Astonishing archaeological discoveries made by Heinrich Schliemann at Troy (1871–73) and Mycenae (1876) linked the heroes of Homer's epics to the material culture of the Greek Bronze Age (3000–1050 B.C.). The wealth of artifacts drawn from the shaft graves at Mycenae dazzled the world. No less spectacular were the results of Arthur Evans's excavations at Knossos (1900–1931), on the island of Crete, where he unearthed the remains of a vast complex of buildings belonging to a sophisticated prehistoric culture; he called it Minoan after the legendary King Minos.
This exhibition focuses on the work of Swiss-born Emile Gilliéron (1850–1924) and his son, Emile (1885–1939), who were among the foremost art restorers of their time. Gilliéron père worked alongside Schliemann, and both he and his son would later spend a large part of their careers assisting Evans at Knossos, where they witnessed firsthand the discovery of tantalizingly fragmentary wall paintings of exquisite quality and helped realize Evans's vision of their original appearance. The Gilliérons also established a thriving business that catered to the popular demand for reproductions of antiquities from the newly identified Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations. Their work influenced the study of Aegean art and was integral to its widespread introduction throughout Europe and North America, where the art of prehistoric Greece would inspire a generation of writers, intellectuals, and artists, from James Joyce and Sigmund Freud to Pablo Picasso and Giorgio de Chirico, who studied drawing under the elder Gilliéron.
The Minoan Frescoes at Knossos
When fragments of major wall paintings first emerged at Knossos, Evans realized that the task of conserving and restoring the frescoes would require special expertise. Gilliéron père and fils would serve as chief restorers at Knossos for more than thirty years. By 1930, and with Evans's guidance, they had reconstructed the wall paintings of entire rooms in the palace at Knossos, which remains the largest Bronze Age settlement ever found on Crete.
The work of Gilliéron père is particularly well represented in this exhibition. All the reproductions are at a scale of one to one, and in most cases the original fragments are carefully delineated from the restored areas. The watercolors were painted largely onsite, and often at the same time as or shortly after the restorations themselves were made. Much of the restorative work has withstood later research, though details of some reconstructions have been proved to be questionable or incorrect. Nonetheless, the Gilliérons' creations, even those whose appearances owe much to the imaginations of their makers, are today among the most readily recognizable images of Minoan art.
The Gilliérons and the Met
As early as 1894 the elder Gilliéron, already established in Greece as an eminent artist and archaeological draftsman, was making metal copies of important Mycenaean gold objects from molds taken directly from the original works of art. In many cases Gilliéron reworked a mold to recreate an object in its original undamaged form. He first sold his copies through the family business on Skoufa Street in Athens, and by 1906 he had a catalogue of ninety electrotypes, manufactured in Germany by the Württemberg Electroplate Company. Major museums and institutions in Europe, such as the South Kensington Museum in London (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) and the Winckelmann Institute in Berlin, acquired Gilliéron's reproductions for display and study.
Between 1906 and 1932 the Metropolitan Museum acquired hundreds of reproductions of prehistoric Greek art from the firm of E. Gilliéron & Son and displayed them alongside original antiquities with the intention of presenting as complete a record as possible of this remarkable period in the history of art. It is notable that in many cases, the Museum commissioned the copies, with the excavators' permission, shortly after the originals were discovered and before they were fully published. The one-to-one scale replicas, typically executed in painted plaster or as metal electrotypes, documented these extraordinary, colorful objects in a way that photography was unable to do at the time. They formed part of the Metropolitan's much larger collection of plaster casts and electrotypes of world art, while the watercolor reproductions of paintings reflected antiquarian practices prevalent at the time—evident even here within the Museum, most prominently in the galleries of Egyptian art.
Gilliéron fils continued to make and sell reproductions until his death in 1939, but the Metropolitan moved steadily away from acquiring replicas until the practice was abandoned entirely in favor of original works of art. All reproductions were eventually removed from display; those shown here appear for the first time in decades. Thanks to their historical importance and usefulness as study references, as well as the precision with which they were made, these works remain valuable representations of ancient artistic achievements that continue to inspire wonder and delight.
Master Craftsmen and Master Forgers
It is clear that Gilliéron père and fils were inventive, talented artists capable of producing both accurate copies and clever restorations. All the works on view in this exhibition were created as reproductions of original works and sold as such. Some pieces were even made using the same techniques and materials as their prototypes. Since major forgeries of Minoan and Mycenaean antiquities—notably gold and ivory statuettes and gold signet rings and relief vessels—were being made in the first half of the twentieth century, some scholars have suggested that one or both of the Gilliérons were forgers as well as restorers. Contested works of art that have been attributed to them include elaborate chryselephantine snake goddesses, the gold signet rings known as the Ring of Minos and the Ring of Nestor, and the well-known disk from Phaistos, on Crete.