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The Fundació Joan Miró opens "Sumer and the Modern Paradigm"
Installation view.

BARCELONA.- Sumer and the Modern Paradigm examines the close connection between the ensemble of archaeological findings excavated from sites in current-day southern Iraq during the first decades of the twentieth century and the emergence of the artistic languages of modernity, while delving into a specific aspect of the phenomenon of primitivism in the history of western art.

The BBVA Foundation is sponsoring this project, proposed by the Fundació Joan Miró, which has relied upon the curatorial contribution of Pedro Azara (Bois-Colombes, France, 1955), an architect, professor of aesthetics at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya School of Architecture, and expert in ancient cultures. For Azara, ‘this exhibition attempts to find answers about the modern fascination with artefacts from the ancient Near East, conveying what the artists from that period saw in these objects, why they found them so interesting, and what they expected in producing visual and written pieces that interpreted these works from the past, so distant yet apparently so relevantly addressing the present.’

The body of archaeological findings known as Sumerian art -excavated in southern Iraq, under British rule from the fall of the Ottoman Empire until the beginning of World War I - became the focus of attention for historians, anthropologists, and intellectuals from the late 1920s on. This appreciation of the objects and materials found in that region was essential to their taking on the status of works of art. At the same time, these findings influenced the development of a language that was characteristic of modern art, as we can see in the works of some of the leading figures in twentieth century art, from Henry Moore to Joan Miró, along with Alberto Giacometti, Willi Baumeister and Willem de Kooning. Sumer and the Modern Paradigm highlights the connection between this important archaeological milestone and the history of art and twentieth-century thought up until the collapse of the colonial system following World War II.

Primarily, the show features ancient and modern works as well as documents that bridged the gap between the two, allowing artists to become acquainted with Mesopotamian pieces which were not always available for viewing during the interwar period. Specifically, the Fundació Joan Miró is showing a collection of almost 200 pieces, including a wide range of documents, significant Mesopotamian archaeological samples, and modern works dated from the late 1920s to the early 60s by artists such as Willem de Kooning, Alberto Giacometti, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Joan Miró, Henri Michaux, Juan Batlle Planas, David Smith, Willi Baumeister, Constant Nieuwenhuys and Le Corbusier. The exhibition closes with a sample of contemporary art inspired by the current situation in the region, featuring pieces by Francis Alÿs and Anselm Kiefer.

Sumer and the Modern Paradigm is divided into four thematic areas that analyse modern artists’ reception, appropriation and recasting of aspects such as the myths, writing, composition or figuration of Mesopotamia, and examine their reasons for adopting them as ethical and aesthetic models. This detailed central analysis is preceded by an introduction about the discovery and promotion of Sumer in the West and closes with an epilogue about the current fate of the archaeological sites in Iraq in the context of the geopolitical situation in the region, viewed from the perspective of contemporary art.

Between the two World Wars, academic and journalistic accounts of the archaeological findings in Syria and Iraq were in and of themselves a source of inspiration for modern artists, given the relatively scant opportunities for viewing the works first-hand. Sumer and the Modern Paradigm sets forth the idea that the perspectives and the works of these artists were often the result of the interpretation of all those documents, highlighting the importance of this mediation. Catalogues, magazines, books, postcards, photographs, posters and other items thoroughly featured in the first exhibition space and throughout the show, widened the presence of ancient Mesopotamian works in the collective imagination of that time, sparking the huge interest of avant-garde artists, eager to find new references beyond classical paradigms. According to Azara, these works ‘appeared to provide valid answers to questions posed in the first half of the twentieth century that continue to be pertinent today.’

Specifically, in the second room, the exhibition addresses the influence of the myths and epic poems of Lower Mesopotamia as part of an iconography that was new at the end of the nineteenth century and that became a recurrent theme in the West up until today. The translation of Mesopotamian texts and a broadened awareness of myths such as the biblical Tower of Babel or the Epic of Gilgamesh –a poetic account of the history of the King of Uruk– conveyed an imaginary about the human condition that appealed to the artists featured in this space, as we can see, for example, in the work of the German painter Willi Baumeister. In turn, the Tower of Babel myth, revisited after the discovery of the foundations of the Great Ziggurat of Babylon in the early twentieth century, influenced the pictorial utopias of the Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys and even the monumental modern architecture of Le Corbusier, as shown in this exhibition area.

Next, the third section of the exhibition focuses on cuneiform script, highly valued first by Western archaeological museums and then by the artists of that time. In the late 1920s, artists such as Henri Michaux and Batlle Planas chose the script of cuneiform signs – which they were unable to read – to create their personal form of writing, shown in this space, which strove to convey the essence of things with no mediation whatsoever.

The legacy of the Sumerian compositional system in art up until today is the focus of the fourth area in the exhibition, closely linked to the previous section and hence presented in the same space. Shortly before World War II, in Athens, the sculptor David Smith discovered a type of object that was new to him: the engraved Mesopotamian cylinder seal, which was rolled across a soft surface to print a negative image of its scenes as many times as the user wished. The resulting compositions depended on how they were printed and offered an image that was unfettered by classical compositional conventions; Smith used these as the basis for producing a series of medallions condemning the violence of war. David Smith's medallions, among other pieces, are shown in this space alongside three Sumerian cylinder seals from the Musée du Louvre.

The Sumerian rooms in the Louvre were a place Joan Miró often visited in search of a visual ‘impact,’ as he revealed to the historian Pierre Scheider in 1963. The statues of the Neo-Sumerian King Gudea, found in the early twentieth century, the effigies of female deities and the votive statues of worshippers discovered in the valley of Diyala in the 1930s had drawn the attention of sculptors such as Henry Moore and Alberto Giacometti years earlier. In the fifth section, the exhibition considers the connections between Mesopotamian figuration and the works of these artists, describing how Sumerian statuary became a part of the Western artistic imagination further to its dissemination in journals such as Documents and Cahiers d’Art and, particularly, through the black-and-white photographs of Horacio Coppola. In this space, an important collection of these images accompanies relevant Sumerian sculptural works from the Musée du Louvre and the British Museum, such as the Head of Gudea (c. 2120 BC) or a stone worshipper (c. 2500 BC). These archaeological pieces are shown alongside the works they inspired, produced by Miró, Giacometti, Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Willem de Kooning, the latter of which is represented here with a large 1952 coloured drawing from the Centre Pompidou.

The last section of the exhibition is titled Statues Also Die, in reference to the documentary produced by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker in 1953 about the colonial plunder of art and the problematic relationship between ancient sculpture and exhibition. In this area, the exhibition closes with a selection of contemporary art addressing the situation of the archaeological sites in southern Iraq in the current geopolitical context, with a 1981 painting by the German artist Anselm Kiefer titled Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the Cedar Forest II and Colour Matching. Mosul, Iraq, a 2016 video by the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs.

The exhibition project is rounded out with a specific programme of activities and a publication which includes a curatorial essay by Pedro Azara; a text by Marc Marín about the impact of Sumerian art on Joan Miró’s work; an article by Brigitte Pedde addressing the influence of ancient Near Eastern art in the trajectory of the German painter Willi Baumeister, and an essay by Zainab Bahrani that reveals the links between Sumerian art and avant-garde art.

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