Notebook, 1993-

APPROACHES - Tradition and Innovation

Walberg, Gisela. Tradition and Innovation. Essays in Minoan Art. Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp Von Zabern. 1986.


[The culture was divided by Sir Arthur Evans into three periods that include the whole of the Bronze Age; Early Minoan [c. 3000 B.C.-2200 B.C.], Middle Minoan [c. 2200 B.C.-1500 B.C.], and Late Minoan [c. 1500 B.C.-1000 B.C.] [Harris, William H., and Judith S. Levey, eds. The New Columbia Encyclopedia. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1975.]

T E X T:
Most art is made up of two elements: tradition and innovation. The relationship between the two varies and is determined by many different factors, such as the personality of the artist, his background and training and the general attitude towards art in the society in which he lives. The development of the Greek kouros type is, for instance, an example of adherence to a set standard on the one hand and of small changes, ultimately leading to a radical transformation, on the other. Poetry like the Homeric songs, works in the same way with set formulas handed down from previous generations. But in order to attract and keep the attention of the audience, the singer must recombine the formulas, remodel and add something of his own creation. Egyptian art, however, is characterized by strict adherence to tradition [except for the short Amarna period] and little appreciation of innovation and creativity. The aim of official Egyptian art was to create universal and ideal solutions, and once an ideal solution was found and a standard was set, no need was felt for a change. The Egyptian artist tried to conform to these ideas as closely as possible, not to create new variations.[1]

Minoan art is often considered a standard example of the opposite approach. It is seen by many as essentially innovative, a spontaneous expression of joie de vivre. F. Poulsen, compared the emergence of Minoan art with spring in Crete - a short period of beauty and flowering with the atmosphere filled with the fragrance of wild roses and with bees, followed by death and destruction. For him, Minoan art was the creation of a people with no problems or sorrows, by artists who did not bother to analyse nature but happily mixed details [p. 1] characteristic of one flower with those of another, creating flowers that do not exist in the real world but still show a sense of nature and rhythm on the part of the artist.[2] In 1971, W. Wolf spoke of the "naive delight in the colorful splendor of life" which according to him is expressed in Minoan art, stating that "everything Minoan tends toward playfulness, spontaneity and fluidity".[3] Such interpretations of Minoan art have been generally accepted by ancient historians and are found in standard works on Minoan art. C. Starr sees Minoan art as something "extraordinarily different from most other major artistic styles in its love of nature and lithe impressionism" and assumes that "the Minoans must have been a peaceful, civilized people", although he is not unaware of some of the dark sides of Minoan civilization.[4] H. A. Groenewegen-Frankfort says about Minoan pictorial art that "even human beings here move with the joyous ease of creatures at play. Can it be that the faint air of unreality which so many of the figures have for us . . . is in some way related to the fact that we have lost the grace of serious play so that we look upon it charmed but doubtful as something incompatible with our maturer world"?[5] According to Hood, the freedom of movement in Minoan art "may reflect the temperament and outlook of a people living among mountains, more independent in their feelings, less circumscribed by governmental controls, than the peoples of the great river valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia . . . The essential quality of Cretan art, . . . is the power to suggest movement, and the feeling of life that springs from it."[6] The scenes with human figures and animals among flowers and rocks in Minoan art can, of course, be taken simply as genre scenes and, together with more prosaic archaeological material, be used for a reconstruction of an idyllic life in the midst of nature, which must have seemed especially attractive in the years after World War I, when Evans published the volumes of The Palace of Minos. It should, however, be born in mind that Evans, even though he [p. 2] believed in Pax Minoica comparable to "the Pax Romana in the best days of the Empire" and spoke of a Golden Age of Minoan Crete, only referred to a relatively short period of "restoration and revival" at the end of the Middle Minoan III period.[7] It is mainly in contemporary and later publications by other authors that the Pax Minoica was extended to last during most of the Bronze Age and merged with the interpretations of Minoan animal and plant motifs into a conception of Minoan Crete as a "civilized" world, in which a late Victorian gentleman would have felt at home.

Minoan art is not commemorative; there are no scenes celebrating victorious kings and armies or showing prisoners of war or their slaughter as in official Egyptian and, to an even greater extent, in Mesopotamian art. But there are also scenes which do not fit into the idyllic Minoan world which is so widely believed in, such as the Knossos Town Mosaic, which seems to have been a siege scene. One of the factors that has contributed most strongly to the idea of Minoan spontaneous joie de vivre is an interpretation of the movement of the figures in Minoan art as dancing or playing. But was it actually the artist's intention to show these figures as dancing? A study of human figures, animals and plants will show that the qualities described as spontaneity and fluidity and the "playful" movements can be linked with the origins of these motifs and are the result of a long Minoan artistic tradition, but usually have little to do with dance or play [Chapter V]. The traditional element is strong in Minoan art, in spite of the fact that creative spontaneity is seen by many as its most characteristic feature. G. A. S. Snijder in a well-known study even went so far as to suggest that Minoan artists were eidetics with an exceptional ability to retain and reproduce visual images.[8] A study of the original and development of Minoan human figures and animals will, however, show that the Minoan artists worked with a number of formulas handed down to them and that these formulas were rearranged and recombined in many different ways to suit a particular [p. 3] motif or scene. It is possible to see how a tradition was gradually formed and established, and it is also possible to distinguish between this tradition and various innovations [Chapter II]. Innovation can, for instance, be traced in the treatment of space in Minoan art. A study of the setting of the figures reveals a number of different attempts to deal with problems of perspective and volume, and several different solutions result. The attitude to the problem is to some extent similar to that of early 5th century Greek artists [Chapter VI]. Innovation in art is often the result of influence from outside, either from another cultural area or from one genre of art to another. The question of what is new and what is old and traditional can best be examined in the ceramic material. A larger body of Minoan pottery than of any other materials has been preserved, and it is possible to establish a reliable sequence. The development of motifs can be traced far back which makes it possible to discover the originality and innovations within a long tradition and within set standards. A considerable body of glyptic material from Crete has also survived, and there is a development in Minoan glyptics similar to the ceramic tradition. Chapter III is therefore devoted to the study of a possible interaction between the two, to the questions of when the interaction was most intensive and in what direction the influence went, and also to the problem of foreign elements. In Chapter IV, the relationship between two types of Minoan painting - vase painting and fresco-painting - is examined. An examination and comparison between the two genres will show that the generally accepted view that the vase-painters borrowed extensively from fresco-painting, especially in the Middle Minoan III period, cannot be taken for granted and that it is, in fact, even possible to suggest an influence in the opposite direction.

In the following essays, I have thus selected examples from Minoan art, especially Early and Middle Minoan, which illustrate the working of tradition and innovation in different genres. I hope that a fresh look at Minoan art will modify some views and correct some currently held clichés. [p. 4]

The following stylistic phases of palatial and provincial Middle Minoan pottery [called Kamares because it was first found in the Kamares cave] will be referred to:

Provincial Palatial In Evans's System
Phase 1 Pre-Kamares MM IA

Phase 2 Early Kamares MM IB/HA

Phase 3 Classical Kamares MM IIA/IIB/IIIA

Phase 4 Post Kamares MM IIIA/IIIB

For other periods and phases Evan's system has been used. [p. 5]

1. W. Wolf, Die Kunst Ägyptens, Stuttgart 1957, pp. 288-93].

2. F. Poulsen, Den Kretisk-mykeniske Kunst, Copenhagen 1926, pp. 46-48.

3. W. Wolf, The Origins of Western Art, New York 1971, p. 191.

4. C. Starr, "Minoan Flower Lovers", The Minoan Thalassacracy, Stockholm 1984, p. 9.

5. H. A. Groenewegen-Frankfort, Arrest and Movement, Chicago 1951, p. 186.

6. Hood, The Arts, pp. 233-34.

7. PM I-IV, London 1921 -35, passim.

8. G. A. S. Snijder, Kretische Kunst. Versuch einer Deutung, Berlin 1936, esp. pp. 79-105 and 135-156.

[Walberg, Gisela. Tradition and Innovation. Essays in Minoan Art. Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp Von Zabern. 1986.]



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