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[BKARTS] WOID XIX-26. The First. Book. Ever.
WOID XIX-26. The First. Book. Ever.
Exhibition Review: Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade and Diplomacy in the
Second Millennium B.C.”
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Through March 15
So nice when you pursue an idea (over years, sometimes), and it turns
out others are pursuing similar ideas and then you meet up by accident.
There’s a show like that at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in a way
predictable, in the same way satisfying, because it ties together knots
that have been waiting to be tied for a long, long time. Oh, and the
works on display are of very high aesthetic quality, meaning they look
About ten years ago I started teaching a course at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art, “Art across Cultures,” and the happiest has always
been the “across” part, not that which makes cultures and nations
and ethnicities distinctive (which is the original anthropological
ambition of most historical museums), but what connects them: exchanges,
superficial similarities, universal patterns, perhaps, and our own ways
of thinking about them. Over the past ten years I’ve noticed the
Museum itself coming closer to a similar cross-cultural model. The
Mezzanine area at the Met has harbored a collection of “Export Ware”
porcelain for a while now; more recently, a few areas have been devoted
to the Art of the Silk Routes. And a large number of temporary
exhibitions have driven home the point – like this one.
“Beyond Babylon” clarifies a point which has been pretty obvious to
anyone interested in Bronze-Age Art: that Bronze-Age people were far
more developed (or maybe regressive) in terms of systematic techniques
of production and commerce. Bronze-Age Art, like Obama-Age Art, didn’t
come from the inner spirituality of its makers as much as it came from
well-organized systems of production and exchange.
The lynchpin for this argument is the centerpiece of this show, the
Uluburun Shipwreck, here on view in a slightly over-the-top design built
to look like a ship’s prow. The original archeological team that
discovered the wreck, the earliest-known ship in existence, were
primarily interested in the enormous copper ingots that sank with it;
they suspect the captain and crew were Canaanites from the present coast
of Israel/Palestine/Lebanon, ferrying raw material (either copper or
glass ingots), across the Mediterranean to be turned into weapons or
artworks in local workshops.
However, the cultural diversity of the objects found in the Uluburun
Ship was far richer than expected: not only raw materials were exchanged
in the fourteenth century BCE, but also decorative and functional
objects, or objects so decorative as to move beyond the functional.
It’s not at all clear how this trade in “artworks” operated, or
even the trade in raw materials, since exchanges were by barter only
(cold cash didn't appear for another five centuries or so); but it’s
obvious from a number of other items in this show that certain objects
were traded for qualities we’d have to call “aesthetic,” most
noteworthy a series of highly polished and abstracted Egyptian
figurines: they have some of the qualities of the Art Deco
“streamline” look, perhaps for the same functional reasons.
Likewise, the exhibit attempts to pinpoint the origin of narrative
subject matter in Western Art: the idea of having images "tell a story"
seems to have originated with the Minoans, and spread from there.
The star of this show, however, is the writing board, or rather writing
boards found in the shipwreck. By some kind of poetic logic they were
preserved in a shipment of pomegranates – the pomegranate is the
symbol of Life in Death in Greek Mythology. These are by far the oldest
such objects known, and the earliest example of what would eventually
become a bound book.
It’s long been known that the type of book used in Europe is derived
from the sets of wooden boards attached together that were used for
quick notetaking and sketches down through the Middle Ages: each board
was covered with wax, and the writer could scratch out a message with a
fine point or stylus, perhaps erasing if she had to with the other end
of the stylus. The boards would then be closed, and the writing
What’s unique about the Uluburun Boards is the hinge: it’s made of
ivory, which is probably the main reason the boards survived
more-or-less intact. A number of similar hinges and boards have been
found in other excavations, but never the two together, and the function
of the hinges was only guessed at previously. The hinge system is
particularly elegant, though: the hinge – hell, the binding - is
composed of three ivory dowels, hollow, and rotating around a wooden
dowel at the center. There are holes on either side of the
top-and-bottom ivory dowels, which attach them to the boards on either
side by smaller dowels, so that the book’s wooden leaves can rotate
around the larger top-and-bottom dowels. The larger dowels raise the
book a little when it’s open, so the two leaves can lie fully open on
a flat surface – assuming, of course, there were flat surfaces circa
In The Red and the Black Stendhal tells a story in passing, about the
deeply spiritual priest who for years had longed to play with a little
puppet that happened to be on the mantelpiece of his spiritual director
– till one day he finally got up the courage to play with it, and that
was that. This show has received some curious reviews, implying it's too
"difficult" for the average viewer. That would be true if, like your
average New York Times critic, the average viewer has never enjoyed
working with his hands, or taking a clock apart. It would be nice if our
spiritual aesthetes some day could come down to the level of a hand-held
booklet just simply to imagine the cool, concrete and practical joy of
the thing one puts together and takes apart again. Go see “Beyond
Babylon”: you’ll have the galleries pretty much to yourself.
- Paul Werner
WOID: a journal of visual language
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