After excavation, ancient artifacts embark on an afterlife of interpretation both academic and cultural. From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics, which is on view at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW), explores how the archaeology of Mesopotamia reflected fashions and academia of the 1920s and 30s, and influenced contemporary art.
From Ancient to Modern is the first ISAW exhibition to include 20th and 21st century art alongside the ancient objects. Consistently, the ISAW with its two small galleries on the Upper East Side has been hosting smart, tightly told, free exhibitions showcasing significant artifacts not often seen in New York. From Ancient to Modern is especially worthwhile in the Sumerian sculptures and reconstructed jewelry of Ur, much on loan from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The addition of works by artists like Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti, and Willem de Kooning emphasizes the broader impact of this ancient art on modern visual expression.
The 1922 Tutankhamun discovery ignited a fervor for archaeological treasure hunting, and that year a joint team from the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania led by Leonard Woolley descended on the Sumerian city-state of Ur, now in present day Iraq. The most stunning of their findings was the tomb of Queen Puabi, and Woolley’s wife Katherine envisioned a reconstruction of her headdress and diadem from the piles of lapis lazuli and carnelian beads in a style not dissimilar from the flapper headbands. Then from 1930 to 1937, four expeditions from the Oriental Institute, led by Henri Frankfort, exhumed gypsum Sumerian statues with wide eyes and folded hands, which Frankfort framed from the beginning as art rather than artifacts. Displays of field notebooks, intake journals, and archive photographs illustrate how archaeologists, curators, and academics immediately responded to the mid-third millennium BCE relics.
As the exhibition points out, the 1920s were the beginning of archaeological discoveries being publicized in the popular press. A newspaper clipping from the Illustrated London News shows Sumerian fashions and coiffures photographed like a fashion spread, while another example from the Philadelphia Inquirer has a bit more sensationalism: “Grim Tragedy of Wicked Queen Shubad’s 100 Poisoned Slaves.” Along with the more sober archaeological ephemera, they demonstrate Mesopotamian artifacts becoming part of popular culture.
The exhibition is a little less focused when it comes to the contemporary art, where Henry Moore’s sculptures are stated to be loosely inspired by the clasped hands of the Sumerian sculptures, and Alberto Giacometti more tangentially still by the vaguely comparable forms. However, the Willem de Kooning “Woman” (1953-54) painting is incredible, grinning from a flurry from color on the wall with Sumerian cat eyes. Echoing the later loss of Mesopotamian archaeological finds by war is a 20-photo grid by Jananne Al-Ani contrasting history, war, and contemporary life, while Michael Rakowitz’s assembly of facsimiles replicates through disposable packaging items looted from the National Museum of Iraq. Between the two galleries, one of the old, one of the new, From Ancient to Modern argues for archaeology as something with a constantly developing identity, one entwined in the history of art, and the aesthetics of its contemporaries.
From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics continues at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (15 East 84th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 7.