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October 2010

Naram-Sin Inscriptions

Bah! I found another problem with something in Stokstad’s recent Art History text. I promise that I’m not spending my time scouting out errors in this book – they just happen to pop up. I like a lot of things about Stokstad’s approach to art history, but these minor errors and misleading statements are making me question whether I want to use this textbook for my classes. (Plus, it’s making me wonder: what other incorrect or misleading statements in the text could have escaped my notice?) Man, if I ever decide to give up teaching, maybe Pearson Prentice Hall would hire me as an editor for their future editions of Art History.

Right now I’m bothered about Stokstad’s discussion of the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin (2254-2218 BCE, shown left). Stokstad writes about the significance of “the inscription” on the stele – which suggests that there is only one inscription.1 In reality, though, there are two inscriptions: one that was written by Naram-Sin, and another inscription (which is most prominent and recognizable) that was written about 1,000 years later. Not only does Stokstad fail to recognize that there are two inscriptions, but she also implies that the second (clearly visible) inscription is the one that was written to commemorate Naram-Sin’s victory. This simply isn’t true.

To prove my point, let me show you the inscriptions. Here’s a detail image of the first inscription that was made:

This inscription is partially worn off (it is outlined by a rectangular shape over Naram-Sin’s head) and states that Naram-Sin was victorious over the Lullubi people of the Zagros Mountains. The inscription was likely made at the time when the rest of the stele was fashioned.
Here is a detail image of the second (and easily recognizable) inscription:
This inscription was written by Shutruk-Nahhunte, an Elamite king who raided Sippar in the 12th century BC and carried the stele back to Susa as booty. Shutruk-Nahhunte recorded his actions in an Elamite text: “I am Shutruk-Nahhunte, son of Hallutush-Inshushinak, beloved servant of the god Inshushinak, king of Anshan and Susa, enlarger of my realm, protector of Elam, prince of Elam. At the command of [the god] Inshusinak, I struck down the city of Sippar. I took the stele of Naram-Sin in my hand, and I carried it off and brought it back to Elam. I set it up in dedication to my lord, Inshusinak.”

This week my class has been reading a fascinating essay by Marian H. Feldman which discusses this latter inscription. (It is because of Feldman’s article that I noticed the misleading information in Stokstad’s book. Only after sorting out the two inscriptions did I discover that the most recent edition of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages correctly describes the two different inscriptions. At least one general survey text has the correct information!) Feldman uses the Elamite inscription as a springboard to discuss how different Mesopotamian monuments became loot and booty after multiple wars in the ancient Near East. She discusses the various ways that conquering Mesopotamian groups would mutilate or deface artistic spoils of war. It’s a really interesting essay, and I especially like her comparisons between ancient looting and the 2003 raiding of the National Museum of Iraq.

In regards to this stele, I liked Feldman’s discussion of how Shutruk-Nahunte chose to associate himself with Naram-Sin in the second stele inscription. Feldman writes, “That Shutruk-Nahhunte did not overwrite or obliterate Naram-Sin’s original inscription, as he did with other captured Mesopotamian monuments, and moreover, that in his own inscription he attributed the stele to Naram-Sin by name, suggests that this particular monument possessed a significance beyond simple war booty. Rather, Shutruk-Nahhunte’s knowledge of the stele’s association with a charismatic, if dishonored, ruler of the first great Near Eastern empire imbued the monument with added value.”2 It’s neat to think about how the value and meaning of this stele has changed over time.

Anyhow, thanks to Marian H. Feldman, I’ve now got my two inscriptions straight. Let’s hope that Stokstad straightens out her own error in future editions of Art History.

1 Marilyn Stokstad and Michael W. Cothren, Art History, 4th edition (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 36.
2 Marian H. Feldman, “Knowledge as Cultural Biography: Lives of Mesopotamian Monuments,” in Dialogues in Art History, from Mesopotamian to Modern: Readings for a New Century, Elizabeth Cropper, ed. (London: National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2009), 44.

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The Beatles and Visual Art

Imagine: If John Lennon was still alive, then today would be his 70th birthday. As a tribute to one of the greatest musicians of all time, I thought I would post a rare self-portrait of Lennon (shown left). This portrait (which is listed here by Cooper Owen) was created by Lennon in 1958 for a school assignment. I really like it, mostly because I think the visual style mimics a lot of John’s future interests in music: distortion, strong contrasts, and asymmetrical compositions.

I love when musicians dabble in the visual arts. Being married to both a musician and an artist, I understand that creative minds sometimes need multiple types of outlets for their creativity. Paul McCartney (who is my favorite Beatle – I’ve seen him perform twice!), is also an artist. You can see several of his paintings on this site (which includes information from a catalog of McCartney’s 1999 exhibition in Germany). I really like Paul’s style as well. One of my favorite paintings by him is Yellow Linda with Piano (1988, shown below).

Ringo Starr also has hopped onto the artistic bandwagon, although I think that his art is absolutely ridiculous. Sorry, Ringo, but it looks like you’re just playing around with the “Paint” application. (Which I don’t think is very far from the truth – Ringo mentions that he began to make computer art when he was on tour in the late 1990s.) Anyhow, you can see some of Ringo’s art on his official art website and form your own opinion.

As for George Harrison, it doesn’t seem like he took much interest in the visual arts. But hey, George can make the decorative arts rock out like no one else can (as we can see in his totally awesome music video “I Got My Mind Set on You”), so hey, that definitely counts for something.

Do you know of other pop musicians who create visual art?

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"Masculine" vs. "Feminine" vs. "Androgynous"

This quarter I have been peppering my lectures with some discussion about women in the visual arts, following some of the ideas that Christine Havice presented in Women’s Studies Quarterly. 1 Although art historical practice and publications have changed since Havice published her article in 1987, I think that many of her suggestions are still appropriate in the classroom today.

Recently I’ve been talking with my students about Akhenaten and the Amarna period in Egyptian art (on the left is the colossal figure of Akhenaten, c. 1353-1336 BC). This topic easily segued into a discussion (prompted by Havice) about the problematic nature of the labeling an artistic style or work of art as “masculine” and “feminine.” We discussed how our 21st century idea (i.e. construct) of “masculine” and “feminine” differs greatly (or likely didn’t even exist) in prehistoric and ancient times, and by using those labels we are superimposing our cultural ideology on a work of art. All in all, using such adjectives in art historical discussions implies that a similar “masculine” or “feminine” construct existed at the time the art was created.

Sigh. And such is the challenge for art historians. I think it is often difficult to find correct (i.e. objective) adjectives and phrases to describe works of art, because we always interpret works of our through our own cultural lenses. I’d like to think that Michael Ann Holly would agree with me on this subject, since she has much lamented the melancholic separation between historians and the objects of their scholarly discussion.

So, what do we do? Search for different adjectives? Continue to describe works of art in the best way that we know how, yet recognizing the surrounding culture from whence our biases spring? We obviously can’t ditch adjectives altogether; the discipline of art history revolves around the limited translation of images to words.

I don’t know the answers to solve such conundrums regarding adjectives, but I have formed one opinion about adjectives for the Amarna style. I think it is just as problematic to try and neutralize ground between the “masculine” and “feminine” terms by saying that Akenaten’s colossal statue “suggest[s] androgyny” (sorry, Marilyn Stokstad).2 Do we know if Akhenaten was trying to appear androgynous in his art? No! Even without using the “masculine” or “feminine” label, Stokstad is trying to define this statue on sexual grounds, in this case suggesting the lack or combination of sexual characteristics as a definition. (Besides, do we even know if the concept of androgyny existed in ancient Egypt?) I think it would have been more appropriate for Stokstad to say that the sculpture may suggest androgyny to the modern viewer.

1 Christine Havice, “Teaching about Women in the Visual Arts: The Art History Survey Transfigured,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 15, no. 1/2 (Spring-Summer 1987): 17-20.

2 Marilyn Stokstad and Michael W. Cothren, Art History, 4th edition (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 71.

— 6 Comments

Voldemort’s Cousin?

I don’t have any profound thoughts tonight folks – just something I found a little humorous. The other day I had a good chuckle when I realized that the Human Figure from Ain Ghazal (6500 BCE, shown above) looks a lot like Voldemort. Do you think Ralph Fiennes’ makeup designer was inspired by art from the ancient Near East?

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.