Symphony in stone
B.N. Goswamy

It would be a mistake to think of the Mediterranean in its current dimensions, when you can traverse the area in a plane boarded at dawn in Beirut, be at Athens by breakfast time and meet your friends in the centre of Madrid for lunch.......We should regard it more as a vast, taut canvas sail at a time when the Mediterranean was on its own a whole world, a universe, and an entire planet."

Nikolaos Stampolidis, Director of the Cycladic Museum, Athens

Female figure from the Cyclades
Female figure from the Cyclades

I wonder how many in our corner of the world even know the Cyclades, that group of ancient islands in the Aegean sea, or have ever heard the names of some of the individual islands – Melos, Andros, Paros, Kithinos, Sifnos, Delos, Kea, and the like – that make that extraordinary group up. And yet, strange as it might sound, there was a time when – in the days of our ancestors – there was, among people separated by long distances and difficult terrain, sharp awareness of one another, and an extraordinary labyrinth of commercial and cultural exchanges spread in all directions. In our own land, the Harappan people, going back to the 4th millennium BC, were undoubtedly bound by ties of commerce with far off lands in the West Asian world. As long ago as the 7th millennium BC, people from mainland Greece were making the dangerous sea voyages to Melos in the Cyclades to collect obsidian, that volcanic glass-like stone known to pre-metal cultures, and the Mycenaeans were importing amber from the Baltic, amethyst from Afghanistan, ostrich eggs from Africa and, presumably, gold from Egypt.

Small figures unearthed in the Cyclades a little over a century and a half back, have had an extraordinary impact on the modern mind and sensibility. Dug up from old burial sites, where they lay with all kinds of other objects surrounding them, most of these are minimally carved nude female figures, slim bodies with ample hips, with arms folded over the waist, standing as if staring into space. Most of them are eyeless, hook-nosed, and long necked, with the features of the face barely indicated – a simple dorsal ridge breaking the surface just slightly – but such is the exquisite balance and simplicity of these figures, such the purity of their form, that they appear to be islands of stillness in themselves.

The celebrated Goulandris collection, now housed in the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, features objects other than the exquisite female figures with which that art has virtually come to be identified: objects such as figures of male musicians, vases, jewellery, and pottery pieces. But it is the female figures, those ‘marble maidens’ as they have come to be called, that dominate the collection, and the field. Some of these figures had started entering museums and private collections in the late 19th century, soon after they were unearthed and appeared on the market as archaeological remains of a lost and silent culture: silent because it was pre-literate.

But the interest in them was essentially of an antiquarian nature, their artistic qualities buried under such labels as ‘primitive’, ‘crude’, or ‘barbaric’. It was not long before some of the modern masters of art saw the very qualities they were themselves striving to work towards and emphasise: simplicity, purity, abstraction. The list of the sculptors who found these little figures, most of them of oat and pearl-coloured marble, not more than the length of a forearm, irresistible, is long, and features some of the greatest names in modern sculpture: Brancusi, Modigliani, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, among them. The work of Brancusi so evokes the Cycladic in its simplicity of form and restriction of detail that Epstein and others believed that the Rumanian sculptor must have been inspired by the Cycladic figures he had seen in Paris. Henry Moore, who owned three of these, spoke of the simple force of Cycladic figures and acknowledged his debt to those that he had seen in the British Museum from 1920. Picasso owned one and is said to have remarked of it: ‘Better than Brancusi. Nobody has ever made an object stripped that bare.’ Barbara Hepworth’s work can be seen to echo Cycladic, and Giacometti acknowledged affinities between his own work and Cycladic. Somehow the simple art of the unknown fishermen and farmers of some small islands in the Aegean spoke in a voice that could be heard with bell-like clarity by ears that could hear, across thousands of years of history.

It was all a matter of discovery, or re-discovery, made in the light of a new sensibility. But it also became – inevitably and astonishingly quickly – one of commerce. Very soon, after this validating stamp had been put on it by minds that had become the icons of art in the twentieth century, there was a scramble for Cycladic Art. Dealers and gallery owners joined hands with avaricious ‘grave-diggers’ who descended upon the Cyclades, digging and exporting, often without licence and certainly without scruple. A great deal of cultural and archaeological data was lost, for no records were kept. And some started being fabricated, for, demand outstripping supply, the fakers sprang into action. And so on. One has to read some of the detailed histories of this phase to realise, with mounting sadness, what world of greed the elegant and guileless fertility goddesses of the Cyclades or were they votive offerings? - were now finding themselves in. Some 5,000 years after they had been brought into being by simple, devout hands.