Sunday, February 20, 2011

Greek Sculpture

Excerpt from the BBC documentary "How Art Made The World" concerning greek sculpture.
Presented by Dr Nigel Spivey (University of Cambridge).
Music: "Enfer (La Double Vie De Veronique)" by Zbigniew Preisner.

link: youtube

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sumerian Art: The Stele of the Vultures

"Partially reconstructed from numerous fragments found among the remains of the Sumerian city of Girsu, this victory stele, known as the "Stele of the Vultures," is the oldest known historiographic document. A long Sumerian inscription narrates the recurrent conflict between the neighboring city-states of Lagash and Umma, and records the victory won by Eannatum, king of Lagash, who ruled around 2450 BC.The triumph of this ruler, placed under divine protection since his birth, is illustrated with a wealth of detail in the remarkable relief carving that adorns both sides of the stele. The so-called "historical" side shows Eannatum marching at the head of his troops, who advance in a tight phalanx, trampling over the dead bodies of the enemy. The lower registers show the victory parade, led by the ruler in his chariot, and then the funeral ceremonies that ended the military engagement. The other, "mythological" side is dominated by the majestic figure of Ningirsu, the protector god of the city-state of Lagash, who has the enemy troops entrapped in a gigantic net and strikes them with his mace. One side narrates the actions of men and the other the intervention of the god, in a thematic division that has symbolic importance: human determination and divine protection come together to ensure victory."

Source: LOUVRE


Stele of The Vultures

The Ziggurat

Ziggurat of Ur (ca 2100 BCE), Tell Muqqayar, Iraq
source: Wikipedia

The question of the origins and function of the ziggurat is still a matter of controversy among the specialists. Whether the raised structure served the practical aim of protection against floods, or whether the platforms served primarily as a place for the deities with a shrine, that is, a place to house the god or goddess, located on the top and, therefore, it served as a way of contact and communication with the  celestial gods, is a matter of debates. What seems to be certain is that its form, after a  more or less extended period of development, was consolidated in Ur, and disseminated afterwards in the Mesopotamian area across time and across cultures.

The idea that the form of the ziggurat evolved from the ritual destruction and reconstruction of existing structures which served as foundations for new constructions that were, in this manner,  systematically and progressively raised higher and higher, has been proposed (based also on examples from Neolithic practices, Meso-American cultures and also Egypt) and rejected by researchers. As well as different interpretations of its symbolic meaning.

The ziggurat is a kind of artificial mountain emerging in the Mesopotamian flatlands. It was part of an architectural complex that may have  included also, among other structures, temples and other public buildings, different civic and commercial spaces, etc. Access to the ziggurat was probably restricted and controlled as a space for the performance of specific rituals under the direction of priests.

In its architectural form, size, technological aspects,  labor force organization and employment, the ziggurat embodied and expressed the unified and unifying power of new social-historical structures. It expressed the profound identity of worldly and sacred powers, the unity of religion and politics which characterized the ideology proper to the initial forms of the State that emerged as functional specialization, and related social stratification processes and structures developed and were consolidated in the  city-states of Mesopotamia: from more or less humble beginnings to its culmination and diffusion in the pioneer civilization of the Sumerians.

The Sumerians, as we know, established the early cultural matrix, including writing and literature, architecture and the arts, religion, political forms and ideologies, etc pointing the way  to many of the essential future developments in the region. The ziggurat and White Temple at Uruk (ca. 3200-3000 BCE) and the partially reconstructed large ziggurat of Ur ( ca 2100 BCE) are two examples of the accomplishments of the Sumerians in architecture.

A famous ziggurat in the Ancient World was the monumental Etemenanki ("temple of the foundation of heaven and earth")  dedicated to the god Marduk in Babylon in the 6th century BCE, the period of the Neo-Babylonian dynasty.  It is associated with the biblical narrative of the Tower of Babel

Marcelo Guimaraes Lima

Reconstruction of Ur-Nammu's ziggurat,
based on the 1939 reconstruction by Woolley (vol. V, fig. 1.4)
source: Wikipedia

Ruins of White Temple at Uruk, Iraq

Reconstruction of Etemenanki, based on
Hansjörg Schmid, Der Tempelturm Etemenanki in Babylon (1995 Mainz
source: Wikipedia 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sumerian Art: The Warka Vase

provenience: Uruk
dimension(s) (in cm):
height: ca. 105; upper diam.: 36

material: stone (alabaster)
date: (ca. 3000 BC)


vase, relief decoration in four registers, showing (bottom to top) rows of plants, sheep (make and female), nude males carrying baskets or jars, and a cultic scene, in which the ruler of city of Uruk delivers provisions to the temple of the goddess Inanna, represented here by two reed bundle standarts--symbols of the goddess--and a woman, probably her priestess ); rim broken; repair piece inserted in antiquity (holes drilled for repair)

status: stolen in April 2003, returned to museum in June 2003.

“The Warka Vase or the Uruk Vase is a carved alabaster stone vessel found in the temple complex of the Sumerian goddess Inanna in the ruins of the ancient city of Uruk, located in the modern Al Muthanna Governorate, in southern Iraq. Like the Narmer Palette from Egypt, it is one of the earliest surviving works of narrative relief sculpture, dated to c. 3,200–3000 BC. The vase was discovered as a collection of fragments by German Assyriologists in their sixth excavation season at Uruk in 1933/1934. It is named after the modern village of Warka - known as Uruk to the ancient Sumerians.”


image source:

The Warka Vase is one of the earliest examples of narrative art in Mesopotamia. In this regard it is compared to the relatively contemporary Narmer Palette of Egypt, a “founding” document of Egyptian Art. 

The subject matter of the Warka Vase is the presentation of offerings to the goddess Inanna, a ritual enactment that may be associated with the idea of the Sacred Marriage, that is, the union of a God or a Goddess and a mortal, usually the ruler or a member of the ruling family; or the enactment of a marriage between the Gods assuming the forms of mortals, for instance, the royal couple, who may both represent and become in actuality, for a given function or period, the divinities they symbolize.

Modern studies of the Warka Vase have pointed out its nature as a “self-referential” or “performative” object, that is, the vase depicts a ritual of which it is itself an element, and depicts itself as such, as present in the ritual performance: a kind of meta-object in a meta-representation.

A formal affinity with the Narmer palette can be seen in the organization of the spatial elements and the visual narrative in bands or tiers. In the upper row, a pair of vases of the same form as the Warka Vase is depicted. Evidence suggests that the Warka Vase was itself one of a pair. Although of a fragmentary or inconclusive nature, the evidence for a pairing or duplication of the Warka Vase goes along with the many repetition of visual elements, forms and motifs in the vase: of animals and plants, of nude male figures carrying offers, etc. These repetitions point out to a symbolic and formal strategy of continuous multiplication or reproduction. The cylindrical form of the vase suggests an affinity to cylinder seals of general usage in Mesopotamia. In fact, some of the motifs of the Warka Vase, and the pair of vases of the same type, appear in later seals. 

In Mesopotamian Art, nudity is generally presented as an expression of frailty and destitution, for instance, in the representation of enemies killed in battle, defeated and imprisoned or enslaved. In the Warka Vase, the nude figures are presented in a different context, and therefore with a different meaning and different expression. Here we may observe that the display of the naked human body in a religious context “anticipates”, so to speak,  the role of the nude in Greek Art.

Container and contained, form and content, subject matter and representational strategies, product and processes, unite in the Warka Vase to underline its expressive and communicative dimension and the symbolic meaning of reproduction, fertility and abundance as gifts of the Goddess in return for the performance of ritual exchanges that ensure the reproduction of life and of society . In the Mesopotamian rituals, the intervention of the divinity is mediated by the ruler. Reproduction of life is always the reproduction of the social order.

Marcelo Guimaraes Lima

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Art and Civilization

The emergence of civilization is frequently defined or characterized in terms of an increase in the complexity of the structure and the functioning of human society by comparison to earlier phases. The development of the productive capacities of mankind may be said to be both, that is, dialectically, cause and consequence of changes affecting ways of life, social structure, material culture, technology, knowledge and ideology that separates primitive humanity from the early civilizations.

And yet we may observe that humanity advances by transforming the heritage of the past, it builds upon past accomplishments and in doing so transforms itself and transforms also the sense and meaning of its own past. In this sense, the past may be both support and obstacle to the development of human capacities and of social and cultural forms and processes. And in this sense also, the past lives on producing its effects either as active or as unconscious memory.

In the arts of the early civilizations, in Mesopotamia and Egypt, for instance, we will see the heritage of ancestral forms being more or less slowly transformed, developed and adapted to a new context, to fulfill new as well as analogous functions.

In the transition from Prehistoric Culture to Early Civilization we see the progressive establishment of the Arts as a specialized form of activity, the birth of an Art Industry, the development of a class of specialized art workers or craftsmen. The social division of work and the establishment of social class structure is the condition for the new cultural, social and political forms that will constitute the environment in which the Arts will flourish and develop.

An environment that the Arts will also contribute to create by providing the material consciousness, so to speak, that is, by supplying the concrete embodiment of the experiences, aspirations and ideas of the new times, serving to clarify, to fix or stabilize the forms in which are expressed the consciousness of the present, and by this helping to mold and establish the self-understanding of a new time.

Marcelo Guimaraes Lima

Saturday, May 09, 2009

What is art?

“What is..?” is the “quintessential” philosophical question. A question that in its form, promises to deliver to us the “essence” of things, the unmistakable and definite “identity” of a thing. A “thing”, that is, philosophically speaking: every possible thing, everything that there “is”, meaning: everything we can inquire about, everything we can name or speak of, even if only in the primitive form of an original question: “What is…?”

“What is art?” To start with, we can change the tense of the sentence. And this simple procedure can help us frame the question. The problem of art is also the problem of the “question of art”, of its structure, purpose and functions. To change the question: “What was art?” can help us understand the essentially historical nature of our object. 

Things and processes, activities and products we name “art” today, were not named as such in the past, that is, not experienced, made, used, etc. as such: as “art”, but as something other. Therefore we can say that these same things, experiences, etc have undergone a kind of historical “mutation” and became something else, something they were not before, or not seen as, before.

We can also change the verbal tense in the other direction: “What will be art?”, or “What will art become?”. Between the past and the future, we are given the intuition of the essentially mobile, mutant, dynamic character of that “thing” called art, the object of our question. Accordingly, the present is “reduced” to a place of passage between the past and the future. The present (as in “present tense” form of our question” “What is…?”) understanding of art is the provisory or the provisional framing of a concept and a practice transitional, mobile, mutant in nature. What art is nowadays has certainly relations with its former self, and with its future forms, its “becoming”. What kind of relations? Here lays the problem to be investigated. It points out, in crucial ways, to the limits of our own understanding.

Therefore, we do not start with a general, abstract definition that would encompass past, present and, yes, future; but we examine the historical construction of our subject from the empirical materials, objects and ideologies, that dialectically confront each other at different times and places.

The history of art is therefore the history of the very tensions generated and sublimated in the construction of “art”. It pertains not simply to abstract “concepts”, but also, concretely, to forms of activity, forms of production and of communication. In short: to ways of life, and their concomitant forms of self understanding and (self) misunderstanding.

Marcelo Guimaraes Lima

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

On images made "not to be seen"

Examples of more or less laboriously made images “not to be seen” are, for instance, prehistoric cave art and Egyptian funerary art. Paintings in the deep recesses of caves were made under fire lamps, in dark places and preserved throughout the centuries precisely for their physical remoteness, undisturbed natural conditions and absence of light.

Egyptian artworks in tombs under the Pyramids, or in the comparatively more modest mastabas, were sealed from profane sight and dedicated to the gods, made for the gods’ eye. The image was supposed to be contemplated by otherworldly beings.

The cave, as well as the tomb, was a site of contact and passage to another reality. And so was the image. Indeed, the image was the locus of a presence, as the pre-historic image-maker understood. It was at the same time a communication channel to the supernatural or the divine, and the embodiment itself of the numinous.

The image is a communication vessel, a passage to another world and also the irruption of otherness within this world, the world of common experience. The surrealists understood it as the shamans of pre-historical times did.

As does modern psychology and neuro-psychology: the image is a communication vessel of the mind with itself, a mediator between strata or regions of mental activities and structures.

As Leonardo understood in practice: the image is in itself a form of knowledge.

Marcelo G. Lima

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Bison, 15000 BCE
Musée national de Préhistoire
Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, Aquitaine, France
image source:

Venus of Laussel

The Venus of Laussel (Marquay),
Bas-relief of Female, c. 20,000 BCE

she holds a bison horn in one hand.
Photo Museum of Aquitane, Bordeaux