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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

exhibit.

"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

ring true.

Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the

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

17.

The museum is open Fridays and Saturdays 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.;

Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Closed Mondays.

Suggested admission $12 adults; $7 students and seniors; children

under 12 free.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum, 33rd and Spruce

Streets, Philadelphia, 215-898-4000. UPM has set up a special

website on Iraq’s Cultural Heritage accessible from its homepage at

www.museum.upenn.edu.

Top Of Page
Art in Town

Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-8777.

"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

Stone Sculpture from Zimbabwe, 41 Palmer Square West,

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.

Triumph Brewing Company, 138 Nassau Street, 609-924-7855.

"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.

Witherspoon Gallery, 27 Witherspoon Street, 609-279-1592.

"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.

Top Of Page
Art in the Workplace

Abud Family Foundation for the Arts, 3100 Princeton Pike,

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.

Gallery at Bristol-Myers Squibb, Route 206, Lawrenceville,

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.

Top Of Page
Campus Arts

Princeton University Art Museum, 609-258-3788. "Shuffling

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

10.

Bernstein Gallery, Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson

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.

Firestone Library, Princeton University, 609-258-1148.

"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.

Princeton Theological Seminary, Erdman Hall Gallery, 20

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.

Lawrenceville School, Gruss Center of Visual Arts, Lawrenceville,

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.

Top Of Page
Art In Trenton

Grounds for Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton,

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, Trenton City Museum, Cadwalader Park, 609-989-3632.

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.

New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton,

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.

RF Gallery, 46 West Lafayette, Trenton, 609-695-0061.

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.

Top Of Page
Area Museums

James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 South Pine Street, Doylestown,

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.

Zimmerli Art Museum, George and Hamilton streets, New

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.

Top Of Page
Art by the River

Artists’ Gallery, 32 Coryell Street, Lambertville, 609-397-4588.

"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.

Artsbridge, Canal Studios, 243 North Union Street, Lambertville,

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.

Atelier Gallery, 108 Harrison Street, Frenchtown, 908-996-9992.

"Seasons," a solo show by landscape artist Robert MaGaw. Open

Thursday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. To June 23.

Coryell Gallery, 8 Coryell Street, Lambertville, 609-397-0804.

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.

Howard Mann Art Center, 45 North Main Street, Lambertville,

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.

Peggy Lewis Gallery, Lambertville Public Library, 6 Lilly

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

13.

Area Galleries

Family Framers, 15 East Railroad Avenue, Jamesburg, 732-605-7900.

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.

Hopewell Frame Shop, 24 West Broad Street, Hopewell, 609-466-0817.

Watercolors by Sandra Nusblatt. To June 28.

Montgomery Center for the Arts, 124 Montgomery Road, Skillman,

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.

Morpeth Gallery, 43 West Broad Street, Hopewell, 609-333-9393.

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.

Plainsboro Public Library, Plainsboro Road, 609-275-2897.

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.

Printmaking Council of New Jersey, 440 River Road, North

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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