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Sumer in the City

Recent events in the region add resonance to the Met’s magnificent gathering of ancient art from the Fertile Crescent; Malevich’s supreme Suprematism at the Guggenheim.

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Goat of Arms: From Ur, Rearing Goat With a Flowering Plant (ca. 2550-2400 BC)  

The recent looting of the museum in Baghdad gives the show Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. From the Mediterranean to the Indus—which recently opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—a contemporary impact rarely found in exhibitions of ancient art. The anxiety created by this looting goes well beyond a concern over the Army’s inability to defend the museum or the larger failure to protect ancient sites around the globe. It evokes a more fundamental crime, calling to mind the violation of a birthplace—or, to put it differently, the robbing of the “cradle” of civilization. The societies that began to develop about 5,000 years ago in what is now Iraq seem only a step away from the origins of mankind. They occupy a mysterious and important place in our imagination, one that lies somewhere between the shadow of myth and the reality of historical time. You don’t drive Humvees through the Garden of Eden. You don’t plunder your family’s tomb.

Organized by Joan Aruz, curator in charge of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Met, “First Cities” contains around 400 works from more than 50 museums around the world. It concentrates on the cultural evolution of the early cities that emerged between the Tigris and Euphrates, but also includes material from lands throughout the region that were affected by developments in Mesopotamia, ranging from the Aegean to the Indus Valley. On display are marvelous examples of statuary, jewelry, architectural elements, cylinder seals, and various decorative objects. Some of the most dramatic and memorable works in the show come from the Royal Cemetery at Ur. The British Museum, for example, has lent the legendary Standard of Ur from the Early Dynastic Period (2550–2400 B.C.), a richly colored and geometrically designed mosaic that on one side commemorates a battle—with chariots and corpses—and on the other celebrates a banquet replete with the bounty of the land.

What may surprise many people is that well before the Old Testament was written, the main elements of art were already largely in place. These city-dwellers worked in a sophisticated manner with narrative, metaphor, and symbol. They were attracted to both geometric and biomorphic design. They used art to celebrate spiritual and material ends. Some of their figures were more abstract, some more natural, in appearance. (The noble figures created at the close of the third millennium B.C. in the city-state of Lagash are early miracles of observation.) At the same time, the art retains a rough-hewn vitality rarely found in more advanced societies. The animals often seem partly human, the humans partly animal. The hammered gold evokes the sun, the lapis lazuli the sea, the carnelian the blood and fire of life. The extraordinary crown and “cape of beads” found in the tomb of a woman who was probably a Sumerian queen —her name was Puabi—still pulse with energy. Buried in the nearby tomb of a king was a magnificent lyre adorned with a bull’s head, which rested on the heads of three women who were probably sacrificed as part of the royal entourage. In the afterlife, they would fashion music from a divine bull.

The art of “First Cities” arouses in contemporary viewers a strangely complex sensation of time. The objects are obviously ancient, but they can’t just be called old. In terms of the evolution of art, they are actually young and fresh. No intelligent person should romanticize early urban society, of course, but only those with impoverished imaginations will fail to feel the pull of such beginnings. In certain respects, we are older today than the ancients. We know the weight of time and the burden of history.


A perfect counterpoint to “First Cities” is Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism, which recently opened at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Malevich (1878–1935) longed to escape from the burdensome weight of history—to “break free from the globe of the earth.” He dreamed of ending, once and for all, what the first cities began. In his writings on Suprematism, the theory of art that he launched in 1915, Malevich seemed to believe that he could transcend time itself. In his nonobjective art, the world melts rapturously into the air. Form takes flight.

Malevich developed his art in revolutionary Russia, where many of his contemporaries seriously believed that the mind of mankind was being remade. Under the circumstances, it seemed absurd to describe the new world in the old ways: Art must no longer be confined to a style, period, or place. The show at the Guggenheim, which was organized by Matthew Drutt of the Menil Collection, focuses almost exclusively upon the revolutionary Suprematist period, during which Malevich abandoned Cubism to concentrate upon pure building blocks of form. It includes a number of unfamiliar drawings and paintings as well as some of Malevich’s plaster “Architektons”—visionary architectural models for a new society. Although we have grown accustomed in the past century to geometric abstraction, there remains something thrilling about Malevich’s squares, crosses, and flying forms. Like the Russian icons to which they are often compared, the Malevich abstractions gain spiritual power because they are also so physical. Their surfaces are as loamy as the earth itself: The paint becomes a laying-on of hands.

Of course, Malevich did not escape from history. He was eventually crushed by the totalitarian state, yet another victim of Stalin, and returned to realist representation. Focusing upon Suprematism, as this show does, is a way to avoid that melancholy coda. But the pressure of history and time upon Malevich can still be felt in other ways. Many of his Suprematist pictures have visibly deteriorated. The paint is often cracked; the whites appear yellowed or gray. And there is something telling about the way his work is being exhibited. The Guggenheim was originally intended to be a museum of “nonobjective art,” with Malevich one of its brightest stars. But Malevich is now consigned to the side galleries, while an artist of our particular moment—Matthew Barney—occupies the rotunda. The poet Ezra Pound, a man of Malevich’s generation, famously said, “Art is news that stays news.” The painter de Kooning, who came later, said he had developed a “nostalgia for new things.” The fading of the exclamatory present into the past is one of the great disappointments of modern culture.

Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. From the Mediterranean to the Indus
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art; through 8/17.

Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism
At the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; through 9/7.


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