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On Art in the Ancient Near East

July 2011 (115.3)

Book Review

On Art in the Ancient Near East

By Irene J. Winter (Culture and History of the Ancient Near East 34[1–2]). 2 vols. Vol. 1, Of the First Millennium B.C.E. Pp. xiv + 640, figs. 268, table 1, plans 9, maps 5; vol. 2, From the Third Millennium B.C.E. Pp. xiv + 542, figs. 131, plans 14. Brill, Leiden and Boston 2010. $200. ISBN 978-90-04-17237-1 (vol. 1); 978-90-04-17499-3 (vol. 2) (cloth).

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Anthropologically informed and grounded in the best traditions of archaeological, art historical, and textual analysis, Winter’s scholarship enriches our understanding of the ancient Near East and ourselves. In the introduction of volume 1 of her anthologized articles, Winter states, “it became clear early on that I was an essayist, not a book-writer, and, despite a good deal of soul-searching, I have remained true to that calling” (vii). The thematic structure and organization of these impeccably produced volumes clearly show that this widely conceived retrospective edition actually contains the material of several valuable books. It might even be argued that Winter’s production has been an ongoing magnum opus in the making since 1976, the date of the earliest of her collected articles. This is so mainly because, considered as an oeuvre, her work forms an all-encompassing analysis and interpretation of nearly all aspects of ancient Near Eastern art and culture. Although these volumes regrettably do not contain all of her published work (one has to tease out many contributions in her footnotes and individual bibliographies), every article is invariably a lucid demonstration of her productive methodology. To put it in her own resonant words, Winter has been weaving “a fabric woven of whole cloth—a mesh of interlocking threads that must combine historical, linguistic, topographic, archaeological and artistic skeins before a mantle is complete” (1:513). That Winter is a masterful weaver needs no argumentation in this context.

Volume 1 brings together three groups of essays, each one of which could comfortably stand as an individual monograph. The first has to do with the visual universe of the Assyrians, either within the Assyrians’ carefully scripted programs of narrative and symbolism inside their palaces or in related monuments that marked the empire’s firm hold across a vast territorial swath. These groundbreaking studies blazed new trails for more recent work on specific monuments and themes (e.g., J.M. Russell on the iconographic program of Assurnasirpal II’s palace in Nimrud [“The Program of the Palace of Assurnasirpal II at Nimrud: Issues in the Research and Presentation of Assyrian Art,” AJA 102 (1998) 655–715] or Z. Bahrani’s explorations of the nature of representation in Near Eastern visual culture [“Performativity and the Image: Narrative, Representation, and the Uruk Vase,” in E. Ehrenberg, ed., Leaving No Stones Unturned: Essays on the Near East and Egypt in Honor of Donald P. Hansen (Winona Lake, Ind. 2002) 15–22] even as they advance the theoretical discussion of seminal art historical concepts (visual narrative, portraiture). The focus of the second “book” within volume 1 switches our attention to the periphery of the Assyrian empire, the tributary or subject principalities, and their symbiotic relationship with Assyria. Here, Winter scrutinizes the sophisticated production of luxury products, mainly ivories—one of Winter’s primary and unparalleled areas of expertise since the 1960s—and bronzes. Her contributions, especially her painstaking delineation of principal stylistic groups and centers of production of furniture inlaid with ivory reliefs, have conclusively redefined the complex network of Levantine economy and artistic production and interactions. Finally, her third “book” dwells once again on the periphery by extending Winter’s analysis to the monumental works of north Syrian principalities. It concludes with one of the most sophisticated essays ever written on the literary construction of the Phoenicians in the Iliad and the Odyssey. In her subtle analysis of the texts and subtexts of epic literature, Winter is no less insightful than in the practice of her main craft of archaeological and art historical analysis and interpretation. Winter warns us about the limitations and distortions of the medium, especially when one reckons with a rich archaeological record that paints an altogether different and more richly textured canvas of Phoenician action throughout the Mediterranean.

Volume 2 mostly deals with the interpretation of seminal works of Mesopotamian art of the third millennium B.C.E., the methods and tools of analysis by which these interpretations are reached, and the dialogic relationship of scholars, artists, institutions, and laypersons with the preserved or reconstructed actuality of the ancient Near East. The recent upheavals of the area and its artworks (e.g., the Warka vase), along with Winter’s emic analysis, render many of the articles even more topical. She never misses an opportunity to stress that novel understandings of works such as the Stele of the Vultures in the Louvre have far-reaching implications. Even more than volume 1, this collection behaves like a Russian nesting doll. There are three major thematic divisions, each of which comprises extensive monographs on specific themes or monuments. In her first grouping (“Sculpture and the Early State”), for example, Winter includes three hefty articles on the famous Victory Stele of Naram-Sin of Agade. Winter’s study of the stele’s astral symbols in a volume of studies presented to Mogens Trolle Larsen in 2004 could have been included here (“The Conquest of Space and Time: Three Suns on the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin,” in J. Dercksen, ed., Assyrian and Beyond: Studies Presented to Mogens Trolle Larsen [Leiden] 607–28). Appropriately titled “Experiencing ‘Art’ and Artifact,” the second “book” in this volume brings together eight studies that probe into the nature of art and question conceptions of agency, the nature of viewing, and the ancient viewers’ decoding strategies. The final unit, “Viewing (in) the Past and the Present,” showcases Winter’s always-fruitful reflection on the value, continuous redefinition, and handling of the past and its treasures by academics, artists, museums, and states.

The unique value of Winter’s scholarship cannot be emphasized enough. Her elegant prose, the clarity of her theoretical self-positioning, her rigor of method, and her unparalleled mastery of diverse materials all impart to her work the rarely achieved distinction of “classic.” The two volumes under review here give to this work a new lease on life even as they facilitate a more substantial and lasting acquaintance with it.

Nassos Papalexandrou
Department of Art and Art History
The University of Texas at Austin

Book Review of On Art in the Ancient Near East, by Irene J. Winter

Reviewed by Nassos Papalexandrou

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 3 (July 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1153.Papalexandrou

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