Specialist Chanel Clarke is our guide to the enduring appeal of Cycladic art, some 5,000 years after the islands’ craftsmen first began to make their sculptures from marble and clay. Illustrated with pieces offered in the Antiquities sale on 3 July
In the third millennium BC, a Bronze Age civilisation called Cycladic culture flourished throughout the Greek islands of the Cyclades in the southwestern Aegean. Cycladic culture can be counted among the three main ancient Aegean cultures, together with the Minoan civilisation on Crete and the Mycenaean civilisation on mainland Greece.
Broadly speaking, Cycladic art consists of small, stylised figures and vessels, either sculpted from marble or moulded from clay. The abstract nature of Cycladic sculpture and its simple lines have, explains Antiquities specialist Chanel Clarke, ‘inspired many modern and contemporary artists, including Constantin Brancusi, Amedeo Modigliani, Alberto Giacometti, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore’.
Although excellent examples of Cycladic art regularly come to market, collectors are advised to tread carefully when it comes to restoration, repairs and provenance.
Which key materials were used?
Cycladic figures were almost exclusively carved from white marble and decorated with bright colours. We know this from the traces of red and blue pigment found on a variety of surviving Cycladic objects. Clarke says that this suggests Cycladic culture may have practiced body painting or tattooing.
In some figures, only the anatomical features are painted; in others, decorative patterns, such as dots or zigzags, are painted onto the surface of the marble. It is, however, exceptionally rare to encounter idols or figures with visible traces of paint today.
What is the significance of ‘ghost paint’?
In the instances where traces of paint are still visible, the paint is referred to as ‘ghost paint’. This part of the surface tend to look as if it has been rendered in low relief, with the paint having protected the marble surface from corrosion.
Although the significance of the use of pigment on Cycladic figures is still debated, it is a desirable additional feature for many collectors.
There’s more to Cycladic art than marble figures
The marble used to make Cycladic sculpture was predominantly worked with stone tools. The first step was to roughly shape the marble into the form of a figure or vessel, using a mallet. After this, an abrasive such as emery (a dark granular rock) was used to work and polish the surface until smooth. This was a lengthy process that required considerable skill.
Although the folded-arm marble figures are among the most sought-after Cycladic works of art today, Clarke points out that the contemporary aesthetic of other everyday objects — vessels and tools made of marble, clay and metals — can be just as appealing. ‘Their simplistic forms required the same level of skill and precision as the marble figures,’ the specialist points out, ‘and they boast a sense of symmetry and minimalism that has come to characterise Cycladic art.’
Research the different styles and types
Cycladic figures, in particular folded-arm figures, were the dominant sculptural type during the Early Cycladic II Phase, circa 2700-2200 BC. Over the course of this period many sculptors focused on the female form, perfecting their skills and refining their unique styes. This has allowed scholars to identify the individual hand of a specific craftsmen, and where significant numbers survive, even trace their stylistic development.
Once a single hand or workshop has been identified, they are given a conventional name by which their works can be categorised, such as the ‘Naxos Muesum Master’ or the ‘Schuster Master’. Pieces attributed to a named sculptor, says Clarke, are highly sought-after and achieve the highest prices at auction. In 2010 a marble reclining female figure dated to circa 2400 BC and attributed to the Schuster Master was sold in New York for $16,882,500.
Fragments can be just as appealing
As a result of their age, ancient Cycladic marbles are not always complete. Heads, torsos, legs and feet — or an appropriate combination of these — are among the most desirable surviving examples of figural marble fragments on the market. They can be powerfully evocative of their original complete state and, according to the specialist, appeal to contemporary buyers because of their decorative nature.
Heads in particular demonstrate the sublime skills of the ancient Cycladic sculptor, and it is arguably these fragments that illustrate best the link between Cycladic art and 20th-century sculptors such as Modigliani (above) and Moore.