In the last thirty years or so many factors have worked together to call for a review and a revaluation of past periods of art. Easier means of communication and travel, more scientific and systematic conduction of excavations, the development in photographic reproduction, better arrangement and showing of collections in museums, the breakdown of the complete domination of later decadent Greek art as the only standard of excellence – the interplay of such factors as these, together with the work of the important artists of the last thirty or forty years, in their researches and experiments, has enlarged the field of knowledge, interest and appreciation of the world's past art.
M. Christian Zervos has now produced two of his series of volumes devoted to the great periods of art. His first volume, L!Art en Grèce, appeared a few months ago; the second volume, UArt de la Mésopotamie, has just appeared. Both set a new standard for books on art, in the selection and quality of the works reproduced and in the size and number (close upon 300) of superb photographs of sculpture.
The present volume covers the period of Mesopotamian art from earliest times up to the time when the Sumerian race was absorbed by the Semites, that is up to the beginning of the Babylonian dynasties. Most scholars and critics writing about Mesopotamian art have either neglected the sculpture of the earlier and greater Sumerian period or else have lumped it together with the later Babylonian and Assyrian work, which (except perhaps for a few isolated pieces) is much inferior. The Sumerian period, as M. Zervos says, cannot be interpreted through the decadent art of the Babylonians and Assyrians, with their materialist and militarist society, their love of the sumptuous and the colossal, their luxurious palaces and temples.
The Sumerians were an agricultural and pastoral people, and they had their poets and perhaps scholars – astronomers and learned men. Their art dates from the birth of civilisation, so that most of the work reproduced in L' Art de la Mésopotamie was made between 5,000 and 4,000 years ago. But it is not necessary to know their history in order to appreciate and respond to these works of art. We need to look at them as sculpture, for once a good piece of sculpture has been produced, even if it was made like the palaeolithic 'Venuses' 20,000 years ago, it is real and a part of life, here and now, to those sensitive and open enough to feel and perceive it.
For me, Sumerian sculpture ranks with Early Greek, Etruscan, Ancient Mexican, Fourth and Twelfth Dynasty Egyptian, and Romanesque and Early Gothic sculpture, as the great sculpture of the world. It shows a richness of feeling for life and its wonder and mystery, welded to direct plastic statement born of a real creative urge. It has a bigness and simplicity with no decorative trimmings (which are the sign of decadence, of flagging inspiration). But for me its greatest achievement is found in the free-standing pieces – sculpture in the round, which is fullest sculptural expression – and these have tremendous power and yet sensitiveness. The sculpture of most early periods, even when carved from a block and not from a slab, Is not fully realised form, it is relief carving on the surface of the block; but these Sumerian figures have full three-dimensional existence.
And in Sumerian art (as perhaps in all the greatest sculpture and painting) along with the abstract value of form and design, inseparable from it, is a deep human element. See the alabaster figure of a woman which is in the British Museum and reproduced here [see fig.40], with her tiny hands clasped in front of her. It is as though the head and the hands were the two equal focal points of the figure – one cannot look at the head without being conscious also of the held hands. But in almost all Sumerian work the hands have a sensitiveness and significance; even in the very earliest terracotta figures, where each hand seems no more than four scratches, there is a wealth of meaning there.
Except for the impressions from Sumerian seals which are all placed at the end, and which are remarkable for their vitality and flicker of life, the reproductions in this book are arranged chronologically, and so one can observe the changes that occur as the period proceeds. From the beginning to the end there is astonishing virility and power. Perhaps the Gudea period (about 2400 B.C.) can be called the peak of Sumerian art. Soon after then it seems to fall quickly, and from bare sculptural statement moves towards decorative and linear stylisation. In many of the earliest works (around 3000 B.C.) there is a richness, a tenderness and fullness. The Gudea period (which 'A Governor of Lagash' beautifully represents) is baldly powerful with a tense, held-in tightness, of conserved energy.
And throughout the whole period, the Sumerian artist shows understanding of the possibilities and limitations of whatever material he uses. Clay, being soft, is modelled, and is worked quickly, and allows a freedom of treatment. So that the terracottas have spontaneity and ease. Stone by its resistance gives to the carvings more hardness, power and precise exactness. And there is a difference between the free-standing sculpture and the reliefs. Their sculpture in the round is still and static, no physical movement or action is attempted, for one of the essential facts about a block of stone is its weight and immovability But in their reliefs we find actual movement and action portrayed – for work in relief is akin to drawing, and it is an easy attribute of line to flow and move.
The photographs in L'Art de la Mésopotamie are by M. Horacio Coppola, and they cannot be overpraised. As a substitute or as an introduction to the actual sculptures good photographs are very useful. In illustrated books on sculpture the photographs should be the best possible and well reproduced, or the book loses half its value. Most people, I think, respond more easily and quickly to a flat image than to a solid object (this may partly explain why sculpture seems to be a more difficult art to appreciate than painting). I have often noticed that people, after seeing a good photograph of a piece of sculpture which until then they had more or less ignored, find their interest in the original greatly increased.
The real appreciation of sculpture comes from seeing and comprehending it in its full three-dimensional volume, but if a photograph leads people to see the original, then it has been of value.
Some of the photographs in M. Zervos' book are many times larger than the original works. To see a piece one knows to be only 2 or 3 inches high, looking several times its real size comes as a great surprise – but I think it is legitimate to use any means which help to reveal the qualities of the work. A further justification for these enlarged photographs is that they may draw attention to very fine small pieces which, exhibited in a crowded collection, can easily be overlooked. Another point raised by these small figures seen suddenly enlarged four or five times, is the importance of size in sculpture. These small figures, seen so much bigger, take on an extra importance and impressiveness, and are a proof that size itself has an emotional value. But size alone should not in sculpture become of main importance. There is a limit at which the control of the unity of the parts to the whole becomes physically too difficult – and when the love of size becomes a love of the colossal it results in insensitiveness and vulgarity.
About one-third of the reproductions in M. Zervos' book are of works in the British Museum, and help us to realise what a wonderful selection of the world's sculpture we have there. It is only recently that the Mesopotamian works have been collected in one room and shown so that they can now be well seen. A central position has been given to the very fine upper portion of the figure already mentioned, A Governor of Lagash', acquired by the Museum two or three years ago. But the effect of this figure has been ruined by the way it has been abominably mounted on a wooden stand which is a kind of reconstruction of the remainder of the figure.