1: Nod and a Wink
Welcome to Accession. Today, we're at the Worcester Art Museum. If you're entering the museum from the mosaic court, start up the stairs, but go neither right nor left. Instead, go forwards, towards the Head of Mentuhotep. If you've come in from the side entrance, through the restaurant, head down, instead of up, and if you continue straight, you should be looking at the giant hat on Mentuhotep's head, with a chip off the top. If Mentuhotep were to look behind him and to his right (your left) he'd see Zefay-Hapy, sitting down on the job, then a relief sculpture of a man who is clearly not relieved, and finally, a glass case with three objects in it. Lets focus on the glass case, and more, lets focus on the man in the skirt who sits at the base of the display. This statuette is one of the oldest pieces in the museum, one of the reasons the WAM can claim to have over 50 centuries of art, and the subject of our episode. Today, we are looking at Worcester Art Museum, Accession number 1937.91, Sumerian Statuette.
If you read the card, it'll tell you that the piece came from an excavation from a temple in Khafaje, north of Bagdhad, that we think it might be a god because of what we know about beards in early Sumerian culture, that it is carved from limestone, and that the eyes are made of inset shells. (For this reason, for the duration of this story, lets call him Shelly.) What is fails to metion, about our dear friend, Shelly, is that this Shelly does not have eyes made of inset shells. Shelly has one eye. The other one is missing. Where there should be an eye is just an empty space, like a black eye, perhaps earned in the same brawl that seems to have broke his now crooked nose.
But maybe Shelly doesn't make you think of some ancient Sumerian's brawling. Maybe instead your thoughts of a one-eyed god take you to the Norse depiction of Odin, the King of Asgard, who would give up anything, even an eye, in his quest for wisdom and knowledge. Or perhaps you think of the more modern iteration of Thor in the Marvel Movies, who, in his most recent installment, lost an eye in his duel with his sister, likening him to his father. Perhaps the single eye makes you think of the all knowing eye that tops the pyramid that backs our dollars. Or maybe you think of the eye that is shared by the Graeae, the ancient Greek sisters who would form the basis for the witches in Macbeth, and who would be mixed with the fates, the Moira, in the 1997 Disney film Hercules. "Past, Present, and Future! (Indoor plumbing; it's gonna be big.)"
Whether you think of the cyclops, or the Jian, or the Dalek, or Sheldon Plankton, or Nick Fury- no matter what you think of as you look upon Shelly, our one-eyed friend, I can almost certainly assure you that the person who first saw a slab of limestone, and thought to use a chisel to carve out this figure, and thought to carve a pattern in to the hem of his dress, and thought to give him a beard and clasp his hands together on his stomach- that person almost certainly did not think of any of the same things you just did.
And that thought may give us pause. Are we doing this wrong? Have we approached this from the wrong mindset? We've only made connections to the gods because the card has told us that beards were often associated with religion, and we know it was excavated from a temple. We only know that it's Sumerian, or that it comes from Khafaje because of the card told us. We only know that this is probably something that we should be looking at because its in a museum, in a glass case, with a card by it. We know nothing of what the Sumerians thought about him- how he was used- wether it was art, or religious icon, or both- what he might have meant to someone over 50 centuries ago. How can a person living now, walking through the Worcester Art Museum, with all these other thoughts about things with one-eye, ever hope to understand what this statuette meant? Or can they ever hope to understand what he meant, all those centuries ago? And without knowing something about that, is there a reason for us to care about him, baring the humorous images and stories his one eye may bring to mind?
There are only a handful of things we can know for sure about Shelly. It turns out Shelly is not alone. That with him, beneath the floor of that temple in Khafaje were just as many sculptures like him. Some men, some women, some with beards, some without, all with skirts, all on pedestals, all in some slight variation on the pose you see in front of you, standing straight, head up, hands clasped and resting on their navel. (It's not a very natural pose to strike. If you feel inclined, give it a try.) Some of them short, some of them tall, but all of them with those wide eyes made of inset shells. (Or, eye, as the case is with Shelly.)
In art, the history of a piece, who has owned it, who has sold it, who has bought it, is known as it's provenance, and in archaeology the provenance tends to be pretty short. We know that this piece came to Worcester from the collection at the University of Pennsylvania, and that the University of Pennsylvania acquired it in one of their many archaeological digs in Iraq, and that in their museum, and in their collection, exist many, many more statues just like this. What we do know much more about is how Shelly was received in the west, and rather than tracing the provenance of who Shelly was owned by, we can actually trace the provenance of how Shelly was written about, and in turn, how Shelly was thought about.
In fact, after the discovery of the King Tut tomb in 1922, there was a bit of a craze surrounding archaeology, and the assyriologists and babyloniophiles road this wave as best they could. Archaeologists like Charles Leonard Wooley, who was responsible for many of the excavations in Irag, including the temples at Ur, would argue that because the Ancient Near Easterns had defeated the Egyptians, there was a superiority to their crafts and artifacts. As well, the names of the cities of the Ancient Near East often came up in the Bibles that folks back home were reading. Ur was often refered to as "Abramham's City" and every attempt was made to suggest that Abraham may have seen the processional of Queen Puabi, a woman whose head dress was excavated in Ur. The media around these excavations was heavily focused on stirring the imagination of the consumer. One reads: "Golden Treasures from Ur: Remarkable Discoveries of Royal Relics in the Ancient Chaldrean City Many Centuries Older than King Tut-Ankh-Amen's Famous Tomb in Egypt" accompanied by a full page spread of color images, including the diadem of Puabi on a mannequin with eyes that look quite like Shelly's (though both intact) contrasted with very modern make-up. Still others read "Evidence that the Queen of Ancient Ur was Clubbed to Death" and "Ancient Queen Used Rouge and Lipstick."
But the source of this sensationalism was not the western media. It was Wooley. Wooley knew his audience. America in the time of the 1920's. A nation in a time of wealth and liberation, rebelling against a system that was telling them not to have fun. This same spirit is harnessed in the way that Wooley talks about Mesopotamia: he conjured up for his readers, his audience, a place of opulence, far better than sandy, dirty old Egypt, where tragedy and royalty, opulence and murder, extravagance and rebellion, were all a part of daily life. And the people in the 1920's could connect to that. Wooley perfectly understood the aesthetic and spirit of his time, down to the style of lipstick he put on the bust, and used that spirit to connect the world to the aesthetic and spirit of another time, some fifty centuries earlier.
Of course, not everyone was so interested in the imagination of the viewer, and this is where our story returns to Shelly. When Shelly came to the Worcester Art Museum from the University of Pennsylvania, he was accompanied by an essay, a letter of introductions of sort, so be published in the museums annual magazine, written by Charles Bache, the assistant curator of the Babylonian collection at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, titled "A Note On Some Sumerian Sculpture". He begins his essay with a quote from Genesis, "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God create he him; male and female he created them." "Since then" he writes "man has been doing the same thing to God." Bache continues on this path about man and god and art before finally arriving at the same question we are asking today "Man's concept of God has a small place here, for how are we to know what a sculptor was thinking when he, a Babylonian, secured of a shrewd trader from Assyria a chunk of limestone? We can but see what he created... It is perhaps time for the archaeologist, the art critic, the archaeologist's critic and the art critic's critic to stop assigning meaning to every creation, and simply look at what there is to look at."
Without saying so explicitly, Bache is suggesting what we might call art appreciation by aesthetics, and this comes out in the way he proceeds to talk about Shelly. "No Effort has been made by the artist to bring out the musculature." "He has ignored, evidently on purpose, details in the treatment of the other parts of the body." "Facial features are given undue proportion to the whole." "The eyes and nose are enlarged to the point of grotesqueness." And this, a view which aims to focus on the aesthetic of the past stands, in a way, antithetical to a way of talking about art that supports and encourages the imagination of the present. And it is this philosophy, which has continued to dominate the writing about this piece that has occurred over the past several decades. Continued descriptions of strength, enlarged eyes, suggesting intensity, devotion, and always with a footnote about how the beard might suggest something religious or god-like about this man, though it has not been proven. (And in all of these articles, the same picture of Shelly turned to right, to show off his good side, the side with the eye.)
This is the school of thought that says that the sculpture has everything to say in the way it is, that it possesses some special kind of magic in its form and shape and expression that will communicate to the viewer all that the viewer needs to know. It was this sort of analysis of these Sumerian pieces, and of Shelly, that inspired modern artists like Willem De Kooning and Henry Moore, seeking to tap into the origin of the human desire to sculpt and the initial creative energies of the human species. (If those names don't sound familiar to you, don't worry. We'll come back to them in a future episode.)
But if we take this view point, if we look at Shelly as a sculpture first, whose form precedes his function, then we give Shelly the position of artwork, even if his initial purpose was not to be art. And here in lies the primary dichotomy at the heart of Shelly. Is he a piece of art, or is he a piece of history? Are we better off understanding what little we can about his time in Khafaje, even if we don't know much? Or are we better off seeing him as one of the earliest versions of mans desire to sculpt the human form? And where will our imagination take us if we follow either path? Is it wrong of us to buy into Wooley's marketing ploys and imagine the society of Sumeria more complexly, if not a little fantastically? And where do you and your imagination fall in how you view Shelly?
These are big questions in the world of art, questions we certainly can't hope to have definitive answers to simply by looking at a very old statuette. But here is what we don't know. We don't know exactly what the Sumerian person thought when he carved this statue. We don't know if he thought it was art, or if it had some religious use. We don't know if the eyes were carved wide to show devotion, or if that was just the aesthetic of the time. We don't know if his stance is meant to strike us with power, or strength, or reverence. We don't know if this figure was there when some queen was bludgeoned in ritual sacrifice or if it sat alone in a room for hundreds of years until an earthquake knocked it of the shelf and buried it.
But we can be sure of two things. The first think that we can be sure of is that despite being quite unsure about a lot surrounding this Sumerian, there is a lot here to care about- a figure carved by a human, with care and attention to detail, alongside other figures of a similar aesthetic, which was eventually buried, by human or by nature, which was later pulled out of the ground, rediscovered, and carefully cleaned by some Western researcher, who took it from its home, to a new world, to the new world, to Philadelphia, when some curator at the Worcester Art Museum reached out to the university, looking for a piece for it's collection. And here it is today, presumably with you and hundreds of other patrons taking a moment to pause and look at his one-eye, and wonder.
And that's the other thing we can be sure of. That when ever any person comes here, to this place, and sees Shelly, there imagination must wonder about that eye. We know that when that curator for the WAM acquired the sculpture, it was missing it's eye, and the university told the museum not to ask for the eye, because they didn't have it. We don't know if the eye was there when the statuette flew across the ocean, far from its home, or if it was there as it was dug up from the ground, or if it's still lying in the dirt under that temple, or if it was list in some scuffle in Sumerian, thousands of years ago, or if the sculptor ever put an eye on in the first place. (Well, we're pretty sure there was an eye there at some point, but you get the picture.) And we can be sure that every human who has looked at Shelly in all his time being without a right eye has stoped and imagined, and brought with them all the cultural artifacts that they carry, of a man, or a god, or a beast with one eye. The human imagination, however inconsistent, is really the only constant we can be assured of.
And so while we know the ancient's weren't thinking of superhero movies, there is one way that every single person along Shelly's story, the ancients and the architects and the scholars and the curators and the viewers, one way that every one of those people might have viewed Shelly's missing eye, one thought that may have come to mind, which is expressed perfectly in a poem written by Morris Bishop for the New Yorker in 1952, when he was one such patron to the Worcester Art Museum. It goes like this:
Our special thanks this week goes out to the library staff at the Worcester Art Museum who helped me find the poem that you heard at the end of the show, and who are very supportive of my work as I pour through their stacks and files. Also to the many WAM staff who aided me in my quest to find the oldest piece of art in the collection. Believe it or not, there is a piece that is potentially a little older than Shelly, but I’ll leave finding that up to you.
Some of the ideas and the history on Wooley from the middle of this episode came from "From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics" by Jennifer Y. Chi and Pedro Azara. It is the book that went along side an exhibit on these Sumerian statuettes, and it is quite good. The rest of the information in this episode came from publications of the Worcester Art Museum, which can all be found by visiting their library.
Our show art was made by V Silverman. You can hire them to make art for you at their website.
Our theme was recorded and engineered by Casey Dawson. You can hire him to make music for you at his website.
This episode was written, recorded, and edited by me, T.H. Ponders.