1914-2014: The centenary of the ancient terracotta collection

Hommage a Paul Arndt /1865-1937/

Following the 2008 centenary of its official foundation, in 2014 the Antiquities Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts celebrates the 100th anniversary of its "second foundation", by commemorating its acquisition of Paul Arndt's collection of small-scale terracotta sculptures. In the history of the Collection, this purchase meant far more than an increase in the Museum's holdings of ancient art. At the time when the Museum of Fine Arts was founded, the principal role of antiquities in the new museum was to represent the genre of sculpture through works of outstanding artistic merit. Initially, it seemed sufficient for the purpose to exhibit plaster casts of the most important ancient sculptures. In 1908, however, the Museum made the first, and the largest, of several purchases which complemented the cast collection with original works of ancient art, when a collection of 135 pieces of ancient marble sculpture was purchased, on the recommendation of Antal Hekler (1882-1940) from the Munich art dealer Paul Arndt. At the time, Hekler was still working as an archaeologist and curator in the National Museum, but six years later he was already arranging the acquisition of a terracotta collection as the head of the new department of Ancient Sculpture in the Museum of Fine Arts. Paul Arndt (1865-1937) studied classical archaeology first in Leipzig, then in Munich. He started out on an academic career with the help of his Munich professor, Heinrich Brunn; it was also on Brunn's urging, and partly in his footsteps, that in the 1890s Arndt began to publish illustrated books, which still remain fundamental to this day, for a wider public on ancient art. From 1894 onwards, he left academia, living on his private income as an independent researcher and art collector. His house in Munich became the informal centre of German classical archaeology and for collectors of ancient art. His scholarly training and contacts made it possible for him to keep abreast of the ongoing and exciting excavations which at the time were transforming our knowledge of the Classical world, while his encyclopaedic knowledge and critical judgement made him a leading expert on ancient objects on fin-de-siècle art market. It was a great period of museum foundation and philanthropy. Arndt regularly gave advice and acted as a mediator during the development of the collections of the Antikensammlung in Munich, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek in Copenhagen and the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam. His role in the formation of the Antiquities Collection of the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts was largely owing to his acquaintance with Hekler, who had studied classical archaeology in Munich from 1904, and who remained in touch with Arndt even after his return to Hungary. After selling his collection of marbles to the Museum, Arndt acted as a kind of voluntary consultant for the Museum. Already in 1910, he had offered a collection of terracottas and vases for sale to the Museum, but the necessary basis for this acquisition, in terms of scholarship and connoisseurship, was laid only with the appointment of Hekler as head of department in 1914. The collection of 650 items which arrived at the Museum a hundred years ago contained objects from the terracotta production of the more significant sites known at the time, and from all genres, each piece accompanied by careful documentation provided by the collector. Arndt moreover even accepted the condition that he would re-purchase pieces that might eventually prove to be fakes. The purpose of the present selection is to give a picture of the diversity and the wide horizons of Arndt’s collection. Each object on display was acquired in the purchase a hundred years ago. The chronological boundaries of the collection reach back to the Aegean bronze age: the earliest piece exhibited is a characteristic terracotta object of the 12th-11th centuries BC, the late period of Mycenaen culture (Late Helladic IIIB). The integration of these "primitives" into an existing sculpture collection ran against the ruling aesthetic notions of the time, which restricted the sphere of collectible objects to "art" in the classical sense. The same holds true for the Boeotian figurines, which are much later in date (6th century BC), but are very similar in their degree of abstraction, and for the archaic figurines from Cyprus. An example of high archaic terracotta work is provided by a female bust. This came from South Italy provenance, but is modelled in a style characteristic of a Greek centre in Asia Minor, the quality of which, despite the fragmentary condition of the piece, recalls monumental statuary (1). The largest group within the Arndt purchase was made up of Hellenistic terracotta statuettes: the class of object most widely represented in museums worldwide. These are first of all the so-called Tanagrinae (female genre figures named after Tanagra, their findspot in Boeotia). These were fashionable on the European art market already at the turn of the century, but as Arndt exaggeratedly claimed, in the first decade of the 20th century "in Budapest people don't even know what they look like" (2). The formal diversity of Hellenistic statuettes is represented by two pieces from Asia Minor with a mythological subject: a floating Eros of the so-called resting type (3), and a bust with a pathetic expression (4). The face of the latter mixes features of satyrs and Galatians (these Barbarian physiognomies evolved in the 3rd century BC art of Pergamon, following the battles with Celtic groups breaking into Asia Minor, and had a long-lasting effect in Greek art). Among the remains of ancient terracottas, many museums also preserve moulds that were used to create the objects. The collection that Arndt sent to Budapest did not lack these either: both sides of the example shown here exhibit a line of letters incised before firing, perhaps the abbreviated signature of the craftsman. Iconographically, the piece is a rarity: to judge from the short tunic and the Phrygian cap it is a mythological herdsman figure (perhaps Attis) playing the pipe, with a landscape in the background. The collection would not have been complete without some architectural terracottas (5). The large female head is one example of the kind of terracotta ornament that once decorated a building; the antefix (or tile decoration that closed off a row of humped tiles at the edge of a roof) with its rare and colourful polychrome painting, is another (6,7). Both exemplify the artistic culture which emerged in Italy in the late Classical and early Hellenistic age. A fragment of high-quality terracotta monumental sculpture illustrates the care with which Arndt chose the pieces he would sell to Budapest: the red-painted, almost life-size hand holding a cup, which came from the same milieu as the architectural terracottas, formed part of a Hellenistic statue from Central Italy, perhaps originally a grave-monument (8). Arndt's collection challenged the boundaries of "Classical Antiquity" also in its geographical extension: his selection included a number of objects from the terracotta production characteristic of Graeco-Roman Egypt. At the time, Egypt was generally thought to stand on the geographical periphery of Classical culture proper. The thematic diversity and formal coherence of these objects is illustrated here with three pieces: a statuette of the Egyptian deity Bes, a Priapus-figure (a fertility god especially popular in imperial period Rome) with date palm, and the head of a female figure, perhaps also destined for a cultic context (9). Arndt and Hekler, two outstanding protagonists of the 19th- century tradition of archaeology, thus laid the prerequisites for the development of a collection in the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts that was open to what was "non-Classical" in ancient art, and which, in a move characterstic of the most progressive art-historical thought in at the turn of the 20th, ejected the rigid distinction between "high art" and "applied arts".

Ágnes Bencze

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