Originally Published in 1920

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The Museum has been fortunate in coming into the possession of several collections of ancient American gold which, being combined, number more than 600 objects, not counting fragments. The exhibition which has recently been opened, brings out the fact that this Museum is so fortunate as to possess a much larger collection than is to be found in any one other locality. It was an unusual coincidence that brought the two most important accessions to the Museum at almost the same instant, one from Paris and the other from South America. It is to these two collections that Dr. Farabee devotes the principal article in this JOURNAL. Special objects in these two collections are reserved for separate treatment, together with other collections in the new exhibit.

Père Scheil of Paris, eminent among Sumerian scholars, contributes to this number an article dealing with tablets in the Museum’s collection to which attention has recently been called by the publication of copies of their texts in one of the volumes of the Babylonian Series of the Museum. These tablets, catalogued in 1917 by Dr. Stephen Langdon, who described them as parts of a Sumerian code of laws, are now for the first time translated by Pere Scheil. The chief interest attaching to these ancient documents is their relationship to the famous Code of Hammurabi discovered a few years ago by the French excavators at Susa and now in the Louvre. The Code of Hammurabi is assigned by scholars to about 2000 B.C. It has been pointed out that it was this code that furnished Moses with his model for the legislation he gave to the Jews about a thousand years after Hammurabi. The tablets in the Museum now made known, are written in the older Sumerian language and prove the existence of a code of laws at least a thousand years before the time of Hammurabi, to which original source his Babylonian laws may be referred. Until the discovery of these tablets, Hammurabi’s Code was the oldest known. As research proceeds, the beginnings of civilization appear to retreat farther and farther into the remote past. It can hardly be doubted that the earliest efforts to systematize knowledge and organize human experience for the guidance and conduct of society belong to a very much earlier time than that to which our earliest evidence applies. The documents that are published in this JOURNAL by Père Scheil will serve to encourage further research in the reputed cradle of civilization.

Dr. Leon Legrain has selected from the unpublished tablets in the Museum collection one that contains an inventory of the gold treasure that was stored for royal account in the rooms of the Temple of Baal, about 1300 B.C. The expeditions from Philadelphia that excavated Nippur discovered these chambers and the inventory now for the first time published by Dr. Legrain was among the records which they recovered.

That the art of any people or of any age is an index to its character is a common observation which may be verified by an examination of the collections in a museum in connection with historical or ethnological study.

Egyptian art is the slumberous perpetuation of an immemorial and all powerful tradition. Elaborated under the supervision of an ancient hereditary authority, it is the supreme achievement of conservative intelligence, satisfied and without curiosity. It has the smoothness and simplicity of a well worn system, the strength and dignity of conscious power and of energy under control, the mass and immobility of a prodigious fixed idea represented by the Nile. Greek art is a purely intellectual exercise based on close observation and rational habits of thought. Its outstanding quality is proportion. It seeks to define in explicit terms the beauty that is implied in crude matter. With a wonderful knowledge of the laws of vision and ruled by a love of the purely physical it preserves a negative or evasive attitude towards things spiritual. Gothic art is all vitality, vigorous action, the essence of conflict, the spirit of youth. Roman art is the apotheosis of the State, proclaiming in unmistakable and impressive terms Rome’s supremacy. Like the great white roads that ran to the ends of the Empire, its every aspect leads to Rome. It is resourceful and apt in expedient, but not intellectually alert or sensitive in matters of form. Its affinities are not so much with ideal relations as with practical values. Together with the largeness of a tolerant ascendancy it often presents an encumbered aspect, for it fails to divest itself of the irrelevant. It employs and exemplifies great and noble principles without expounding them completely or realizing their full possibilities. Arabic art at its worst is wayward, illogical, capricious. It is indirect, involved, intricate and lavish of adornment. At its best it reveals an exquisite refinement of feeling, expansive, ardent and imaginative.

Another general observation, easily verified, is that decorative art as distinguished from structural has in the past invoked living nature for counsel and instruction. It has taken its text wholly out of nature’s book of animals and plants. To exploit inanimate nature in pursuit of the same ideals is a practice altogether different in results, and, except in subordinate and special relations, insignificant. Fancy and mechanical expedient have in the course of time derived from these natural themes many related ideas that came to be appropriated to the uses of decorative art and that reappear again and again incorporated in what we call historical design.

Egyptian art concerns itself with the human form, with the forms of other animals and with Nile plants. Greek painting and sculpture are concerned almost exclusively with the human form, the forms of horses and of a few other animals. In all its achievements Greek art shows an aversion for the unfamiliar and the unknown and in its interpretation of nature evinces an uncompromising preference for the specific. Chinese art employs the forms of men and other animals together with trees and flowers and floods and rocks and hills and clouds, but with an interpretation all its own. With a clear recognition of the spiritual attributes of the universe and ever aware of the imminence of the unknown, it embodies in its message a veiled allusion to the mystery beyond. Chinese art, having command of a wide range of phenomena in nature, translates concrete images into abstract terms, expresses itself by means of suggestion and fixes the attention on things not perceptible to the senses.

Arabic art may be called the exception that illustrates by contrast the appeal to nature that is otherwise common to the art of all peoples. The making of pictures of any kind being forbidden, the artistic impulse of the Arab, when it had once been released by new experiences, was forced into other channels. Yet it is perfectly clear that even with the Arab, under ban as he was, complete detachment from the natural world was utterly impossible. Arabic art, in spite of its prohibitions and withdrawn from nature, associates itself not with animal life, it is true, but with vegetation. Expressing itself in fancy, it follows at a distance the order of development in plant life, elaborated and construed with restless energy. When animal forms appear in this scheme of decoration in defiance of the Prophet, it is obvious that they are present under protest, destroying the harmony of the scheme. When, for example, the lion appears on a rug or a piece of fayence, as he occasionally does, he is admitted with amendments and reservations that make him painfully self conscious and uncomfortable. It is at once apparent to the eye that this tortured and emasculate king of beasts, singing off key and doing penance for his sins, is alien to the spirit of Arabic art. His place is really in early Christian art among the saints and martyrs.

These two observations: art as revealing human character and the universal appeal to living nature for ideals and modes of artistic expression, furnish legitimate bases for a comparison of the art of all peoples, however far asunder.

When we come to consider the artistic output of a people like the ancient Peruvians, who are remote from the traditions on which we have been brought up, we are at once helped by a recognition of these two principles, for Peru furnishes an interesting illustration of the way in which art is related to life. It is evident that Peruvian art was a conservative product, perpetuating a very ancient tradition, and obeying an impulse imparted under very special conditions. It is a mechanism which admits of little freedom, but which is rich in the accumulated experience of many generations, informed by memories of remote and primitive beginnings.

An examination of this national product reveals at once the fact that the Peruvian artists resorted almost exclusively to the animal kingdom and that their favourite themes were derived from men and beasts alone. Human beings, creatures in fur and feather, fish and reptiles, figure in their textiles and their tapestries, but no trace of plant life is to be found in these connections.

In a finite universe, completely measured and defined by direct observation, Greek art would correspond exactly with our mental experiences and satisfy all possible demands. In such a universe Chinese art would be unintelligible were it not inconceivable. But in an infinite universe, where we move before a veil through which we cannot see, Chinese art with its subtle allusion to things unseen and undefined, answers more nearly to our inward experiences than Greek art with its precise definitions and its entire reticence on the mystery of things beyond the reach of observation.

Apart from their physical properties which in each instance are taken direct from nature, the art of Greece and the art of China have as a common attribute a strong personal note that proceeds from intellectual freedom and from the direct touch of the artist with his subject matter.

Now the art of Peru has only this in common with these two great historical performances : that all its physical properties are likewise derived from nature. It is otherwise of a wholly different order, a difference that corresponds closely to the exceptional character of Peruvian civilization and the nature of the Peruvian people. In ancient Peru the theory of State control was carried into practice as far as it could go. The State determined where a man should live, prescribed his movements, fixed his occupation, assigned his rations, designed the cut of his clothes, built his house and educated his family. All property belonged to the State and even the members of the ruling family were themselves subject to the system. Such a condition of society was possible only with a docile people schooled in the habit of obedience. A rigid system combined with strict discipline, in operation for ages, had stamped itself on the character of the people and is manifest in their art. It is clear at a glance that the province of Peruvian art was neither to define with exactness like Greek art, nor yet to discredit the claims of exact definition by the implication that all nature is part of an unfathomable mystery as in the case of Chinese art. Its affinities are with neither of these, but with the art of ancient Egypt. Its purpose is the perpetuation of tradition and the orderly reproduction of fixed ideas. It is impersonal and in touch only with the past. There is present also a special quality that is shared in some degree by Egyptian art, namely, the literary quality. It evokes thoughts and sentiments that are usually associated with the art of writing. It undoubtedly has a narrative value but only in the sense that the figures of men and beasts with their derivatives that together make up its subject matter, represent the characters that appear in legend, myth and in the oral literature that must have occupied a prominent place in the civilization of Peru, a civilization without the art of writing. On their garments, hangings and textile coverings of every kind, the Peruvians wove and embroidered the legends with which their national life and social institutions were intimately associated and which they treated with pride and veneration as reminiscent of their own origins.

It would be a mistake to suppose that Peruvian art is a mechanical performance, for it is true that a tradition, however powerful and however closely identified with a rigid system, may be very far removed in its action and results from a mechanical force. It may be itself a living, sentient thing, a voluntary agent with selective powers and faculties directing the creative will and guiding the artistic hand. To this guiding and conditioning force must be attributed the unity and organic variety that are outstanding qualities of Peruvian design. There is never a false note; every element is related to and in harmony with every other element as well as with the general theme. Such intrusive and violent effects as that produced by the introduction of a lion into the pattern of an oriental rug never occurs in Peruvian art simply because the system that dominated that art through its hold on the life of the Incas, makes such an occurrence automatically impossible. Perhaps the simplest way to make this clear is to recall the fact that all the figures used in this decorative art is based with uniformity on an animal ancestry that forms the substance of a long cherished tradition. Its development proceeds cautiously along the line of spontaneous diversification in traditional themes. The result is unity, discipline and harmony at the expense of individual freedom and of the personal quality. These are among the lessons taught by a study of Peruvian art. The fine textiles from the Museum’s large collection, reproduced in this JOURNAL and described by Mrs. Benners, serve admirably to illustrate these lessons.

What will an intelligent future age learn about the character of this day and generation from a study of our art? Much anarchy will doubtless be found and insanity will be an observed characteristic. A closer observation will reveal also, in an undercurrent, a calculated appeal to the past for guidance and salvation. This minor note in contemporary art, this plea for sanity and moderation that would build the decorative side of our lives on old and richly endowed foundations corresponds to the more sober and trustworthy thought of the time. It is opposed to the general and more conspicuous tendencies observed in our decorative arts, which in turn correspond to the violent, erratic and revolutionary currents in contemporary life and character. The Museum, having enlisted its resources in the service of an intellectual effort on behalf of sanity, has entered a field of usefulness capable of indefinite expansion. In these pages, Miss Lucile Howard, formerly connected with our educational work, describes and illustrates the outcome of a visit to the Museum on the part of pupils in one of the art schools. These results can be left to speak for themselves as an example of a sphere of usefulness in which we are deeply interested.


Cite This Article

"Foreword." The Museum Journal XI, no. 3 (September, 1920): 85-90. Accessed February 22, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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