Monday, January 19, 2015

Art meets ANE epigraphy

EXHIBITION: A Steady, Confident Hand: Bell's Drawings on Display at Ithaca's Handwork (Cassandra Palmyra,
[Rhiannon] Bell visited the Johnson Museum at Cornell to draw Sumerian cuneiform tablets, some of them from 3350 BCE. Both pictographs and the wedge-shaped impressions that give the system its name have been imprinted on the older clay slabs. More recent (but still very old) tablets are covered only with lines and wedges.

Bell renders these artifacts as three-dimensional objects (“illusionism”) as if they were lighted from all sides, except directly beneath the tablet. The depictions are so precise and accurate that even the varying states of preservation can be detected. It is impressive to stand four feet away and have your brain fooled quite completely, and then to move in on the surface and have the deft crosshatches emerge.

The artist would seem to have seen the work documents of an archeologist or a paleo-philologist and noticed the beauty inherent in careful recordkeeping. Several drawings recreate pages from notebooks or journals where an alphabet is being presented letter by letter, the glyphs arranged in a column with explanatory text penned in neat letters next to each one. The text about Sumerian, Hebrew and Phoenician languages is written in various modern languages.

Bell is exploring the relationship between drawing and writing. Each letter in our alphabet began as a picture of an object. The sound of that letter is matched to the sound of the first syllable in the spoken name for the object. For example, the Phoenician word aleph means “ox” and the pictograph for the first letter of their alphabet looks like a horned ox head.
The photo doesn't show her work clearly, but you can see a nice example here.