W16 – The Early Reception of Ancient Near Eastern Art

Organizers: Ann C. Gunter (Northwestern University) Jean M. Evans (Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago)


  1. Ann C. Gunter (Northwestern University)
  2. Paul Collins (Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)
  3. Ariane Thomas (Musée du Louvre)
  4. Catherine V. Olien (Northwestern University)
  5. Sabine Böhme (Vorderasiatisches Museum Berlin)
  6. Jean M. Evans (Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago)

General Abstract

The early reception of ancient Near Eastern artifacts as works of art has shaped our discipline in critical and enduring ways. While recent philological and art historical studies have interrogated ancient conceptions of art as an ontological category, we have never fully considered how the early “data set” yielded by archaeological exploration predetermined the relatively narrow range of ancient Near Eastern artifacts that would be granted canonical status. Our inquiry centers on the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century acquisition, classification, display, and reproduction of ancient Near Eastern artifacts works of art. The earliest articulations of ancient Near Eastern art signaled a turn away from an anthropological paradigm in favor of a new paradigm largely modeled on aesthetics, self-consciously mirroring established approaches to Greek art and firmly positioning the ancient Near East as a precursor. Fundamental to developing a notion of “ancient Near Eastern art” was the museum context.
The museum—the primary locus for encountering the newly rediscovered ancient Near East—profoundly shaped the early reception of these artifacts as works of art through acquisition, display, and classification, which in turn influenced initial publications. Prehistoric cultural identities, for example, were often submerged into a homogenous developmental stage. The new conception of ancient Near Eastern art was articulated through the emerging display aesthetics of Western museum practice, which discouraged interpretations grounded in ancient contexts. This approach was reinforced in museum publications and other guidebooks, which isolated individual artifacts through a “highlights” approach, and overwhelming privileged two- and three-dimensional sculpture as paradigmatic of Assyrian, Sumerian, Babylonian, Phoenician, and Cypriot art. The technologies of photography and plaster casting were integral to the early circulation of canonical ancient Near Eastern artworks. Indeed, the earliest survey treatments were in no small measure determined by the availability of photographic reproductions. Access to photographic reproduction had a tendency to organize itself along national boundaries, in turn perpetuating a regional, reductive approach that relegated cultures to secondary status if they could not easily be accommodated within the established canonical approach. Plaster casts of a fixed set of monuments were distributed among the major collections of ancient Near Eastern artifacts, reinforcing and maintaining their canonical status transnationally.
This workshop assembles multiple case studies that elaborate the processes at work in the construction of ancient Near Eastern artifacts as works of art in the formative era before and after 1900: museum display practices, technologies of reproduction and circulation, and the first broad surveys incorporating the ancient Near East in synthetic histories of ancient art.

General Contact: a-gunter@northwestern.edu

Paper Titles with Abstracts

To view the abstracts, please click on the titles:

The Greek Paradigm in Early Histories of Mesopotamian Art
Ann C. Gunter (Northwestern University)

Given the universal museum settings in which Near Eastern antiquities were housed and displayed following their nineteenth-century rediscovery, and an aesthetic framework dominated by classical antiquity, Greek art (and above all, Greek sculpture) dominated the criteria by which their aesthetic value, and thus their art historical significance, were judged. Greek art provided a paradigm for the ideal subject matter (the human figure), developmental sequence (the growth and triumph of naturalism), and most desirable characteristics (beauty and movement). The qualities Mesopotamian art possessed, and those it lacked, were equally determined by detailed comparison with the “perfect” art of ancient Greece. Indeed, to a significant degree, the sculpture, paintings, and architecture of the ancient Near East—while regrettably absent the associated names of individual masters—emerged as “art” through their service as precursors of Greek art.
A focus on the historiographic paradigm of Greek art in histories of Mesopotamian art in the late nineteenth century elaborates the parallel developmental framework adopted for constructing successive artistic phases designated as “primitive,” archaic,” and “classical.” This framework even extended to explicit analogies with sequences established for the history of Greek art. What qualities or features characterized these successive phases? How was the aesthetic vocabulary of Greek art introduced to Mesopotamian monuments, which often differed significantly in material and scale? In their deployment of categories of “fine” and “decorative” arts, and their focus on works in western European collections, these early histories profoundly shaped the historiography of ancient Near Eastern art well into the twentieth century.

Synthesizing Ancient Assyria through Plaster and Paint
Paul Collins (Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

When Assyrian royal palaces were uncovered by European explorers in the mid-nineteenth century, the ancient visual imagery was fitted into a chronological sequence that serialized the artistic progress of civilization. Yet Victorian reconstructions of the past called for a coherence that such archaeological remains failed on their own to provide. In museums, however, it was possible to achieve an almost seamless display of antiquity through the use of full-scale plaster casts that helped to close chronological gaps and also synchronized works from across cultures: the reproductions had the power to turn chaotic realities into seemingly coherent narratives. As with Greek and Roman monuments, singularity and originality were prized and a select number of Assyrian sculptures were cast in plaster and distributed to museums around the world. 
Alongside the perceived aesthetic value of this Assyrian art, its reception was also shaped by the architectural role of the Assyrian sculptures, which were often arranged in museums to provide a setting for smaller objects and models displayed in cases. It was through full-scale, three dimensional fragments that an emerging global history of monuments could be experienced both spatially and simultaneously. Indeed, new casting techniques invented in the mid-nineteenth century made the diffusion of huge building fragments possible. Since casts also provided an opportunity to add color to ancient monuments, Assyria was also incorporated into scholarly debates over polychromy, where its monuments were paralleled or contrasted with the art of other ancient cultures. The result was a synthesized Assyria in which the monumental architectural exteriors and interiors of the palaces were reconstructed in plaster and reproduced in print as integrated examples of a distinct but complete and diverse exoticism, helping to establish a notion of an otherwise rather nebulous “Orient.”

The Louvre Museum as a Case Study for the Early Reception of Ancient Near Eastern Art in France
Ariane Thomas (Musée du Louvre)

Since the opening of the Assyrian Museum in 1847, the Louvre displayed ancient Near Eastern art. Through a history of the collection’s display—what was exhibited and how—as well as the structure of its publications, we can elaborate the early reception of ancient Near Eastern art and its impact over a period of many decades. The early publications on ancient Near Eastern objects after they arrived in France help us to better understand how they were viewed at the time and how they were classified in the hierarchy of ancient art, notably between Egyptian art and Greek art. This paper will deal with the history of the ancient Near Eastern art galleries in the Louvre, examining the way these objects and/or their reproductions (casts, etc.) were shown and labeled not only in the museum but also in specific shows like the universal exhibitions. This study also considers related courses offered at the École du Louvre and the publications devoted to the Louvre collections.

Classifying Ancient Cyprus in Paris and London in the Late Nineteenth Century
Catherine V. Olien (Northwestern University)

The 1860s and 1870s saw a rush of European archaeological activity on the previously little-explored island of Cyprus.  As the excavated material made its way back to the collections of western Europe, scholars struggled to understand what they took to be a new and puzzling preclassical antiquity, yet which manifested connections to multiple, more familiar ancient Mediterranean cultures. My paper explores how the aesthetics of Cypriot sculpture determined general perceptions of ancient Cyprus and its place in museums and art historical surveys. I am interested in the tensions that emerged as scholars sought to label Cypriot art in contemporary terms. How did the discovery of this sculpture—neither “Greek,” nor “Oriental,” nor fully independent—challenge nineteenth-century scholars and institutions? What solutions did individuals propose to the difficulties of classifying and displaying this striking artistic tradition? Why did Britain and France—both keen to acquire Cyprus as strategic outpost in the eastern Mediterranean—develop such different views on the island’s ancient material culture, with Cypriot antiquities considered “Oriental” at the Louvre but “Greek” at the British Museum? What effect did Cypriot politics and scholarship have on the development and professionalization of the disciplines of archaeology and art history more broadly?

Anthroposophical Concepts Included: Walter Andrae’s Installation of the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin
Sabine Böhme (Vorderasiatisches Museum Berlin)

In 1930, Walter Andrae, the incoming head of the Ancient Near Eastern Department, opened the first completely installed galleries exhibiting architectural finds from Babylon in the southern wing of the Neubau on the Berlin Museum Island (today's Pergamon Museum).  These included Babylon’s Ishtar Gate, the Processional Way, and the palace throne room panel composed of ancient and modern glazed bricks. Andrae was well prepared for the task. As a trained engineer he had long worked under Robert Koldewey on the excavations at Babylon, Fara, and Ashur. His drawing talents were exceptional, well demonstrated in his sketches of excavation camp life and comic strips with ancient Near Eastern figures. By 1936, Andrae had given the Ancient Near Eastern display its final shape, with additional galleries devoted to Uruk and Babylon, Ashur, Commagene, and many others.
As deeply as Andrae respected the tradition of German Oriental archaeology—whose legacy he had helped to secure during the Weimar Republic—he believed that scholarly research as well as its presentation to the public would have to explore new paths. Among successive generations of Near Eastern archaeologists in Germany, it was an open secret that Andrae was a dedicated follower of anthroposophy, a spiritual movement founded by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). This paper explores the extensive archival and published sources documenting Andrae’s introduction of anthroposophical concepts in designing the museum’s ancient Near Eastern displays.

Representing Mesopotamia in the Earliest Galleries of the Oriental Institute Museum
Jean M. Evans (Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago)

Although the early European reception of Mesopotamia in the British Museum, the Musée du Louvre, and later the Vorderasiatisches Museum has been an important topic of research, the manner in which that reception framed the collections of American institutions has received little attention. By the early twentieth century, the University of Chicago already possessed a collection of Mesopotamian artifacts as well as an impressive array of plaster casts. For the opening of the Oriental Institute Museum in 1931, however, specific additional casts were acquired by James Henry Breasted, founder of the Oriental Institute and its first director. In this way, the collections of London, Paris, and Berlin dominated the earliest Mesopotamian galleries in the Oriental Institute Museum.
The Oriental Institute could capably amass a largely unsurpassed archaeological collection through early twentieth-century fieldwork in Iraq, but the canonical Mesopotamian monuments had already been established. If western European museums disseminated the notion of canonical Mesopotamian monuments, the Oriental Institute Museum perpetuated and reinforced that canon by foregrounding three-dimensional reproductions in the Mesopotamia galleries. That monuments typically lacked the datasets yielded by systematic archaeological excavation was in no way discordant with the research agenda of the Oriental Institute, because Mesopotamian monuments yielded information—textual, aesthetic, and anthropological—that could be located externally to archaeological data. Reproductions were not only important tools of research, but they also contextualized the Oriental Institute’s new archaeological collections within an established canon of Mesopotamian monuments.

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