The Met's Belfer Court Hosts Ancient Cycladic Marvels


(MENAFN- USA Art News) In New York City's famed Metropolitan Museum of Art, an impressive transformation has taken place within the Greek and Roman Art galleries , particularly in The Robert and Renée Belfer Court. What was once the domain of a somber funerary vase has now given way to a celebration of life through ancient Cycladic art , thanks to the extensive collection donated by businessman and philanthropist Leonard Stern. A striking female figure carved from gleaming white marble stands at the entrance of the exhibit, welcoming museum guests to explore the remarkable assembly of the creative genius of the Cyclades islands, located in the southern Aegean Sea.

Unknown artists from 5,000 years ago skillfully crafted the substantial figure and many smaller Cycladic marbles now on display. This collection includes complete figurines, fragments, headless statues, and even a rare seated harp player, predating the Met's other Greek artifacts by over a millennium.

The fascination with these pieces stems from their great antiquity and the enigma of their origins and purposes. Predominantly representing females, they spark theories they may have served as fertility symbols or icons of a mother goddess.

However, a few - like the skillfully crafted harpist - are distinctly male, and there's even one that seems to embody traits of both genders. The reasons behind the prolific creation of these figurines by the island inhabitants remain unclear. The majority of the most exquisite pieces originate from the Early Cycladic II period, around 2700-2300 B.C.

Leonard Stern's Impact: From Corporate Leadership to Cultural Philanthropy

Leonard Stern is best known for his role as the chairman and CEO of Hartz Mountain Corporation, a leading real estate development company and formerly one of the largest pet products manufacturers in the United States. Apart from his business pursuits, Stern is also recognized for his philanthropic efforts and contributions to education. He is a notable benefactor of New York University, where the Leonard N. Stern School of Business is named in his honor. Stern's philanthropy extends beyond NYU, impacting various other educational, health-related, and cultural organizations.

Beginning in the 1980s, the captivating allure of Cycladic artifacts inspired Stern to become a collector. Since then, he's gathered an impressive array of Cycladic art and previously shared pieces with the Met . The museum's latest exhibition features all 161 pieces from Stern's comprehensive collection, which, through a unique agreement, have been transferred to Greek ownership but are on loan to the Met for 25 years. Ratified by Greece in 2022, this arrangement is celebrated as a pioneering response to ongoing concerns about artifact provenance and repatriation in the museum sector.

The Robert and Renée Belfer Court: Where Ancient Art Comes Alive

The Robert and Renée Belfer Court honors the generous contributions made by the Belfer family members. The family has also supports medical research, through institutions such as Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's Robert and Renée Belfer Institute for Applied Cancer Science and the Weill Cornell Medical College's Belfer Research Building .

By assembling a vast array of figurines within a single space, the exhibition at the Met highlights the enduring patterns and intriguing anomalies of Cycladic art. The exhibition shows artists often ventured into bold experiments; for instance, one figure featured an unusually long neck, hands positioned under squarelike breasts, topped with a distinct fez-style hat.

Subsequently, a more standardized portrayal emerged, characterized by women with folded arms across their midriffs and heads subtly tilted upwards, featuring iconic abstract, wedge-shaped noses. The variety extends to the sculptures' shoulders, with some artists favoring rounded contours. In contrast, others opted for a more angular, trapezoidal form, reminiscent of Cubist influences - a movement significantly inspired by these ancient works, alongside other pioneers like Italian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani and Henry Moore, an English trailblazer of modern sculpture.

The original paint that once detailed the artifacts' features has almost completely vanished, leaving behind only faint traces. To bridge this gap, the Met introduced a QR code feature that uses smartphones to visually restore these original details to recreate the sculptures' original vibrancy.

The posture of many figures, suggested by a bend in the knees and the orientation of the feet, implies they were intended to be viewed as if lying down. Since positioning them in this manner could compromise visibility, the Met has chosen to display only two figures in their presumed original reclining posture, offering a glimpse into their authentic presentation. The remaining figures are shown standing, gracefully elevated slightly above their mounting surfaces.

A display case showcases the techniques employed by Cycladic artisans. They crafted their figurines before the era of advanced metal tools. Hence, they utilized emery, a naturally occurring hard stone in the Cyclades, to create rudimentary hammers for shaping the initial forms. For finer details, they turned to pumice and obsidian glass tools, the latter sourced from Melos, a volcanic island.

Despite the seemingly tedious nature of this process, contemporary experiments have shown that skilled hands could produce similar figurines in a day or less. It suggests that ancient Cycladic artisans, proficient in their art, could have efficiently produced these figures in large quantities, letting the natural contours of the marble inspire their creations.

In contrast to the Greeks who subsequently inhabited the islands, the Cycladic communities rarely utilized ceramics, a fact highlighted by the limited number of painted pots in the exhibition. Their preferred choice for vessels was stone, meticulously hollowed out and often featuring side holes - pierced with emery splinters - to attach straps.

The exhibit also showcases the role of locally sourced silver in daily life, evidenced by the lustrous items on display. However, the true highlights of the Belfer Court exhibition are the elegant marble female figures. With their enigmatic, featureless faces turned toward viewers, they remain silent, holding the secrets of their ancient world.

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