The Cycladic Marble Idol
The folded-arm female figure from the Bronze Age Cyclades is one of the most iconic sculptural types to have survived from antiquity. The schematic treatment of the human body, where the human form was reduced to its barest essentials, was brilliantly conceived by these unknown sculptors of the 3rd millennium B.C. Most excavated examples come from graves, but only comparatively few graves have yielded such figures, indicating the high status of their original owners. It is not known what meaning these marble figures had in antiquity or even if they ever served a function prior to their entombment.
The folded-arm figures were the dominant sculptural type during what is today called the Early Cycladic II Phase, circa 2700-2200 B.C. Over the course of this period, sculptors repeated the time-honored approach to the female form, perfecting their skills and refining their approaches with each successive work. Each artist developed his own unique personal style, allowing modern critics to identify the individual hand of a specific craftsman, and where significant numbers survive, even trace their development from a novice to a consummate carver (see Getz-Preziosi, Early Cycladic Art in North American Collections, p. 50) Once a collected body of work by a single hand is identified by modern scholarship, the anonymous artist is given an identity, a name by which their works can be categorized, such as the Naxos Museum Master, after the location of one or more of his works, or, as here, the Schuster Master, after a previous owner.
The Schuster Master
So far only twelve sculptures have been recognized as the work of a single artist today known as the Schuster Master - taking his name from the present piece. Most of his works represent the female in a pregnant state. Like the sculptures by his contemporaries, the position of the feet pointing down indicates that the figures are meant to be perceived as reclining. The Schuster Master, who was active circa 2400 B.C., combines characteristics of two main schools of Cycladic sculpture today known as the Late Spedos variety and the Dokathismata variety. He has fused the two approaches into "an easily recognized and extremely harmonious style" combining "bold curving aspects derived from the former with angular elements and upper body width more appropriate to the latter. The execution is controlled and precise throughout, with all forms and details clearly and carefully defined" (Getz-Preziosi, Sculptors of the Cyclades, Individual and Tradition in the Third Millennium B.C., p. 115). The hallmarks of his style are the head with broad curving top and crescent-shaped ridge at the back; the long aquiline nose; a curving neckline in front, a V-shaped one in back; narrow arms, the forearms arching subtly to accent the swelling of the belly and modelled in relief on the larger works; a rather large deep pubic triangle, bisected by a continuation of the leg-cleft; well-defined knees; a deeply grooved leg-cleft that continues precisely as far as the buttock line, created by a change in planes; and a delicate arching of the feet (see Sculptors of the Cyclades, p. 116).
An Indisputable Masterpiece
The exquisite marble female figure presented here is the only complete work from the Schuster Master to survive. It is carved from a fine white marble with gray inclusions, and has survived in perfect condition. Fortunately, the surface has never been over-cleaned; it still exhibits a thin layer of calcarous incrustation that is typical of Cycladic marble. It has been known since at least 1965, when Marion Schuster of Lausanne, Switzerland, lent it to an exhibition in Zurich, Antikes Erbe: Meisterwerke aus Schweizer Sammlungen.
Since then the figure has appeared in numerous publications on Cycladic art, and in the exhibition, Early Cycladic Art in North American Collections, in Richmond, Fort Worth, and San Francisco. Getz-Gentle, one of the leading experts on Cycladic art, informs that the Schuster Master figure stands out as "one of the masterpieces of Cycladic sculpture" (see Getz-Preziosi, Sculptor of the Cyclades, p. 117).
The modern rediscovery of Cycladic sculpture occurred in the 19th century, when figures were collected by travelers, some soon finding their way to museums such as the Louvre and the British Museum. Cycladic sculpture was to exert a tremendous influence on the Modernist movement; they inspired many of the 20th century's top artists, such as Modigliani. A nearly lifesized head of a Cycladic figure, thought to be from Keros, was acquired by the Louvre in 1873, which no doubt influenced Brancusi (see Getz-Gentle, Ancient Art of the Cyclades, p. 17). Moore and Picasso owned Cycladic objects. Picasso is known to have remarked that his Cycladic idol was "stronger than Brancusi."