Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 18, 2017
Brian A. Brown and Marian H. Feldman, eds. Critical Approaches to Ancient Near Eastern Art Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013. 812 pp. Hardcover $149.99 (9781614510291)

Brian A. Brown and Marian H. Feldman’s volume, Critical Approaches to Ancient Near Eastern Art, is first an outstanding reflection, and stands at the leading edge, of ancient Near Eastern art history. Perfectly poised within current scholarship in the larger discipline of art history, the essays touch upon trends of interdisciplinarity, post-processual theory, materiality, and thing-theory, to name just a few. As the larger field of art history is beginning to embrace the turn to material culture, ancient Near Eastern art history is coming into its maturity in this respect. Driven in part by the work of Zainab Bahrani, today’s historians of ancient Near Eastern art reject works of art as merely depictions or illustrations of past events to consider them as objects of agentive power. The volume presents a series of excellent interpretations of ancient Near Eastern art through creative and engaged applications of textual analysis, archaeology, anthropology, history, and environmental studies. It is worthy of a place not only on the art historian’s bookshelf, but also on that of anyone seeking to teach art history through newly imagined curricula and pedagogies.

A welcome tool for a new generation of teachers and learners, this volume offers coverage of ancient Near Eastern art history that is extensive in its content yet elegant in its methodologies. In all sections, works of art from a broad chronological range—as early as the fourth millennium BCE to the later Hellenistic period—are featured, and there is insightful attention devoted to palatial reliefs as well as less monumental portable works. It engages with forward-thinking theoretical concepts while thoughtfully wrestling with scholarship of the past, and makes equal use of objects considered to be “greatest hits” and less canonical examples. Its thirty chapters, divided into six thematic sections, present topics ranging from historiography, technology, and texts to sociology, religion, and space. A thorough review of all chapters is impossible in the space allotted here, but this review seeks to highlight a few of the contributions particularly insightful on topics less well represented in the field of ancient Near Eastern art history, while also being art-historically innovative.

In section 1, “Defining the Field,” the authors trace the history of ancient Near Eastern art in Iraq and other locales, touch upon the antiquities trade and its scholarly repercussions, and establish firmly, through case studies, the heritage of the Enlightenment aesthetic in ancient Near Eastern art-historical scholarship. For those interested in bridging the gap between the historiography of the study of antiquity and the contemporary world, the review provided by Lamia Al-Gailani Werr (“Archaeology and Politics in Iraq”) of Iraq’s twentieth-century archaeo-political engagement with its own ancient history, although not particularly uplifting, is enlightening. Constance von Rüden’s contribution (“Beyond the East-West Dichotomy in Syrian and Levantine Wall Paintings”) stands out as a good historiographic read to remind us of how we arrived where we are, and how we can forge ahead. She establishes the thorny issue of ethnicity (European vs. Oriental) as a historical reason for scholarly bias, through a presentation of the twentieth-century discovery of second-millennium-BCE palaces at Mari and Alalakh. Challenging the very means by which knowledge is produced in the field, she argues that rather than rely on the old Eurocentric topos of East-West, we should think about locally relevant motivations as they relate to concepts of “produced space,” such as looking more closely at the roles of audience, reception, and the variability in contemporary interpretation.

Section 2, “Technologies and Practices of Artistic Production,” brings anthropological and art-historical approaches to issues of workshop logistics, materiality, and the agency of portable objects such as inlays, personal adornment, banquet furnishings, and accounting devices (the ubiquitous ancient Near Eastern cylinder and stamp seals and their resultant impressions). It is in this section that we see most clearly a broader disciplinary trend to embrace the physicality of the object, and it provides perhaps the richest opportunity to review the scholarly traditions of ancient Near Eastern art history as its own subdiscipline. Contributions to this section champion new terminology for classes of objects previously referred to as the “minor” arts. Two chapters warrant special mention in this regard. Allison Thomason (“The Impact of the ‘Portable’: Integrating “Minor Arts” into the Ancient Near Eastern Canon”) problematizes the term minor and champions the descriptor portable, favoring the agentive and affective properties implied by the latter term. She asks that we consider how the objects’ creators may have viewed their creations, and she views the role played by objects such as cylinder seals, jewelry, and dress from the second millennium BCE through the lens of their physical engagement with the body by means of activities such as banqueting and feasting. Francesca Onnis (“The Influence of the Physical Medium on the Decoration of a Work of Art: A Case Study of the ‘Phoenician’ Bowls”) places us in a visually adept, early first-millennium-BCE Aegean world to experience how the physical characteristics of carved and molded metals bowls enlivened the Phoenicians’ commensal experiences. Through an analysis of object shape, the arrangement of figural decoration, and function, she concludes that the rhythmic placement of figures on these bowls produced the effect of animation, which could, when the bowls were decorated with banquet motifs, lead to a phenomenon of mimesis between banquet participants and the figures depicted.

In section 3, “Text and Image,” contributions outline semiotic issues in the broader discipline and bring the reader up to date with their application to ancient Near Eastern art. Focusing on portraiture, propagandistic imagery, technological innovation, and narrative, subjects traditionally shackled to formalist and iconographic art-historical frameworks, these chapters engage with methodologies vested in the “material culture turn.” Cory D. Crawford’s case study (“Relating Image and Word in Ancient Mesopotamia”) of a Late Bronze Age statue from the city of Alalakh “representing” the ruler Idrimi provides a useful example of the application of semiotic methodologies. Crawford relates other well-known works of art from the ancient Near East (including the Uruk Vase, Stele of the Vultures, Hammurabi’s Stele, and Neo-Assyrian sculpture) to his argument for Idrimi’s statue, which emerges as a clear example of what the author argues is a “visual hypallage,” whereby the object acts as an invitation for the viewer to see the text (and hence the ruler and his accomplishments) not just the three-dimensional “representation.” Jennifer C. Ross (“Art’s Role in the Origins of Writing: The Seal-Carver, the Scribe, and the Earliest Lexical Texts”) seeks to put humanity back into the study of ancient Near Eastern art by examining the relationship between the creation of the first lexical lists and early seal imagery. Using practice theory, which understands technology as a socially motivated action on objects, Ross places the reader into the hustle and bustle of fourth-millennium-BCE Uruk, the first urbanized environment in Mesopotamia. She asserts that the first lexical lists were a standardization of various images found on seals, and certainly convinces this reviewer that early seal makers and users were a driving force behind the creation and design of the world’s first writing system.

Section 4, “Social Identities,” places the relationships around objects—object to object and human to object—at center stage, providing an update to traditional art-historical questions of audience with analyses that highlight materiality, agency, animation, practice theory, and social processes through case studies on terra-cotta figurines, plaques, personal adornment, and seals. Sarah B. Graff’s chapter, “Sexuality, Reproduction and Gender in Terracotta Plaques from the Late Third–Early Second Millennia BCE,” is particularly insightful for its discussion of gender, the gaze, and practice. Clay is a ubiquitous medium in ancient Mesopotamia, and the plaques formed of it, Graff argues, are capable of engaging in complex experiences related to their handlers’ gender identities. Reviewing scholarship on the “goddess,” the gaze, and the “nude” and “naked” body in both Western and non-Western visual contexts, Graff warns us that we need to be wary of both our piecemeal evidentiary constraints and our cultural filters. She suggests clay plaques could function in many ways, including, for example, as wombs and goddesses, agents for female and male creation, (fertility) objects, birth aids, and objects of self-identification (talismans) and of personal allure. Contributions by Amy Rebecca Gansell (“Images and Conceptions of Ideal Feminine Beauty in Neo-Assyrian Royal Contexts, c. 883–627 BCE”) and Aubrey Baadsgaard (“Uniforms and Non-Conformists: Tensions and Trends in Early Dynastic Fashion”) present some of the most dynamic scholarship in the study of dress in the ancient world, while Stephanie Langin-Hooper’s “Terracotta Figurines and Social Identities in Hellenistic Babylonia” offers excellently crafted arguments for reimagining issues of identity through objects in the ancient world.

Section 5, “Religion, Ritual, and Politics,” problematizes the very function and status of the image in ancient Mesopotamian visual perception, situating an approach to the study of images, particularly sculpture, in various contexts of belief. In a fresh take on a mainstay of survey classes—the Uruk Vase—Claudia E. Suter’s “Human, Divine or Both? The Uruk Vase and the Problem of Ambiguity in Early Mesopotamian Visual Arts” posits that many of the images in the Uruk Vase are intentionally ambiguous in nature. Suter suggests that this fluidity of meaning is precisely the perspective that we, as modern viewers, are missing. This chapter offers a great overview of how the vase has been studied by scholars over the past sixty years (by Boehmer, Winter, Bahrani) and offers a new, contemporary reading of the object that could, for example, be considered in conjunction with Ross’s chapter on Uruk lexical lists. Suter asks us to more carefully consider the audience and different spaces of viewing for this object, ultimately concluding that its imagery more likely connotes grain storage than a wedding, and that the figures are human rather than divine. Jean Evans’s “The Tell Asmar Hoard and Rituals of Early Dynastic Temple Sculpture” is a similarly successful exploration of so- called canonical objects, useful as a selected reading in any art history course. Tallay Ornan (“A Silent Message: Godlike Kings in Mesopotamian Art”), Anne Porter (“When the Subject Is the Object: Relational Ontologies, the Partible Person and Images of Naram-Sin”), and Paul Collins (“Gods, Heroes, Ritual, and Violence: Warfare in Neo-Assyrian Art”) all engagingly address the ontological nature of the image in Mesopotamia.

The sixth and final section, “Making and Defining Space,” places the reader in architectural contexts, pushing traditional analyses of form and function into discussions of phenomenology and environmental experience. These essays interrogate our current understanding of how built environments are perceived by their users, as well as the links between identity, space, and territory, and ritual experience. Specifically useful for the study of Assyria, Ann Shafer’s “The Assyrian Landscape as Ritual” takes a new approach to the study of landscape imagery carved on Assyrian palace walls. Shafer provides a review of previous scholarship on Assyrian landscape imagery and ideology, elucidating how, methodologically, we have arrived where we are today. Identifying the palace as ritual space, and landscape settings on the walls as a stage set, she explores the symbolic rather than mimetic function of landscape as a subject. Her approach employs both Assyrian texts and images as evidence for phenomenological and dedicatory tools that functioned to create agentive spaces that could conjure the idea of kingship within palace contexts, and that relied on landscape imagery to provide a setting specifically for the rituals of cosmic union that renew and sustain the universe. Such transformative rituals are understood as taking place within terrestrial boundaries and were part of kingly activities. Her contribution is particularly successful in immersing the reader in the use of imagery in the Assyrian context, and it engages us in deeper understanding of how cognition and imagery worked together phenomenologically.

The summaries presented above offer a small fraction of the wealth provided in the volume. As noted by Marian Feldman in her introduction, the volume is not comprehensive and articles are diverse and critical across multiple fronts. By its very nature, then, it is multidisciplinary while also taking a variety of approaches: contextual, anthropological, and engagement with current theories of material culture. Although Feldman cites the “textbook” lacuna in the field (perhaps now filled by Bahrani’s Art of Mesopotamia [New York: Thames and Hudson, 2017]—a volume this reviewer highly recommends) as a reason for the creation of the volume, it by no means provides a substitute for one. However, Critical Approaches is an excellent resource for teaching, and various chapters could be mined and reappropriated for various pedagogical frameworks.

The editors deserve great credit for their selections of essays, the structure they crafted, and for maintaining quality throughout the volume. The inclusion of abstracts and keywords (essential for curricular applications) is quite useful, as are ample black-and-white images and two comprehensive maps. Each chapter has its own bibliography, which might have been consolidated in order to allow for more streamlined source retrieval; however, the sources are both classic and fresh, another indication of this volume’s essential worth for new and established scholars. While this reviewer would have liked to see more conversation and cross-referencing among the chapters, the volume comes with the highest possible recommendation for any serious student of art history, archaeology, or material culture, despite its high price tag. 

Sarah J. Scott
Associate Professor, Department of Art, Art History and Film, Wagner College