Book Reviews -- Masking the Blow: The Scene of Representation in Late Prehistoric Egyptian Art by Whitney Davis

Article excerpt

WHITNEY DAVIS, Masking the Blow: The Scene of Representation in Late Prehistoric Egyptian Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. 316 pp.; 53 b/w ills. $55.00

There emerges--from a distant dig, on the market, in a museum basement, out of an old cupboard or attic belonging to some pre-World War II officer's widow--an archaeological object. It is beautiful, interesting. The older it is, the further from our canon of known things it lies, the greater the fascination it may exert on us. Yet the older it is, the more difficult for us to find strategies for enticing our way into understanding its meanings.

This, in somewhat romantic terms, is the problem facing the art historian who looks to the origins of art, to those isolated objects or groups of objects which stand ac the beginning of our discipline's canon of material. In prehistoric societies, which may not have been literate and whose writings have anyway not survived, we are confronted with a strange and riveting methodological problem: how much of what we can find to say about such objects (and they demand we speak of them, for the are our beginnings) is more than simply our imposition, our series of modernizing assumptions? This is, of course, the same problem we face with the Olympia pediments, the stained glass of Chartres, or the paintings of Rembrandt, but in these historical (rather than prehistorical) cases, there are always texts, documents, bodies of comparable material with which we may erect a (hopefully) somewhat objective--or, at least, a less personally subjective--frame around our theories and interpretations. But with the beginning of human art (as perhaps with all real beginnings from the Big Bang to the Origin of the Species), we face the objects or the events with a mysterious nakedness. here may be almost nothing to help us to know how we should think or direct our thought. There is just the viewer (in our professional case, the art historian) and the objects. So he case of the prehistoric archaeological object--whether one of Whitney Davis's carved stone palettes from predynastic and First Dynasty Egypt or of Stonehenge itself--always offers a fruitful potential for art-historical reflection.

In the face, then, of a world of objects unimpeded by historical or literary trappings, art historians have devised a series of methodologically interesting techniques by which to uncover meanings and to unravel the significances of the marks which define the object as more than mere stone or pigment. A particular development of recent years, which avoids the question of content and the lack of any corroborative cultural information for groups of prehistoric objects, has been the adaptation and application of the Morellian method to Cycladic figurines spanning many centuries in the third millennium B.C. Here the art historian may use highly complex detective methods, rooted in late nineteenth-century medical epistemology and justified by the practice of brilliant connoisseurs such as Bernard Berenson and Sir John Beazley,(1) to discover artists. Despite the relative insecurity of identifying hands in a fairly small sample of material stretching across a millennium, the application of such connoisseurship to prehistoric antiquities has found praise,(2) as well as censure for the material and intellectual consequences of importing connoisseurial esteem into what has become a very expense market in Cycladic figures.(3) One can see the attraction of applying an apparently independent "scientific" method to objects which have no context or external information, especially if such a method can be imagined to provide us with the "identities" of makers.(4)

An alternative strategy from the pursuit of the artist is to reconstruct meaning. Whitney Davis's book does not follow, this particular Cycladic line toward the Morellian identification of makers. Indeed, he is unhappy about the "limited value" of studies emphasizing the "morphological similarity of mannerisms and motifs" (p. …