“From time to time I think: There once was a little man from the Cyclades... He thought he was making the Great Goddess, or something to that effect... And I, here in Paris, I know what he wanted to make: not a god but a statue. Nothing remains of his life, nothing remains of the gods he worshipped. But this statue survives, because this is what he wanted to create.” (Picasso)

The exhibition opens with a marble female figure: one of the few large Cycladic statues that survive from the early Bronze Age. These figures are the earliest examples of European marble sculpture made on the islands of the Cyclades. 

The statue shows a nude woman with arms crossed; the outstretched feet suggest that the figure was probably laid flat. Only the nose was plastically modelled on the face. Further details were originally painted. Some of the outlines are still visible: note the right eye and the band on the forehead (a hair-ribbon or diadem?).

Most figures were found in tombs, placed beside the dead, but their precise function is not known. We do not know who they depict, since we have no knowledge of what their makers thought about the gods and the world. They are the creations of an unknown people.

Cycladic figures date to the 3rd millennium BC, but they were only rediscovered more than 4000 years later, following excavations in the late 19th century. Archaeologists first regarded them as primitive “idols”, while artists of the avant-garde (Picasso, Brancusi, Modigliani) considered them paragons of abstract formal purity. These statues thus played an important role in the birth of modern European art. They continue to influence artists even today: the lifesize marble statue of Ai Weiwei was made in 2016.