November 5, 2009

The Price of Cultural Ownership: The Guenall Lioness Part II


The Cost of Cultural Ownership
The Guenall Lioness, Part II
After seeing the tiny stone sculpture of the lion-headed goddess some years ago at a special exhibition at Princeton University, I brought out pencil and sketch pad, and began to commit her form to paper. There was something powerful in this ancient figure - a union of a male upper torso with female hips. The hands on those powerful arms folded into fists and pressed together accentuated the solidity of the sturdy well-muscled form.
Recently, my inventory of drawings and search for powerful female figures brought her to the fore again. There is not much I know about her except that she is from Iran and that she was created five thousand years ago. Was she an early object of worship? A venerated warrior?
What does her stance reveal? Is she animal, human or both?
Seton Lloyd, in his book The Art of the Ancient Near East, published by Oxford University Press way back in the 1960's refers to the Lioness as a "monster" which is "...the first and perhaps the most striking of many monstrous forms in which the Sumerians symbolized the malevolence and hostility of nature towards humanity." He is alluding here to the commentary of Henri Frankfort, who studied the object when she was still in the Brooklyn museum: (she) "stands at the head of a long line of monsters which appear in all the great periods of Mesopotamian art and convincingly express the terror with which man realized his helplessness in a hostile universe."
It is interesting to read this early commentary and yet see nothing particularly hostile in this statue in her rather self-contained pose. Hands folded in front of the body is not a particularly threatening posture. One wonders if these men themselves felt disconcerted by a form that was man/woman/animal/human all in one. What does strike me about the pose is that it prefigures the classic archaic pose that is familiar to Egyptian paintings, with frontal upper torso and legs twisted sideways. The mystery of what she actually signifies is equally alluring as the question of what it is that she is doing.
On the latter subject, I had a conversation with my Tai ji quan instructor. He put forward the theory that she is dancing some sort of marshal arts dance. He came to this conclusion by noticing that the fists together across the chest and the twisted torso is almost identical to a position in the Wu style of Tai ji quan. His own instructor had a theory that these movements of Tai ji quan were evolved from ancient goddess dances. It is an interesting theory but might just be as difficult to prove conclusively as the "terror and helplessness in a hostile universe" one.
It is engaging to speculate on whether she is striding or standing at attention with the legs apart. Just for fun I put both fists together in front of my chest, turned my head over by left shoulder and took several paces forward to see what a dance like that would feel like. It did indeed have a powerful effect and felt almost like the determined stride of the Tango.
I am grateful that I went to the museum the day that the Lioness was on display for little did I know that I would never have an opportunity to see her again. Of course I can still look at reproductions but they are misleading for not showing the figure from various points of view and for nearly always depicting the figure almost twice actual size - making her indeed more menacing than intimate. The real Lioness is quite small. At just a few inches high she could fit in the palm of a hand or in a shirt pocket.
What is provocative for me and for anyone else who loves to see artifacts first hand is that because the Lioness was sold to a private buyer for the princely sum of fifty-three million dollars, she is out of the public viewing domain - maybe forever. I was reflecting on this as I reviewed my sketches. Is such a pivotal icon of the culture of humankind a precious part of our collective legacy that everyone should be able to share, or is she another commodity that can be sold to the highest bidder? Does money give a person the right to own history?
I wonder about who the anonymous buyer of the Lioness might be. We only know that he/she is someone in Great Britain. In my flights of fancy I imagine the Queen of England with the Lioness on her dresser next to one of the Queen Mother’s exotic hats. Or perhaps she rests in a red velvet lined case in a secret hideaway owned by Harrods department store. In considering this, I realize, too, that by making drawings of the Lioness from life I share an unusual bond with the mystery owner of the work. Firstly, we obviously share a love for the object. But we share to some degree, ownership as well. This is because I have found that when I sketch a work of art, the slow process of rendering makes that work a part of me in a way that simply buying a reproduction does not. The Japanese potter, Hamada, was cognizant of this phenomenon and consequently made copious drawings of the pottery he saw in museums. He referred to this practice as "devouring" the pots. So, like Hamada, I "devoured" a piece of the Lioness and she resides in my memory. In a metaphorical sense then, I too, am part owner and it does give me a small sense of satisfaction that this particular kind of ownership cannot be sold away. It also gives me some sense of gratification that I captured a side view of Lioness before the opportunity to see that disappeared. Amazing. Only mystery owner and myself can see Lioness’ back.
I wonder about what inspires someone to pay such a large sum of money to own something like this rare statue. Is it simply because one is able? Is it an expression of power? Or is it perhaps for a love of art and ancient history so deep that one would spare no expense for the privilege of forever being able to hold it in the palm of his or her hand at will? Whatever the reason, I hope that Lioness is loved. I will miss her.

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