Etruscan influences on my art from 1965 to 1975.
You would think that at age 93 and legally blind, I would have plenty of time to reflect on past endeavours. But that is not the case. I am actively producing ceramic sculptures for exhibitions and commissions with the help of two assistants.
For the past 15 years my work has focused on the genre known as trompe l'oeil. Using various kinds of clay I make objects that look like they are made of other materials--paper, wood, cardboard, leather or metal. I recreate documents, letters, maps, sheet music, books, magazines, puzzles and things that convey information. The subject matter stems from my fascination with the ability of human beings to communicate by using signs and symbols as well as written words.
Ah, but that is not what my work was about when I discovered the Etruscans in the mid-1960s. At that time I was teaching art at George Peabody College for Teachers, which is now merged with Vanderbilt University here in Nashville, Tennessee. The courses I taught were Design, Art Fundamentals, History of Decorative Arts and Ceramics.
Ceramics was a newfound love in my life. It had not been part of my Classical (Western) Art Education (1934-1937) at the Albright School of Fine Arts in Buffalo, New York, which focused on figure drawing, painting still-life and landscapes with oils and watercolours. Sculpture was made on an armature for bronze casting. So, when I discovered that clay could be used as a valid medium of artistic expression, I began a personal search for forms through which I could express my ideas about contemporary society in America.
Contemporary art of the late 1950s and early 1960s was going in many new, exciting directions. What most appealed to me was the work of Pop artists like Andy Warhol and the California Funk artists like ceramist Robert Arneson.
I guess it was a stroke of luck when, about that time, I discovered a book in the Peabody College Library that set my mind in a whirl. It was an old book with photos of objects found at archaeological sites in obscure areas of Italy and was written in Italian, a language I can not read or speak. Although I could not understand the text or the descriptions under the 'plates', I found the pictures fascinating. They provided the impetus for me to delve a bit deeper into Etruscan art forms. I began to think of ways I could convert some of these forms into my own contemporary interpretations. (I recently discovered that the book, Arte Etrusca, is now in the Vanderbilt University Central Library.)
I was particularly taken with the sarcophagi and canopic jars that had carved images of the deceased whose bones or internal organs had been placed within. I have always had an interest in the variety of burial practices of the world's different cultures and religions. Mummification, embalming, cave and tomb burials, corpses placed on rooftops or mountaintops to be consumed by vultures or other birds of prey, cremation and so forth, still are being practiced today.
A gargoyle pictured in the book (see photo) reminded me of MAD Magazine's mascot, Alfred E Neuman. Because the humour and satirical political cartoons in MAD Magazine were so beloved by my teen-age son Paul and daughter Jackie, we never discarded any of them. I thought it would be fun to make a storage container resembling an Etruscan sarcophagus with the visage of AEN on the front.
It is always difficult to calculate the finished size of works in clay due to the shrinkage factor, particularly with high-fired stoneware clay. But, I calculated correctly and the size turned out to be perfect for two stacks of MAD Magazines side by side. When the sarcophagus was completed, I sent a photograph with a letter to the editor of MAD, which was published in December 1966, issue No. 107. It read as follows:
The face on this Etruscan cinerari urn (circa 5th century BC) bears a striking resemblance to a character familiar to MAD readers. The enigma surrounding the origin of Alfred E Neuman, which has puzzled your readers for many years, seems to have been resolved by this important archaeological find. The AEN Cinerari Urn, as it is called, was uncovered in the excavations in Etruria--modern Tuscany--about 1916. Why have you kept this vital information from MAD readers? SYLVIA HYMAN
After the picture and letter appeared in December of 1966, I received numerous letters from readers, even some men who were imprisoned and wrote asking me to settle bets they made on whether or not it was 'real'.
The AEN urn is shown in the award-winning documentary SYLVIA HYMAN: Eternal Wonder by filmmaker Curt Hahn of Film House. The film, available on DVD, also includes a sarcophagus that has on the lid a life-mask of my face adorned by an Etruscan style hairdo. Sarcophagus for Myself is in the permanent collection of the Tennessee State Museum and is intended to hold my remains after cremation. I have written instructions to that effect in my will. Some of my ashes are to be used to make an ash glaze that will coat the urn to be placed inside the sarcophagus.
Other Etruscan-inspired works include a satirical Nixon/Agnew pair of canopic jars. Since these were made in 1969, prior to the revelations of Nixon's Watergate involvement and Agnew's tax evasion, I believe I was prophetic in the demise of the infamous duo.
Under the heavy lid of the AEN sarcophagus, on top of the stacks of MAD magazines, are two file folders. One contains materials related to MAD while the other contains mainly newspaper and magazine articles about Etruscan discoveries, articles written in the late 1960s that lured me to Italy with their enticing headlines.
"In Search of Etruria" reads one of the headlines in a column called "TIME OFF" by Christopher Hampton that appeared in The Observer Review, 22 June, 1969. The headline of another article, this one by Art Buchwald, "Etruscan Grave Game", describes the race between archaeologists and grave robbers to remove the contents of newly excavated Etruscan tombs. Both articles refer to Cerveteri, the necropolis with streets and squares of seventh and sixth century BC chamber tombs. Articles about the discoveries, clipped from National Geographic magazines, added to my intense desire to visit the hill towns of Italy.
The perfect opportunity came in March 1972. My daughter, Jackie Hyman (nom de plume, Jacqueline Diamond), was in Florence where she had been residing while writing a play as part of a year in Europe, thanks to a Thomas Watson Foundation Grant she received when she graduated from Brandeis University. I flew to Florence to spend a few weeks with her, not sure if I was more excited about seeing her or the chance to see some real Etruscan art.
After mapping out a circular route that would take us through the spectacular hill towns, Jackie, one of her friends and I rented a Fiat and set out. Our route, with destination Cerveteri in mind, would take us through Siena, Montepulciano, Perugia, Assisi and Orvieto. Then, we would return to Florence via the coastal route, stopping in Tarquinia and Volterra.
The trip to the Necropolis of Cerveteri, which traversed the highways and by-ways of the hill towns, provided visual and gastronomic delights beyond my high expectations. When we encountered a locked gate on the road approaching the necropolis, however, I began to fear the worst. No one was in the gatehouse or anywhere around. We sat in the car wondering what to do. Were we at the wrong entrance?
Then, suddenly the gatekeeper appeared, unlocked the gate and told us where to park the car. He explained the layout of the cemetery and said we were welcome to walk on the main road and enter the tombs along the sides. Initial elation was marred by the disappointing information that followed. All of the contents of the restored tombs was recently removed and sent to museums in the region and in Rome, he told us. At that time I was not aware of the vast size or scope of the area that had been discovered and I remember thinking, naively, that everything should have been left in place and the entire necropolis declared a museum.
Walking on the ancient funeral roadways and streets and entering the house-like tombs with their slanted roofs carved in the native rock, however, turned out to be an unforgettable experience. Despite the removal of the contents, there remained much to be seen and appreciated. Twenty five hundred years ago, Etruscan artisans carved the rock into homes to shelter beloved, departed ones and decorated the slanted-roof tomb chamber walls around the sleeping alcoves with carved pillars, relief designs and paintings of people, animals and plants.
I wonder if anyone will see my art works 2500 years from now and, if so, what they will make of them.
Article by Sylvia Hyman
Sylvia Hyman is a ceramic artist and former Instructor at George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, Tennessee.