Wednesday, February 11, 2015

`Springtime Art in Any Culture'

On the next-to-last page of Rendez-vous with Art (Thames and Hudson, 2014), by Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford, is a photograph of a bird in profile sketched on a fragment of stone. The drawing might have been made by a gifted and very careful child. The legs, eyes and beak are black; the body, wings and tail, reddish brown. The poignancy of the bird’s slightness and delicacy, and the solemnity of the rendering, are emphasized by the choice of “canvas” – a rough-faced fragment of buff-colored limestone. 

From 1977 to 2008, de Montbello served as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gayford is an English art critic. Rendez-vous with Art recounts their conversations while visiting art museums in the United States and Europe. The book is a chronicle of two learned, deeply civilized men talking about what they love. The drawing of the bird is reproduced in the final chapter, “Fragments.” In the notes, it is identified as “sketch of a swallow on an ostracon, Egypt; Thebes, Deir el-Bahri, Hatshepsut Hole (depression east of temple of Thutmose III), New Kingdom, 18th dynasty.” It was drawn about 3,500 years ago and might have been drawn yesterday. It was acquired by the Metropolitan in 1923, one year after the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. The reader views the drawing after de Montebello suggests he and Gayford examine a vitrine holding fragments of stone in the Met’s Egyptian galleries. De Montebello says: 

“…it would be so easy just to walk past it, but we would be missing something really quite special, a group of very modest, indeed even seemingly inconsequential stone shards. Small flakes of limestone that are called ostraca (the word has the same root as ostracize—things that you discard).” 

Ostraca is new to me (and my spell-check software). The OED gives “a potsherd (or occas.: a piece of limestone) used in the ancient world as a writing surface, esp. for votive or hieratic purposes or (in Greek cities) for voting in an ostracism.” The word is rooted in the Greek στρακον, earthen vessel, potsherd, hard shell.” It shares the same Indo-European base as the word for bone. De Montebello likens the Egyptian ostraca to artists’ sketchbooks, “either to make a model for a sculptor or as practice for the writing of image-based hieroglyphics (this sparrow [which is what the drawing resembles more than a swallow] may be one of these), or simply as quick sketches to flex the hand.” De Montebello’s explanation highlights the impression of common humanity given by the drawing of the bird. There’s nothing alien or exotic about it. It’s what I would draw if I had the gift of drawing. De Montebello puts it more eloquently: 

“These ostraca show us that even Egyptian sculptors of time-defying monuments left drawings as free and personal as those of any modern artist. Looking at these we feel as if we were standing at the elbow of the Egyptian master as he draws for himself; it’s like eavesdropping on antiquity.” 

In the volume’s final words, Gayford says: “Our book is composed of fragments: conversations, thoughts, reactions, words and silences in front of great works of art. Let’s leave it now with these humble objects, each of which takes us back to a moment of feeling and thought and energy thousands of years ago.” Guy Davenport, as civilized a man as any I have known, would have recognized kindred spirits here, in de Montebello, in Gayford and most of all in the anonymous Egyptian artist. He reminds us in “The Symbol of the Archaic” (The Geography of the Imagination, 1981): “Archaic art, then, was springtime art in any culture.”

1 comment:

Dave Lull said...
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