old time modernity cycladic art at the met

New York City has added another jewel to its glittering cultural crown, and it takes up little more than one medium-size wall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

You’ll find the wall in the Belfer Court, the first space on the right as you enter the Greek and Roman Galleries from the Grand Hall. Walk too fast and you may miss it. Slow down and prepare to be stunned by the largest display of ancient sculpture from the Greek islands known as the Cyclades ever seen in New York. It is titled “Cycladic Art: The Leonard N. Stern Collection on Loan from the Hellenic Republic.”

Five large vitrines, usually three pairs of shelves each, cover the wall, their red felt interiors setting off the gleaming white chiseled marble of 120 figures and vessels. The shelves are dominated by around 70 small, spirited female figurines or idols, averaging around 16 inches in height and in one rare piece reaching just over four feet. These are the glory of Cycladic art, distinguished by their stylized forms, folded arms and blank faces — except for little wedge-shaped noses — also by their understated sensuousness and reverberating stillness. They’re like tuning forks.

Some of the 161 figures and vessels in white chiseled marble on display in the exhibition “Cycladic Art: The Leonard N. Stern Collection on Loan From the Hellenic Republic.”Amir Hamja/The New York Times

The vitrines also contain some relatively large stand-alone heads, without bodies, that resemble miniature versions of the giant heads of Easter Island. And there are numerous vessels: vases, bowls, plates and a few palettes, including two that are narrow, delicate and slightly curved and seem cut from a single leaf of leek. Five additional pieces occupy five individual vitrines nearby, and another 36 pieces can be seen in a vitrine in the Greek and Roman Study Collection on the mezzanine, overlooking the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court.

All 161 works were made in the Cyclades, a group of small islands in the Aegean Sea east of Greece between roughly 5300 B.C., or the late Neolithic period, and 2300 B.C., the beginning of the Bronze Age, a span of time also referred to as Early Cycladic I and II. The figures especially are among humanity’s greatest achievements, grave and cool yet instantly familiar and even essentially realistic, like skeletons. It seems like they might fold up, like draughtsman’s dummies.

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