British Baroque: Power and Illusion @ Tate Britain

British Baroque: Power and Illusion covers art and architecture (and gardens and gimmicks and sculpture) from the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 to the death of Queen Anne in 1714. The big word in the title is Baroque but it’s a problematic term and by the end of the exhibition I was left wondering, in my noin-scholarly way, whether any of the art on display here actually qualifies for the description ‘Baroque’.

The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio (c.1674) The Royal Collection / HM Queen Elizabeth II

1. Dates

Traditionally the term Baroque denotes Power, Religious and Royal Power. Baroque art and architecture is big, heavy and imposing.

The Baroque is one of the major Periods of Western Art, preceded by the Renaissance and Mannerism and followed by the Rococo. The dates usually given are:

  • Early Renaissance 1400-1495
  • High Renaissance 1495-1520
  • Mannerism 1520-1600
  • the Baroque 1600-1740
  • Rococo 1730s-1760s
  • Neo-Classicism 1760-1830

The convention is to date the Baroque from the early 1600s, at least in Italy and on the Continent. It is a striking decision by the curators to delay it as late as 1660 for this exhibition, though you can see why – it makes the story a lot simpler.

Some outliers and pioneers may have been introducing ‘baroque’ styles into the English court in the 1620s and 1630s, but then all artistic and architectural endeavour was suspended during the great cataclysm of the British civil wars, which lasted:

  • from the rebellion in Scotland in 1637
  • through the civil wars in England (1642-48)
  • the execution of King Charles I in 1649
  • continued wars in Scotland and Ireland
  • the rule of Oliver Cromwell from 1653 till his death in 1658,
  • the collapse of the Parliamentarian regime 1658-59, and the triumphant restoration of Charles II in 1660

Quite obviously the commissioning of royal art and architecture was put on hold for the whole of this wartorn and then republican period.

Starting the exhibition in 1660 with the restoration of Charles II provides a neat, clean starting point to a period which was distinctive in music (Purcell), literature (Dryden, Restoration Comedy) and philosophy (John Locke), as well as architecture (Christopher Wren) and art (Peter Lely) – the subject covered in this exhibition.

Plus – England was always late. Stuck up here on the remote periphery of Europe, England was late to experience all the trends which originated in the Mediterranean heartland. Thus Renaissance art and literature was flourishing in Italy in the 1400s but we date ‘our’ Renaissance period from the 1530s or later. Literature students tend to equate it with the reign of Queen Elizabeth which started in 1558, getting on for 150 years after the Renaissance started in Italy, by which time the Italians had been all the way through the Renaissance, High Renaissance and Mannerism. During the 18th century the motor for artistic innovation moved to France and stayed there until, arguably, the First World War, maybe beyond.

Anyway, for centuries the Europeans were waaaay ahead of us Brits. Mind you we had something they didn’t have, which was an empire to set up and run.

2. The term ‘Baroque’

Its origin is obscure. It seems to derive from the Portuguese barocco meaning, ‘irregular pearl or stone’, i.e. a technical term in jewellery for a kind of pearl which was not perfectly round: for a pearl which was ugly and misshapen.

It seems that early uses of the term ‘baroque’ were all negative and described unnecessary complication and ugliness. The word was never used by the artists or architects working during the period; it wasn’t a self-conscious movement like Cubism.

Baroque is a term which was imposed long time later, late-eighteenth century or nineteenth century historians who, looking back, needed terms to assign to all the ‘period’s they wanted to divide art history into.

The Annunciation by Benedetto Gennari (1686) The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the State Art Museum of Florida

3. The origins of the baroque in the Counter-Reformation

Articles about the Baroque all point to its origins in the Councils of Trent, the organisational centre of the Counter-Reformation.

In 1517 Martin Luther had nailed his theses about theology to the door of his local church (in fact a traditional way to announce a theological debate). Luther called for a sweeping revolution in all aspects of European Catholicism, sweeping away scores of central dogmas and traditions and ceremonies which he regarded as later additions, corrupt folklore and legends and superstitions and inventions which had been grafted onto what was originally the pure and spartan teachings of Jesus as recorded in the four gospels.

Many German princes and north European kings took Luther’s teachings as an opportunity to throw off the shackles of Catholic rule from Italy, and within a generation a host of independent ‘Protestant’ churches and states had been established across northern Europe, not least in England where Henry VIII threw off the restrains of rule from Italy by an Italian pope and declared himself head of a newly-styled Church of England.

One aspect of the Protestant revolt was aesthetic. In rejecting the cults of saints and relics – the excessive worship of Mary Mother of God and a host of other Catholic traditions – the really revolutionary Protestants (nicknamed the Puritans) cleaned out their churches, smashing statues, defacing medieval paintings, burning wooden rood screens and so on in an orgy of iconoclasm.

Result: by the 1550s or so European Christianity existed in two forms, a stripped-down militant white-walled protestant form, and a defiantly gold candelabra-ed, smells and bells Catholicism with statues of saints and the crucified Christ and a blue-robed Mary cramming their churches.

So the Catholic authorities called a series of congresses at Trent (Trento in northern Italy) to thrash out just what they did agree on – in light of Protestant attacks to redefine every element of Catholic theology and practice, to create a new, stronger, more centralised ideology in what came to be known as the counter-Reformation.

Among a host of theological and administrative rules which were set down, emerged a belief that Catholic churches, Catholic aesthetics, should defy the know-nothing, philistine, iconoclastic, whitewash-everything protestants and build their churches on an even more elaborate scale. Catholic architecture should be enormous, characterised by domes soaring into heave and festooned with flocks of angels and risen Christs flying over the heads of the congregation. Every nook should be full of florid statues of saints in the agony of their martyrdoms, and the authorities encouraged a style where every fold of their robes and cloaks became more and more elaborate, intricate and charged with emotion.

Italian Catholicism deliberately set out to be as flamboyant, as big, as majestic and as over-awing as could be achieved in buildings, statuary and painting. This is the origins of the Baroque.

Examples of the Baroque: from top left: The interior of the church of Santa Maria, Rome; The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio; The Trevi Fountain in Rome, designed by Italian architect Nicola Salvi and completed by Giuseppe Pannini in 1732.

4. Royal Power

Not surprisingly, kings liked this style. ‘Big, imposing, overpowering, yep that’s me’ was the thought of rulers all over Europe, who proceeded to commission artists and architects to copy this new, super-solid, massive and imposing architectural and artistic style in their realms, from Poland to the Palace of Westminster.

It’s important to remember that Charles II was very much alive during the events of the civil war and the Puritan Republic and where was he living? In the French court of Louis XIV (in fact the extended reign of Louis XIV, the so-called Sun King more than matches the entire period covered in this exhibition, he reigned from 1645 to 1715.)

Thus Charles didn’t just return in triumph to the palace of Westminster and all the rights and accoutrements of a king of England; he returned:

  • with his head full of European theories about the Divine Right of Kings
  • with the example of Louis XIV firmly in his mind about how to be such a king
  • and with his imagination packed with the architectural and artistic achievements of the French courtly builders and painters

It was under Louis XIV in the 1680s that the Palace of Versailles was redesigned and rebuilt to become the largest and grandest royal palace in Europe.

The British Baroque

So that’s a brief background to the ascent of the supposed Baroque style in Britain. But was it really Baroque? Here’s one of the thousands of definitions you can find on the internet:

The Baroque style is characterized by exaggerated motion and clear detail used to produce drama, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, architecture, literature, dance, and music. Baroque iconography was direct, obvious, and dramatic, intending to appeal above all to the senses and the emotions.

If the Baroque is anything it is dramatic, operatic and exuberant, grand gestures in enormous buildings, huge and heavy marble statues, imposing porticos. Histrionic is a good word.

But after a few sort-of grand paintings in the first room (such as The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio at the top of this review), the exhibition leads into a room of court beauties, a handful of Charles II’s many mistresses – and ‘grand’, ‘dramatic’ and ‘exuberant’ are not really the words which describe these paintings at all.

Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland with her son, probably Charles Fitzroy, as the Virgin and Child by Peter Lely (c.1664). National Portrait Gallery, London

There’s a nice pillar in this painting and, to those in the know about painterly symbolism, the Duchess of Villiers is wearing the bright red and blue traditionally associated in Renaissance painting with the Virgin Mary, but… It’s not really ‘grand’, ‘melodramatic’ or ‘histrionic’, is it? In fact Barbara’s snub nose, poky little mouth and bulbous eyes are more homely than grand and intimidating.

The seed of doubt whether the term ‘baroque’ really applies to the British art and architecture of the period is sown early and crops up throughout the rest of the exhibition.

The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio at the top of this review is certainly an elaborate allegorical composition and contains a neat pyramid of tumbling sea nymphs and sea goddesses and so on, but the figure the whole composition leads you to… Charles II’s black moustachioed face of an old debauchee… to me it completely lacks awe and grandeur and dignity.

To me Charles looks a bit of a twerp, as if his face has been photoshopped onto a foreign fantasia.

There’s a moment in the room devoted to architecture where we learn about the murals the painter Sir James Thornhill was commissioned to create to decorate the dome of Sir Christopher Wren’s magnificent new St Paul’s Cathedral. They are a series of large murals depicting scenes from the life of St Paul, so far so good. But then we learn that he rendered them in black and white in order to be restrained and dignified and to suit the Protestant atmosphere of what was, in effect, the world’s first Protestant cathedral.

Restrained? That’s like saying we’re going to an all-night Brazilian samba party and we’re going to drink lemonade and dance the waltz.

It is completely against the spirit of the Baroque. The baroque is drama and opera and huge flights of angels soaring up into vast church domes. But that isn’t the English spirit at all. The English spirit then as now is faaar more sensible and restrained and undemonstrative.

This was highlighted by the simple lack of religious imagery throughout the show. Of the exhibition’s ten rooms, only one is devoted to religious imagery and that one is virtually empty. The only interesting thing in it is a wonderful carved wooden cover for a font by Grinling Gibbons which is all Italianate grapes and leaves, with a few winged putti holding up the swags, but there’s nothing Christian about it. Certainly none of the agony and ecstasy and religious melodrama of the Italian Baroque.

Font cover from All Hallows by the Tower church, London, by Grinling Gibbons, carefully avoiding all religious imagery whatsoever

Instead, what comes over is how British and foreign painters domesticated the brash Italian style for a culture which is far more indoors, domestic and family-orientated.

The Children of John Taylor of Bifrons Park by John Closterman (1696) National Portrait Gallery, London

There’s as much in the exhibition about the late 17th century fashion for trompe l-oeil optical illusions in paint as there is for Christian imagery – for the melodrama, the agony in the garden, the upturned eyes of adoring angels and the flurried cloaks of muscular saints.

A quick review

Here’s a quick overview of the ten rooms and my highlights:

Room 1 – Restoration

Artists who returned with King Charles and became associated with his reign included Peter Lely, the King’s Principal Painter; Samuel Cooper, his official miniaturist; and the mural painter, Antonio Verrio.

Miniaturist? Yes there are a number of miniature portraits of Charles and leading courtiers. Couldn’t help thinking that the entire concept of a miniature is the exact opposite of the Baroque spirit.

Room 2 – The Restoration Court

Classy but surprisingly restrained full length portraits of half a dozen of Charles’s mistresses and assorted courtiers, including John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, the rudest poet in English, one of whose poems begins:

Much wine had passed, with grave discourse
Of who fucks who, and who does worse
(Such as you usually do hear
From those that diet at the Bear),
When I, who still take care to see
Drunkenness relieved by lechery,
Went out into St. James’s Park
To cool my head and fire my heart.
But though St. James has th’ honor on ‘t,
‘Tis consecrate to prick and cunt…

What is really striking about these portraits is nothing to do with power and Magnificence, and everything to do with the extremely stylised depictions of their faces. They all look the same. All the women have the same rounded faces, long noses, white skin relieved by heavily rouged cheeks and, above all, the same rather slitty and very bulbous eyes, the overlids and underlids of the eyes deliberately shadowed to create a sense of an unhealthy prominence of the eyeball.

Two Ladies of the Lake Family by Sir Peter Lely (c.1660) Tate

Room 3 – The religious interior

As I’ve mentioned, a thin collection. Some surviving paintings and wall paintings from he Catholic chapels in London, at St James’s Palace and Somerset House, where the Catholic consorts Catherine of Braganza (Charles’s wife) and Mary of Modena (James II’s wife) enjoyed freedom of worship, provided a focal point for the Catholic community.

Room 4 – Illusion and Deception

Much more fun, much more interesting, and much more English, is this room full of fashionable trompe l-oeil optical illusions including a series of paintings by Edward Collier of items apparently pinned to a real wooden board or held in place by tape, which appear astonishingly lifelike and three-dimensional.

There’s an elaborate peepshow by Samuel van Hoogstraten: you look through a little pinhole to the side and see what looks like a realistic intrior of a house with rooms giving off in front of you and to the side. There’s Chatsworth’s famous violin painted as if hanging on the back of a door, and the hyper-real flower paintings of Simon Verelst which looked so real that they fooled the diarist Samuel Pepys.

A Vase of Flowers by Simon Verelst (1669)

Room 5 – Wren and Baroque architecture

Here, in the magnificent churches designed by Christopher Wren and his student Nicholas Hawksmoor, with the Queens House and other buildings built at Greenwich and plans to rebuild Whitehall Palace after it burned down, and the country houses designed by the later John Vanbrugh, you approach something like the continental Baroque in scale and ambiton.

But as the story of Sir James Thornhill’s murals indicates, a European style which has been restrained, watered down and made sensible.

Room 6 – Country mansions and courtly gardens

How Hampton Court was remodelled to be more like Versailles and William III’s grand Het Loo Palace in Apeldoorn, Netherlands, Chatsworth and Bleinheim, the grandest of grand English country houses.

Paintings of huge, geometric, symmetric formal gardens.

Room 7 – Painted interiors

This was maybe my favourite room. It contains a photo of the vast and sumptuous mural on the ceiling of the dining room at Old Greenwich Palace, and is lined by preparatory paintings of other vast mythological murals by the likes of Antonio Verrio and Louis Chéron and Sir James Thornhill.

Apparently it was the arrival of seasoned muralist Verrio in England in 1672 which sparked a new fashion for grandiose murals, and it’s in these (essentially private) murals, vast compositions awash with Greek mythical or allegorical figures, that you get closest to saying the English had a Baroque period or style.

Lower Hall ceiling of the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich by Sir James Thornhill

But what I really liked was the preparatory sketches. There’s a handful of sketches and some works in huge sketchbooks, in which Thornhill sketches out his initial designs and compositions for various murals.

What I liked about them is that these rough sketches often had more energy, vim and dynamism that the finished works.

In particular, the human shapes and faces are rough outlines and, somehow, have more character and vibrancy than the smooth finished oil paintings, in many of which Thornhill has had to defer to the peculiar contemporary style of painting restoration faces.

His sketches are fun, mad profusions of tumbling cartoon characters. This one shows a grand mythological scene which was clearly designed to cover the wall of a staircase (hence the 45 degree angle at the left): at the bottom right Venus is being born from the waves; watched from the left by Neptune King of the oceans holding his triton; and above her a frothing scramble of other gods and goddesses.

A Ceiling and Wall Decoration (circa 1715-25) by Sir James Thornhill

Room 8 – Beauty

A striking and inventive piece of curating in which the Tate has taken seven of eight massive, full-length portrait paintings of English society beauties and made an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the kind of grand drawing room they would have adorned. They’re selections from two series of paintings:

  • The Hampton Court Beauties, a set of eight full-length portraits, commissioned by Mary II in 1690–1
  • The Petworth Beauties, commissioned by the 6th Duke and Duchess of Somerset for their country mansion Petworth House

n a way, though, the real star of the room is the huge heavy wood furniture, adorned with gold clasps and legs modelled from what appear to pregnant black woman (!?) and which are bearing a set of massive Chinese vases. There are candelabra o the walls and one can only wish the curators had had the courage of their convictions and turned the main lights off and installed replica candles so we really could have seen what paintings like this would have looked like most of the time back in the 1690s.

Room 9 – Triumph and glory

Critics could easily complain doesn’t really describe or explain the complicated and momentous political events of the years 1660 to 1700, which saw not just the restoration of Charles II, but:

  • Charles’s death in 1685 and the succession of his brother, as James II
  • The rebellion of Charles’s eldest illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, who raised an army in the West Country, before being crushed by James’s army.
  • The so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 when James announced that he was going to raise his son by his second wife Mary of Modena a a Catholic i.e. the next in line to the English throne would definitely be a Catholic. At this point a cabal of leading aristocrats decided to overthrown James and invited William Prince of Orange (a state in the Low Country) to come and be King of Britain, using the fig leaf that Mary was the eldest daughter of James II, the king she helped to overthrow.
  • William went on to defeat the Irish at the Battle of the Boyne in 1689, a defeat/victory which is commemorated to this day in Northern Ireland.
  • And the creation of the Bill of Rights and other constitutional devices which ensured the supremacy of Parliament and other legal rights which made Britain one of the most advanced and liberated nations on earth.

But then this is an art exhibition and not a history lesson.

The advent of William as King not only overthrew the House of Stuart but created two broad political parties among the political elite – those who remained true to the old Stuart line and came to be known as Tories, and those who moved to ingratiate themselves with the polemically Protestant new rule of this progressive king and came to be known as Whigs.

And it also drew Britain deep into European politics. We gained not only a new king but a new web of complex international alliances and enmities which this king brought with him, not least total opposition to the king of France’s ambitions for European hegemony.

And thus this room has paintings of William and various of his generals, in warlike pose, astride horses, in martial postures. The thing is… most of them are a bit rubbish. Here is a painting of Charles I on a horse by the genius Sir Anthony van Dyke.

Charles I with M. de St Antoine by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1633)

Now here is a painting of King William III, portrayed as the victor of one of his innumerable endless wars, by Sir Godfrey Kneller.

William III on horseback with allegorical figures by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1701)

The van Dyck has genuine grace and dignity and regality. The Kneller has many good effects, but it’s just nowhere nearly as good as the van Dyck. And there’s something about those high wigs for men which is just… ludicrous. And whereas Charles is accompanied by a real retainer the chocolate box angels and putti flying above William are ridiculous.

(To be precise, the allegorical figures are: Neptune on the far left; Ceres and Flora [goddesses of fertility and crops] in front of him; Astrae [Justice] and what looks like Mercury [messenger of the gods] above.)

Room 10 – The Age of Politics

So it was the constitutional and legal reforms which accompanied the Glorious Revolution which ushered in a new age. Formerly a king appointed his lead minister whose job it was to draw up policy and steer legislation through a mostly passive parliament until the increasing dissension which led up to the civil war.

Now it was agreed in law that parliamentary elections would be held every three years, and this ushered in a new era where groups and cabals of aristocrats came together to press for their own interests. It was the birth of parliamentary parties. And also the birth of an early form of journalism as new magazines arose to cater to the taste for reading about the ever-more complex political intriguing and jockeying which was going on, such as the original Spectator magazine, founded by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in 1711.

Thus the final room contains a massive and unflattering portrait of Queen Anne (reigned 1702 to 1714) along with portraits of the members of the various clubs which had their origins at this time, including Kneller’s portraits of members of the Whig Kit-Cat Club, and this fine body of podgy, bewigged men, the leading figures in the Whig Junto as depicted by John James Baker.

The Whig Junto by John James Baker (1710) Tate

Conclusion

If you watch the Antiques Roadshow or flick through popular history, nobody refers to an English ‘baroque’ period – the eras and styles they refer to are the Restoration, or Queen Anne, or Georgian periods and styles (the Georgian began at Queen Anne’s death in 1714).

And the exhibition certainly skimps on the enormous importance of the political events of the time, and skates very thinly over the momentous philosophical and scientific revolutions of the period – Newton discovering the laws of the universe and the nature of light, the Royal Society founded in 1660 and sponsoring all kinds of breakthrough in engineering, hydraulics, dynamics, the circulation of the blood and so on.

But then it’s an exhibition of art and architecture not a history lesson. And one of the most interesting lessons I took from it was how very unBaroque a lot of the art of this period was. In sharp contrast with the European Baroque, it was dedicatedly Protestant, unreligiose, unshowy, undramatic and often very tame and domestic in feel.

In fact walking slowly back through all ten rooms I came to the conclusion that in the entire exhibition there was only one real Baroque pieces, an enormous, fearfully heavy solid marble bust of Charles II made by the French-born, Genoa-based sculptor Honoré Pelle in 1684.

This it struck me, was grand, large, imposing, showed its subject in a moment of movement, dramatised by the extraordinary realism of the cloak of fabric flying around his shoulders. This, for me, was by far the most convincing and successful work of art in the exhibition.

Charles II by Honoré Pelle (1684) Victoria and Albert Museum

Promotional video

Curators

  • Tabitha Barber, Curator, British Art 1550-1750, Tate Britain
  • David Taylor, Curator of Pictures and Sculpture, National Trust
  • Tim Batchelor, Assistant Curator, British Art 1550-1750, Tate Britain

Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Piranesi drawings: visions of antiquity @ the British Museum

To mark the 300th anniversary of the Italian printmaker Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the British Museum has created a landmark FREE exhibition displaying the Museum’s complete collection of Piranesi’s drawings.

Piranesi (1720-1778) is often reckoned to be the greatest printmaker of the 18th century. He was extremely prolific, producing hundreds of views or veduti, of Rome in particular, focusing on its ancient ruins, sometimes portrayed as monstrously huge and elaborately decayed, in other series shown as if restored to their former glories.

Into these elaborately staged and dramatic scenes he introduced groups of vases, altars, tombs and other baroque details that were never actually present in ancient Rome, in order to produce finely detailed, elaborate and often fantastical views. (Note the very small chariot and people at the bottom centre of this amazingly cluttered composition.)

Fantastical view of the Via Appia. Engraving by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

The Enlightenment taste for ruins

It is fascinating to learn that the taste for ‘views’ of Roman ruins was growing in order to cater for the growing numbers of rich northern Europeans making the Grand Tour of classical sites. To cater for this growing market, Italian artists developed and named a new set of artistic genres, including:

  • veduta – a highly detailed print of a cityscape
  • capriccio – a whimsical aggregate of monumental architecture and ruin which never existed in real life
  • veduta ideata – idealised and larger-than-life depictions of the ancient ruins in their supposed glory
  • veduta di fantasia – architectural fantasies

As this list suggests, the taste of the times was for the fantastical, the awe-inspiring in age and size, curly-cued with fantastical details and elaborations. In fact so exaggerated were the size of many of Piranesi’s images of Roman ruins that when Northern tourists actually arrived, they were sometimes disappointed to discover the actual remains were far more modest in scale.

Goethe is mentioned as one of many Northerners who formed their ideas about Rome from Piranesi’s fabulously successful books of prints and, on finally arriving at the Eternal City, being disappointed.

Interior view of the Flavian Amphitheater, called the Colosseum (1766) by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Antiques dealer

Although he was born and educated in Venice, Piranesi came to Rome as a young man and made his career there. Not only a frustrated architect and very successful print-maker, Piranesi was also an antiquarian and antiques dealer. He not only dealt in the large number of Roman antiques to be found in and around the city (especially Hadrian’s Villa outside the city which was being uncovered during his lifetime) but he a) incorporated these vases and sarcophagi and reliefs and other detail into his prints and b) he restored many of the antiques to his idea of how they ought to look, often adding his own elaborations.

Thus there are a couple of pieces of sculpture in the exhibition (like the enormous marble horned lion emerging from a lotus) but the commentary also recommends you drop into the Enlightenment galleries back on the Ground Floor of the Museum to check out the two Piranesi vases there.

I’m glad I did, because they are vast, twice the height of a man and so monstrously heavy that, apparently, they simply could not be moved up to the Print Rooms and, if they’d tried, would have broken the floor.

The Piranesi Vase at the British Museum. The vase was discovered at the Villa Hadrian, then restored in Piranesi’s workshop, where other monumental elements were added. It is enormous.

Elements of Piranesi’s style

From below Architecture is most impressive if seen from below, looking up, especially if features like arches loom over the viewer’s head, as they do in most of the Imagined Prisons pictures.

From the side Classical art and classical architecture liked to view classical buildings head on, emphasising the clarity and balance of their design, and Piranesi did just that in some of the earliest architectural drawings in this exhibition. But as he matured, Piranesi preferred to look at buildings from the side, creating a more dynamic affect. Here’s a fairly mild example, View of the Campidoglio from the Side.

View of the Campidoglio from the Side. Etching by Piranesi (1761)

You can see how the subject matter is overwhelmingly architectural. Piranesi trained as an architect and throughout his life produced huge numbers of architectural plans, some sensible, some wildly extravagant, yet only once was he actually commissioned to practice some architecture (between 1764 to 66 he carried out restoration work on the Santa Maria del Priorato Church in Rome). There are people in this print, but they’re in a rather disorganised heap at the bottom left and their main contribution is to being out the scale and monumentality of the architecture and the architectural composition.

Light in the distance Another trick Piranesi used regularly was to make the foreground of an image dark and clotted with the middle distance light and airy. This gives the visual impression of size and scale, as if the building is rising up into a more sunlit region. It’s a trick he used in what are probably his most famous series, the Carceri d’invenzione or Imaginary Prisons, a series of 16 prints that show enormous subterranean vaults with stairs and awesome machines. (And look at the size of the tiny human figures shuffling along floor or gesticulating on various walls and platforms; it looks like an illustration for an H.G. Wells story about the distant future.)

Carceri Plate VI, The Smoking Fire by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1745)

The Imaginary Prisons series went on to inspire the Romantics and, a lot later, the Surrealists, with their sense of mysterious but looming forces.

People are small So obvious it barely needs mentioning, but just review how minuscule the human figures are in the Appian Way or the Colosseum or the Imaginary Prisons: this is a monumental architecture of the imagination which is intended to dwarf and overawe mere mortals, including the viewer.

Defender of Roman art

It was fascinating to learn that during the 18th century a controversy developed among critics and writers and artists about the relative merits of ancient Roman and Greek art. More was being learned about ancient Greek architecture and ideas, and its defenders claimed it had greater purity and simplicity, and accused the later Romans of copying everything that was good about Greek architecture and then blowing it up to elephantine proportions and encrusting it with unnecessary details.

By his stage Piranesi had established his reputation as one of the great illustrators of Roman buildings and art, not least via the successful four-volume series Roman Antiquities. he had been elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquarians in London, and a member of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, so it was not, maybe surprising, that he found himself drawn into controversy with the French Hellenophile Pierre-Jean Mariette.

Piranesi defended the more advanced technology used by the Romans to build larger buildings; the awe-inspiring magnificence of their buildings; but also the Romans’ willingness to absorb motifs from other cultures: not just ancient Greek, but Etruscan and even Egyptian, creating a rich and original synthesis.

In other words, it’s fascinating to learn that his works aren’t just whims and fancies, but the putting-into-practice of a thoroughly worked-out theory of art and art history resulting in the conviction that borrowings from exotic sources and bizarre combinations are the paths to originality and creativity.

Piranesi’s drawings

All the foregoing is by way of introducing Piranesi, his main achievements, his interest in architecture and the fantastical, and his patriotic defence of Rome and its artistic legacy.

But this is not an exhibition of Piranesi’s famous prints. It is a comprehensive display of the British Museum’s entire collection of Piranesi drawings.

Throughout his career Piranesi made detailed architectural drawings, first as an apprentice draughtsman and then for all sorts of reasons: as preparations for the prints, as working sketches of antique pieces to either market them or as studies for larger compositions. Some drawings are huge and portrays vast, fantastical, imaginary scenes which he later converted into prints, while others are relatively small detailed studies of particular aspects, like the drawing here of a sword, or a vase.

The 51 drawings are placed in simple chronological order so the visitor can track Piranesi’s artistic evolution from sensible architectural draughtsman to impresario of the fantastical. Here he is in his early 20s, being sensible and factual.

A colonnaded atrium with domes by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (c. 1740-43) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ten years later, here is the source drawing for the hyper-fantastical vision of an Appian Way that I opened this review with, a helter-skelter surfeit of impossible buildings and exotic details.

The meeting of the Via Appia and the Via Ardeatina, seen at the second milestone outside the Porta Capena by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (c. 1750-56) © The Trustees of the British Museum

If we compare this drawing with the print the differences are immediately apparent. The composition is the same but drawn with surprising freedom and vim, with multiple lines sketching out perspectives and shapes, and with a very loose colour wash creating light and shade.

This lightness of touch and freedom characterises all the drawings which have an expressive charm of their own. I particularly liked the early design for a temple he had drawn, along with careful notes on scale and aspect and then, right at the end, he thought ‘Blow it’ and added a pyramid to the composition.

“If in doubt, add a pyramid,” is not a bad rule for life.

When he came to Rome he adopted a yellow paper and washes (as opposed to the more factual white tonalities of his earliest Venetian work) and this palette is compounded in the many later drawings where he used red ink or crayon to really ram home the vibrancy of the composition.

A monumental staircase in a vaulted interior with columns by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (c. 1750-55) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Although the exhibition features nine prints (including the ones of the Colosseum and the Side View of the Campidoglio and several of the Imaginary Prisons) to give context and show what some of the drawings were preparatory drawings for, many of the 51 drawings weren’t preparations for prints at all, but were finished works in their own right, or studies of details.

There’s are some of the scores of drawings he did of human figures (Standing man in profile), the detailed studies of a Roman sword I mentioned above, studies of ancient vases and what are called candelabra, multi-storeyed stone confections – and countless experiments in architectural fantasy, taken from a wide range of perspectives and points of view – as well as a selection of drawings he did when he visited the newly excavated ruins of Pompeii.

View of the Strada Consulare with the Herculaneum Gate in Pompeii by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (c. 1772-78) © The Trustees of the British Museum

By the time of his death Piranesi was one of the most influential interpreters of ancient Rome. His prints and treatises were popular across Europe and his grand, and grandiose, visions of the Eternal City would define the idea of Rome for generations of travellers and armchair tourists.

This exhibition is a fascinating glimpse into the engine room of his creativity, a look behind-the-scenes of the brightly finished and smooth prints at the much more creative, extempore, roughly finished and, in many ways, more exciting drawings.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Troy: Myth and Reality @ the British Museum

What Troy means to me

For me the Iliad will always be the greatest story ever told. The Christian story is hugely more rich and complicated and influential and subtle, but the tale of Troy is, for me, more true.

It is, for me, a description and investigation and celebration and commiseration of masculinity. It starts with two men fighting over a woman (Agamemnon and Achilles fall out over who should possess the slave girl Briseis, captured in a small Greek raid on an outlying Trojan temple), it climaxes in two tragic, avoidable deaths (Patroclus of the Greeks, Hector of the Trojans), and leads up to the most moving scene in all literature, when King Priam of Troy sneaks by night into the Greek camp and confronts Achilles in his tent, falling to his knees and weepingly imploring the mightiest warrior of the age to give him back the battered body of his dead son (Hector). And instead of slaughtering him on the spot and bringing the war to a swift end, Achilles also falls to his knees and both men weep unappeasable anguish at the loss of their beloved ones.

From a thousand years BC right up to the present day, how many parents and lovers have wept unassuageable tears of grief and anguish over the pointless deaths of their loved ones in pointless wars. That agony has been repeated over and over again hundreds of millions of times.

For me Achilles’ great scream of anguish when he learns that his lover Patroclus is dead and that it was he, Achilles, who sent him to his death, his huge superhuman cry of pain which rings out over the battlefield and brings the fighting to a terrified halt, is the cry of all men against a cruel, uncaring universe, the agony of realising we are our own worst enemies, the tormented howl of someone who has understood human nature to its bitterest depths.

The Iliad is truer than the Christian story because there is no redemption and no comfort anywhere. The human condition is endless conflict and the relentless death of the people we love most. Men are compelled to fight, they don’t know why, and then bewail the devastation they have caused and the lives they have pointlessly destroyed. Nothing changes and no-one can be saved. Syria. Yemen. Libya. Myanmar. Congo.

Achilles kills the Amazon queen Penthesilea, Athenian amphora (530 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition

1. Long gallery of ancient artifacts

This epic blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum brings together over 300 objects to give a comprehensive overview of the myths and legends and long legacy surrounding the siege of Troy. It is, like most recent BM exhibitions, beautifully staged, with the wall of the long gallery painted black and evocatively decorated with archaic Greek patterns, while half way along the gallery the wooden ribs of enormous horse arch up over the visitor, obviously referencing the famous wooden horse.

Although it’s divided into lots of sections, Troy is essentially in two halves. The first, long narrow gallery displays umpteen red-figure vases, statues, sarcophagi, carved reliefs and so on from the era of the Athenian empire (5th century BC) onwards including and later Roman efforts, depicting numerous episodes from the long series of myths and legends connected with the epic story.

Roman sarcophagus lid including detail of the Trojan horse (late 2nd century AD) Photograph © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The curators increase the size of their subject matter by including the legends surrounding Odysseus and his ten-year-long journey back from the war to be reunited with his brave long-suffering wife Penelope. Homer’s Odyssey is very different in tone and subject matter from the Iliad. It is more full of fairy stories and legends about the Sirens or Calypso or the one-eyed Cyclops or Scylla and Charybdis.

And they also devote some sections to Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, which follows the adventures of Aeneas, a minor character in the Iliad, who is promoted by Virgil to become a semi-Odysseus in his own right, fleeing burning Troy to wander the Mediterranean, have a long love affair with Dido Queen of Carthage, before being compelled to fulfil his duty which is to sail to Italy and found the precursor of Rome.

Including Odysseus, Virgil and all their related stories in the exhibition gives the curators more subject matter but, in my purist eyes, weakens the impact of the Iliad material, the material solely about the war, which focuses on battle, conflict, male anger and destruction only.

There are informative sections about the Greek gods, the geography of the Homeric world, how the Romans co-opted the Greek legends for their own purposes, if you didn’t already know.

And then the first gallery comes to an end and you turn the corner and come back on yourself along a narrow gallery running parallel to the first one.

2. Archaeology and Schliemann

At this turning point is a section devoted to the excavations carried out on the coast of modern-day Turkey by a series of Victorian archaeologists, which climaxed in the German excavator Heinrich Schliemann who loudly claimed to have uncovered the true site of Troy in 1873.

Display of objects found by Schliemann at Troy along with books describing his excavations. Photo by the author

3. Troy in European art

And when you progress beyond Schliemann and turn the corner you discover that the second long corridor is – rather surprisingly – an art gallery.

If the first half of the exhibition shows how the legends of Troy were depicted in ancient Greek art and sculpture, this second gallery shows how the same legends were depicted by European artists from the Middle Ages onwards.

I enjoyed this second half more, partly because it was so unexpected. So, for example, there’s a section devoted to European literature on Troy which contains some marvellous medieval illuminated books. We see a copy of John Lydgate’s Troy Book (1420), learn that the first book printed in England by William Caxton was a translation of a French account of Troy. There are first editions of Chapman’s complete translation of Homer (1616), Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid (1697) and Pope’s translation of The Iliad (1715-20).

A page of a 1485 manuscript of Virgil’s works showing the wooden horse being taken into Troy, and Aeneas carrying his father on his back

But most of the space in the gallery is devoted to paintings, drawings and a handful of sculptures, of which the standout example is this masterpiece of sensuality by Filippo Albacini, a portrait of the wounded Achilles (apparently, the gilded arrow in the heel of this sculpture has been restored especially for this exhibition).

The Wounded Achilles (1825) by Filippo Albacini. Photograph © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth

But the main impression is of a long, narrow gallery space hung with lots of paintings and drawings and prints.

As well as surprise, another reason for enjoying this part of the exhibition more was that it was far less crowded: I arrived fifteen minutes after opening time but already the first, more archaeological half of the exhibition was packed with crowds of people shuffling very slowly past each red-figure vase and fragment of stone relief – and because the exhibit labels were at knee height almost all of them were completely unreadable, concealed by people packed as tight as commuters on a tube train.

By contrast, for the hour or more that I was there, the second half, the long gallery of paintings, stayed almost empty, with only a dozen or so people drifting through it – which meant that you could enjoy the paintings (or prints or drawings) and read the wall labels, at your leisure. Works on display include:

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

It’s amazing to learn that this is the first full-scale exhibition about Troy ever held in the UK. Among other treasures it features, at the very end, the gold jewelry Schliemann found buried deep in the ruins of the city he excavated on the Turkish coast and which he declared to the world must be the jewelry of Helen herself, a preposterous claim he sought to back up by getting his wife to pose for photos wearing them.

Sophia Schliemann wearing the ‘Jewels of Helen’ excavated by her husband, Heinrich Schliemann, in Hisarlik (photograph taken c. 1874)

Modern art interpretations

Right at the start of the show visitors are surprised by two big artifacts which are not at all historic, a vast painting, Vengeance of Achilles (1962) by American artist Cy Twombly and an assemblage of forty or so objects by British sculptor Anthony Caro which he titled The Trojan War.

Dominating the section about medieval manuscripts of Troy, rather jarringly some might feel, is a video screen showing an adaptation of Euripides’ play The Trojan Women acted by Syrian refugee women, whose wailing voices can be heard echoing across the second half of the exhibition.

And the show ends with a spectacular wall-sized creation of fluorescent tubes radiating out from a central point and named The Shield of Achilles by British artist Spencer Finch.

The Shield of Achilles by Spencer Finch (2019)

My point being that this is a very wide-ranging idea of what an exhibition about Troy should look and feel like, spilling out from the narrow fields of archaeology and ancient artifacts to encompass scores of works of European art, and even – as indicated here – up-to-the-minute contemporary art.

Feminist interpretations

The people who wrote the press release have just discovered that there are women (yes, women!) in this 3,000-year-old story, and are breathlessly excited to share this new discovery with us:

The cause of the Trojan War was a woman, Helen who was taken to Troy by Paris, This exhibition presents a chance to re-examine Helen, not just as a beautiful victim or a feared seductress, but as her own woman.

Artist Eleanor Antin (b. 1935) explores history and its characters as a way to examine issues in the present. In 2007 Antin created the photographic series Helen’s Odyssey. Here, Helen of Troy is allowed to speak for herself in a series of imagined scenes from her life. This exhibition will feature Judgment of Paris (after Rubens) – Dark Helen from this series, where Helen is pictured looking unhappy to be used as a bribe, prompting visitors to re-examine the representations of Helen that have gone before.

Judgement of Paris (after Reubens) – Dark/Light Helen by Eleanor Antin (2007)

And the wall label introducing the section on ‘Women of the Trojan War’ shares their discovery that:

Helen and other women play central roles in the story of Troy.

Helen is a pawn in a divine quarrel. Iphigeneia is sacrificed for a fair wind to Troy. Cassandra and the other surviving Trojan women are enslaved when Troy falls. Queen Clytemnestra acts fearlessly in taking revenge on Agamemnon, but pays for it with her life.

Unusual in having a happier ending, Helen has fascinated artists through the ages. Many have attempted to capture her irresistible beauty, while questioning whether she is an innocent victim or knowing seductress.

It’s no surprise that the curators disapprove of the whole idea of the Judgement of Paris, the first ever beauty parade. As the introduction to the feminist section laconically points out:

Even the powerful goddesses are subject to male judgement.

Yes, but you could also point out that the goddesses murder and doom men for their sport. But that central element of the story doesn’t fit the feminist women-are-always-victims paradigm and so is glossed over in preference for yet another condemnation of the male gaze. If only all men were blinded like Oedipus, what a better place the world would be for feminist academics 🙂

BP

Meanwhile, the exhibition is sponsored by BP, one of the world’s biggest producers and refiners of fossil fuels, the burning of which is propelling the earth and all its life forms towards a global warming disaster.

To me it is typical and symptomatic that a handful of fine art paintings of an ancient Greek myth get feminist curators and artists hot and bothered enough to criticise them and parody them – but destroying the planet and exterminating all the life forms on it… they’re happy to go along with that. After all, the profits from poisoning the planet pay their wages and sponsor their exhibitions.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Eco-Visionaries: Confronting a planet in a state of emergency @ the Royal Academy

This is an exhibition of art and architecture on the theme of climate change and environmental destruction. It begins with the usual alarming facts and figures, which any educated person who reads a newspaper or watches the news or listens to the radio, should already know almost off by heart:

  • the world is facing an ecological catastrophe
  • the ten warmest years ever recorded have all occurred since 1998
  • we must reduce CO2 emissions to zero by 2050 (at the very latest) to avoid catastrophic global warming
  • which is already resulting in melting ice caps, retreating glaciers, rising sea levels and more extreme weather events
  • humans have accelerated the ‘normal’ background rate of species extinctions 1,000-fold with the result that we are living during the Sixth Great Extinction
  • the world’s population is predicted to grow by 20% over the next three decades to reach 9.7 billion
  • yadda yadda yadda

21 works

Rather than editorialise, I will list the exhibitions 21 works, giving links to their websites, where available, for you to follow up and read about yourself.

Texts in single quotations marks are from the wall labels or the artist’s own explanations. My own occasional comments are in italics.

Introduction

The curators introduce the exhibition thus:

‘Eco-Visionaries examines humankind’s impact on the planet and presents innovative approaches that reframe our relationship with nature. Through film, installation, architectural models and photography, the works in this exhibition interrogate how architecture, art and design are reacting to a rapidly changing world, beyond mainstream notions of sustainability.’

In the corridor leading towards the show there’s a simple timeline of dates from the industrial revolution onwards, recording natural disasters, growing awareness of how human activity devastates the natural world, the first theorising about global warming, the setting up of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988 (1988!) and so on down to this year.

1. Domestic Catastrophe No.3  by HeHe (2018)

“An aquarium containing a domestic globe, a motor to turn the globe and electronic valve or drip feed which releases a fluoresceine tracing dye onto the sphere. As the sphere turns, the green dye wraps itself around the sphere, enveloping it in what appears to be a thin gas or atmosphere that surrounds the planet Earth. The difference between emissions and atmosphere, the ‘man-influenced’ and the ‘natural’ climate cannot be easily defined.”

This is like a big cubic aquarium with a school-globe of the world-sized model of the world slowly turning within a thick liquid. On the bottom of the aquarium is a thin layer of sand and the slowly turning globe spins this sand into little dust devils and typhoons which is rather entrancing.

2. A Film, Reclaimed by Ana Vaz and Tristan Bera (2015)

“The ecologic crisis is a political, economic and social crisis. It is also cinematographic, as cinema coincides historically and in a critical and descriptive way with the development of the Anthropocene.”

The bit of the film I saw included clips from Hollywood movies, including some end-of-the-world film with buildings exploding and, soon after that, a clip from Blade Runner, a pleasingly random selection which could come from any one of thousands of art films, documentaries or even loops of movie clips you see played in nightclubs. As in, it didn’t convey any meaning whatsoever to me.

3. Tilapia by Tue Greenfort

A set of depictions of fish in black and white on paper, done to make them look like fossils. It’s based on human interference in the ecosystem of Lake Victoria which has led to the almost complete extermination of tilaplia fish. They were made by covering dead tilaplia specimens with inks and pressing them against the paper.

“A series of black-and-white prints arranged as a shoal of tilapia fish, one of the most consumed varieties of fish in the world but also one of the most invasive and predatory species.”

Tilapia by Tue Greenfort

4. Serpent River Book by Carolina Caycedo (2017)

“A 72-page accordion fold artist-book, that combines archival images, maps, poems, lyrics, satellite photos, with the artist’s own images and texts on river bio-cultural diversity, in a long and meandering collage. The fluctuating publication can frame many narratives. As a book it can be opened, pleated and read in many directions, and has a performatic potential to it, functioning as a score, or as a workshop tool. Serpent River Book gathers visual and written materials compiled by the artist while working in Colombian, Brazilian, and Mexican communities affected by the industrialization and privatization of river systems.”

5. Madrid in the air: 24 Hours by Nerea Calvillo (2019)

Madrid in the Air: 24 Hours monitors the skyline of Madrid over a 24-hour period, uncovering the almost invisible veil of pollutants in the air.”

In the Air is a visualization project which aims to make visible the microscopic and invisible agents of Madrid´s air (gases, particles, pollen, diseases, etc), to see how they perform, react and interact with the rest of the city. The visualization tool is a web-based dynamic model which builds up the space the components generate, where through data crossing behavior patterns emerge. The results of these data feed a physical prototype of what we have called a “diffuse façade”, a massive indicator of the air´s components through a changing cloud, blurring architecture with the atmosphere it has invaded and mediating the activity of the participants it envelops.”

“The project highlights the contamination of air in cities caused by vehicle engines, industry, factories and farming.”

It was a film of a camera fixed in a static position at roof level looking out over Madrid and a strange pink or green gauze-like veil hovering over the city, sometimes thickening or advancing – being a visualisation of the soup of pollution we all live in.

6. The ice melting series by Olafur Eliasson (2002)

A series of 20 black and white photos showing very small pieces of glacial ice (four to 10 inches long) melting into the black stones and rubble of a terminal moraine in Iceland.

The Ice Melting series by Olafur Eliasson (2002)

7. Alaska Chair by Virgil Abloh (2018)

“Originally designed as a wooden chair for IKEA, the Alaska Chair is a paradoxical commentary on the effects of our everyday lives and mass-consumption habits on the global rising sea levels and climate change. This work was inspired by the concept of acqua alta, an Italian term used to describe regular floods in Venice, caused by high tides and warm winds. The chair is partly submerged by the rising flood waters, with a doorstep wedge symbolically representing the short-term, makeshift solutions we have for tackling climate change. Yet by casting the work in bronze, a material intended to last, the work reflects on how environmental catastrophe is a tough, long-term problem that is not easily fixed by simple solutions.”

Alaska Chair by Virgil Abloh (2018)

I liked the ‘Do not touch’ sign. The environment is going up in flames but ‘Don’t you dare touch my lovely work of art with your grubby fingers!’

8. The Breast Milk of the Volcano by Unknown Fields (2017)

“Over half the world’s reserves of lithium, a key ingredient in rechargeable batteries in phones, laptops, electric cars and drone technology, is found in the salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. This film poignantly examines how even the cleanest energy utopias can have dramatic consequences in material, resource and economic exploitation. Accompanying the film is a lithium battery designed by the artists. It refers to an Inca origin myth of the Salar de Uyuni in which the salt flats were formed by the breast milk and tears of a mother volcano mourning the loss of her child.”

(If you’re wondering why this sad and plaintive video appears to have the half-stoned voice of Elon Musk presenting Tesla Energy over it, you’re not the only one but it’s the same with all the versions of the video scattered across the internet.)

9. The Substitute by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg (2019)

The Substitute draws upon rare zoological archival footage as well as experimental data from artificial intelligence company DeepMind, will enable visitors to come faceto-face with a life-size digital reproduction of a northern white rhinoceros. The last male of the subspecies died in 2018.”

“On March 20, 2018, headlines announced the death of Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni). We briefly mourned a subspecies lost to human desire for the imagined life-enhancing properties of its horn, comforted that it might be brought back using biotechnology, albeit gestated by a different subspecies. But would humans protect a resurrected rhino, having decimated an entire species? And would this new rhino be real?”

10. P-Plastoceptor: Organ for Sensing Plastic by Pinar Yoldas (2014)

“Polypropylene is the second most common plastic after polyethylene. P-Plasticeptor is a sense organ which can detect polypropylene polymers in the ocean. The organ takes its name from its sensing capabilities for polypropylene and its shape that almost resembles the letter P.”

An Ecosystem of Excess: P-Plastoceptor: Organ For Sensing Plastics by Pinar Yoldas (2019)

There are two works, the P-Plastoceptor, and another fictitious organ, Somaximums presented in vitrines as if in pickled alcohol specimen jars. I think they’ve both been invented, made up with rather arcane satirical intent.

11. Our Prehistoric Fate by Basim Magdy (2011)

“Our Prehistoric Fate, 2011 was commissioned by the 1st Time Machine Biennale of Contemporary Art. D-O ARK Underground in Konjic, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The biennale took place inside a massive nuclear bunker in the mountains 60 km. away from Sarajevo. The bunker was commissioned by Josip Broz Tito as a last refuge for him, his family and top Yugoslavian generals in case of a nuclear attack. It took almost 30 years to finish the project. Tito died a year after its completion without ever setting foot in it. Needless to say, the nuclear attack never happened. Two large Duraclear prints hang on Yugoslavian military lightbox displays with clamps in the war strategy room of the bunker where decisions were meant to be made and maps of the situation on the ground were meant to be evaluated. The first claims ‘The Future Belongs To Us’ in large bold letters, the second is an encyclopedia illustration from the 60s that captures an Ankylosaurus, a prehistoric creature we know very little about, as it approaches a pond to drink.”

Our Prehistoric Fate by Basim Magdy (2011)

12. Designs for an overpopulated planet by Dunne and Raby (2009)

“Based on United Nations predictions that at the current rate of ecological transformations there will not be enough food to feed the planet in 2050, Foragers, from the series Designs for an Overpopulated Planet, are speculative full-scale models proposing how to radically change the human diet and digestive system to ensure survival. These devices would allow humans to extract nutritional value from synthetic biology and develop new digestive systems like those of other mammals, birds, fish and insects which are able to digest and process barely edible resources such as tough roots and plant matter.”

Installation view of Designs for an overpopulated planet by Dunne and Raby (2009) Photograph by the author.

Two surreal ‘eating tubes’ along with a photo of how to use one out in the wild.

13. Pollutive Matter-s (three scenarios) by New Territories (S/he) (1997-2002)

14. The Dolphin Embassy by Ant Farm (1974-78)

“The Dolphin Embassy was a research project that never was built and that attempted to study the communication between the human being and the dolphins. It would have been built with asbestos cement and it moved with a solar panel and a motor. Besides the quality of the drawings, the interest of this proposal was in the social relations that the Dolphin Embassy was proposing between humans and the dolphins”

15. 3.C.City: Climate, Convention, Cruise by WORKac and Ant Farm (2015)

“3.C.City: Climate, Convention, Cruise is a speculative design for a floating city inspired by different architectural projects created by collective Ant Farm in the 1970s, including the drawings for The Dolphin Embassy. The city is designed to facilitate dialogue and debate between humans and other species, blurring the boundaries between ecology and infrastructure, public and private, the individual and the collective. Unbound by national allegiances, the design includes a vessel with housing, a research lab and an interspecies congress hall. The programme is completed with greenhouse and garden areas, an algae farm for biofuel production and a water-collection river, all covered by an inflatable wall and solar panel shingles.”

WORKac’s long section of Dolphin Embassy

“The idea is that it’s a floating city not bound by any national borders. People can come together to live in a different way and discuss important issues of the day.”

16. Biogas Power Plant by SKREI (2017)

“According to the London Assembly one year’s worth of the average urban borough’s food waste could generate enough electricity to power a local primary school for over ten years. Biogas Power Plant is a prototype for an individual biogas production unit which could use domestic waste to create and store energy to make houses self-sufficient. The unit is designed to be connected to the National Grid yet able to operate without relying on an external power supply or waste-management system.”

Biogas Power Plant by SKREI (2017) Photograph by the author.

17. Island House In Laguna Grande, Corpus Christi, Texas by Andres Jaque/Office for Political Innovation, with Patrick Craine (2015-ongoing)

“The fifty-island archipelago of Laguna Grande, on the south coast of Texas, is one of the biggest wild island-barriers of the world. This archipelago contains some of the most ancient animal and vegetal species adapted to saline aquatic ecosystems and protects the lagoon from the pollution resulting from the nearby presence of oil platforms. The islands are the habitats where mammals and other coastal species overnight, and they are endangered by the combined effects of climate change and the incremental increase in the acidity of the water. Island House in Laguna Grande is not designed as an architecture for humans, but built instead to empower the environmental diversity of Laguna Grande. The structure collects and preserves rainwater and, through the mediation of sensors on the ground, sprays water to dilute toxicity and combat drought.”

Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation with Patrick Craine, Island House in Laguna Grande, Corpus Christi, Texas, 2015-ongoing © Courtesy of the artists

18. Soil Procession by Futurefarmers (2015)

“On June 13, 2015 a procession of farmers carried soil from their farms through the city of Oslo to its new home at Losæter. Soil Procession was a GROUND BUILDING ceremony that used the soil collected from over 50 Norwegian farms from as far north as Tromsø and as far south as Stokke, to build the foundation of the Flatbread Society Grain Field and Bakehouse. A procession of soil and people through Oslo drew attention to this historical, symbolic moment of the transition of a piece of land into a permanent stage for art and action related to food production. At high noon, farmers gathered at the Oslo Botanical Gardens joined by city dwellers. Tractors, horses, wagons, wheelbarrows, musical instruments, voices, sheep, boats, backpacks and bikes processed to Losæter where the farmers’ soil offerings were laid out upon the site and a Land Declaration was signed.”

Seed Procession 2016 by Futurefarmers. Part of Seed Journey (2016–ongoing). Photograph by Monica Lovdahl. Courtesy of Futurefarmers

19. The Meteorological Garden / Central Park, Taichung, Taiwan, 2012– 2019 by Philippe Rahm architectes, in collaboration with mosbach paysagistes and Ricky Liu & Associates

“The ambition of our project is to give back the outdoors to the inhabitants and visitors by proposing to create exterior spaces where the excesses of the subtropical warm and humid climate of Taichung are lessened. The exterior climate of the park is thus modulated so to propose spaces less hot (more cold, in the shade), less humid (by lowering humid air, sheltered from the rain and flood) and less polluted (by adding filtered air from gases and particle matters pollution, less noisy, less mosquitoes presence).”

Installation view of photos and models of The Meteorological Garden / Central Park, Taichung, Taiwan (2011 – 2019) by Philippe Rahm architectes in collaboration with mosbach paysagistes, Ricky Liu & Associates. Photograph by the author.

20. The Green Machine by Studio Malka Architecture (2014)

“The Green Machine is a mobile structure intended to regenerate and fertilise the ground of the Sahara Desert, one of the world’s most inhospitable climates. Resembling an oil platform that has been made redundant by dried-up seas, the project is a self-sufficient urban oasis able both to exploit the rich resources of the desert and to provide food, water, housing and energy for a local community. This concept resembles available technologies to generate a structure that could produce 20 million tonnes of crops each year in a hostile environment. Solar towers, wind turbines and balloons that capture water through condensation come together with the inventive use of modified caterpillar treads that plough, water and sow the soil as the autonomous structure slowly moves across the land.”

The Green Machine (2014) by Studio Malka Architecture. Courtesy of the artist

21. win >< win by Rimini Protokoll (Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel)

The last exhibit in the show requires you to wait in a queue to go through a sliding door. There’s a roped off queue stations, like in my local post office, and a big digital clock counting off the seconds till the next batch of visitors can go in. What are you queueing for?

Once through the sliding door, a small number of people (nine, I think) can sit on two low, shallow curved benches only a couple of yards away from a wall, and into that wall has been cut an enormous circle of glass. It is an aquarium! A massive aquarium in which are swimming quite a few, maybe as many as twenty beautiful jellyfish, about a foot in diameter, slowly wafting around what is clearly a large space behind the wall, lit by a gentle blue illumination.

There are headphones for each visitor and if you put them on you then listen to a 16-minute-long audiopiece about these jellyfish. You learn that they are Moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) and that they can be found in oceans around the world. And the audioguide goes on to give a dramatic description of the fight or survival which is coming, which has already started, among the world’s species as air and sea temperatures increase, CO2 levels increase, and ecosystems around the world are devastated.

And guess who many ecologists think are likely to win? As far as I can tell this video includes the entire audio track.

Exhibition participants

  • Virgil Abloh (Rockford, US)
  • Ant Farm (Chip Lord, Doug Michels and Curtis Schreier) (California, US)
  • Nerea Calvillo (Madrid, Spain)
  • Carolina Caycedo (London, UK)
  • Dunne & Raby (London, UK / New York City, US)
  • Olafur Eliasson Hon RA (Copenhagen, Denmark)
  • Futurefarmers (San Francisco, US and Gent, Belgium)
  • Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg (London, UK)
  • Tue Greenfort (Holbæk, Denmark)
  • HeHe (Le Havre, France)
  • Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation (Madrid, Spain / New York City, US)
  • Basim Magdy (Asyut, Egypt)
  • Malka Architecture (Paris, France)
  • Philippe Rahm architectes (Paris, France)
  • Rimini Protokoll (Berlin, Germany)
  • SKREI (Porto, Portugal)
  • Unknown Fields (London, UK)
  • Ana Vaz and Tristan Bera (Brasília, Brazil / Paris, France)
  • WORKac (New York City, US)
  • Pinar Yoldas (Denizli, Turkey)

Thoughts

I laughed out loud when I read the wall label claiming that the exhibits are ‘provocative responses’ which amount to ‘a wake-up call – urging us to acknowledge and become conscious of our impact on our environment’.

A wake-up call to who? To the several thousand middle-aged, middle-class, well-educated types who visit the Royal Academy? They are already super-awake, over-awake. It’s not the behaviour of a few score thousand posh people in London you have to influence: it is the behaviour of billions and billions of poor people around the world.

As for us rich people, Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change 2010 to 2016, a few years ago gave a simple recipe:

  • become vegetarian
  • sell your car
  • never take another plane flight
  • review all your investments, pensions and savings and transfer them to carbon-free, environmentally friendly sectors

That’s the most basic, elementary steps which all of us should take. And will we? No.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art @ the British Museum

European explorers

As John Darwin’s brilliant history of Eurasian empires, After Tamerlane, makes clear, quite a few things distinguished European culture from the culture of the other Eurasian empires (i.e. the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Empire in Persia, the Moghul Empire in northern India, the Chinese Empire and the Japanese Empire) in the centuries after the death of Tamerlane the Great in 1405.

Just two of them were a readiness, on the part of the Europeans, to travel and explore, and an endless curiosity which led to almost obsessive collecting and categorising and curating and exhibiting.

No Chinese explorers visited Europe during the 19th century and were so dazzled by its history and architecture and art that they made copious sketches and drawings, took photographs, bought up every quaint European curio they could get their hands on, and carried them all back to China to catalogue and categorise and trigger an artistic renaissance.

That kind of thing just didn’t happen because few Chinese travelled abroad. Very few wanted to, or had the means to, and anyway it was frowned upon because every educated Chinese knew that the Celestial Empire was the centre of the universe, the possessor of a perfect culture, which didn’t need or want to know anything at all about the outside world, overrun as it was by cultureless barbarians.

And Darwin shows how this complacent and self-centred attitude was echoed by the cultural and political elites of Japan, Moghul India, the Safavid Empire and the sprawling Ottoman Empire, for centuries.

No, the wandering, exploring, collecting bug seems to have affected Europeans on a completely different scale from any of the world’s other civilisations.

Thus it was that from the 1500s onwards a steadily increasing stream of travellers, explorers, soldiers and sailors, archaeologists and artists travelled all over the Muslim lands lining the North African coast and the Middle East – territory nominally under the control of the extensive Ottoman Empire – to explore and describe and paint and buy and plunder.

Inspired by the East

This ambitious exhibition delves into one aspect of this huge European enterprise by looking at the long and complex history of cultural interchanges between the Islamic Middle East and Europe from about 1500 onwards.

Not surprisingly several of the earliest objects are swords and helmets since the single most important fact about Islam is that it was a conqueror’s religion, spread by highly organised and zealous Arabs as they exploded out of Arabia in the 7th and 8th centuries to seize the Christian Middle East and North African coastline.

Gilt-Copper helmet, Turkey (about 1650) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman dynasty which began its rise to prominence in the 1200s was itself just the last in a line of dynasties which had vied for leadership of the Muslim world since the birth of Islam in the 630s.

The Ottoman Turks rose to dominate the area we call the Middle East during the period 1300 to 1453 (the year when the Ottomans seized Christian Constantinople and made it into their capital, Istanbul). I’ve reviewed several books about the decline of the Byzantine Empire as it came under relentless pressure from successive Muslim rulers, until its eventual fall to the Ottomans.

The Ottoman heyday is usually dated from the year of the fall of Byzantium – 1453 – to around 1600, during which they extended their power across all of North Africa and deep into Europe. It’s salutary to remember that twice the Ottoman army besieged Vienna, in 1526 and 1683, and was only just defeated both times i.e. they could have penetrated even further into Christian Europe.

As it was, throughout this period the Ottomans ruled the extensive territory of former Christian Europe which we call the Balkans, as well as Christian Greece and Christian subjects in numerous Mediterranean islands.

Mainly Victorian

A handful of pieces and a few wall labels in the exhibition gesture towards this long and complex early history of Ottoman rise and conquest and domination, including the striking portrait of Sultan Bayezid I by a painter from the school of Veronese, which has been used as the poster for the show.

A Portrait of Sultan Bayezid I by a member of the School of Veronese (c. 1580) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

But the exhibition really focuses on works from the much later period of the 19th and early 20th centuries, partly for the simple reason that the period 1800 to the outbreak of the Second World War saw a steadily increasing number of European travellers to North Africa and the Middle East.

Some of this was simply a function of continually improving transport, sailing ships giving way to steamships, the steady spread of railways, the industrial revolution creating a new leisured class, especially in Britain and France, who wanted to see the world, helped along by firms like Thomas Cook which launched its first cruises in the 1870s.

Many devout Victorians, such as the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt, wanted to tour the Holy Land and see for themselves the places where Our Lord had stood. Flocks of visitors drew and sketched and painted watercolours and oils and bought all manner of souvenirs, carpets and clothes, tiles and glasswork. By the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851 the British public was highly aware of the extremely diverse and colourful cultures of the peoples it ruled over.

But the thesis of this exhibition is that the Islamic culture of the Ottoman Empire bore a uniquely close and fractious relationship with Europe, was the predominant colonial and foreign cultural ‘Other’ for Europe throughout the period – a kind of backward cousin, a slothful and declining ‘Orient’ against which we could measure our ever-growing knowledge, technology and power. And that a huge number of craftsmen and artists and metalworkers and glassblowers and designers and artists and architects were particularly dazzled and influenced and inspired by Islamic and Middle Eastern art and culture.

So this exhibition, Inspired by the East, aims to bring together a wealth of artifacts to show a) some of the original Islamic arts and crafts from the era and b) the impact Islamic architecture, designs and patterns had on European craftsmen, artists and designers through a large selection of European objects.

Enamelled glass lamp made by Philippe-Joseph Brocard, France (about 1877)

Thus the exhibition includes wonderful, ornate and beautiful examples from a whole range of media and crafts such as:

  • tiles
  • glasswork
  • ceramics
  • metalwork
  • jewellery
  • clothing
  • architecture
  • design

I was interested to learn there was a genre called ‘costume books’ which simply showed the costumes of all the new races and peoples Europeans had discovered as they expanded and explored from the 1500s onwards and which, of course, featured books devoted to the clothes and garments of the Middle East.

I learned that all kinds of products by Islamic artisans were prized in the West from early on, such as Egyptian metalwork and Persian ceramics. During the 19th century Western craftsmen could use developing technology to reproduce much of this work. The exhibition includes Arab-inspired ceramics by Théodore Deck, a leading French ceramicist who in the late nineteenth century created a range of pieces directly inspired by Islamic originals.

Nearby is a section devoted to Owen Jones, one of the most influential tastemakers of the Victorian era. His pioneering studies on colour theory, geometry and form still inspire designers to this day. Jones was an architect, designer and design theorist and was Superintendent of Works for the 1851 Great Exhibition. His masterpiece was Grammar of Ornament, a huge and lavish folio displaying stunning patterns, motifs and ornaments in 112 illustrated plates, many of which featured Islamic decorations and motifs. Some of the Islamic plates from the book are on display here.

But but but… I was struck by several obvious problems.

Number one was that most of the works on display are by Europeans. They are not original works by the Islamic craftsmen and artists who are so praised. They are European copies, displayed with the intention of showing how widespread the impact of Islamic styles and motifs was on the European arts. If you’re looking for a world of authentically Islamic arts and crafts you’d do better to go the V&A.

Number two was that, despite the beauty of individual works, it became difficult to avoid a sense of scrappiness, a sense that the curators are trying to cover a lot of ground, in fact an enormous subject – the impact of the Muslim world on the art and culture of the West – with a surprisingly small range of exhibits.

Take my home area, history: A few helmets and a sword are accompanied by a paragraph or two about the extent of the Ottoman Empire – but this, the military rise and dominance of the Ottoman Empire, is a huge, a vast subject, which I felt was barely scratched and whose omission made the entire show feel one-sided i.e. presented only the Europeans as aggressive colonialists whereas, as I’ve explained, it was the Muslims who originally conquered half the Christian Mediterranean.

Similarly, the friend I went with is mad about Islamic tiles so was pleased to see a display of half a dozen beautiful and ornate tiles – but disappointed that they turned out to be made by a Victorian British manufacturer using Islamic motifs – and that that was it when it came to tiles.

Islamic architecture is distinctive and beautiful and exists over half the world, but it was dealt with via just a few British buildings which used Islamic motifs, such as the well-known artist Lord Leighton’s famous house in West London which he had modelled inside to recreate some of the rooms from the Alhambra in Spain, namely ‘the Arab Hall’. Leighton had the place covered in Islamic tiles designed by William de Morgan. There are photos of the interior and a lovely wooden model but… is that it?

The single most dominant impression was made by the paintings, a few scattered in the early sections but then leading up to a huge wall displaying about 20 classic, late-Victorian, Orientalist paintings.

In the Madrasa by Ludwig Deutsch (1890) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Orientalism

This brings us to the several meanings of ‘Orientalism’, a word and idea which are raised early in the exhibition and then referenced throughout.

1. The word Orientalism was originally, during the 19th century and first half of the 20th, a value-neutral term applied to all or any scholars, linguists, archaeologists or artists who specialised in ‘the Orient’, a vague expression generally taken to be Islamic North Africa and Middle East but sometimes stretching to include India. It survives in this neutral sense in many places to this day, for example in the name of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

2. However, the term underwent a revolutionary change in 1978 when the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said published his academic study Orientalism. In this book Said subjected the so-called ‘scholarly’ works of 19th century Orientalist academics to in-depth analysis in order to support one big radical idea: that almost all the supposedly scholarly and academic books and ideas produced by European scholars about the Orient were the witting or unwitting handmaids of Western Imperialism.

Almost all the nineteenth-century Orientalists declared the Ottoman Empire corrupt and stagnant, Islam itself incapable of change. The people living there were stereotyped as somehow more primitive, dressing in loose but colourful clothing, slothful and lazy and corrupt.

Probably the most notable idea was the fascination the institution of the harem had for repressed Westerners who projected all kinds of sexual fantasies onto Oriental woman and painted no end of soft porn depictions of the sultan and his slaves and concubines and slave auctions and so on.

So powerful was Said’s critique that it spread and prospered in the academy, becoming the new orthodoxy and casting a critical shadow back over everything written or painted about the Middle East in the previous 200 years or more. Since its publication almost everything any European said, wrote or painted about the Ottoman Empire has been reappraised to appear in a much more sinister light, either furthering malicious racist stereotypes, aiding in imperial exploitation, or the shameless appropriation of a weaker culture’s art and designs.

Schizophrenia

Now the woke young curators of this exhibition are fully paid-up subscribers to Said’s unforgiving views about Western exploitation of the Middle East. This isn’t a guess on my part. They quote page one of Orientalism in the very opening wall label which introduces the exhibition:

The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant… The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture.

And every other wall label takes pains to remind us that the plate or vase or tile or translation of The 1001 Nights or any other cultural product which we’re looking at and which references Islam may well seem beautiful to us but, tut tut, we should be aware that it was part of the wicked European fashion to appropriate Islamic patterns for vases or the exploitative trend for mock Moorish architecture, or the thieving use of Arabic script in picture frames and so on.

And that behind all of this detail, all of these individual examples of cultural appropriation, lies the huge looming shadow of Western Imperialism!

Four tiles by William De Morgan & Co, Britain (1888-1897)

Cumulatively, these hectoring labels and panels created, for me at any rate, a strange sense of schizophrenia. In one and the same wall label the curators might both praise the craftmanship of a western tile maker or architect – and yet accuse them of being part of the general movement of cultural appropriation. Praise and damn almost in the same breath.

As so often in modern exhibitions, I began to feel that I got more visual and aesthetic enjoyment if I just stopped reading the hectoring labels – felt less harangued and nagged to feel guilty about things which happened 150 years before I was even born.

Orientalist painting

It’s probably in painting that the Orientalist issue is most obvious, or most familiar to most of us because the antique shops of the West are awash with third-rate late-Victorian depictions of the Arab world, of mosques, old men in long gowns with even longer beards, camels crossing the desert, Oriental markets, scantily dressed concubines and so on.

Said’s idea is that, although these images are fairly harmless looked at individually, taken together they become condescending, sexist and racist, depicting a fantasy world of harems and sultans, long-gowned scholars in picturesque mosques, colourful markets or the desert at dawn – all of which, taken together, creates a patronising distortion of the complex realities of the many peoples and tribes and ethnic groups and nations scattered across North Africa and the Middle East.

Moreover, taken together, they all tend in the same direction, promoting an ideology claiming that all these cultures and peoples might well be noble and beautiful, but were also backward and in decline, and therefore needed to be taken in hand, taken over, guided and ruled by us, the enlightened West.

At Prayer by Ludwig Deutsch (1923)

The big wall hanging of twenty or so massive Orientalist paintings which I mentioned earlier are obviously meant to represent a kind of ‘Wall of Shame’. Tut tut, we are encouraged to think: look at all these stereotypical markets and mosques and rugs and carpets. Look how oppressive they are.

However, I just didn’t feel the moral outrage I think the curators intend us to feel. The real impact of hanging so many Orientalist paintings next to each other was, in my opinion, to make you feel a bit sick, as if you’d been let loose in a sweetshop and eaten everything in sight. They are self-consciously opulent and gorgeous to the point of absurdity.

Another, more objective result of examining so many of these over-ripe productions was that, pace Said, most of them are not from the imperial nineteenth century, nor, surprisingly, were many of them produced by the classic imperialist powers who carved up the Middle East between them, France and Britain.

At least half of them were from the twentieth century, many from after the Great War (the two above are from 1913 and 1923). And quite a few were by either German or American painters, not by the cultural Anglo-French cultural appropriators. Neither the Germans nor the Americans had any colonial presence in the Middle East till well after the Great War and even then, not very much.

Orientalism or Romanticism?

As I read yet another wall label pointing out how the Orientalist painters fantasised and romanticised and embellished lots of the subjects they painted, as if this was a shockingly immoral and exploitative thing to do, a simple thought occurred to me: Didn’t all 19th century artists?

There are thousands and thousands of Victorian genre paintings which romanticise and glamorise all kinds of subjects, from their own working classes (cf the exhibition of cheesy paintings of Victorian children I saw earlier this year at the Guildhall) to windswept Hebridean crofters.

In other words, wasn’t the entire artistic movement of Romanticism about, well, stereotypically romantic subject matter – about mountains and storms at sea and heroic adventures and tormented heroes and shy maidens with heaving bosoms who needed rescuing from dragons (I’m thinking of the amazing late-Victorian fantasies of Edward Burne-Jones as recently displayed at Tate Britain).

The same exaggerated depiction of popular conceptions of subjects was applied to everything – I bet medieval knights weren’t as manly and knightly as they appear in Victorian paintings, that Highland crofters weren’t as proud and noble, or our brave soldiers quite as manly and beautifully kitted out, as they appear in those big hearty late-Victorian paintings.

Don’t all Victorian paintings depict extravagant stereotypes in lush and glamorous colours? In other words, there is nothing particular or exceptional about this hyper-romantic style being applied to ‘Oriental’ subjects: it was applied to countless other subjects as well.

The Guard by Antonio María Fabrés y Costa (1889)

The harem

I was especially looking forward to the section about the harem, not because I was expecting to be particularly titillated but because I was anticipating the orgy of outraged feminism it would prompt in the commentary.

After all, one of the most obvious and much-repeated claims of anti-orientalist, politically correct literary critics, feminists and curators is that Western white men used the Ottoman institution of the harem to concoct a vast number of soft porn, erotic fantasies which bore no relation to reality at all, but merely satisfied the gloating gaze of fat, rich, white, male collectors.

So the most astonishing single thing about this exhibition about Western depictions of the Orient is the complete absence of even one decent painting showing a classic, late-Victorian harem scene. Not one.

I thought I must have missed a room somewhere and went back through the exhibition to check, but eventually realised that the little collection of five or so chaste drawings and one painting – none of which show a nude woman, all of them very restrained – is all they have! 

There’s a tiny photo of one of the classic nude-in-a-Turkish-bath paintings by Ingres, but any actual huge, beautiful and sexy harem scenes by him or Eugène Delacroix or John Frederick Lewis or any number of their followers and copyers… nothing! None!

I think I could go to my nearest antiques shop and find more cheesy old Victorian paintings of scantily-clad maidens in a supposed harem than there were in this exhibition. It is an astonishing gap. The big oil painting I mentioned is of a fully-clothed woman who could be more or less anywhere.

Off to one side there is one little drawing of a woman playing a musical instrument by a French artist we are assured, by the conscientious curators, was a notorious Orientalist – though it could hardly be less offensive. Does this image strike you as being offensively racist and sexist, stereotyping the Orient and providing visual underpinning for Western imperialism? It doesn’t, to me.

Study of a girl playing a stringed instrument by Jean Léon Gérôme (1886)

In fact it raises a related politico-aesthetic question, because the curators point out that the artists, Jean Léon Gérôme, was well known for his meticulous sketches and drawings he made preparatory to making an oil painting. Which made me reflect: I n what way can these artists be accused of peddling lazy stereotypes if they were carefully and meticulously depicting what they saw, what was actually in front of them?

The sex object bites back (or photographs itself wearing clothes)

The absolute of real killer harem scenes is all the more puzzling because it is meant to set up the final part of the exhibition, which is devoted to contemporary works by modern Muslim women artists.

The curators have chosen to interpret these contemporary Muslim women artists as responding to the despicable tradition of Western Orientalism. They are ‘speaking back to Orientalist representations of the east’. They are ‘subverting and undermining works by earlier European and North American artists’.

But alas the curators’ plan doesn’t really work because we have not seen any of the sexy, sexist Orientalist representations of the east which these contemporary artists are kicking back against. We pretty much have to imagine them, or remember them from other exhibitions or books.

In fact I thought all four of the women artists on display here were very good, very very good, in their way better than the rest of the exhibition. Best of the four was a triptych of images by Lalla Essaydi, part of a large series of works titled Women of Morocco.

In them Essaydi or her models adopt the poses of the scantily-clad women draped around in famous Orientalist paintings, only here the women are chastely and Islamically dressed and – and this is the distinctive thing from a visual point of view – both they, their clothes and the studio backcloths are covered in Islamic script. I thought it was a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed, to produce really vibrant and exciting images.

Les Femmes du Maroc by Lalla Essaydi (2005) © Lalla Esaydi

Conclusion

Inspired by the East feels, in the end, like a rather thin exhibition.

Firstly, it claims to be a look at the interaction between East and West, so you’d expect it to be divided into two parts; How East affected West and how West affected East.

As noted, there’s plenty of examples of the way Westerners appropriated Eastern designs and motifs and patterns, architecture and design (although this felt like a much larger subject which really deserved to be investigated in much greater depth – All over London are buildings which incorporate Islamic motifs; if you add in tiling and ceramics and metalwork you have a huge subject).

But as to West affecting East, this section felt very skimpy indeed, with just one small room showing a couple of photo albums by pioneering photographers in Istanbul and a map or two. Is that it?

Secondly, there is the big shadow of Edward Said and his embittering theory of Orientalism threaded throughout the show, the premise that all depictions of the Middle East and all forms of appropriation of its culture were handmaidens to the wicked, Western imperial exploitation of the area.

But this rather harsh and inflexible approach militates against the more nuanced vibe of the ‘cultural interactions’ parts of the show. One minute the curators are praising Western craftsmen; the next they are berating the subtle cultural imperialism of copying Islamic designs.

Hence my comment about the unsettling schizophrenia I thought the show suffered from.

3. And when I got to the section on the harem and realised how tragically thin it was, it suddenly crystallised for me how skimpy the rest of the exhibition feels. It feels like it’s trying to address two or three really big issues and not quite doing any of them quite properly.

Alhambra vase, Spain 1800–1899 © Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia

Writing versus art

I read Orientalism at university four or five years after it was published, when it still had ‘the shock of the new’, before it settled down to become the new orthodoxy taught to each new generation of humanities and art students.

And Said’s book is almost entirely concerned with Orientalist writing – with the supposedly factual works of Orientalist ‘scholars’ (who he systematically debunks) and with the Western literary writers who perpetuated stereotypes about the Exotic East (Byron, Nerval, Flaubert just for starters).

A lot of this kind of writing was produced in the nineteenth century and so Said had a rich vein to draw on, and was able to show how the supposedly ‘scholarly’ writing, and the literary works, easily morphed into official, governing and imperial writing, could be co-opted into government reports and assessments, how anthropological studies could be quoted in business cases for invading Egypt, say, or Iraq.

But it is much harder to divine a particularly patronising, racist or imperialist motive behind a set of porcelain which just happens to use an Islamic motif, or in picture frames which use Arabic script as decoration, or in glassware which incorporates Islamic patterns.

It’s easier to imagine that they were just one among the millions of other ranges of pottery and ceramics and frames produced during the consumer boom of the nineteenth century, which cannibalised motifs and patterns from all available sources – from India and China and Japan to name just a few – if it produced something which would sell.

To see most of the objects in this exhibition as part of an enormous explosion of art and crafts products which catered for the burgeoning middles classes as, to some extent, they still do today.

So my last thought is that maybe the bittiness and thinness of the exhibition is owing to the fact that the curators are trying to illustrate a basically literary theory with works of art and museum objects. And not nearly enough of them to really round out the argument.

Whatever the reason, for me this exhibition contained an entertaining pot-pourri of lovely objects, but didn’t really hang together either as history, or as a sustained exploration of the themes it purports to address.

Promotional video

Curators

  • Julia Tugwell
  • Olivia Threlkeld

Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich (1988)

Viscount Norwich

As his own website explains:

John Julius, 2nd Viscount Norwich, was born on 15 September 1929, the son of the statesman and diplomat Alfred Duff Cooper (1st Viscount) and the Lady Diana Cooper. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer.

Could it be possible to be more posh? Norwich died  last year. He had written or edited about thirty books, the major ones being histories of the Mediterranean, of Sicily, of Venice and of Byzantium. The volume under review is the first of the trilogy of popular histories which continues with Byzantium: The Apogee (1992) and Byzantium: The Decline and Fall (1995).

Byzantium: The Early Centuries is divided into 18 action-packed chapters, which take us from the family background of the Emperor Constantine (reigned in the 320s and 330s) through to the Empress Irene (775 to 802) i.e. up to about the time of Charlemagne whose coronation in Rome on Christmas Day 800 marks a watershed in European history.

The book comes with handy extras like maps of all the relevant territory, family trees of the complex imperial families, a list of emperors and – nice touch, this – a list of sites in present-day Istanbul which date from the Byzantine Empire and which tourists can still visit today.

Highlights

It was the Emperor Diocletian who decided to split the empire in two, appointing a fellow emperor to rule the West in 293 while Diocletian concentrated on the East, securing the whole of the current Middle East round to Egypt against attack from the Persian Empire, while also guarding the frontier along the river Danube.

It was the Emperor Constantine who founded the new eastern capital of Constantinople, basing it on the existing small Greek town of Byzantium. By the late 300s the Roman Empire was under pressure from barbarians pushing at all its borders, leading to a complex series of wars, alliances, betrayals and defeats. In the 390s the western emperors had moved their court to Milan in northern Italy, closer to the centre of western Europe, and in 402 moved on again to the town of Ravenna, thought to be more defensible because it was situated behind a network of marshes which could only be crossed by a couple of narrow causeways.

The scholar Emperor Julian reigned for 18 months during which he tried to reinstitute paganism across the Empire, closing Christian churches, subsidising the great temples, attending countless pagan ceremonies, all with little effect, until he died from a spear wound incurred during his fruitless invasion of the Persian Empire, in 363. With his death went the last hopes of reviving paganism and, during the reign of Theodosius (379-395), the old religion was banned, temples closed and Christianity made the official and compulsory state religion.

The various barbarian incursions led up to the reign of terror of Attila the Hun (434-453). During this period the Empire suffered a series of military blows and by the time of Attila’s death, Britain had been abandoned (410), the Franks had taken over Gaul, Gothic tribes had settled in Spain and the western half of north Africa – the Empire’s breadbasket – had been seized and settled by the Vandals. Norwich gives a relatively brief account of Attila, which can, however, be supplemented by reference to Christopher Kelly’s recent book.

The next major figure is the Emperor Justinian who ruled from 527 to 565, and launched expeditions to reconquer North Africa, then to seize back Italy, before being distracted by incursions from the newly warlike Persian Empire, as well as reeling from major outbreaks of plague which decimated the population from the 540s onwards. All his clever schemes came to nothing and he left the Eastern Empire bankrupt.

Norwich devotes more space to Justinian than any other emperor (pages 190 to 263) in an account which I found profoundly depressing. Specifically, as regards the career of his top general, Belisarius, who slaved away for the emperor devotedly but was hampered at every turn by the scheming of the Empress Theodora. It is profoundly lowering to see such a talent so hamstrung, and gives a powerful sense of the self-defeating futility of palace intrigues which raged on while the empire was collapsing around them.

But, on a different level, it is also depressing to see in some detail how Justinian’s ‘noble’ campaign to reclaim Italy from the Gothic rulers who had overthrown the last Western emperor in 476 (the so-called Gothic Wars which lasted a generation, from 535 to 554) was also in the end so self-defeating.

Belisarius’s military campaign amounted to besieging most of the major cities and devastating the countryside his troops had to live off; but when he was recalled to Constantinople, management of the country was handed over to a cabal of greedy incompetents who taxed Italy to the hilt, continued plundering all available settlements while turning tail and running every time the Goths threatened to counter-attack.

The upshot was that most Italians came to hate the Greek Byzantine army and its rapacious administrators much more than the Goths, and both were happy when a new tribe, the Lombards, swarmed into the peninsula in the 560s, eliminating both their predecessors and quickly establishing kingdoms throughout Italy.

Heraclius

There is a similar tragic, or just depressing, downward spiral to the reign of Heraclius (610-641). Heraclius was appointed exarch (ruler/manager) of Carthage in the comprehensive reorganisation of the Eastern Empire carried out by the Emperor Maurice (582 to 602). Maurice (a wise and efficient ruler, according to Norwich) was overthrown and executed along with six of his sons in a coup carried out by a general, Phocas. Their heads (and this happens over and over again in this history) were impaled on spikes and put on display in Constantinople.

Phocas was a populist, but when he met resistance he responded with brutality. Under his rule the Danube borders were breached by Avars (yet another barbarian tribe) while the ruler of Persia, who had concluded a truce with Maurice, used Phocas’s rebellion as an opportunity to relaunch the semi-permanent Persian War and seize territory round to Egypt in the south and as far into Asia Minor as Antioch.

It was this growing chaos around the Empire which prompted Heraclius to raise the standard of rebellion against Phocas in Carthage and sail slowly to Constantinople, securing his supply routes and islands along the way. By the time Heraclius arrived at the capital, the army, politicians and religious leaders were all ready to abandon the tyrant. Phocas was dragged before Heraclius and then, rather rashly, insulted him to his face. So Heraclius had Phocas beheaded on the spot, his body was mutilated, paraded through the capital and burned.

After this grim start Heraclius settles down to become a great emperor, reorganising the Empire’s finances and defences, seeking a solution to the endless problem of the monophysite heresy which plagued and divided the Empire, and latterly embarking on a spectacularly successful campaign against the Persians, scoring a series of decisive victories which eventually led to the overthrow of the latter’s great leader, Chosroes II. If Heraclius had died in 628, he would have gone down as one of the great emperors for administrative reforms and military successes.

However, he lived into the first decade of the Rise of Islam. In 622 Mohammed had fled from Mecca to Medina, marking the start of the Muslim era. In 633 Mohammed died and his followers, tightly organised and enthused with fanatical fervour, swept out of Arabia to conquer the Middle East. Part of the reason for their early success was that twenty years of gruelling warfare had shattered the region and exhausted its two great powers, Byzantium and Persia. Into this vacuum swept the Muslims.

Just as importantly, most of the region’s inhabitants were ‘monophysites’. This was the Christian heresy which believed that Jesus Christ had only one ‘nature’, that the godhead and the human being were united. Taken to a logical extreme, this implied that God actually died on the Cross, which is an obvious theological nonsense. This explains why a series of Church Councils declared ‘monophysitism’ to be a heresy, and affirmed the ‘Catholic’ position that Jesus had two distinct ‘natures’, united in one ‘person’ i.e. the human who died but the godhead which remained eternal. But these were subtle differences, difficult for many people to grasp. And it’s a consistent thread of the book that there was a big difference in theology between the Latin West and the Greek East of the Empire.

For the East was a hotbed of theological debate, packed with fiery bishops, monks, preachers and heretics all disputing a wide range of subtle variations of Christian belief, and it took centuries to hammer out an ‘orthodox’ creed, and try to put down the opposing ‘heresies’.

And this is why, historians argue, on the level of personal belief, the Arabs’ extremely simple, practical monotheism (‘There is only one god, Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet’) appealed to much of a population exhausted by centuries of conflict caused by Christian heresies. The Muslims swept north to Damascus and south through Egypt, conquering vast areas which were never to be Christian again.

So Heraclius’s last decade was spent watching everything he had planned and fought for – territory reclaimed from the Persians and Christian unity – destroyed before his very eyes. Prematurely aged and sick, he began to deteriorate mentally, developed a phobia of water and brutally punished those he suspected of conspiring against him (ordering the noses and hands of his nephew Theodosius and his bastard son Athanaric to be cut off) before passing away, a senile and disappointed old man who’d lived on into a new era.

The Middle Ages

Historians like drawing lines and defining eras. This book is no exception and joins the host of others which variously claim that the Middle Ages started with the death of Theodosius the Great (395), with the Sack of Rome (410), with the overthrow of the last Western Emperor (476), with the death of Justinian (565), and so on.

For me, the lesson of this book, as of Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity, is that it is the arrival of the Muslims on the world stage which marks the decisive break. All the other moments are part of a continuum of Roman rule or semi-rule or detached rule or vicarious rule (i.e. allowing barbarians to rule ‘in the name of’ the emperor etc).

But when the Middle East, Egypt and the entire African coast were lost to Islam that was it. A clean and definitive break had been made with the cultural unity of the Mediterranean, which lasts to the present day. Surely it is the advent of Islam which decisively marks the start of the Middle Ages.


Thoughts

1. Great men

This is a beautifully written, very fluent and entertaining account but it is very much a history of emperors. It takes for granted that a history of this subject will be a history of Great Men. That there are other perspectives is demonstrated by Peter Brown’s history of Late Antiquity which features the emperors, of course, but also captures a lot about the changing economic and social scene, or a book like Paul Johnson’s History of Christianity which gives a thrilling sense of the changing political and social background of the period.

2. Murder and massacre

Not just about Great Men but about their Great Quarrels. The history of Byzantium is presented as a succession of power struggles and features an extraordinary amount of double-dealing, treachery and murder. And that’s just in Constantine the Great’s family – e.g. in 326 Constantine had his eldest son, Crispus, and then his own wife, the Empress Faustina, executed, no-one quite knows why, maybe to impress on his underlings that he had no hesitation whatsoever about keeping complete control of the empire in his own hands. (An incident which later Christians, who wanted to declare Constantine a saint, found tricky to explain away.)

The book includes a family tree of the families of Diocletian, Constantine, Valentinian and Theodosius, and I struck out in pencil the name of everyone in the trees who died an unnatural death (murder, execution, assassination, forced ‘suicide’) and it turns out to be by far the majority. In fact I made a pencil mark in the text wherever someone eminent met with an unnatural death, and there’s one on every page.

One of the clichés of later Byzantine history is the idea that it is dense with convoluted palace politics, plots and poisoning – but this book demonstrates very clearly that this culture was simply a continuation (and maybe an intensification) of established Roman imperial practice. When I was young I think I found all the poison and bloodshed thrilling, but now I find it a depressing indictment of human beings’ endless capacity for cruelty and deceit.

3. A clearer understanding of key events

It’s difficult to pick out themes in a 400-page book so dense with historical incident, but I was grateful to it for giving a detailed account of at least two events which, as a result, I properly understood for the first time: Alaric and the Visigoths’ Sack of Rome (410 AD) and the overthrow of the last Roman Emperor in the West, Romulus Augustulus (476 AD) both of them dates which every ‘schoolboy’ is supposed to know by heart, though I wonder how many modern schoolboys have even heard of them.

The sack of Rome

The thing to grasp about the barbarian leaders is that they rarely wanted to seize or overthrow Imperial power: they generally wanted recognition and high rank within the Roman system, and land for their followers to settle on.

Thus the king of the Visigoths, Alaric I, began his career leading his Goths as mercenaries within the Roman army. In 394 Alaric led a Gothic force of 20,000 that helped the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius defeat the Frankish usurper Arbogast at the Battle of Frigidus. But disappointed at getting little recognition or reward, Alaric left the Roman army and marched toward Constantinople. He was confronted by Roman forces and so decoyed southward into Greece, where he sacked Piraeus and destroyed Corinth, Megara, Argos, and Sparta. A bit belatedly, the Eastern emperor Flavius Arcadius appointed Alaric magister militum (master of the soldiers) in Illyricum and Alaric stopped his rampage. Like Attila and Odoacer after him, the ravaging was a form of negotiating strategy.

In 401 Alaric invaded Italy but was defeated by the Roman general (of Vandal descent) Stilicho at Pollentia in 402. A second invasion that same year also ended in defeat at the Battle of Verona, though Alaric forced the Roman Senate to pay a large subsidy to the Visigoths. Stilicho had emerged during this decade as the most powerful man in Italy, which is why it was a fatal mistake when the Western Emperor Flavius Honorius had Stilicho and his family executed, on trumped up charges of making secret deals with Alaric.

Honorius then did something even more stupid and caved in to the pent-up frustration of many Romans with the way their country was being held to ransom by so many barbarian tribes. So Honorius ordered a co-ordinated massacre of tens of thousands of wives and children of the foederati (allied) Goths serving in the Roman military. As a result some 30,000 Gothic soldiers defected to Alaric, who now marched on Rome to avenge their murdered families.

In classic style, Alaric sacked Aquileia and Cremona and ravaged towns along the Adriatic Sea before arriving to lay siege to Rome in September 408. Alaric blocked off all points of entry to the city which quickly began to starve. As Christmas approached the first cases of cannibalism were reported. Finally, the Senate granted Alaric a substantial subsidy of (i.e. bought him off with) 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 of silver, 4,000 silk tunics, 3,000 hides of dyed scarlet and 3,000 pounds of pepper.

Alaric ended the siege of Rome and marched north to Rimini, where he met envoys from Honorius and demanded the Roman territories of Venetia, Dalmatia and Noricum in which to settle, plus subsidies to feed his people in exchange for which Alaric pledged loyalty to the emperor and to defend Italy against any enemy.

These were generous terms but Honorius like an idiot refused them. Alaric reduced his request to just the (ravaged) province of Noricum on the Danube. Once again Honorius refused and so, incensed, Alaric marched his army back to Rome and invested it for a second time, making clear that his aim wasn’t the sack of the city but the removal of Honorius.

The Senate quickly agreed to this demand, opened the gates to Alaric, and he entered Rome in peace. The Senate declared Honorius (who all this time had been holed up in well-defended Ravenna in the north) no longer emperor and replaced him with the Prefect of the city, one Priscus Attalus, who promptly appointed Alaric as his own magister militum, the highest level of command in the Roman army.

The first thing on Alaric’s mind was the fact that North Africa – the breadbasket of Rome – was still controlled by Heraclian. Alaric wanted to despatch an army to Africa to seize the province. But the newly installed emperor, Attalus, insisted on diplomacy and sent an envoy to negotiate with Heraclian. This envoy was, unfortunately, promptly murdered.

Alaric badgered Attalus to let him attack Heraclian, but Attalus refused to give a Goth army (Alaric’s army) permission to invade a Roman province, and the Senate backed him up. At this point the former emperor Honorius, who had been sending panic-stricken letters to Attalus asking to be given official control of Ravenna, received an unexpected boost in the shape of ships from Constantinople carrying some 40,000 troops sent by the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II. Emboldened, Honorius announced his intent of marching against the Visigoths.

Infuriated at being blocked and threatened at every turn, Alaric summoned Attalus to Rimini and ritually stripped him of the imperial diadem and purple cloak. Then he marched on Rome for the third and final time determined to make his supremacy and will absolutely clear. After a brief siege he forced a gate and entered Rome, giving his troops license for three days of looting and pillaging.

Although the Visigoths plundered Rome, they treated its inhabitants humanely and burned only a few buildings. They were –  it is worth emphasising, as were most of the so-called barbarians – actually devout Christians themselves, albeit of a variety – Arianism – which had been declared heretical in the previous century.

(Arius was an Alexandrian priest who lived from around 250 to 336. He took Jesus’s teachings that he was the son of God, literally, asserting that the son of God was created by the Father and was therefore neither ‘coeternal’ nor ‘consubstantial’ with the Father. This makes Jesus a more human figure, and his story more tragic, but fatally undermines the orthodox doctrine of the equality of the three persons of the Trinity. The orthodox view that the three parts of the Trinity are eternally co-valent and consubstantial was hammered out at the Councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451), and hence is sometimes referred to as Nicene or Chalcedonian Christianity. Early missionaries to the barbarian tribes beyond the border happen to have been Arians and so converted the majority of the tribes to this ‘heresy’. When the Arian barbarians overran parts of the Western Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries, they brought their Arian beliefs with them, though they were generally tolerant of the Nicene inhabitants of the lands they conquered. It has been suggested that, for some time – centuries – the Arian heresy helped differentiate between Gothic overlords and Roman inhabitants. Whether this was so or not, the strength of the orthodoxy of the church of Rome and the Eastern Empire eventually overcame Arianism and the last Arian kings in Europe were Grimwald, King of the Lombards 662 to 671, and his young son, Garibald, 671.)

After pillaging Rome, Alaric marched his men south, planning to take ship to Africa and deal once and for all with Heraclian in order to gain control of Italy’s grain supply. At Cosenza he was taken with a fever and was dead in a few days.

So:

a) The sack was the result of a very complicated series of diplomatic and military manoeuvres, involving, by the end, three emperors – Honorius, Theodosius II, Attalus – as well as the military strong-men Stilicho and Heraclian.

b) To a surprising extent the sack was the Romans’ own fault:

  • the stupidity of Honorius in executing the only man who could hold Alaric at bay – Stilicho
  • Honorius’s refusal to grant Alaric’s demands when they were eminently reasonable
  • the refusal of Attalus or the Senate to let Alaric sail off to Africa (which would, at the very least, have got him off Italian soil and bought them time)

c) All of which underscores a remark Norwich makes somewhere in the first half about the quality of the Roman army. The Empire equalled the army: strong army, strong empire. None of the books I’m reading on the subject really tackle this issue head on. Why did the Roman army deteriorate? Why by the 390s and 400s was it incapable of confronting and beating Alaric? The same but worse occurred during the time of Attila the Hun (430s to 450s) when all the Roman army could do was shadow Attila’s rampages. What changed between, say, 200 AD and 400 AD which made the Roman Army so fatefully weak?

(As a footnote, Alaric’s death so soon after sacking Rome became a useful tool to later protectors of the Holy City. Priscus reports that when Pope Leo I rode out to meet Attila the Hun who was rampaging south to take Rome in 452, the superstitious barbarian only had to be told/reminded of the fate of Alaric to decide to call off his assault.)

Alaric and the Visigoths plunder Rome in 410 AD

Alaric and the Visigoths plunder Rome in 410 AD

The overthrow of ‘the last Roman Emperor’ (in the West)

The last generation of emperors in the West make for a sorry story as one barbarian overlord after another sponsored puppet ’emperors’ in what had become the Western Imperial capital, at Ravenna, in north-east Italy.

In 474 the Eastern Emperor Leo I appointed Julius Nepos Western Roman Emperor. This was to replace the ruling emperor Glycerius, who Leo regarded as a usurper. (Julius is called ‘nepos’ (nephew) because he was married to Leo’s wife’s niece.)

When Julius arrived in Italy in June 474, Glycerius promptly surrendered, was spared by Julius and packed off to become bishop of Salona. But Julius only ruled over what was left of the Western Empire (now more or less reduced to mainland Italy) for less than a year. In 475 he appointed magister militum (leader of soldiers) the experienced general, Orestes. (Orestes in fact has a fascinating backstory: having been born and bred in Pannonia, he remained when the territory was ceded to Attila the Hun in the 440s and found himself appointed Attila’s secretary and ambassador.) This turned out to be a mistake, for in August 475 Orestes marched on the Western capital, Ravenna, prompting Julius to flee to Dalmatia (modern Yugoslavia) where he carried on regarding himself as the legal emperor until (typically for the times) he was assassinated in 480.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Orestes didn’t claim the imperial crown but appointed his 12-year-old son Romulus, emperor. Technically this gave him the title Romulus Augustus, which cynics at the time changed to Romulus Augustulus i.e. ‘little Augustus’. The Eastern emperor Zeno, unsurprisingly, refused to recognise Romulus as Western Emperor – although there was little he could do about the situation, since he was himself engaged in a full-scale civil war with his own Eastern rival, Basiliscus.

Romulus himself ‘ruled’ i.e. did what his father told him, for just ten months, for Orestes turned out to be as unlucky / stupid as Julius. The army he had led to Ravenna mostly consisted of barbarian mercenaries. When Orestes refused their demands for up to a third of the land area of Italy to settle in, they simply mutinied against him, appointing the Germanic Odoacer their new king, on August 23, 476.

Odoacer led the barbarian army on a rampage through every town and village in northern Italy, pursuing Orestes to Pavia, where the bishop gave him sanctuary, but he had to flee again when the Germans broke through the city defences and ravaged the church, razing many of the city buildings to the ground.

Orestes rallied the remnants of a Roman army and engaged the barbarians outside Piacenza, where the Romans were slaughtered, and Orestes himself was captured and executed. A few weeks later Ravenna was captured and Romulus Augustus was deposed. Legend has it that Odoacer’s heart was softened when he had the young boy brought before him, so he spared his life and sent him into permanent retirement in the Campania. Nothing more is known of lucky Romulus Augustulus.

More interestingly – and counter-intuitively, but something which these barbarian conquerors repeatedly did – Odoacer was then happy to submit to the authority of the Eastern Emperor Zeno, asking to be granted the official status of patrician of Rome and to rule as administrator of Italy in Zeno’s name. Although we see them, with hindsight, fatally undermining Roman authority, the major players of the time all still saw themselves acting within the Empire and seeking ultimate authority for their rule from it.

(History doesn’t stop. The overthrow of Romulus looks to us like a hugely significant event, but the rulers of the day carried on fighting each other as if nothing had changed. Julius Nepos continued styling himself the Augustus of the West from his stronghold in Dalmatia, and when he was murdered in 480 Odoacer used it as a pretext to invade Dalmatia and punish the murderers (and annex the territory). Odoacer then foolishly decided to ally with the Eastern general, Illus, in the latter’s attempt to overthrow the Eastern Emperor Zeno in 484. Zeno retaliated by appointing the Ostrogoth ruler, Theoderic the Great, who had been menacing Constantinople, King of Italy, thus motivating him to attack Odoacer. Theoderic invaded Italy in 489 and by August 490 had captured almost the entire peninsula, forcing Odoacer to take refuge in Ravenna. The city surrendered on 5 March 493. Theoderic invited Odoacer to a banquet of reconciliation and promptly killed him by, according to our sources, walking up to him at the banquet table, drawing his sword and cleaving his body in two, from collarbone to waist. And thus perished the man who showed mercy to Romulus.)

Conclusion

These two stories (just two from hundreds of similar events) give a good flavour of this long, beautifully written history, which can only be described as ‘entertaining’ if you find the relentless description of high-level power politics, military strategy, court intrigue and endless battles entertaining.

As it happens, I do – but I can also see how the inexorable saga of conspiracy, war and violent death on almost every page could put a lot of people off.

The Biggest Idea

In the 670s a Muslim fleet under the Caliph Muawiya laid siege to Constantinople and tried for five years to break into the city from the sea. They persisted despite repeated Greek counter-attacks which deployed the secret weapon known as Greek fire (a kind of napalm). After five long years of losses, the Caliph admitted defeat and ordered his fleet home (and the fleet was caught in a storm on the way, and further depleted). At the same time his land forces had been harassed by the so-called Mardaites, freebooting Christian marauders who spread south from Syria to wage a relentless guerrilla war against Muslim forces, as far south as Jerusalem. Demoralised by the combination of these setbacks, in 679 the Caliph accepted defeat and made terms with the Emperor Constantine IV, handing back the Aegean islands he had seized and agreeing to pay the emperor an annual tribute.

Thus, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV had halted the Muslim progress into Europe, the first real setback in the hitherto unstoppable spread of Muslim forces. It was a decisive moment, and in reward he received grateful thanks from many former enemies: the Khagan of the Avars, the Slav tribal leaders in the Balkans, the Lombard and Frankish princes of the West.

By holding the line at Constantinople Constantine IV ensured the Muslims would only be able to enter Europe via Spain, forcing them to stretch their lines of communication to breaking point along the whole north coast of Africa, then up across Iberia so that their progress via this route would be halted at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. These far-off and, to most people unknown, events had vast historical significance. As Norwich comments:

Had they captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe – and America – might be Muslim today. (p.325)


Related links

Other early medieval reviews

The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec by Mary Ellen Miller (1996)

Two things about this book:

  1. It is very academic and scholarly. I imagine its main audience is university students. It spends more time explaining the academic debates surrounding dates and discoveries and conflicting interpretations of the archaeological evidence than in presenting a clear narrative.
  2. Which makes you realise that this is a fast-moving field, with new discoveries being made all the time, and that these discoveries sometimes significantly alter our understanding of timeframes and influences. I picked up the second (1996) edition in a charity shop, but realise now I should have bought the fifth edition, from 2012, because knowledge about the subject is changing all the time.

Chronology

The book opens with a daunting chronological table which has six columns, one each for Central Mexico, Oaxaca, Gulf Coast, Maya Highlands, and Lowland Maya – and 10 rows indicating time periods from 1,500 BC onwards.

Chronology of Mesoamerica by Mary Ellen Miller

Chronology of Mesoamerica by Mary Ellen Miller

Apparently, early archaeologists named artefacts from around 600 AD ‘classic’ and the name, or periodisation, stuck, despite not really fitting with later discoveries, so that successive archaeologists and historians have had to elaborate the schema, to create periods named ‘Proto Classic’, and then, going back before that, ‘Formative’ – which itself then turned out to need to be broken down into Early, Middle and Late Formative. At the other end of the scale they suggested a ‘Post-classic phase’, but over time this also had to be fine-tuned to include Early Postclassic and Late Postclassic.

I found it a big challenge to remember all the dates. Roughly speaking 600 AD seems to be the height of Classic and the period 300-900 includes Early, Mid and Late Classic.

Geography

When you look at a map of all the Americas, Central America quite obviously links the United States and South America. But it’s not quite the simple north-south corridor you casually think of. When you really come to consider the area in detail you realise it is more of a horseshoe shape, with the Yucatan peninsula forming the second upturn of the shoe. So the spread of influences, architecture, language and other artefacts wasn’t north to south but more along a west-east axis.

Map of Mesoamerica

Map of Mesoamerica

The book takes you slowly and carefully through the art and archaeology of Mesoamerica in nine chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. The Olmecs
  3. The Late Formative
  4. Teotihuacan
  5. Classic Monte Alban, Veracruz and Cotzumalhuapa
  6. The Early Classic Maya
  7. The Late Classic Maya
  8. Mesoamerica after the fall of the Classic cities
  9. The Aztecs

On the face of it the book is a history of the peoples and cultures which inhabited the region of central Mexico stretching across to the Yucatan Peninsula and down into modern-day Guatemala and Belize, with most of the focus on the architecture, sculpture, friezes, pottery and (rare) painting which they produced…

But in fact, alongside what you could call the main historical narrative, runs the story of the discoveries  upon which all our knowledge is based, a sequence of archaeological finds and decodings of lost languages which have a disconcerting tendency to overthrow and revolutionise previous thinking on lots of key areas.

The Olmec people carved massive stone heads

The Olmec people, the first really definable culture in Mesoamerica, carved massive stone heads

What I learned

There’s no point trying to recap the massive amount of information in the book. The key points I learned are:

Mesoamerica refers to the diverse civilizations that shared similar cultural characteristics in the region comprising the modern-day countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. The area was in continual occupation from 1500 BC to 1519 AD when the conquistadors arrived, but with a continual flux of peoples, tribes or nations in each region, marked by the rise and fall of cities and entire cultures.

The geography of Mesoamerica is surprisingly diverse, encompassing humid tropical areas, dry deserts, high mountainous terrain and low coastal plains.

Many cultural traits were present in the earliest, archaic peoples, then continued right through all successive cultures, including:

  • a bewildering pantheon of deities, often with multiple identities – two which appear in almost every culture are the storm/rain god and a feathered serpent deity; the Mexica called the rain god Tlaloc, and the feathered serpent deity Quetzalcoatl
  • similar architectural features, especially the importance of stepped pyramids, often with nine levels
  • a ballgame which had special ‘courts’ built for it in all the major cities of all the different cultures
  • a 260-day calendar
  • clothes which were elaborate and featured huge head-dresses often of feathers, alongside body painting

The key peoples or cultures are the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, Toltec, Mixtec, and Mexica (or Aztec).

But there is still a lot which is unknown. For example, Miler devotes a chapter to the spectacular remains at the city of Teotihuacan (see below) but explains that we don’t know, to this day, the name of the people who built it!

Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan

The Aztecs didn’t call themselves Aztecs, they called themselves Mexica. They spoke a language called Nahuatl, which is still spoken to this day by some Indian groups. There were as many as 125 languages spoken in this region over this period. Some cultures developed rebus writing, i.e. writing which used images of the thing described rather than collections of letters. These images went on to have multiple meanings, and are also called pictographic, ideographic, or picture writing.

The ballgame

Peoples across Mesoamerica, beginning with the Olmecs, played a ritual sport known as the ballgame. Ballcourts were often located in a city’s sacred precinct, emphasizing the importance of the game. Solid rubber balls were passed between players with the goal of hitting them through markers.

But it wasn’t what we think of as a sport. The game had multiple meanings, including powerful religious and cult purposes. It appears, from a number of carved stone reliefs, that war captives were somehow made to play the game before being ritually beheaded or tortured.

Carved panel, South Ballcourt, El Tajin. A loser at the ballgame is being sacrificed by two victors while a third man looks on. A death god descends from the skyband above to accept the offering. Late Classic.

Carved panel, South Ballcourt, El Tajin. A loser at the ballgame is being sacrificed by two victors (at bottom right) while a third man looks on (far right). A death god descends from the skyband above to accept the offering. Late Classic.

Two calendars

The calendar and numbering systems were complex and elaborate, although based around astronomical events and periods. There’s much evidence that key buildings, including many pyramids, were built in line with astronomical events such as equinoxes. They developed two parallel calendars: a 260-day one and a 365-day one. The 260-day calendar was a ritual calendar, with 20 months of 13 days. It is first recorded in the sixth century BC, and is still used in some parts of Guatemala today for ritual divining.

Based on the sun, the 365-day calendar had 18 months of 20 days, with five nameless days at the end. It was the count of time used for agriculture. Every 52 years the two calendars completed a full cycle, and during this time special rituals commemorated the cycle.

Blood sacrifice

Blood seems to have played a central role in numerous cultures and cities. We know that the Aztecs prized prisoners taken during battle because they could tear out their beating hearts from their bodies to sacrifice to the gods. But there are also plentiful wall art, carvings and frescos showing people who aren’t captives drawing their own blood using a panoply of utensils: sometimes, apparently, in order to have religious visions.

Another theme is piercing the tongue, or even penis, with a needle, thread or rope, apparently for cult or religious reasons.

A carved lintel from a building at Yaxchilan depicts a bloodletting ritual. The king of Yaxchilan, Shield Jaguar II, is holding a flaming torch over his wife, Lady K'ab'al Xook, who is pulling a thorny rope through her tongue. Scrolls of blood can be seen around her mouth.

A carved lintel from a building at Yaxchilan depicts a bloodletting ritual. The king of Yaxchilan, Shield Jaguar II, is holding a flaming torch over his wife, Lady K’ab’al Xook, who is pulling a thorny rope through her tongue. Scrolls of blood can be seen around her mouth. (British Museum)

Visual complexity

But the single biggest thing I took from the book is the extraordinary visual complexity of many of the images from these varied cultures.

The big stone Olmec heads, and many examples of pottery, are simple and easy enough to grasp visually. But there are also thousands of frieze carvings, free-standing stelae, even a few painted frescos have survived, and just a handful of manuscripts written in pictogram style – and almost all of these display a bewildering visual complexity. Clutter. Their images are immensely busy.

This is a drawing of the carved decoration found on a stela (i.e. an upright freestanding carved stone) at the city of Seibal.

Drawing of Seibal stela 10

Drawing of Seibal stela 10

Most of the friezes and stela and many of the manuscripts show a similar concern to cover every inch of the space with very characteristic style that’s hard to put into words, apart from clutter. The figures are so highly embellished and the space so packed with ornate curvilinear decorations (as well as rows of rectangular glyphs, a form of pictogram) that I had to read Miller’s descriptions of what was going on quite a few times and work really hard to decipher the imagery.

In this and scores of other examples, it takes quite a bit of referring back and forth between text and illustration to decipher what Miller is describing. For example I would only know that a death god is descending in the Ball park frieze [above] because Miller tells me so.

In many of these Mesoamerican carvings, it is impossible to distinguish human figures from the jungles of intertwining decoration which obscure them. 

So I was struck that, for most of the peoples of the region, their public art was so complex and difficult to read.

By contrast, pottery by its nature generally has to be simpler, and I found myself very drawn to the monumental quality of early Olmec pottery.

Olmec fish vessel (12th–9th century BCE)

Olmec fish vessel (12th–9th century BC)

Many fully carved sculptures from later eras manage to combine the decorative complexity of the friezes with a stunningly powerful, monumental presence.

There is a class of objects known as hachas, named after the Spanish term for ‘axe’. Hachas are representations of gear worn in the ballgame and are a distinctive form associated with art from the Classic Veracruz culture, which flourished along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico between 300 and 900 AD.

A Hacha in the Classic Veracruz style. It would have had inlays of precious materials, such as jade, turquoise, obsidian or shell. Middle to Late Classic (500-900 AD)

A Hacha in the Classic Veracruz style. It would have had inlays of precious materials, such as jade, turquoise, obsidian or shell. Middle to Late Classic (500-900 AD)

In three-dimensional sculpture the addiction of interlocking curlicues works, but in almost flat carvings or reliefs it can be impenetrable.

Can you make out a human figure in the complex concatenation of interlocking shapes on this stela? (Clue: His right hand is gripping a circle about two-thirds up on the far left of the stone. Even with clues, it’s not easy, is it?)

Stela 31 from Tikal depicting the ruler Stormy Sky, Mayan, AD 445

Stela 31 from Tikal depicting the ruler Stormy Sky, Mayan, AD 445

Places

  • Bonampak – Late Classic period (AD 580 to 800) Maya archaeological site with Mayan murals
  • Cacaxtla – small city of the Olmeca-Xicalanca people 650-900 AD, colourful murals
  • Cerros – small Eastern Lowland Maya archaeological site in northern Belize, Late Preclassic to Postclassic period
  • Cópan – capital city of a major Classic period Mayan kingdom from 5th to 9th centuries AD
  • Chichen Itzá – city of the Toltecs tenth century, site of the biggest ball park in Mesoamerica
  • Cotzumalhuapa – Late Classic major city that extended more than 10 square kilometres which produced hundreds of sculptures in a notably realistic style
  • *El Tajín – one of the largest and most important cities of the Classic era of Mesoamerica, part of the Classic Veracruz culture, flourished 600 to 1200 CE. World Heritage site.
  • Iximché – capital of the Late Postclassic Kaqchikel Maya kingdom from 1470 until its abandonment in 1524, located in present-day Guatemala
  • Izapa – large archaeological site in the Mexican state of Chiapas, occupied from 1500 BCE to 1200 AD
  • Kaminaljuyú – big Mayan site now mostly buried under modern Guatemala City
  • Mitla – the most important site of the Zapotec culture, reaching apex 750-1500 AD
  • *Monte Alban – one of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica, the pre-eminent Zapotec socio-political and economic centre for a thousand years, 250 BC – . Founded toward the end of the Middle Formative period at around 500 BC to Late Classic (ca. AD 500-750)
  • Oxtotitlan – a rock shelter housing rock paintings, the ‘earliest sophisticated painted art known in Mesoamerica’
  • *Palenque – Maya city state in southern Mexico, date from c. 226 BC to c. AD 799, contains some of the finest Mayan architecture, sculpture, roof comb and bas-relief carvings
  • Piedras Negras – largest of the Usumacinta ancient Maya urban centres, known for its large sculptural output
  • Seibal – Classic Period archaeological site in Guatemala, fl., 400 BC – 200 AD
  • Tenochtitlan – capital city of the Aztecs, founded 1325, destroyed by the conquistadors 1520, now buried beneath Mexico City
  • *Teotihuacan – vast city site in the Valley of Mexico 25 miles north-east of Mexico City, at its height 0-500 AD, the largest city in Mesoamerica population 125,000. A World Heritage Site, and the most visited archaeological site in Mexico.
  • Tikal – one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centres of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization, located in northern Guatemala. World Heritage Site.
  • Tlatilco – one of the first chiefdom centres to arise in the Valley of Mexico during the Middle Pre-Classic period, 1200 BCE and 200 BCE, gives its name to distinctive ‘Tlatilco culture’.
  • Tula – capital of the Toltec Empire between the fall of Teotihuacan and the rise of Tenochtitlan. Though conquered in 1150, Tula had significant influence on the Aztec Empire. Associated with the cult of the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl.
  • Tulum – Mayan walled city built on tall cliffs along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya, at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries.
  • Uaxactún – an ancient sacred place of the Maya civilization, flourished up till its sack in 378 AD
  • *Uxmal – ne of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture, founded 500 AD, capital of a Late Classic Maya state around 850-925, taken over by Toltecs around 1000 AD. World Heritage Site.
  • Yaxchilán – Mayan city, important throughout the Classic era, known for its well-preserved sculptured stone lintels and stelae bearing hieroglyphic texts describing the dynastic history of the city.

Another map, with pictures

Map of Mesoamerica showing the most important cities and historical sites. Red shading shows area of Aztec influence, green shading for the Maya region

Map of Mesoamerica showing the most important cities and historical sites. Red shading shows the area of Aztec influence, green shading for the Maya region

PBS Documentary

The sense of a double narrative – the way we not only learn the history of the Mesoamericans, but also the history of how we found out about the Mesoamericans – is well captured in this American documentary.


Related links

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 (2017)

The Great Man theory…

Catherine Merridale’s book Lenin on the Train describes the journey by sealed train which Lenin and 30 or so of his Bolshevik supporters made across Germany, by boat across the Baltic to Sweden, across the border into Finland and then south to St Petersburg, in April 1917.

The whole thing was laid on and funded by the German High Command in the hope that returning this noted troublemaker to the febrile political atmosphere of wartime Russia, only a few weeks after the Tsar had been toppled in the February revolution, might lead to even worse political disarray, and that this might cause Russia to abandon the war altogether, thus allowing Germany to concentrate her forces in the West.

In the chapter titled ‘Gold’ Merridale speculates on just how extensive German support for the Bolsheviks in fact was. Was laying the train, passports, visas, food and so on just the beginning? Did the Germans also siphon money to the Bolsheviks to fund their party newspaper, Pravda, and their campaigning leaflets, to pay for meetings and venues?

The evidence is murky, but underlying the whole enquiry is a variation on the Great Man theory of history, namely: if only someone had stopped Lenin getting to Russia, if only he had been arrested at the Finland border (which, apparently, he nearly was), or simply executed by British Intelligence (who had more than one opportunity to do so) – then maybe the whole Russian Revolution, with the immense worlds of suffering it produced, would never have happened. Maybe it all came down to one man or, at the least, to one small political party – the Bolsheviks.

… versus the hunger for change

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 is the massive coffee table book published to accompany last year’s enormous Royal Academy exhibition about the radical, world-changing new art and design which was inspired by the Russian Revolution.

I spent an afternoon flicking through it (and dipping into the 16 intense and detailed essays which address every genre and type of art influenced by the Revolution). And it dawned on me that the extraordinary explosion of high and popular art, all across the nation, art for factories and workshops and steelyards and barracks, radical innovations in film and design and posters and graphics – mitigates against the Great Man theory. One man didn’t do all this.

At the very least the sheer scale and scope and dynamism of the new movements, which lasted for at least a decade (until Stalin suppressed them in favour of his bland, conventional ‘Socialist Realism’ in the early 1930s) show the enormous hunger for change and for radical, world-changing experimentation, among all the artists, poets, authors, film-makers, craftsmen and designers of 1910s Russia.

Maybe, possibly, the Bolsheviks might not have seized power in October 1917. But the existing unstable dual government couldn’t have continued – somebody would have seized power.

The fact that these outpourings of propaganda films and wallpaper and textiles and ceramics and architecture and completely new styles of graphics and design were welcomed, watched, read and distributed so widely, suggest the Russia as a whole was a society straining at the leash for an incredibly total transformation.

Maybe Lenin could have been stopped and the Bolsheviks banned. But the evidence of this exhibition and book suggest that whoever took power in Russia in late 1917 would still have been compelled to make wide-ranging and sweeping changes, which would have led to much the same end – a dictator force-marching Russia through agricultural and industrial modernisation, in its bid to catch up with America and Germany.

Given Russia’s long history of secret police and prison camps, any faction which had come to power – on the right or left – would probably have deployed them just as ruthlessly as the Bolsheviks.

In other words – speculation about how much the German High Command funded the Bolsheviks, with its corollary, would the Bolsheviks have come to power without the aid of the German High Command – make for interesting reading, and lead to high-level, alternative history-style speculation – but I don’t think it would have changed the fact that Russia would have undergone some kind of transformative social revolution.


Completely new visual styles

Here is just a tiny sample of the art which featured in the exhibition and which is included in the book. I could add a paragraph or so about each of them, but all of them can be looked up on google. I just want to convey the variety and the energy of the art of the period.

Constructivist art

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919) by El Lissitzky

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge by El Lissitzky (1919)

Figurative art

After the battle by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1923)

After the battle by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1923)

Architecture

Model of Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International, Moscow, 1920

Model of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, Moscow, 1920

Ceramics

Russian revolutionary plate (1921)

Russian revolutionary plate (1921)

Design

Propaganda poster by Alexander Rodchenko

Propaganda poster by Alexander Rodchenko

Fabrics

Red spinner by Andrey Golubev (1930)

Red spinner by Andrey Golubev (1930)

Film

Still from Battleship Potemkin, the famous 1925 avant-garde film directed by Eisenstein

Still from Battleship Potemkin, the 1925 avant-garde film directed by Eisenstein

Avante-garde photography

Osip Bril by Alexander Rodchenko (1924)

Osip Bril by Alexander Rodchenko (1924)

Socialist realist photography

A Komsomol at the wheel (1929) by Arkady Shaikhet

A Komsomol at the wheel (1929) by Arkady Shaikhet

Posters

Poster for Man with a movie camera (1929)

Poster for Man with a movie camera (1929)

Even if Lenin had never lived, and the Bolshevik party never existed, the complete and utter collapse of Russian society, with all its traditions, its religion, its class system, king and aristocracy, its system of land ownership and industrial production, would have triggered an immense social and cultural transformation, regardless.

Artists reflecting these changes would have fallen in line with the discoveries of the other European avant-gardes, in France and especially Germany,  themselves responding to the transforming impact of the new technologies of the day which were driving all Western societies – mass production of ceramics and fabrics, the new popularity of film and radio, the excitement of cars and fast trains – and everywhere the transforming impact of electricity with its ability to power lights in streets and public buildings, as well as driving a whole new world of consumer goods.

My argument is that Russia had reached the edge of collapse, and that seismic change would have happened no matter what the precise alignment of political parties in Russia. Or who the German High Command had funded.


Related links

Reviews of books about communism and the Cold War

Reviews of other Russian art exhibitions

The Return of the Past: Postmodernism in British Architecture @ Sir John Soane’s Museum

In the two-room exhibition space at Sir John Soane’s Museum is an interesting show about five key British architects who were central in the rise of the architectural style known as Postmodernism. This review consists of:

  1. An introduction to Sir John Soane’s Museum
  2. A brief explanation of Modernism and Postmodernism
  3. Notes on the exhibition

1. Sir John Soane’s Museum

Sir John Soane’s Museum is a little-known treasure trove of art, architecture and antiquities, in central London.

Just a few minutes’ walk from hectic Holborn tube station, down narrow back alleys, you arrive at big, leafy Lincoln’s Inn Fields and here, on the north side of the square, in the centre of a terrace of sober Georgian houses, is Sir John Soane’s Museum, with its surprisingly grand neo-classical facade.

Facade of Sir John Soane's Museum. Photo by John Bridges

Facade of Sir John Soane’s Museum. Photo by John Bridges

This unusual facade is because Soane was himself an architect in the neo-classical style, and a great collector of art and antiquaries. To quote from Wikipedia:

Soane (1753-1837) made his living as an architect in the neo-classical style and rose to the top of his profession, becoming professor of architecture at the Royal Academy. His best-known work was the Bank of England (his work there is largely destroyed), a building which had a widespread effect on commercial architecture. He also designed the Dulwich Picture Gallery whose top-lit galleries were a major influence on subsequent art galleries and museums.

At one point Soane owned three adjoining houses in the square, numbers 12, 13 and 14. He spent much time remodelling the facade of number 13 (now the museum), experimenting with internal design and decoration in all three properties, and also experimenting with ways to hang and display his ever-growing collection of paintings, books and antiquities.

The museum was created by an 1833 Act of Parliament which gifted Soane’s huge collections to the nation on the condition that they be displayed as they were during his lifetime, in the old-fashioned ‘cluttered’ style, with rows of paintings one above the other, and statuary and antiquities crammed higgledy-piggledy together.

In the past ten years the Soane Museum has undergone extensive renovation. But although the trustees have bought the house next door (number 14) and carried out extensive work to create a new Research Library, a room devoted to Soane’s huge collection of drawings (9,000) by the architect Robert Adam, an airy shop, offices and a temporary exhibition space – it is still the clutteredness of the hang which really makes an impression – small, tall, top-lit rooms and staircases absolutely crammed with busts, friezes, sculptures, antiquities and paintings all packed cheek by jowl.

Interior of Sir John Soane's Museum

The interior of Sir John Soane’s Museum

It’s this combination of intense clutteredness with the open and airy nature of some of the upstairs drawing rooms – and, of course, the value and interest of many of the objects, drawings and paintings – which gives Sir John Soane’s Museum its unique and magical atmosphere.

2. Modernism and Postodernism

Modernism

To understand Postmodernism, it helps to understand the modernism it was reacting against.

Modernism in literature, art and architecture from, say, the First World War through to some time in the 1970s, took it as axiomatic that there was one and just One, central avant-garde Movement and, if you were serious, you had to belong to It.

This avant-garde – in architecture in particular – was devoted to getting rid of all ornaments, all decorative features – which were condemned as bourgeois luxuries, fripperies, indulgences – and instead designing stark, angular buildings, which emphasised their harsh functionality.

The Swiss-French architect, designer, painter, urban planner and writer Le Corbusier was the lead figure in the 1920s and 30s of the idea that a building is no more than ‘a machine for living in’.

Villa Savoye, Poissy, France (1931) designed by Le Corbusier

Villa Savoye, Poissy, France (1931) designed by Le Corbusier

Architects from the German Bauhaus pioneered designs which reduced buildings to the simplest possible shapes, cubes, square windows. Most were left wing if not active communists and saw themselves as building the architecture of a future society in which everyone was equal and lived in well-designed, functional units which could be mass produced and easily assembled.

After the Second World War the style became international. Not only decoration of any type, but even decorative materials were rejected in the name of the most simple, ‘honest’ building methods of the day.

When the Bauhaus was closed by the Nazis in 1933, a number of its artists and architects fled abroad. The most famous exile was the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who became head of an architecture school in Chicago. Mies is largely credited with bringing to perfection the principles of Le Corbusier and Bauhaus in a series of soaring steel and glass skyscrapers in ‘the Windy City’.

860–880 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois by Mies van der Rohe

860–880 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois by Mies van der Rohe

Completely smooth facades made of industrial steel and plate glass are combined with often light and airy atriums or plazas to give a sense of drama, combining the thrusting power of the building with sometimes surprisingly graceful spaces.

He strove toward an architecture with a minimal framework of structural order balanced against the implied freedom of unobstructed free-flowing open space. He called his buildings ‘skin and bones’ architecture. (Wikipedia)

An alternative variant of this Modernist style was the unrestrained use of concrete in low-rise buildings. During the 1960s this style became known as Brutalism, possibly a reference to Le Corbusier’s use of the French term béton brut, which means ‘raw concrete’ in French, but the term took off because it accurately described the unflinching, uncompromising, in-your-face look and feel of buildings which were made from slabs of raw concrete.

Prime examples are the Hayward Gallery or the Barbican Centre in London. Indeed, the newly-reopened Hayward Gallery shop stocks a surprising number of books celebrating Brutalism around the world. There’s even a book titled Brutal London with maps so you can go on a pilgrimage around the brutalist buildings of London. Harsh, slabby, heavy, undecorated.

The Barbican Centre, London

The Barbican Centre, London

It’s difficult to recapture at this distance in time, but Modernism was strongly flavoured by left-wing politics, with the notion that unnecessary ‘decoration’ was a sign of bourgeois, wealthy elitism, and that all right-minded architects were working for a better world, a new socialist, communist, egalitarian world, whose buildings must be characterised by clarity and simplicity and ‘honesty’ to their materials.

Instead of bourgeois mystification, statues of lions or generals, ornate facades and so on, Modernist buildings should emphasise their functionality – the vast frontages of identical windows in Mies skyscrapers, or the open-to-the-elements staircases, walkways and balconies in Brutalist buildings.

Result: Countless 1960s high-rise blocks of flats. New towns. Ring roads. Shopping centres. Square, featureless, concrete slabs.

Postmodernism

But as is the way with all fashions, people – that is the architects themselves – eventually got fed up with all this plainness, brutality and po-faced, anti-bourgeois rhetoric.

Sometime in the mid-1970s, the Modernist mindset began to crumble. New architects questioned the need for everything to be grey and joyless, and also the need for there to be only One Dominating Aesthetic, approved by a jury of like-minded straightlaced colleagues.

Why shouldn’t buildings have decorative features? Why did they all have to be made of slate-grey concrete? And why must there only be One Style? Given the possibilities of modern engineering and the wealth of new materials – why not hundreds of styles – why not a different style for every building?

Postmodernist architecture started in America and is often linked with the name of architect Robert Venturi who published a deliberately controversial book Learning from Las Vegas in 1972, which suggested that architects could learn something from the tacky, commercial shops, drive-ins, Dunkin’ Donuts and MacDonalds buildings, the big signs and flashing neon, along the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

Venturi and others began building deliberately garish, playful new buildings in a range of materials.

In Britain, in 1977 critic and architect Charles Jencks wrote The Language of Postmodern Architecture, a book which brought together examples of a wide range of fanciful and colourful buildings being designed by American architects. The book popularised the term ‘Postmodernism’ to a wider audience, and ultimately led to it spreading out to other disciplines in the humanities.

So postmodernism was a conscious revolt against the Modernist architectural orthodoxy which many felt had become stifling and dull. The new young architects thought that new buildings:

  • should reintroduce historical references and quotes from other periods
  • should reference and echo their surroundings, instead of being concrete boxes plonked down willy-nilly
  • should use a variety of materials instead of just concrete (Brutalism) or steel and glass (Internationalism)
  • should use colours – shock horror – yes the whole rainbow of colours, not just slate grey
  • should be funny, witty, ironic and provocative

Suddenly there was no longer One Dominant Orthodox Movement, but the potential for everyone to break free and do their own things.

3. Five postmodernist British architects

This exhibition brings together a range of drawings, sketches, plans, designs, models and images, as well as full-scale replicas, of iconic works by five of the British architects most associated with Postmodernist architecture. The drawings and models are displayed in large wall cabinets and in table-based display cases.

Installation view of Return of the Past. Photo by Gareth Gardner

Installation view of Return of the Past. Photo by Gareth Gardner

The five architects are:

  • Terry Farrell
  • John Outram
  • Jeremy Dixon
  • James Stirling
  • CZWG

Terry Farrell (b.1938)

Farrell is sometimes taken as the pioneer of the new look in Britain. The wall labels explain that postmodernism was, among other things, an end of the utopian, left-wing beliefs of Modernism. Instead of trying to bring about a brave new egalitarian world through buildings, Farrell was one of a number of architects who looked back beyond the concrete wastelands of Modernism, with a view to reconnecting to older styles and, well, having fun.

Why not reference the old architectural motifs of classicism and so on, but done in a new way, with a 1980s aesthetic, the age of shoulder pads and big hairdos, with bright colours and ornamentation?

One of the earliest of the new wave buildings was the TVam headquarters, built next to Camden Lock. It includes unnecessarily bright colours, references a range of older elements, and emphasises its frivolous decorative features. Why not?

TV-am building, Camden (1981–82) by Terry Farrell

TV-am building, Camden (1981–82) by Terry Farrell

In terms of cultural references, there were elements of an Egyptian ziggurat (look at the skyline at the back of this photo) and a Japanese tea garden tucked away at the back. The front of the building sported a modernist metal variation on a traditional archway, complete with massive keystone – but made not of stone but of brightly coloured tubular piping. The whole facade curves gently following the curve of the road it stands on, and is end-stopped by huge cutouts of the letters T V a m. And all done in bright brash colours, unafraid of the grey Style Police.

Traditional Modernists hated it and really hated the set of 11 fibre glass rooftop eggcups dotted along the top of the building. Breakfast TV – hard-boiled eggs – geddit? One of them is in the exhibition!

Critics thought it was all tacky, vulgar, superficial and – worst epithet of all – bourgeois!

One of the eggcups from the TV am building by Terry Farrell, photo by the author

One of the fibreglass eggcups from the TV am building by Terry Farrell, photo by the author

Farrell went on to design what is now one of London’s iconic buildings, the new SIS or MI6 building at Vauxhall on the south bank of the River Thames.

Initially it was just going to be another speculative block of offices, it was only some way into the process that he learned the government was interested in buying it. The exhibition includes a fascinating series of preparatory sketches and drawings. Farrell starts from the premise that a number of other London riverfront buildings make big, grand stylistic statements (for example, Somerset House) and then the drawings show him playing with different combinations of cubes and bulges and curved sections, working towards the stepped faced we see today. It’s really interesting to see architectural ‘creativity’ at work.

SIS Building, London by Terry Farrell, completed 1994. Photo by Nigel Young

SIS Building, London by Terry Farrell, completed 1994. Photo by Nigel Young

The exhibition includes models of the building which help you examine the ziggurat-style, stepped detail of the finished building close up, along with one case devoted to the Dr Who, Tardis-style blue entrance doors on the side of the building. The closer you look, the weirder it all gets.

Display case showing models of side entrances into the SIS building by Terry Farrell. Photo by Gareth Gardner

Display case showing models of side entrances into the SIS building by Terry Farrell. Photo by Gareth Gardner

John Outram (b.1934)

Outram emerges as the philosopher and visionary of the group. He built the New House, Wadhurst Park (pictured in the show) but it is the models and big plans of some of his unbuilt projects which really dominate. Here is a large colour drawing for a building planned for 200 Victoria Street in London.

Project for 200 Victoria Street for Rosehaugh- Stanhope Developers (1988-90) Image credit: John Outram

Project for 200 Victoria Street for Rosehaugh- Stanhope Developers (1988-90) Image credit: John Outram

Mad, isn’t it? A long, long way from concrete slabs, in fact it’s difficult to know where to begin in describing the extravagant use of colour and decoration. Most outrageous are the coloured statues of mermaids on the roof, and what appears to be a windmill design off to the top right. The surface seems to be as encrusted with coloured tiling and decorations as an Anglo-Catholic Victorian Church.

And I was tickled to learn that Outram claimed to have invented an entirely new ‘order’ of column, the Robot Order. Anyone interested in columns knows that the ancient Greeks pioneered three ‘orders’ of column – the plain Dorian, the Ionian with a scroll at the top, and the Corinthian which has a capital covered in carved acanthus leaves – which were copied all across Europe from the Renaissance up to the present day.

In his plan you can see that Outram’s ‘robot order’ is characterised by its squat massiveness (the columns actually contain all the building’s services), but most of all by the way that each column is topped off by a massive pair of turbines, spoofing the Doric order. A good example of the jokey, ha-ha, ironic, insider wittiness which Postmodernist architects now felt free to display in their buildings.

Jeremy Dixon (b.1939)

Dixon is represented by the redevelopment of the Royal Opera House and Covent Garden, which took from 1989 to 2000. There are a number of plans plus two wooden models of the piazza and one of the Opera House itself, with one wall pulled away to give a cutaway, inside view.

Reading about the evolution of Covent Garden the scheme reminds you of probably the most distinguishing feature of architecture as an ‘art’, which is how mightily collaborative it is, and how very restricted by site, location and environment.

I can paint a painting, write a sonnet, take a photograph more or less anywhere. But most architects are hemmed in a) by the space where the building is to go b) by an extraordinarily complicated web of planning regulations and restrictions. And all of that before c) you get to the self-imposed limitations of fashion, what’s in, what’s new etc.

A lot of people stuck their oar into the Covent Garden redevelopment, from the City of Westminster, through the GLC and the government. Only a decade earlier there had been moves to demolish the entire square and build some nice brutalist flats over it. By the time Dixon became involved in the 1980s it was clear that the existing structures were going to be preserved, but how should they be fronted, completed and styled?

Dixon decided the facades would be allowed to change to reflect their immediate surroundings. Thus a new arcade was created at the north-east of the piazza – where it abuts the Opera House – in order to echo, but not copy, the central arcade designed by Inigo Jones back in the 1630s.

Modern but… echoing the old. Certainly not outfacing it with a vast steel skyscraper nor shaming it with Barbican-style bunkers.

Painting of the Royal Opera House project in Covent Garden by Jeremy Dixon and BDP (1986) Painting by Carl Laubin

Painting of the Royal Opera House project in Covent Garden by Jeremy Dixon and BDP (1986) Painting by Carl Laubin

James Stirling (1926-1992)

A similar problem confronted James Stirling when he was commissioned to design a building for 1 Poultry, opposite the Bank of England. Six huge plans are on display here for the first time (on the far wall in this photo), showing how Stirling sought to ‘relate’ his design to nearby buildings designed by Edward Lutyens and Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Installation view showing the large case of drawings for 1 Poultry, on the wall, and models of the TVam frontage and the SIS building by Terry Farrell on the table

Installation view showing the large case of drawings for 1 Poultry, on the wall, and models of the TVam frontage and the SIS building by Terry Farrell on the table. Photo by Gareth Gardner

CZWG

The firm CZWG is named after four students who studied architecture together in the 1960s – Nicholas Campbell, Rex Wilkinson, Roger Zogolovitch and Piers Gough. Next to Farrell, these guys seem to have come up with the most playful designs.

CZWG Architects, China Wharf, London (1988) Photo by John and Jo Peck

CZWG Architects, China Wharf, London (1988) Photo by John and Jo Peck

The display case devoted to this building, at China Wharf, contains old photos showing the state of the often derelict Victorian warehouses surrounding the site, and makes the case that the structure ‘echoes and reflects’ its surroundings. Maybe. But, the casual viewer might point out, it also has a dirty great big red concrete stuck onto the front.

The wall label says:

The orange concrete facade echoes adjacent warehouse frontages, whilst making reference to Baroque and Art Nouveau design – all to create a new architectural identity for Docklands.

My Dad told me never to trust anyone who says ‘whilst’.

Another CZWG building facing on the Thames is Cascades. This building had a display case devoted to it which was arguably the most interesting in the exhibition because, alongside contemporary photos and ephemera (for example, an invitation to the opening party), were extracts from magazines and newspapers which were virulently critical of this building and of the Postmodern trend it represented.

Cascades, London (1988) by CZWG Architects. Photo by John and Jo Peck

Cascades, London (1988) by CZWG Architects. Photo by John and Jo Peck

Cascades was one of the first new-look builds in Canary Wharf, a twenty-story tower which, to quote the wall label:

emerges at its base through references to Victorian warehouses and the ocean liner aesthetic, before reaching a summit that would not appear out of place in Hong Kong… The sloping side gives the building a dynamic shape absent from a more conventional tower, while allowing the penthouse apartments along that side to have south-facing balconies open to the sky…. Cascades showed how high-rise living could be popular and glamorous.

With its sloping side, its tonal variation from dark to light brown, with its semi-circular bulges dotted along the facade, the many round ‘porthole’ windows and the three white ocean liner style piped vents, it couldn’t be further from the grey concrete brutalism of a 1970s tower block.

What’s fascinating is the highly critical article shown alongside the plans, written by architect Stephen Gardiner (1924-2007). Gardiner warms up by making general criticisms of Postmodern architecture, raging against its ‘jazzy vulgarity’, the way it screams out like a TV commercial, is full of cheap dodges and flashy effects, is ‘B-movie architecture’. Then he lets fly at Cascades in particular, finding it:

a grotesque and shapeless 20-story tower block on the Isle of Dogs… a horrifying result of the deregulation of aesthetic controls… an example of visual chaos… a crazy jumble of so-called architectural references … and a heap of different materials… These architects appear to regard a city as a private gallery for their brand of pop-art buildings. But it isn’t: their appearance affects us all, particularly when exposed on the river front. Whatever the situation architects have a very special responsibility to the public…

Go Stevie, go. This article is more or less the only thing in the exhibition which really expresses why the new Postmodernist style was so controversial and on what grounds its critics attacked it.

But all good things come to an end. In 1987 an essay was published in Art in America magazine titled Late Postmodernism: The End of Style? By the late 1980s the first fine careless flush of anti-establishment defiance was played out. Postmodernist buildings continued to be built into the 1990s but younger architects tried to forge new lines of development moving beyond its jokiness and irony.

Thoughts

I suppose architecture can be considered and assessed in three ways:

  1. As plans and designs and drawings and concepts I warm to straight lines and geometric patterns, and also to dinky scale models of buildings with tiny little figures walking by, so I often find architectural designs and models entrancing. That said, insofar as they are drawings, they all look a bit samey, drawn in the same kind of technical way on the same kind of paper with the same kind of formal conventions.
  2. It’s only when they’re built that architects’ plans come alive and can then be considered in two ways.
    1. If you live or work in one – does it work? What’s it like? Does it have the conveniences promised? Or is it badly designed and thought-through, as so many ‘city in the sky’ council flats and tower blocks of the 1960s and 70s were.
    2. What’s it like to walk past? What impact does it have on those who don’t live or work in it, but whose built environment it contributes to? What contribution does it make to the skyline and cityscape?

I am no expert, I am just an averagely educated Londoner, but I think there are now so many buildings like Cascades – the Thames from Battersea to Westminster, and from the City down to Docklands is so lined with quirky jokey blocks of luxury apartments, take the stepped ziggurats and the tower block that bends backwards at Battersea Reach – that most people just accept it as the style of our times.

Battersea Reach, London

Battersea Reach, London

I don’t really like any of it. Today I walked through the Covent Garden piazza on the way to Sir John Soane’s Museum and all I can think is that a) it’s a blessing that the bastard planners of the 1970s didn’t knock it down and replace it with concrete flats b) it does the job of being a Tourist Trap, a place where tourists are funneled and blunder around buying over-priced coffee and gewgaws.

But I don’t really like the Royal Opera rebuild or the North arcade. I rather think I dislike it for seeming hollow and… somehow fake.

And I happened to walk through the little atrium of 1 Poultry a month or so ago and it seemed dark and noisily polluted from the two City roads which hem it in. Some kind of rebuilding work was going on, there were pipes across the floor, drilling, entrances to some tacky chain shops like Accessorise or H&M. Horror.

Whenever I’ve been past the TVam building in Camden it’s always seemed to me poky, tacky, narrow, low and constricted. It makes me feel choked and cramped. It is not a happy building.

I don’t think I’ve consciously seen the China Wharf building but there are now so many extraordinary designs of buildings dotted all over the Isle of Dogs that it’s just one more in the wacky show.

Buildings for faceless overlords

My impression is that nobody can stop it now. Quirky, funny, witty, ironic, call it what you will – knowing, arch, self-referential etc, Postmodern architecture is where we are, is the modern look.

The Thames is now lined with ranks of po-mo apartment blocks which come from the same lineage as Cascades.

I appreciate that more recent buildings which have hit the headlines such as the Shard and the Gherkin are not Postmodern in style. If you look it up you discover that the Shard and the Gherkin are examples of ‘neo-Futurism’. Neverthetheless, it feels that the way was paved for this generation of jokey, quirky, steel-and-glass monsters, by the jokey, quirky innovators of Postmodernism.

The net result of all this is the widely shared feeling that modern architecture is commissioned, given planning permission, designed and built by a faceless élite, by our lords and masters, by nameless faceless people who don’t seem to be accountable to anyone except their billionaire oil sheikh or Russian oligarch sponsors – to Brazilian billionaire Joseph Safra who owns the Gherkin or to the Qatari Royal Family who own the Shard.

Modern architecture in this vein is the plaything and fantasy of an international cosmopolitan élite which has nothing to do any more with the concerns and tastes of the powerless populations which they tower over.

Which is why I always laugh out loud whenever I see architects writing about ‘social responsibility’ or ‘working with the community’. Ha! As if. Which is why I always think of the architecture room at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition as ‘the Room of Shame’. Most architecture doesn’t have anything to do with ‘ordinary people’. Maybe it never did.

Postmodernism is a lot better than the concrete misanthropy which preceded it. In terms of architectural history, it opened the floodgates to an enormous diversity of modern buildings whose designers feel free to play and experiment with a wide range of designs, ornamentation, features and materials.

But I don’t think there are any po-mo buildings that I actually like. And in my mind, anyway, the big hair and padded shoulders of TVam associate it with the end of the post-war social democratic consensus and the rise of loads-of-money capitalism, the Thatcherism and Blairism of the 1980s and 90s, which led directly to the steel-and-glass artefacts of the age of terror, the age of relentlessly growing inequality, and the age of a hyper-articulate, cosmopolitan art and architectural élite pandering to the wishes of the international super-rich – the age in which we now find ourselves.

Conclusion

The Return of the Past: Postmodernism in British Architecture is a small but really interesting exhibition. It was useful to be reminded of the names of the architects behind the MI6 building, or 1 Poultry, to be shown that this was Stirling, that was Farrell, and to be introduced to the unbuilt extravaganzas of John Outram.

It was fun.

And, like all good exhibitions, it sets you thinking about its subject – about architecture and the modern built environment, determined to read up more on a subject which, although it affects all of us – the buildings we live and work in and walk by every day – is given surprisingly little coverage in any of the media.

And it’s FREE. Check it out.


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