Greek European Culture

Greek art, Greek history

Knossos, Evans and de Chirico

Henrik Ibsen, A Doll's House

One enormous virtue of Cathy Gere’s Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism is that she leaves to one side the barren debate over whether Evans himself was a good or a bad character, either archaeologically or politically. Her subject is not so much the excavation of Knossos but the role that Minoan archaeology played within twentieth-century culture (and, conversely, how twentieth-century culture, from Evans on, projected its own concerns onto Minoan archaeology). It was at Knossos, she argues, that prehistory gave shape to a prophetic modernist vision, which repeatedly reinvented the Minoans as Dionysiac, peaceable protofeminists in touch with their inner souls.

For Evans, the Minoans were emphatically not pure Greek, and he would have been irritated to learn that the “Linear B” tablets, which he excavated at Knossos (and which remained undeciphered in his lifetime), were actually written in an early form of the Greek language. In his view, as Gere summarizes it, “Crete rose above the inertia of her northern neighbors as a result of successive waves of immigration from the south, including that of “negroized elements” hailing from Libya and the Nile Valley.” And Evans lays particular stress on the trade and caravan routes leading from the African interior (for example, from Sudan and Darfur) to the coast— and so to within easy sailing reach of Crete. This is not so very far from the arguments of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1987).

Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism traces the story of the modern engagement with Knossos from Evans’s first visit to Crete in the late nineteenth century almost up to the present day. It leads from the avant-garde art of de Chirico, through the famous archaeological obsessions of Freud and H.D. (“a psycho-archaeological folie à deux” that brought a version of Minoan primitivism to the analyst’s couch), to the frankly dotty ideas of matriarchal goddesses floated by Robert Graves and Marija Gimbutas.

Art historians have been happy to concede that the influence on Art Nouveau of the frescoes from Knossos (albeit as restored by Gilliéron) was almost as strong as the influence of Art Deco on Gilliéron’s restorations. Early-twentieth-century painters and sculptors were closely observing the newly discovered primitive masterpieces of Crete and incorporating them in their work.

A particularly intriguing artistic link with Knossos is found in the work of the painter Giorgio de Chirico. An Italian by origin, but born in Greece in 1888 and schooled there, de Chirico produced a series of Cretan paintings, focusing on the figure of Ariadne set within a bleak and troubling modernist landscape. His Ariadne is based on a famous Greco-Roman statue from the Vatican Museum, showing the Cretan princess sleeping after she has been abandoned by Theseus (whom she had helped to kill the Cretan Minotaur), though before the god Dionysus has arrived to “rescue” her. But as Gere notes, the setting in which she lies, with its industrial columns and open piazzas, is strikingly reminiscent of the concrete reconstruction of the palace at Knossos (see illustration on page 58). It turns out (and seems almost too good to be true) that as a child, de Chirico had been taught drawing by Emile Gilliéron, and when the de Chirico family moved to Munich in 1905, Giorgio attended the very art school where Gilliéron himself had been trained.

1 Comment

  1. Dean

    The introduction to Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism by Cathy Gere is available on the University of Chicago Press website.