Tanagra: myth and archaeology

New exhibition at the Louvre, Paris.


The “myth” referred to in this exhibition’s title is the explosion of interest in Tanagra figurines at the end of the 19th century following the excavation of the necropolis of Tanagra in the ancient province of Boetia in Greece. Such was the popularity of these pieces when they were first found that world museums and major collectors tussled to acquire then, and forgers did their best to supply demand. Their function is still hard to divine; they have been found in both secular and votive contexts, and are now considered one of the first examples of decorative art for its own sake. Set against this is the hard archaeology, as seen by the display of previously unseen examples from recent excavations in Tanagra. Most of the figurines are graceful women with finely wrought drapery (below, a lady in blue, c. 330-300 BC).

Another part of the “myth” was that contemporary artists were quick to use the figurines as inspiration. In this exhibition (until 5 January), there is a section of late 19th- and early 20th-century ceramics that make direct reference to their forms. Of the 240 pieces shown, around 80 are loaned from other museums, especially those of Thebes and Berlin: the rest are from the Louvre’s collection, including many normally in store.


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