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. The Cycladic 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. These island dwellers incorporated artistic motifs into many everyday objects, but it was their interpretation of the human body and in particular, the female form, that defined “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. The exceptions tend to preserve images of men performing culturally important roles such as story teller, hunter, warrior or musician. Figurines of animals and livestock were also common.
Yet it was the female form that garnered the most attention and a discovery of Cycladic Art will like be of a female 19 times out of 20. As the Cycladic culture was pre-literate, no writings exist to shed more light on the purpose or use of the idol figures. Theories range from the believe that they were used in prayer (as the figures heads are slightly tilted toward the sky) to the belief that they represented a “mother goddess” or “fertility goddess.”
Cycladic art reached its zenith in the period from 2800-2300 BC, known as the Early Cycladic II period. This period defined the “canonical Cycladic art” characterized by the nude female figures, arms folded across the abdomen with flat, slanted heads and knees slightly bent. A Cycladic figure could range from figurines tiny enough to fit in the palm of the hand to monuments slightly larger than a man. 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 behind only the simple beauty of the Cycladic idols and the illusion of abstract simplicity.