazuli, are mostly empty, we immediately comprehend the sense
of awe and wonder that the sight of these temple deities once evoked.
"Although the roots of our own world can be traced back to developments
that took place in and around Mesopotamia during the third millennium
B.C., the art produced in that distant place and time is little known
by the general public," says Phillipe de Montebello. For this
viewer, steeped in the arts of Europe and the Americas, his words
Mediterranean to the Indus, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000
Fifth Avenue, New York, 212-535-7710. The exhibit is featured on the
Met’s Web site: www.metmuseum.org. Exhibit continues to August
Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
under 12 free.
Streets, Philadelphia, 215-898-4000. UPM has set up a special
website on Iraq’s Cultural Heritage accessible from its homepage at
"Joie de Vivre," a shared show by Susanne Pitak Davis and
Fay Sciarra. Open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to May 30
609-989-9417. Annual show and sale of Shona stone sculpture of Zimbabwe
to benefit HomeFront, assisting area homeless families. More than
500 works will be on view and available for purchase at prices that
range from $80 to $10,000. Open Monday to Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 7
p.m.; Thursday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 5
p.m. To June 8.
"Princeton Impressions," an exhibition and sale of impressionist
oil paintings by Olga Holroyd. Images include Princeton University,
flower gardens, and the Delaware-Raritan Canal. To July 6.
"Landscape, Vessels, & the Mathematics of Nature," a theme
show shared by Lois Dickson (landscape oils on linen), Rory Mahon
(vessels in metal and stone), and Sarah Stengle (works on paper examining
the mathematics of nature). Gallery is open daily 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Building 4, third floor, Lawrenceville, 609-896-0732. Solo show
of paintings by Vladimir Grigorovich, a Russian-born artist now living
and working in Port Murray, New Jersey. Open Thursday, Friday, and
Saturday, 3 to 6 p.m. Grigorovich will be present each Saturday during
the show, which runs to June 28.
In Russia, Grigorovich had a successful career as illustrator and
graphic designer, working for several publishing houses. In 1972 he
emigrated to Israel, and since 1975 has lived in the U.S. He has been
represented by the OK Harris Gallery in New York, and has had solo
and group exhibitions here and in Europe.
609-252-6275. "Outsider Art: The Inner Worlds of Self-Taught Artists,"
an exhibit of 75 works by 30 international artists referred to as
self-taught, visionary, and intuitive. Aloise Corbaz, Bill Traylor,
and Adolf Wolfli, historical figures whose works helped define the
category, are represented. Open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.;
weekends and holidays, 1 to 5 p.m. To June 15.
the Deck: The Collection Reconsidered," a show featuring new work
by artists Sanford Biggers, Anne Chu, Ellen Harvey, and Zhang Hongtu,
inspired by the museum collections, curated by Eugenie Tsai, to June
29. Also "The New Vulgarians: New York Pop," an exhibition
of 18 works that seeks to reposition pop in such away that its challenging
and discomforting aspects can be perceived again; to July 13. Also
"The Photographs of Edward Ranney: The John B. Elliott Collection,"
an overview of the artist’s career from 1970 and 1999; to June 7.
Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 5 p.m.
Highlights tours Saturdays at 2 p.m.
Also "The Art of Structural Design: A Swiss Legacy," celebrating
the contributions of Swiss engineers to structural design in the 20th
century; to June 15. "In Pursuit of the Past: Provenance Research
at the Princeton University Art Museum," a behind-the-scenes look
at the research methods used to trace the history of works of art
focusing on issues related to ownership and collecting; to August
School, 609-258-1651. "Ricanstructions," a selection of works
by Puerto Rican artist Juan Sanchez. Open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m.
to 5 p.m.. To June 7.
"Brave New World: 20th-Century Books from the Cotsen Children’s
Library," an exhibition that fills the library’s main gallery
and the Milberg Gallery upstairs.
Library Place, 609-497-7990. "Drawn from Scripture: Woodcuts and
Sculpture," an exhibition of works by Margaret Adams Parker, an
instructor at Virginia Theological Seminary. The show’s woodcuts will
be published to accompany a new translation of the Book of Ruth. Gallery
hours are Monday to Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Sunday 2 to
8 p.m. To June 27.
609-620-6026. "Seeing: Selections from Collection Dancing Bear"
featuring 70 intriguing works focusing of eyes from the photography
collection of W.M. Hunt ’64. Hunt is a New York-based collector and
director of photography at the Ricco-Maresca Gallery in Chelsea. Open
Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to noon; 1 to 4:30 p.m.; Wednesday & Saturday,
9 a.m. to noon. To June 7.
609-586-0616. Spring Exhibition features a new outdoor addition by
Rhea Zinman. In the Domestic Arts Building, Zigi Ben-Haim "Journey
With Me," plus sculptures and paintings by Illya Kagan. Also extended,
glass art by Dale Chihuly. Show continues to July 13. Park admission
$4 to $10.
Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., year round. Adult
admission is $4 Tuesday to Thursday; $7 Friday & Saturday; and $10
Sunday. Annual memberships available.
Ellarslie Open XXI, the annual juried show. Distinguished juror Robert
Sakson selected 85 works by 72 artists from the 310 entries submitted.
Awards for "Best in Show" in painting, sculpture, printmaking,
mixed-media, and photography. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to
3 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. To June 15.
609-292-6464. "Taking It Personally: Selected Paintings 1962 to
2003" by Paul Matthews continues in the museum’s Cityside Gallery.
These large-scale figurative oils address issues of time and transience,
aging and mortality. Political messages, human vulnerability in the
form of nudity, and the natural process of childbearing are all depicted.
To July 27.
Also "Cultures in Competition: Indians and Europeans in Colonial
New Jersey," a show that traces the impact of European settlement
on the native Indians’ way of life after 1600.
The newly-renamed RF Gallery, formerly known as the Rhinehart Fischer
Gallery, features solo show by Bucks County artist John McDowell Williams,
"The Graceful Simplicity of Life." Open Wednesday to Saturday,
10 a.m. to 5 p.m. To June 20.
215-340-9800. "Japanese Prints from the Michener Collection,"
a show of more than 40 ukiyo-e prints by some of the leading
artists of the highly influential school. The show featuring prints
from the Michener Collection of the Honolulu Academy of Arts including
works by Hiroshige and Hokusai. To August 31. Open Tuesday to Friday,
10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Wednesday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m.
to 5 p.m.; and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Museum admission $6 adults; $3
students and children.
Brunswick, 732-932-7237. "June Wayne: Selected Graphics, 1950
to 2000," a show celebrating Wayne’s recent appointment as a research
professor at Rutgers and the establishment of the June Wayne Study
Center and Archive; to June 29. Open Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to
4:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Spotlight tours Sundays
at 2 and 3 p.m. Admission $3 adults; under 18 free; and free on the
first Sunday of every month.
"Mythical Gardens," an exhibition by landscape photographer
Sandra C. Davis featuring imagery of historic stone architecture and
ruins from ancients and Renaissance Italy. Davis creates her images
in historic non-silver printmaking techniques such as palladium, cyanotype,
and gum bichromate. Gallery hours are Friday, Saturday, and Sunday,
11 a.m. to 6 p.m. To June 1.
609-773-0881. Monthly show features George Golia, photographs; Beth
Pituch, abstract works in encaustic, wax, and oils; Jim Lucas, celebrity
portraits in acrylic; Cathy DeChico, acrylic paintings; Janet Waronker,
watercolors; and Judith Hoctor, jewelry. To May 31.
"Seasons," a solo show by landscape artist Robert MaGaw. Open
Thursday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. To June 23.
Annual spring exhibition featuring watercolors, oils, and mixed-media
by W. Carl Burger, and oil paintings by Colette Sexton. Gallery hours
are Wednesday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. To June 1.
609-397-2300. "Salvador Dali: Illustrations for Dante’s Divine
Comedy," a show of 100 woodblocks created in the 1960s. To June
29. @LT = Papier Sun Art Gallery, 39 North Main Street, Lambertville,
609-397-9022. "Awaiting Spring," invitational group show.
Open Friday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. To June 1.
Street, 609-397-0275. "ABC Reunion Show" with work by 13 gallery
alumnae. Group includes Bett Augenblick, Pete Beister, Ryan Brown,
Merle Citron, Corey Dale, NcKinsey Kerr, Michael Lewis, Peggy Lewis,
and Peter Petraglia. Gallery hours are Monday to Thursday, 1 to 9
p.m.; Friday 1 to 5 p.m.; and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. To June
Paintings and pastels by Helen Post. A graduate of Pratt Institute
and Rutgers, artist and educator Helen Post has works in the collections
of Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johnson & Johnson, and many private collections.
To May 31.
Watercolors by Sandra Nusblatt. To June 28.
609-921-3272. The 34th annual Garden State Watercolor Society members
juried exhibition and sale. Jurors are Judy Antonelli and Herbert
Appleson. To June 1. Open Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and
Sunday 1 to 4 p.m.
Wildlife benefit show features art with animal imagery by Susan Howard
and Rachel Bliss, both graduates of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine
Art. Part of proceeds benefit the Mercer County Wildlife Center in
Titusville. Gallery is open Wednesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.;
Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. To June 30.
Pen and ink drawings and calligraphy by Kenneth Kaplowitz, associate
professor of art at the College of New Jersey. To June 7.
"After working each day for a year, I completed 600 pen and ink
drawings. The process was simple. While looking at trees in my back
yard, I allowed my hand to move freely over the drawing surface. In
other words, each brush stroke was drawn without looking at the page
as the image took shape. This was a Zen experience, a result of my
hand’s movement as it traversed the paper. Accident and chance became
my tools," says Kaplowitz.
Branch Station, 908-725-2110. "Backroads & Boulevards," an
international juried show that looks at contrasts and conflicts between
rural and urban environments. Open Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m.
to 4 p.m.; Saturday, 1 to 4 p.m. To July 19.
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