One of the first objects that visitors encounter in Restoring the Minoans: Elizabeth Price and Sir Arthur Evans at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) in Manhattan is a forgery. Anointed “Our Lady of the Sports,” the ivory and gold statuette of a bare-chested Minoan goddess raises her arms skyward, recalling the poses of the Snake Goddesses excavated at Knossos. In the early 20th century, Minoan fakes, sometimes fabricated by the same people carrying out archaeological restorations in Crete, appeared on the market for museum and private collectors. Although their authenticity has since been questioned, at the time they were just part of a blurring between past and present, between the authentic and the artificial. It was all fueled by one archaeologist’s passion to reconstruct a civilization from its ruins.
Restoring the Minoans focuses on two attempts to rebuild the past from the perspective of the present, each given one gallery at ISAW. One is the work of Sir Arthur Evans, who began excavation of Knossos on the island of Crete in 1900; the other is British artist Elizabeth Price’s two-channel video installation, “A Restoration.” The 2016 piece was made the Turner Prize-winning artist as a Contemporary Art Society commission based on collections at Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum (where Evans was keeper) and Pitt Rivers Museum. It draws on Evans’s archives, particularly the gorgeous watercolors that artistically interpreted the fragments found at Knossos.
“He celebrated the distinctiveness of this civilization from other Bronze Age Aegean cultures, and influenced how we understand the Minoans through his excavations, curatorial projects, lectures, and extensive publications, but above all through his restorations at the ‘palace’ of Knossos,” writes Restoring the Minoans co-curator and ISAW Curatorial Assistant Rachel Herschman in the accompanying catalogue.
With its labyrinth of storerooms, and recurring depictions of bulls on exhumed engraved gems, gold work, and frescos, the Bronze Age complex struck Evans as archaeological evidence of the myth of King Minos and the Minotaur. Thus it was dubbed the Palace of Minos, never mind that this myth arose post-Bronze Age. Evans called his restoration efforts a “reconstitution,” and much of it was done with that most modernist of materials: concrete.
Workers rebuilt the Palace right on the Minoan ruins, some dating back to the second millennium BCE. The wealthy Evans owned the site in Greece, so his team had incredible freedom for this bold rebuild. A Swiss father-son team, both named Émile Gilliéron, painted enhanced copies of the surviving frescos, filling in any missing pieces. Several were installed on this fresh construction. The Gilliérons’ paintings have an Art Nouveau feel in their figures, colors, and motifs, as do the sculptural replicas. The catalogue for Restoring the Minoans contrasts a plaster reproduction of a Minoan Snake Goddess to a similarly lithe lady in a Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph. As Evelyn Waugh quipped in 1929, the Minoan restorers seemed to have “tempered their zeal for accurate reconstruction with a somewhat inappropriate predilection for the covers of Vogue.”
“I looked at these drawings and saw a complicated, febrile mix of different historical moments, and it was impossible for me in that moment to entirely disentangle them,” Price told co-curator and ISAW Exhibitions Director and Chief Curator Jennifer Chi in a catalogue interview.
Under Evans, the Palace was resurrected with iron reinforced concrete columns; Price imagines a digital rebirth in “A Restoration.” A chorus of synthetic-voiced “museum administrators” oversees the recategorization of animals, plants, and artifacts into an idyllic garden, a more perfect civilization than the one from which they were removed. Yet this mechanized adherence to a Victorian obsession for encyclopedic knowledge is unstable. The sweeping grandiosity of this 19th-century narrative of history collapses into its own labyrinth, into which all the amassed digital images disappear.
While Price’s installation examines how our restructuring of history through museums and archives can project a dystopic future, Evans’s blissful vision of Knossos was a counter to the rising violence of the early 1900s, when World War I and the Balkan Wars shadowed the new century in Europe. The perceived pacifism of Knossos, its Edenic harmony with nature, and the youthful vitality represented by the bull-leaping, which Evans imagined as an acrobatic performance within the Court of the Stone Spout, all contributed to an optimistic European heritage. And the dynamic presentation of this lost world was exciting, and had a rippling impact in culture.
“In art, as in literature, Evans’s discoveries coincided with the rise of modernist movements, such as Art Nouveau, with its rejections of Classicism and embrace of the primitive and exotic,” writes co-curator and Curator of Antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum Kenneth Lapatin in the catalogue. “Leon Bakst, for example, visited Knossos in 1907, sketched Evans’s finds, including the Throne of Minos and various fresco fragments, and drew on them and the Gilliérons’ reproductions for his designs and sets and costumes for ancient-themed operas and the famed Ballets Russes.” The minotaur also emerged as a figure in Modern art, whether the paintings of Pablo Picasso or the sculptures of Max Ernst; a French cruise line even decorated an entire ship in the Minoan style.
Evans spent three decades excavating Knossos. His influence on our knowledge of early human civilization is as much his legacy as the speculative restoration at Knossos. In some ways, the reconstitutions are better known than the actual Minoan Crete artifacts, thanks, for instance, to the sale of full-size watercolor reproductions of frescos to institutions like the British Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art. Forgeries still mingle with the artifacts in collections, Minotaur myths haunt the more fanciful restorations. Nevertheless, the exhibition at ISAW does not dwell on authenticity. Instead, it considers how our drive to make the shattered pieces of history whole again will always complicate our understanding of the past.
Restoring the Minoans: Elizabeth Price and Sir Arthur Evans continues through January 7, 2018 at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (15 East 84th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan).