Aegean Art for a Modern Age

My current research project explores the history of early Greek archaeology and the reception of imagery from the Aegean Bronze Age. While the literary traditions of classical Greece and Rome strongly shaped initial assessments of Mycenaean Greece and Minoan Crete, it was the first excavations at Troy, Mycenae, and Knossos that provided the material evidence that sparked a lively (and on-going) debate about how mythic and how Greek the Mycenaeans and Minoans were. Arguments and interpretations swirled around iconic artifacts in museum displays, alongside their illustration in elaborate publications, and through the circulation of replicas certified by the excavators.

There’s a wonderful opportunity to see some of these modern copies in a small exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Historic Images of the Greek Bronze Age: The Reproductions of E. Gilliéron & Son. Emile Gilliéron (1850–1924) and his son Emile (1885–1939) restored many of the most famous artifacts recovered from the initial excavations of major Aegean sites, namely Knossos and Mycenae. They also produced “electrotype” copper and gold replicas of metal artifacts based on molds of the original masks, weapons, and vessels discovered in the Shaft Graves of Mycenae. Full-scale copies of Minoan frescoes were mostly painted in watercolor on paper, while three-dimensional works were recreated in plaster forms.

Numerous museum and university collections include these replicas of the gold masks and elaborate weapons from the Shaft Graves at Mycenae, colorful frescoes from the “Palace of Minos” at Knossos, and even the snake goddess figurines from the Temple Repository at Knossos. The New York exhibit, curated by Sean Hemmingway, emphasizes the Metropolitan museum’s enthusiasm for Cretan art which led its leaders to go far beyond ordering from the Gilliérons’ sale catalogue; they accessed second copies of rare pieces commissioned by Sir Arthur Evans and also arranged for the unique creation of an elaborate gaming board of plaster molded and painted to mimic the Knossos original intricately decorated with precious metals, ivory, crystal, and colored glass.

I am most struck by how sustained was this period of collecting replicas, from 1906 through 1932. The Cretan objects were first displayed as the product of Evan’s continued discoveries at Knossos. The 1907 donation of ceramic objects from Harriet Boyd Hawes’ excavations at Gournia enabled the museum to establish a permanent Bronze Age Greek gallery. Here original artifacts and modern copies together formed the starting point for the collection of classical art – a collection that included over 2,500 plaster casts of classical sculpture. At the time, replicas perfectly satisfied the museum’s mission to illustrate a comprehensive history of art. Aesthetic sensibilities and institutional ambitions have since changed.

Today, the Met and other major museums emphasize the authenticity and originality of artifacts in their collection or loaned for display. This sentiment puts appropriate emphasis on the current display as the works of twentieth-century artisans. While the finished products mimic ancient artifacts, the Gilliérons’ techniques, materials, and intent are radically different and thoroughly modern. The archaeological reproductions were made to communicate a history of art and thus they were made ready for museum display: some fragments are made whole, painted figures are in titled frames, three-dimensional objects may need only one good side. Similar techniques were applied to the excavated objects, to conserve fragile works and offer visual interpretations of fragmentary pieces. A visit to this exhibition will remind viewers how much museums have changed over 100 years, and how much our impressions of antiquity are shaped by the recovery of artifacts, the restoration of antiquities, and the exhibition of art.