Early Cycladic Figurines

By Gaby Hick

This week in class we focused on the sculptures found in the Cycladic Islands of the southern Aegean: the collection of art known as Early Cycladic figures. After reading several analyses that hypothesize about the figures’ form, context, and overall meaning, we discussed in our small group sections our observations and our own theories about the works. Why are there a vast number of figures understood to be female, and so few depictions of the male form? Perhaps, as was suggested in my section, women had a significant role in the mourning rituals during the Early Cycladic era, a view supported by the vast majority of the figures found in graveyards. Why, of the five figures depicting red lines on the face, are four significantly larger in size? We discussed in my section that, if the red lines are meant to be a pictorial representation of the historically controversial practice of women scratching their cheeks until they bleed as a symbol of grief, perhaps the larger figures depict more important women. Maybe we are analyzing sculptures of dead queens.

Standing female figure, ca. 2600–2400 B.C.; Early Cycladic II

Standing female figure, ca. 2600–2400 B.C.; Early Cycladic II

Despite the significant guesswork about the figures and the role they would have played in the early Cycladic culture, it is almost impossible to prove any of these theories, considering the lack of writing from the time period. But the very existence of the sculptures does indicate certain possibilities about the Cycladic culture: some kind of social stratification, some kind of necessity or desire to depict the human form, an artistic cohesion across the islands, a society peaceful and economically stable enough to enable the creation of art and sculpture. Even though we may never be completely certain why and for what purpose the figures were made in the Early Cycladic time, their influence on our modern artistic aesthetics is definitive. Nowadays we would classify the figures’ design as minimalist: a stripped down delineation of form, dependent on geometric stability rather than ornamentation. The artistic influence of the figures on modern sculpture is apparent in, for example, the sculpture of Amedeo Modigliani and Constantin Brâncuşi. Modigliani’s “Woman’s Head” of 1912 is an abstracted, elongated form that recalls the facial features visible on the Cycladic figures. Brâncuşi’s “The Kiss” from 1916 evokes the consistent feature of the sculptures in the position of the arms, although it presents two figures in an embrace rather than an individual. The consistent abstract and minimalist portrayal of individuals is, however, what unifies the aesthetic style of these works, be they from thousands of years before our time or a little over one hundred years ago. Or, one could simply say that, since we have been able, art is about the expression of the self. Humans have been depicting the human form since they have been able to use the power of art as a form of expression.

Woman’s Head, 1912 Amedeo Modigliani.

Woman’s Head, 1912
Amedeo Modigliani.

The Kiss, 1916 Constantin Brâncuşi.

The Kiss, 1916
Constantin Brâncuşi.

This class was the first time I encountered the Cycladic figures, despite having already learned about the art they’ve influenced. For a reason I can’t quite completely explain, the figures make me sad in some way, perhaps because they meant so much to an entire culture and we don’t know why they decided to make them. Were they depictions of the dead – objects made out of grief and sorrow? Were they representations of life, carried through time until they found their way into graves? Were they objects of ritual – dark and powerful talismans? I don’t know. Although we discovered these artifacts that once belonged to people who must have had some of the same fears and dreams and loves we did, the people of these figures seem so far away. I advocate for the continued investigation into what the figures meant to the cultures that made them, so we can find out what they mean to us.

One peculiar feature appearing on almost all of the Cycladic figures is the pose of the crossed arms. Some argued that this pose was meant to represent the crossed arms of a corpse. Some say it was an ingenious decision by the designers to keep the arms intact. Others looked at the arms and imagined a mother cradling a child. When I look at the figures and their arms, I imagine them holding their secrets inside of themselves, safe and strong.