Cycladic art refers to an ancient artistic style of figures and decorations that were produced on the Cyclades, a collection of thirty tiny islands in the Aegan Sea near Greece. Cyladic art and culture flourished during the early Bronze age. The art work of this ancient culture was vastly different than anything else produced during the same era. Artistic expression is evident in many everyday objects from the Cycladic period including bottles, vases and pottery. However, it is the interpretation and expression of the human form that is most closely associated with what we think of today as “Cycladic art.”
Fine, white marble was readily available on the Cyclade islands. This afforded the Cycladic people with an exceptional medium with which to create figures and statues. The most popular source of inspiration was the nude female form. Cycladic sculptures recovered from burial sites are nearly always sculptures of a woman’s body. If the subject of the artwork was a male, he was usually depicted in an important role like hunter, warrior or musician. Animals and lifestock were also frequent subjects of Cycladic art.
The female nude was the dominant artistic inspiration; however, and remains the most common Cycladic art subject by nearly 20 to 1. Unfortunately, no writing exists from the pre-literate Cycladic society to help explain the purpose of the idol figures. Some scholars believe they were used in prayer rituals, suggesting that the slightly tilted head of the idols indicates supplication to the gods. Others believe they may represent a “mother goddess” or priestess.
It was from 2800 BC to 2300 BC that Cycladic art was at its most prodigious, a period known as “Early Cycladic II.” During this time, the style defined as “canonical Cycladic art” was produced which were predominantly female figures with knees bent slightly, arms folded below the chest and flat heads that were pointed upward. A Cycladic figure ranged in size from statues about the size of a man to tiny figures no more than an inch tall. Remnants of azurite and cinnabar suggest that painint the idols was a common practice.
Cycladic art has been a source of inspiration for many modern artists who appreciated the restraint and refinement found in the simple lines and geometry. The influence can be seen in the work of Modigliani, especially his sculpture Female Head Statue, along with other modern artists including Picasso. However, time robbed these modern artists of the truth. The Cyladic artists used paint and pigments to add jewelery, facial features, body paint and other decoration to their works in an attempt to more accurately approximate “real life.” Time has worn away those artistic flourishes, leaving only the clean marble of the Cycladic idols and the illusion of abstract simplicity.