Käthe Kollwitz @ the British Museum

This is a really brilliant exhibition. Kollwitz is a genius and this is a searing, dazzling, breath-taking exhibition of 48 of her best prints – and it is FREE! You should go see it.

Biography

Kollwitz (1867–1945) was the fifth child of Karl Schmidt, a radical Social democrat, and Katherina Schmidt, daughter of a freethinking pastor. She was born and raised in Koenigsberg in East Prussia. Two key points: her family were committed socialists who exposed her to the social realist novels of Zola et al, as well as discussing the social issues of the day – supported her through her art school studies.

The result was that her work, throughout her life, was devoted to the suffering of the poor – especially poor women – and a particular interest in moments of rebellion and uprising and social conflict.

Plate 2 Death from A Weavers Revolt (1893-97) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

Berlin

After studying art in Berlin and Munich, in 1891 Kollwitz moved permanently to Berlin, when she married Karl Kollwitz, a doctor. They lived near his practice in a poor working class district of the rapidly growing city. They were both politically committed special democrats, and it shows, God it shows, in a series of dark, raw and intense prints showing the harrowing poverty and squalor of working class life.

Between 1908 and 1910 she made fourteen drawings in this realist style for the satirical magazine Simplicissimus, on social realist themes such as unemployment, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancy and suicide, including this one.

Unemployment (1909) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

One of the captions refers to the plasticity of her style, the superb modelling of faces and bodies. In a work like Unemployment this comes over in the dramatic contrast between the faces of the two toddlers and the baby on the bed, and the sparseness and vagueness of other areas of the composition, notably the hard troubled faces of the two adults. These key areas are soft and sensitive, while the surroundings – and the brooding figure on the left – feel harsher, darker, rebarbative.

As early as 1888, aged 21 and at the Women’s Art School in Munich, she had realized her strength was not as a painter, but a draughtswoman, and the strength and shape and depth of all the compositions here is wonderful. Thus her increasing focus on the techniques of etching, lithography and woodcuts.

Series

Paintings are often one-off affairs which can be sold at a premium (especially if commissioned by a rich patron), but the effort required in making prints, etchings and woodcuts has meant that artists often conceive of them as series, to be produced and sold in limited runs, and maybe collected into books.

The Weavers – Six prints, 1897-8

Kollwitz based her first series on a play by Gerhart Hauptmann, The Weavers, which dramatized the oppression of the Silesian weavers in Langenbielau and their failed revolt in 1844. She produced three lithographs (Poverty, Death, and Conspiracy) and three etchings with aquatint and sandpaper (March of the Weavers, Riot, and The End). See the grim image which opens this review. When they were exhibited in 1898 they made her name.

The Peasants War – Seven prints, 1902-1908

Kollwitz’s second major cycle of works was the Peasants War which occupied her from 1902 to 1908. This was another rebellion of the workers, in this case the maltreated peasants who rose up against their feudal lords in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, in 1525, and were eventually defeated in a bloodbath.

Plate 5 Outbreak from The Peasants War (1902-3) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

At first sight there is a tremendous dynamism in this image, with the figure of the woman rousing and encouraging the men dominating the foreground. Looking closer I was struck by the ape-like clumpiness of many of the peasants – look at the man on the right. This heaviness, this simian Neanderathal appearance, seems to bespeak their status as oppressed serfs, as people who are in fact, barely human, so low have they been degraded.

All the images are tremendous but I was thrilled by Arming in the vault where she uses dark and light to convey the sense of a great horde of proletarians emerging from the underworld, armed to the teeth, ready to cause havoc.

And there is a detailed and devastating print titled simply Raped which shows the foreshortened body of a woman lying amid dead leaves in an orchard or garden, wearing a skirt but her hard peasant’s feet and calves and knees towards us, while lost in the overhanging trees, her young son looks down at her ravaged body. Note how the woman’s head is set at an unnatural angle, lying back into the leaves.

Sensuality

But alongside the historical-political series, Kollwitz also produced images of startling sensuality. They date from the early 1900s after she had made several trips to Paris and been amazed at the colourfulness and vivacity of its streets and social life as well as its brilliant Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting. The experience inspired experiments in sensual and also with colour. This female nude is stunning. I found the pinpoint accuracy of the draughtsmanship breathtaking.

Female nude seen from the back with green shawl (1903) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

Self portraits

Kollwitz made a total of 275 prints, in etching, woodcut and lithography, of which about 50 are self-portraits. The wall labels tell us that she also kept extensive diaries and wrote many letters describing and analysing her own feelings, her art and career.

One wall of the show is devoted to half a dozen or so self-portraits which showcase her tremendous draughtsmanship and accuracy, along with a deep brooding gaze, and the ability to capture mood and personality to a spooky extent. She is as harsh and unforgiving on herself as she is on her grim peasants and mourning mothers. What technique! What a godlike gift for capturing the intensity of the human soul!

Self Portrait (1924) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Great War

Then Europe went to war and her youngest son, Peter, aged 18, volunteered, marched off, and was killed in October 1914. The suffering of poor mothers had been a constant topic of her social-realist work, and – eerily enough – a decade earlier she had created this haunting image of a mother cradling a dead son, for which she had herself modelled, holding the self-same Peter as a seven-year-old boy.

Woman with dead child (1903) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

In fact the exhibition contains three of the eight working versions of this work, which demonstrate how she created, modelled and evolved her way towards the final image, a fascinating insight into her technique.

The War series – Seven woodcuts, 1922-23

The loss of her son, and the slow strangulation of Germany caused by the Allied blockade, the loss of so many sons and husbands, as well as the gradual impoverishment of the entire nation, burned and purified her art to its essence, resulting in the scathing series of woodcuts she titled simply War.

God! How searing and blistering are her stark woodcut prints of mourning mothers and starving people, carved out of what look like blocks of coal, or ancient fossilised trees, images which reach right down into the roots of the earth, deep into the lineage of human experience.

All the light and shade, the modelling and depth and (sometimes brutal) sensuality of the earlier works has been burnt away in the fires of war. Now Anguish speaks in stark flat images dominated by lignite black, from which lined and haggard faces emerge like nightmares.

Plate 7 The People from the War series (1922) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

All seven of the War prints are here – The Sacrifice, The Volunteers, The Parents, The Widow I, The Widow II, The Mothers, and The People – ranged along the opening wall, bringing a new visual intensity to her approach.

It’s that emotional intensity and the stark black and white of the images which leads some histories to group her with the German Expressionists, except that the Expressionists were mostly a pre-war movement, and Kollwitz’s pre-war images had been much more smooth and naturalistic, as we have seen.

In fact Kollwitz went on producing work into the 1930s and indeed up till her death, in 1945. Her last great series of prints was the Death cycle of the mid-1930s.

Death Cycle, Eight prints, 1930s

Her last great cycle rotated around the figure of Death and consisted of: Woman Welcoming Death, Death with Girl in Lap, Death Reaches for a Group of Children, Death Struggles with a Woman, Death on the Highway, Death as a Friend, Death in the Water, and The Call of Death.

It marks a return to lithographs, with their ability to give depth and shade, unlike the medieval starkness of the war woodcuts. And also a return of the Neanderthal or simian quality which recurs throughout many of the harsher works, gaunt images of creatures who are barely human, with thick, knotty hands and feet. Big, clunky hands and especially feet, bony feet, huge knuckled feet, used to carrying burdens and long days of physical labour, are a trademark feature of her work, even in so ‘tender’ an image as Woman holding a dead child, the knees and feet are prominent and brutal.

Plate 8 Call of Death from the Death series (1937) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

This one, Call of Death, reminded me of Holocaust or Gulag or prisoner of war imagery. Homo redux, reduced by the crimes and the atrocities of the twentieth century to a bare minimum, barely human rump. And of the great poem, Death is a Master from Germany, written at the end of the war by Paul Celan.

death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true

Summary

All of the images in this exhibition are brilliant. I honestly can’t think of another exhibition I’ve ever been to where the quality of all the works is so uniformly high. The images of peasants pulling ploughs in muddy, wet fields, with harnesses round their necks are searing.

The barely human, half-apes sharpening their scythes from the Peasants War series are terrifying.

The woodcut she made commemorating the funeral of Communist agitator Karl Liebknecht is a great piece of popular art, albeit in a dubious cause (Liebknecht wanted to bring Leninist rule to Germany, but was murdered by right-wing militias in 1919 during the chaotic street fighting which followed the collapse of the German Empire. Same year Kollwitz was the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts. In letters she is recorded as explaining she had no sympathy for his cause, but was moved by the huge crowds of working class mourners who attended his funeral, the class she had been depicting for decades.)

Even before the Great War she was a well-established artist in her genre, which was acknowledged by her receiving the position at the Prussian Academy immediately it ended. But between the wars she developed a reputation not only in America (land of the rich collector) but, amazingly, in inter-war China, riven by civil war and Japanese invasions, where her blistering images of the poorest of the poor peasants working the land influenced the Woodcut Movement among socially conscious artists in that vast, peasant-based country. Her Peasants War work was seen by, and directly influenced, the Chinese artist Li Hua, who founded the Modern Woodcut Society at the Guangzhou Art School in 1934.

Struggle (1947) by Li Hua © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Campbell Dodgson collection

Kollwitz made a total of 275 prints, in etching, woodcut and lithography. This exhibition features 48. Why these 48 and no others? Because these prints were collected by Campbell Dodgson, former Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings (1893–1932) who then bequeathed them to the British Museum in 1948. Dodgson was influenced by his colleague Max Lehrs of the Dresden and Berlin Print Rooms – Kollwitz’s first and greatest champion – and acquired as many of her works as he could.

And then donated them to the museum. And now all 48 are on display here, along with generous picture captions and labels which give full explanations of her life and work and the motivation and process behind each one of these wonderful works. She is a really great, great artist. This exhibition is FREE. I can’t recommend it too highly.

Death and woman (1910) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum


Related links

Germany between the wars

Art and culture

History

Victorian poverty and violence

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

The World Exists to Be Put On A Postcard: artists’ postcards from 1960 to now @ the British Museum

Last year the writer, curator (and sometime expert on The Antiques Roadshow) Jeremy Cooper donated his quirky collection of 1,000 postcards designed by artists from the 1960s to the present day, to the British Museum.

This FREE exhibition presents a selection of 300 works from the collection, and features a wide range of artists and artist collectives from the past five decades including Gilbert & George, Richard Hamilton, Yoko Ono, Guerrilla Girls, Tacita Dean, Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman, Dieter Roth, Carl Andre, Claes Oldenburg, Gavin Turk, Rachel Whitehead and many more.

The collection – which took 10 years to assemble – now means that the British Museum has one of the world’s leading collections of this rather unexpected art form. I, for one, certainly hadn’t realised how widespread and flexible an art form ‘the postcard’ had become.

Dada Land (1975/1977) by Bill Gaglione and Tim Mancusi. Reproduced by permission of the artists

The idea is that, since the radical conceptual and political breakthroughs of the 1960s, artists have found the postcard to be a cheap, flexible, democratic, accessible and fun format to present a whole range of ideas, whether satirical, subversive, silly or surreal.

Hence, if only at the level of invitation to an art show, many of the most famous artists of the past years have used the format, while others have gone to town with whole conceptual explorations of its possibilities.

The exhibition is divided into the following categories or headings:

Richard Hamilton (1992-2011)

In an early work such as Whitley Bay 1996, Hamilton used details of commercially produced postcards in his pop collages. Two years later he produced a concertina, ‘pull-out’ postcard. You unclipped it and eight postcard-sized unfolded, each showing a commercial image of Whitley Bay, which was progressively blown up larger and larger until the image became just an abstract blur of dots and patches.

Dieter Roth (1930-1998)

Swiss-born Roth produced various postcard art. He collaborated with Richard Hamilton on paintings made in Spain, and then produced postcards depicting the paintings, but conceived of as artworks in their own right. In a series titled 120 postcards Roth overpainted and reworked a clichéd tourist image of Piccadilly, to create a set of independent artworks.

Fluxus

The Fluxus art movement drew in a large number of artists, composers, designers and poets during the 1960s and 1970s who engaged in experimental art performances. Japanese artist On Kawara made a series titled ‘I GOT UP’ in which he simply sent postcards to hundreds of friends around the world marked with a date stamp declaring ‘I got up at…’ and then the time and date. He continued the series from 1968 to 1979.

An example of the I Got Up series by On Kawara (1979)

These postcards now fetch extraordinary sums at auction. The one above, sent in 1979, was part of a lot of On’s I GOT UP postcards which sold for £162,500. Wish I’d known him and he’d sent me one! As with so much ‘subversive’ art which was going to change the world, it is now bought and sold by Russian oligarchs and Chinese billionaires for sums you and I can only gawk at.

Ben Vautier created a postcard titled The Postman’s Choice with an address box and stamp space on both sides, so you filled in two addressees. Who should the post office send it to?

I liked the extended-size postcard, Beached, by Lawrence Wiener (b.1942). It was made to publicise a video he made in five sections of himself throwing, pulling, lifting, dragging, and levering natural materials to make a sculpture on a beach in Holland.

Beached by Lawrence Weiner (1970)

Feminism

Postcard art was a way for women artists of the 1960s and 70s who felt excluded from the male art world to bypass the traditional gallery system.

From 1971 to 1973 American artist Eleanor Antin (b.1935) sent fifty-one postcards of her hundred-boots project to a thousand people in the art world. During a two-and-a-half year roadtrip round California she placed the hundred boots in various incongruous settings and photographed them. What a brilliant idea!

Four details from 100 Boots (1971-73) by Eleanor Antin

Lynda Benglis (b.1941) and Hannah Wilke (b.1940) made postcards of themselves naked.

Lynda Benglis nude postcard

They were working to ‘challenge the idea of female objectification, often using their own bodies to explore sexuality in their work’.

Ponder-r-Rosa series by Hannah Wilke (1977)

Yes, I always find that pictures of naked young women help me to stop thinking about women in terms of their appearance or sexuality. Male gaze duly obliterated.

Performance

Stelious Arcadiou (b.1946) grew up in Melbourne, Australia, changed his name to Stelarc in 1972, and specialised in self-inflicted performances in which his body was suspended from flesh hooks. And his preferred way of promoting these performances was via photos on postcards distributed to other artists, galleries and critics.

Stelarc, Event for lateral suspension (1978)

In 1979 artist Chris Burden gave an art performance in which he described his relationship with a truck named ‘Big Job’, while clutching a gigantic wrench, and sent out postcards recording the event.

Big Wrench by Chris Burden (1979)

Conceptual I

This category includes Carl Andre – who made postcards of bricks or sections of concrete arranged in urban and landscape settings – landscape art by Richard Long, showing photos of places he’s visited and sculptures he’s made from natural materials in remote locations – and quite a few by Gilbert and George in a variety of settings and with text subverting their own status as artists and the whole point of art. Silly but oddly compelling, as usual.

Gilbert and George in a rural setting (1972)

Richard Long’s postcards of artworks he’d made as part of his long treks, in places as different as rural Devon and Mongolia, struck me as clever use of the medium. Some of  his artworks were temporary, made of mud or stones which would decompose or be assimilated back into the landscape. Some resulted in no tangible work whatever, just the record of the walk. Long’s postcards were, therefore, postcards from nowhere, mementos of things which never existed or would soon cease to exist. One of the things I’ve loved about Richard Long’s walking art since I first came across it is the way he captures the spooky, empty, vanishing nature of long-distance walks. You are intensely here, now, in this place. And yet half an hour later you are a mile away, over hill and dale, and the hereness and the nowness… are just memories… or photographs… or postcards…

Conceptual II

American artist Geoff Hendricks (b.1930) made a series of seven postcards depicting beautiful photographs of clouds. He styles himself a ‘cloudsmith’. Very relaxing.

Sky Post Card #7 by Geoff Hendricks (1974)

Endre Tót

Born in Hungary in 1937, Endre Tót trained as a painter but became involved with the Fluxus group. He is represented by possibly the best works in the exhibition, a 1974 series titled One Dozen Rain Postcards.

In these Tót made Xerox copies of photos from newspapers, printed them in purple, and then typed dots and dashes onto the surface of the copies in order to give the effect of rain. Each variation of the rain motif is deliberately humorous: some show heavy rain falling in just one place, or it raining indoors, and so on.

One of the One dozen rain postcards by Endre Tót (1971-1973)

These were all very witty – with other subjects including horizon rain (the dashes all running horizontally parallel to the horizon of a sea postcard) and new rain/old rain – but they also struck me as a genuinely innovative use of the size and shape of the postcard format.

Paradise regained

American photographer Duane Michals (b.1932) made a series of six postcards which starts out with a fully clothed couple in a modern office and, in each one, items of clothing are removed from the people while the office becomes more full of pot plants and foliage, until they are naked in an apparent forest.

Paradise regained by Duane Michals (1968)

Graphic postcards

Some of the most innovative postcard art comes in graphic form i.e. text only, or text over minimal imagery. Hence the bold declarative text The World Exists To be Put On A Postcard by Simon Cutts which gives the show its title. Personally, I liked the extreme minimalism of this graphic postcard, made all the funnier by that fact that it required not one but two modern artists to create it, Peter Doig and Matthew Higgs.

There’s a painting on the wall by Peter Doig and Matthew Higgs (1996)

Postcard invitations

In a more traditional use of the format, artists often sent out invitations to art exhibitions (or happenings or performances) in the shape of postcards, detailing the location and time of the exhibition. Many of these were treated like ephemera and lost, only years later did collectors start to value them.

Invitation to Holy Cow! Silver Clouds!! Holy Cow! (1966) by Andy Warhol © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London

There’s the original invitation card for the now legendary Freeze exhibition organised by Damien Hirst which introduced the world to the (YBAs) (Young British Artists), and a funky 3-D postcard Julian Opie sent out as an invitation to his 1996 exhibition Walking Dancing Undressing Smoking showing the cartoon of a trim woman in his trademark strong black outlines, but done in that process where, if you shift your point of view, the figure appears to move.

Political postcards I

Because they are cheap and, by their very nature, designed to be distributed, postcards have been an appropriate format for all kinds of artists promoting their political agendas. Using the postal system they can easily be circulated thereby evading traditional gallery and museum networks, which is why many postcard artworks were often politically subversive or carried a social message. Images satirising and lambasting Ronald Reagan and Mrs Thatcher abound.

Thatcher Therapy Dot-to-Dot Puzzle No. 1 (1984) by Paul Morton. Reproduced by permission of the artist. Courtesy Leeds Postcards

There’s a post-card designed by John Lennon and Yoko Ono with the simple text WAR IS OVER. Its optimistic innocence is counterpointed by a completely different pair of postcards by photo-montage artist Peter Kennard of a) some cruise missiles plonked on the back of the hay cart in Constable’s painting The Haywain and b) the super-famous montage of Tony Blair taking a selfie against the backdrop of Iraqi oil wells going up in flames.

There’s another really vivid one with the big angry text I DON’T GIVE A SHIT WHAT YOUR HOUSE IS WORTH (by Leeds Postcards, 1988).

Political postcards II – Feminism

Back  in the gritty 1970s artist Alison Knowles and composer Pauline Oliveros published a set of cards commenting on the outsider status of women in the world of classical music. The idea was to take photos of women composers and to attach a big text describing each classical male composer with the kind of derogatory comment they felt women composers were all-too-frequently dismissed with e.g. she’s a lesbian.

Beethoven was a lesbian by Pauline Oliveros with Alison Knowles (1974)

Similar outsider anger is the unique selling point of the Guerrilla Girls collective with their well-known poster slogans such as ‘Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?’

But best of all is the set of works by Jill Posener who, in the 1980s, sprayed witty graffiti ‘with political, feminist, lesbian and anti-consumerist themes’ onto billboards, defacing irritating, sexist and patronising advertising campaigns with hilarious jokes.

Saw his head off by Jill Posener (1981)

Altered postcards

Because they’re so cheap and cheerful artists have felt free to manipulate, transform, burn, cut up, deface, collage, paint over and generally muck about with postcards. Yoko Ono published a white postcard with a little hole in the middle for you to look through at the sky. Ray Johnson cut up, pasted and wrote over whatever printed material he could find. Genesis P/Orridge made a series of postcards in which the same black and white images of his mum and dad were positioned closer and closer to each other, until they merged.

In the 1980s Michael Langenstein (b.1947) made a series titled Fantasy and Surreal Postcards, collages of commercial postcards in which iconic images are made to do funny things, for example the Statue of Liberty is shown on her back in the Hudson River apparently dong the backstroke, or Concorde is shown having flown into and got stuck half-way through one of the great pyramids at Giza.

Excalibur by Michael Langenstein (1986)

Excalibur by Michael Langenstein (1986)

Portrait postcards

Portraits often appeared on exhibition invitations, for example there’s one of David Hockney inviting to an exhibition in the 1960s. American artist Carolee Schneeman (1939-2019) and Anthony McCall made their own Christmas postcards. Again, the best of the bunch was, for me, the funniest one, which showed British artist Peter Hutchison (b.1930) being showered with foot-high letters in a work titled Struggling with language from 1974.

Struggling with language by Peter Hutchison (1974)

Recent postcards

Despite being overtaken by digital technology, emails, texts and numerous forms of social media, the postcard continues to thrive, in the real world out there, as well as in the art world. This last section showcases recent postcard art by Tacita Dean and Frances Alÿs, by Braco Dimitrijevic and Alison Wilding, Gillian Wearing and Jeremy Deller.

Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin are pictured wearing scruffy anoraks and each holding a pair of big balls, in the tradition of the smutty seaside postcard. Meanwhile, Rachel Whiteread – an avid collector of postcards, apparently – has punched holes into innocuous scenic postcards thus turning them into miniature sculptures.

Untitled (2005) by Rachel Whiteread. Photograph © 2018 Rachel Whiteread

Thoughts

Who knew so much work existed in this area, who knew that ‘the postcard’ was a modern art genre in itself. Sceptical to being with, I am now totally converted. The categories I listed above aren’t exhaustive: there were quite a few one-off creative and experimental projects which come under no particular category but are also included.

A test of an exhibition is whether, at the end of it, you want to go round again, and I did. Having gone round once carefully reading the labels, I then went round again, just for fun, stopping at the ones which made me smile or laugh out loud (smiling at the rain postcards, guffawing at Jill Posener’s brilliant anti-sexist cards from the 80s).

It’s fun and it’s FREE. Pop along for an entertaining and enlightening experience.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

I am Ashurbanipal king of the world, king of Assyria @ the British Museum

Ashurbanipal

Ashurbanipal was ruler of the Assyrian Empire from 669 to about 630 BC. From his capital at Nineveh on the edge of present-day city of Mosul in northern Iraq, Ashurbanipal ruled a vast and diverse empire, reaching from upper Egypt, via the eastern shore of the Mediterranean (modern Cyprus, Israel Lebanon and Syria) and along a corridor either side of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers down to the Persian Gulf. During his reign he was probably the most powerful person on earth.

Map showing the fullest extent of the Assyrian empire (in pink) by Paul Goodhead

Map showing the fullest extent of the Assyrian empire (in pink) by Paul Goodhead

This blockbuster exhibition examines the life and times and cultural achievements and social context of Ashurbanipal’s rule alongside detailed profiles of the different kingdoms and cultures which he ruled over and exhaustive accounts of his numerous military campaigns.

Topics

The quickest way to give you a sense of the scope might be to list some of the headings which introduce different areas of the exhibition and displays:

  • Nineveh, a city without rival
  • The royal family
  • Ashurbanipal’s palace in Nineveh
  • Aqueducts and canals (agriculture and pleasure gardens)
  • Training to be a king (featuring numerous lions hunts in which the king displays his mastery of the natural world)
  • The scholar king (in inscriptions he boasts of being able to read numerous languages)
  • Knowledge is power (his surprisingly large library)
  • Coronation
  • Assyria’s world domination (introducing the various kingdoms and people the empire ruled over)
    • The southern Levant
    • Babylonia
    • Elam
    • The kingdoms of Cyprus
    • The kingdom of Urartu
    • Western Iran
    • Aramaean kingdoms
    • Ashurbanipal at war
    • Ashurbanipal conquers Egypt
    • Trouble in the East (Urtak, king of Elam, invades Babylonia)
    • Sibling rivalry (with his older brother Shamash-shumu-ukin)
  • Retaliation (against Elam for its rebellion)
  • Order restored
  • The empire falls apart (after Ashurbanipal’s death)
  • Ashurbanipal’s fate (a mystery to this day)
  • Legend, discovery and revival (Victorian archaeologists uncover the key sites and ship statues and carvings back to the British Museum in London)
Discovery of Nimrud by Frederick Charles Cooper (1810 – 1880) mid-19th century, watercolour on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

Discovery of Nimrud by Frederick Charles Cooper (1810 – 1880) mid-19th century, watercolour on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

Highlights

This is the first ever major exhibition to explore the life of Ashurbanipal in such depth and a dream come true for anyone interested in this period. Anyone familiar with the Assyrians knows that they were a strongly militaristic culture characterised, above all, by the immense statues of lions with the heads of bearded men. These tend to covered in cuneiform inscriptions which, when deciphered, amount to world class bragging about the emperor’s might and strength, king of kings, and then go on to give a long list of the emperor’s achievements.

Maybe even more famous are the numerous enormous friezes we have depicting the emperor on one of his countless lion hunts. Elsewhere in the British Museum (rooms 6, 7 and 8) you can walk along a corridor entirely lined by stone friezes depicting the lion hunt which was a central icon and symbol of Assyrian kingship. Why? Because the emperor’s role was to impose order on the world. The lion was the fiercest beast in the world. By beating it, by killing lions single handed (although surrounded by scores of courtiers and warriors) the emperor showed his fitness to rule and, symbolically, enacted the ordering of the world.

Both these types of imagery are familiar to anyone who knows a bit about the ancient Middle East.

Social history What is new and striking about the exhibition was a lot of the non-military social history. For example, the section on the immense library which Ashurbanipal assembled, and which led him to boast about his learning.  His library at Nineveh may have contained as many as 10,000 texts and the exhibition powerfully conveys this by displaying them in a massive glass wall divided into grids, each containing a cuneiform text, carved into a clay tablet, covering a wide range of subjects – astrology, medicine, legends and so on. Ashurbanipal claimed to be unlike his predecessors in that he could read, write and debate with expert scholars.

The canals of Nineveh Nearby is a section devoted to the orderly agriculture and watering of the capital city, conveyed via a big carving showing canals, tilled fields and a path leading to a gazebo with a happy looking emperor standing in it. Apparently it was Asurbanipal’s grandfather, Sennacherib (mentioned in the Bible) who built the canals which watered Nineveh.

Clever lighting What brings this all alive is the clever use of lighting which animates bands of blue slowly colouring the canals, and of green, slowly colouring in the fields, and white indicating the path. The information panel tells us that all of these carvings and sculptures would have been brightly coloured. But the use of son et lumiere to animate the colouring was inspired.

Battle scenes The same goes for several of the battle panels. One of them is maybe 30 feet wide and depicts the Battle of Til-Tuba in 653 BC, as Ashurbanipal led an invasion of the kingdom of Elam. As with many of these battle panels, the figures are carved in horizontal bands, each of which tells a story, in this case the Elamites retreating in panic down a hill before triumphant Assyrians who drive them into a river.

There are information panels along the bottom of the long frieze picking out scenes, but there was also another display of lighting effects for a sequence of spotlights picked out a particular scene – not only picked it out but highlighted the silhouettes of the relevant figures – and then text was projected onto a blank part of the frieze explaining what was going on.

Relief detail of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback from Nineveh, Assyria (645–635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Relief detail of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback from Nineveh, Assyria (645–635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition contains a number of maps and, in the main area you realise that the entire floor you are walking on is a schematic map of the Assyrian Empire.

There are several timelines, twenty of more large information panels and, of course, hundreds of smaller information panels relating to each of the 200 or so artefacts on display.

Partitions The exhibition is divided into different ‘rooms’ or areas by immense partitions on which are printed patterns and designs found on the tiled rooms of the emperor’s palace, abstract geometric patterns.

In fact these vast decorated partitions dominate the exhibition visually, much bigger than any one object on display, and encourage you to pay attention to the section of the show which focuses on Assyrian tiles and glazed bricks, explaining the evolution of their decorative patterns and styles.

If the central section focuses on Ashurbanipal’s military campaigns, with cases explaining the history and culture of each of the dozen or so areas which made up the empire, and then a series of displays about each of his major campaigns (against Egypt and Elam in particular), there are also plenty of more modest cases highlighting what we know about Assyrian religion, culture, design, even cookery – displaying ‘delicately carved ivories, extravagant metalwork, cosmetic vessels and gold ornaments’ – one case showing an enormous bronze cauldron decorated around the lip with what seem to be dragon heads.

Striding sphinx from ‘Fort Shalmaneser’, Nimrud, Iraq (900 -700 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Striding sphinx from ‘Fort Shalmaneser’, Nimrud, Iraq (900 -700 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Criticism

Overall the exhibition layout is imaginative and over-awing, and the use of the light animations to bring old stone friezes to life is really inspiring.

However the curators make the same mistake they made with the Viking exhibition. A good number of the information labels are at waist height. When I went the exhibition was absolutely crammed. Imagine the crowd at a football stadium. It was impossible to process through it in sequential order because some display cases were simply unapproachable. Early on, there is a display of a characteristic battle relief, maybe 20 feet long by 7 or eight feet high. As usual it shows a series of incidents during a battle and it was accompanied by about ten informative and interesting panels picking out and explaining specific incidents.

But because they were at waist height, they were completely hidden by the crowd of twenty of more people in front of them. Whereas, there was plenty of space above the relief. Why not put the information panels above the objects where anybody can read them, instead of at waist height, where they are inevitably hidden?

The end

The final sections of the show peter out a bit, after the dense concentration of information and huge reliefs depicting his famous victories which dominate the centre.

I was fascinated to learn that we don’t know when Ashurbanipal died. Nobody knows whether he died of natural causes, was murdered or abdicated. The last public inscription about him dates from 638. His kingship may have ended as early as 631 or as late as 627 – there is no written record in the sources of Assyria or its neighbours.

We do know that Ashurbanipal was briefly succeeded by a son, then another one. The significant event was that in 626 a former general, Nabopolassar, claimed the throne of Babylon and started a war of independence which led to the entire empire unravelling. The Iranian Medes led by Cyaxares, joined Nabopolassar and their forces sacked the city of Ashur, home to Assyria’s chief deity. This alliance then marched on Nineveh, the beautiful city of canals and decorated palaces built up by Ashurbanipal’s forebears and himself – and sacked it, burning it to the ground.

The Victorian rediscovery

It was only in the 1840s that Victorian archaeologists began systematically to uncover the site of Nineveh, discovering the massive lions statues, thousands of clay tables covered in writing, and other treasures. Some of these treasures were displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and sparked a short-lived enthusiasm for Assyrian motifs on such things as tankards and dishes, and their use in jewellery and necklaces, a handful of which are on display here.

Until these discoveries, the reputation of the Assyrians and of Nineveh was taken from the Bible, where its rulers are depicted as gross, corrupt, Sybarites, who fully deserved their destruction by the Israelites’ jealous God.

The archaeological discoveries began to overthrow that old view and restore the more rounded view of Assyrian civilisation which, we like to think, we enjoy today.

War and destruction

The final section of the exhibition is staged in a long narrow corridor. It contains a timeline of modern archaeology (i.e. since the 1840s) and two short films.

One uses computer technology to match together aerial photos of the site of Nineveh as it appeared from the 1930s up to the present day, a rough square in a bend of the River Tigris. The camera, or point of view, slowly circles down from the high vantage point of early 20th century photos, spiralling down to show us how the site has changed and developed over the past eighty years or so, until we are at ground level looking up at the rather pitiful remains.

The second film features the head of the British Museum’s Iraq section explaining the scheme whereby archaeologists from Iraq are being brought to London and trained in various techniques, and then supported as they return to Iraq in the task of ongoing digging and preservation of that country’s heritage – the ‘Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme’.

(This isn’t exactly the same one, but covers the same scheme)

I couldn’t help noticing the world class irony here.

For the previous half hour I had been reading numerous inscriptions in which Ashurbanipal had his sculptors inscribe words describing how he not only defeated his enemies in Egypt or Elam, but annihilated them and their cities, leaving not a blade of grass standing, how he ransacked the tombs of their royal families, destroyed their monuments, killed their sheep and goats and left not an animal stirring in the barren wastelands he created.

This is the man who is being held up, not exactly for our admiration but for our awe, a man who destroyed and killed wantonly in pursuit of his worldview, namely that the known world should be ruled by a man like him, with his beliefs.

The irony being that two and a half thousand years later, another cohort of warriors seized control of this region, also convinced that they had a God-given right to rule, to impose their beliefs on all the inhabitants, and to destroy anything, any relics or remains of civilisations which they saw as infidel and blasphemous.

Difficult not to see a certain continuity of culture reaching across two and a half millennia.

Relief depicting Ashurbanipal hunting a lion (645 – 635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Relief depicting Ashurbanipal hunting a lion (645 – 635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

There’s a second final thought. Many bien-pensant liberals, as well as hard core identity politicians and virtue warriors, think the British Museum is a guilt-filled testimony to the wholesale looting carried out by the British Empire, and that all of its artefacts, starting with the Elgin Marbles, should be returned to their countries of origin.

But if all of these objects had been in the Baghdad Museum in 2003 or the Mosul Museum in 2015, they would all have been looted or simply destroyed.

That doesn’t settle the debate about the Marbles or thousands of other objects, but these are the thoughts which the final section, all about the Iraq War and ISIS, leave you pondering.

Video

Here’s an excellent visual overview of the show from Visiting London Guide.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

The Black Mask by E.W. Hornung (1901)

The paperback edition of Raffles stories I picked up in a second-hand bookshop contains the first eight Raffles stories (originally collected in a volume titled The Amateur Cracksman, published in 1899) along with the second eight, which were collected in the next volume, The Black Mask, published in 1901.

The final story in volume one had ended with the failure of Raffles’s most ambitious plan – to steal a priceless pearl which was being taken by courier on a German steamer across the Mediterranean. Caught by his nemesis – Inspector Mackenzie of Scotland Yard – Raffles was given a moment to say goodbye to his ‘fiancée’ – a young Australian woman that he’d actually been using to find out more about the pearl – and takes the opportunity to jump up onto the ship’s railing and, as Mackenzie and the ship’s officers run to stop him, to dive overboard into the sea.

His assistant and the narrator of the Raffles tales, ‘Bunny’ Manders, thinks he catches sight of a head bobbing in the long reflection of the sunset across the waves, before he is himself dragged off to be thrown into the brig, taken back to Britain, tried, found guilty, publicly shamed and humiliated, and sent to prison for his part in Raffles’s various thefts.

There the series appeared to end with Bunny in the nick and Raffles drowned off the Italian coast. But…

The stories

1. No Sinecure

The first story in the new set reveals that… it is not so!!

It is 18 months later, Bunny has served his time in HMP Holloway. A wealthy relation has reluctantly taken pity on him and found him a hovel of a garret to live in while Bunny pursues an unsuccessful career as a freelance writer.

One day Bunny gets a telegram telling him to look at an advert in that day’s Daily Mail. It is an advert for a nurse-cum-gentleman’s assistant to an ailing old man, Mr Maturin. Bunny pawns some belongings to buy a suit and heads off for the interview at an apartment block in Earl’s Court.

He is let into the apartment by a zippy young doctor, Dr Theobald, who is the ageing Mr Maturin’s personal physician, and then ushered into the darkened room where the invalid lies in bed, white-haired and white-faced. As soon as the physician has exited, Bunny realises that the figure in the bed is… RAFFLES, his old mentor and partner in crime!!

Even as bubblegum, popcorn entertainment the stories are not as barbed and gripping as they might be. For example, you might have expected Bunny to be a bit cross with the man who led him into a life of crime, got him banged up for eighteen months, and ruined his life. You might have expected some kind of psychological reckoning. But not a bit of it, he’s just thrilled to see old A.J. again.

Raffles gives the briefest explanation of his escape: it was a hard swim, the reflection of the setting sun dazzled any potential pursuers, and life for a half-naked man wading ashore on Capri was challenging. The peasants gave him clothes, he got odd jobs, he worked his way north along the coast and into France. That’s about it. Then we are swiftly on to this week’s adventure.

Bunny helps Raffles get dressed in formal evening wear and they take a circuitous route across the apartment block roof (This is to avoid awkward questions from the porter in the apartment block’s downstairs lobby). They go down by a separate set of stairs, and head to Kellner’s Restaurant in the West End. Here, Raffles explains, he and Bunny are going to pretend to be rich Americans meeting the head of a famous firm of Regent Street jewellers’.

Over dinner in a private room the jeweller places on the table a series of expensive pieces. Raffles, in his guise as American millionaire, declares he wants them all – can he take them and send round a cheque? As expected, the jeweller laughs in his face, so Raffles makes a suggestion. Why doesn’t he place the pieces in the cigarette carton he happens to be carrying, seal it up, and give it back to the jeweller who can post it round in three days, after he’s received and cashed Raffles’s cheque.

The Regent Street jeweller agrees and they call for string and sealing wax, carefully stow the jewels in the carton, wrap and seal it, stand up and shake hands, then the jeweller departs with the carton which he will, as promised, post.

Leaving Raffles to open his voluminous jacket to reveal… the cigarette carton with the jewels in it!!

While there had been a hiatus of waiters coming in with brown paper, string and whatnot, Raffles had swapped the carton with the jewels in it for an identical but empty one – which is the one they wrapped up and gave to the jeweller!

Quickly they take a cab back to Earl’s Court, climb up the parallel staircase, and over the roofs, back into the sick room, where Raffles changes back into pyjamas and gets into bed. Raffles is back! and Bunny has helped him pull off his first job of the new era!!

Raffles and Bunny on the roof, illustration by F. C. Yohn (1906)

Raffles and Bunny on the roof, illustration by F. C. Yohn (1906)

2. A Jubilee Present

Taking advantage of the absence of Dr Theobald, Raffles takes Bunny along to the Gold Room at the British Museum. It is meant to be just a reconnaissance trip, but Raffles is loudly telling his sidekick how he plans to steal a priceless gold cup when a hidden policemen surprises them both by stepping out of the shadows.

After a few moments of trying to bluff his way out of it, Raffles simply hits the man over the head with a stick and they walk quickly but calmly past the attendants in the other rooms, down the steps, and into a hansom cab which takes them to the nearest tube, and so anonymously and safely back to the Earls Court. Here Raffles shows Bunny that in all the confusion – he pocketed a priceless gold relic.

In the event, the relic is too rare to fence, and too culturally precious to melt down for the gold (Raffles is, after all, a gentleman of taste). So, for fun, he sends it anonymously to Queen Victorian to celebrate her Jubilee!

3. The Fate of Faustina

Some Italian organ grinders in the street outside prompt Raffles to reminisce about the time he spent on the island where he had stumbled ashore, naked and exhausted, having made his getaway from the ship, as described above.

Once taken in and given clothes by kind locals, he got a labouring job and fell in love with a peasant girl, Faustina. But she was the beloved of the creepy Stefano, himself a factor to the big, rich lord, Count Corbucci.

Raffles planned with the girl to flee the island and stole a revolver which he shows her how to use. That night he is creeping down the steep staircase carved in the rock towards the cavern which they have made their secret hideaway when… he hears blundering footsteps coming up the other way.

Raffles crouches into an alcove to let the heavy-breathing big guy wheeze past and then lights a match, to reveal that it is the Count. After some ironical exchanges the count tells Raffles to go and find his beloved and turns round to resume the ascent with a scornful laugh.

Raffles hurtles down the steps and into the cavern to find Faustina dead, stabbed to death. She had been caught by Stefano and the Count, had revealed her plan to escape and drawn the gun on them, but they had wrenched it off her and stabbed her to death. Stefano is still in the cave and Raffles shoots him dead.

Raffles runs back up to the steps and along to Corbucci’s house where he roughly ties up the Count and locks all the doors, half hoping the blackguard will starve to death there. Then Raffles takes a dinghy to the mainland, and quickly skims over the way he stowed away on ships taking him further up the coast, getting small jobs where possible.

But there I had to begin all over again, and at the very bottom of the ladder. I slept in the streets. I begged. I did all manner of terrible things, rather hoping for a bad end, but never coming to one.

One day, catching sight of himself in a mirror, Raffles realises he looks like an exhausted white-haired old wreck and that no-one back in London would now recognise him. And so to London he returns, adopts the character of the old paralytic, hires Dr Theobald to make it all look kosher, and then arranged for Bunny to come calling looking for the job.

However, now he tells Bunny that – they have followed him.

Who, the police? asks Bunny. No, the CAMORRA!

Count Corbucci was a top man in the Italian underworld organisation, the Camorra, and Raffles is not surprised that word has been put out to every Italian in London to track him down. If he’s not much mistaken, that’s exactly what the Italian barrel organ people out the front of their flats have been doing. Tracking him down and staking him out.

4. The Last Laugh

Sure enough it was the Camorra. One night Bunny spots a man in the darkness opposite their block of flats standing and watching. Raffles waits till Bunny has changed into his pyjamas to go to bed, then declares he’s going out to confront these watchers in the dark.

Bunny springs to the window and watches Raffles emerge from the apartment block and the man opposite promptly turn and walk away, with Raffles in hot pursuit. But then Bunny sees a big fat man in a slouch hat amble into the street, pass directly under the window of their flat, and make off after the other two. Something’s up. Quick, he better warn his hero!

Bunny changes into his clothes, runs out into the street, hires a hansom and drives around west London in a fever, but can find no trace of Raffles or the others. Finally, he returns to the flat and remains, looking out the window in an agony of suspense all night.

Suddenly, there’s a frantic knocking at the apartment door and a one-eyed Italian stands there talking very fast Italian and gesturing for Bunny to follow. Out into the street, along Earls Court Road to the cab stand, into the first hansom, then it is a feverish life-or-death drive across London to Bloomsbury, with the cab driver using all his wiles to weave in and out of traffic and take unexpected side streets.

It’s exactly the same mentality as the car chases in James Bond or Jason Bourne movies, the same nail-biting tension building up, only set in 1901 and with hansom cabs.

The one-eyed Italian directs the cab to Bloomsbury Square and makes him pull up outside number 38. Out they leap, run across the pavement, burst through the door, run up the stairs, and into a room where Bunny is horrified to discover Raffles bound to the wall by leather ropes threaded through iron hoops attached in the wall, with a gag thrust in his mouth, covered in blood from a beating.

But the Italian doesn’t falter and continues his run at an old grandfather clock standing dead opposite Raffles, knocking it to the ground just as the revolver attached to the clock face fires, as it had been arranged to do, as the clock struck noon.

Not only had the Count’s men tied Raffles up and beaten him… they had arranged this fiendish death as a psychological torture. For the best part of 12 hours Raffles had had to watch the minute hand slowly creeping round and the apparatus inch towards the point where the clock hand would pull the trigger of the revolver and shoot him through the heart!

Who is the one-eyed man and why was it all left to the last minute? As they undo the straps and set Raffles free, he explains to Bunny that the man is one of the Count’s assistants who Raffles got a few moments alone with and managed to bribe – persuaded him that he (Raffles) would see him set up and safe if he would help.

Why the delay and the wild panic drive? Because the Count and his other assistant didn’t leave to get a train from Victorian until 11am. So 11 was the earliest that the one-eyed man could leave on his life-or-death dash for Bunny, all the time knowing that they had to be back before noon.

But did the Count leave on time? Did he ever leave the building? Cue dramatic music!!

For now Raffles reveals a further twist in the story. He had for some time been walking around with a hip flask filled with spirits, tinctured with — the deadliest poison known to man!!

‘It is cyanide of cacodyl, and I have carried that small flask of it about with me for months. Where I got it matters nothing; the whole point is that a mere sniff reduces flesh to clay. I have never had any opinion of suicide, as you know, but I always felt it worthwhile to be forearmed against the very worst. Well, a bottle of this stuff is calculated to stiffen an ordinary roomful of ordinary people within five minutes; and I remembered my flask when they had me as good as crucified in the small hours of this morning. I asked them to take it out of my pocket. I begged them to give me a drink before they left me. And what do you suppose they did?’

What the Count and his pal did was taunt Raffles with the flask, refuse him a drink, then go downstairs and drink a toast to their wicked scheme. And promptly dropped dead, where our heroes find them, grimly spread across table and floor in positions of agony.

These two stories are quite significantly more blood-thirsty than anything which has gone before in the Raffles canon. It was only half a dozen stories back that Raffles was invited down to a country house weekend on the strength of his cricketing skills, in a story as concerned with satirising vicars and duchesses as with robbery. The tone seems to have darkened considerably. It would be interesting to know from a Raffles scholar if this reflected any change in the tone of fiction, or of popular culture, at around this date – or whether someone had suggested to Hornung that he take Raffles in a new direction.

But murder, torture, suicide and poison introduce a new, more highly-strung mood into the stories.

5. To Catch a Thief

There has been an outbreak of jewellery thefts among the highest of high society. Raffles and Bunny know it is not them for the simple reason that they are still in self-imposed hiding in their Earls Court flat.

This entire second series of stories is rather stifled by this fact, the fact that – even though his appearance has changed considerably for the worse – Raffles is still petrified that someone will identify him, the cops will arrest him and he’ll be sent to prison. They tend to only go out at night, generally in disguise, and even then avoid the fashionable parts of London. A lot of the devil-may-care, man on the town spirit of the first set of stories has thus been sacrificed. They feel more claustrophobic.

Anyway, without much detective work Raffles has identified that the man responsible for this little crime wave is himself a member of the upper classes, one Lord Ernest Belville.

So they drive round to his lordship’s apartment in the swanky new King John’s Mansions. When they announce that Lord Ernest is expecting them, the porter nods them through and the page boy obligingly takes them up in the electric lift (a relative novelty in the stories) and unlocks and shows them into his Lordship’s flat. That wasn’t very difficult, then.

Raffles and Bunny thoroughly search every room in Belville’s flat and, as always happens, it is the last place they look that they stumble upon the hiding place of the jewels.

(That trope, that the thing the heroes are looking for is always in the last place they think of, after everywhere else has been searched, must be a deep narrative truth. It is a profound fixture of this kind of ‘search’ story.)

And then there’s yet another cliché which is that, having emptied the hiding place (which was a set of hollow Indian exercise clubs) of all Lord Ernest’s loot, they have just fitted everything back in place, closed the windows and cupboards, turned all the lights off and are about to make a quiet exit when…. they hear a key being fitted into the lock!

Lord Ernest confronts them whereat Raffles, with his lightning wits, waves a gun and pretends to be the police. He leaves Bunny to tie up his lordship, saying he’ll just go for reinforcements. Inevitably big strong Belville manages to overcome Bunny and knock him cold, escaping down the fire escape.

Raffles comes back in, wakens up the groggy Bunny, and they swiftly depart the flats, walking across St James’s to hop into a hansom cab and so home.

Now, as usual, they decide to avoid the porter in the lobby of their block of flats, and so go up a set of service stairs and then across the rooftops. Raffles is in advance of Bunny who is still slow and groggy from being knocked out. Raffles goes to get a light to help him.

In his absence, however, Belville appears brandishing the revolver he took off Bunny. Turns out he did not escape down the fire escape, but hid in the toilet and listened to Raffles and Bunny’s conversation – then followed them in the darkness across St James’s, then by cab etc.

Now he handcuffs Bunny to the railings of a perilous little iron bridge over a deep drop between two wings of the apartment block. Raffles reappears and there is a confrontation while the two gentleman thieves congratulate each other on their style and then proceed to debate how they’re going to proceed.

A big storm is brewing. There is lightning. A tremendous gust of wind blows out the lamp Raffles was holding and he lunges forward. Ernest tries to block his move but trips and plummets down down into the well between buildings, landing splat on the concrete at the bottom.

Raffles releases Bunny from his handcuffs and helps him along into the safety of their apartment.

Somewhere along the line Raffles has switched from the light and airy comedy of Lord Amersteth’s house party and cricket match to a world of murder and cyanide in what feels like a permanent Gothic night. Jeeves and Wooster have turned into Batman.

6. An Old Flame

Wheeling Raffles along in a bath chair in his character as invalid, Bunny is horrified when the old man sees an open window into a posh Mayfair house too attractive to resist. He clambers up to the first floor balcony and into a room with much silver on show, but is caught by the lady of the house entering.

Bunny pushes the bath chair quickly round the corner and away from this disastrous scene – but is amazed when a few moments later Raffles catches up with him. The woman turns out to be no other than Jacques Saillard, a passionate headstrong Spanish woman who has made a reputation as a painter. They had an affair some years before.

They have barely got home before the doorbell rings and it is her. She has followed them. She insists Raffles dismisses Bunny who is kicked out of the flat while she gives Raffles an earful of complaint.

Next thing Bunny knows is that Raffles asks him to find them a place in the country. Now this woman knows he’s alive she will sooner or later blurt out the secret. Raffles tells Bunny to go and find a nice quiet cottage somewhere like Ham Common west of Richmond. So off Bunny goes and does just that, renting it from a kindly old lady. Raffles had made his dismissal official, getting Dr Theobald to pay him off (it’s easy to forget that for all the stories in this volume Bunny has, supposedly, been an assistant and help to the supposedly confirmed old invalid Mr Maturin.

Bunny waits for news of Raffles’s arrival and, after ten days, pays a visit back to the apartment block in Earls Court. Here he is horrified to learn from Dr Theobald that Mr Maturin has passed away. They are just carrying the coffin downstairs. Bunny watches appalled.

Next day he attends the funeral in an agony of unhappiness, watches Dr Theobald and then Jacques Saillard pay their respects and drive away. An odd-looking fellow had been hanging round and now offers Bunny, the last mourner, a lift in his brougham.

Wwll, no prizes for guessing that this chap turns out to be… Raffles in disguise! Yes, he faked his own death to throw Jacques Saillard off the track and paid Dr Theobald a whopping £1,000 to sign the death certificate and keep quiet.

7. The Wrong House

Freed from their Earls Court base, Raffles and Bunny move in to the cottage on Ham Common and tell the kindly old landlady that Raffles is Bunny’s brother, returned from Australia.

But old habits die hard and this story is about the semi-farcical attempt to burgle a stockbroker’s house near the common and make a quick getaway on the newfangled technology of bicycles!

Unfortunately, it is a dark and foggy night and they end up breaking into the wrong house, which is a private school packed with plucky young students, who grab Bunny, until Raffles manages to free him at which point they are confronted by the head of the school and only just about blag their way out – claiming that they were innocent passersby who saw the burglary taking place.

They run out top the drive where they have stashed their bicycles and set off with the students giving such close pursuit that they actually wrench their handlebars, but our heroes manage to shake them off, and make their escape, going on an immense roundabout route before returning, none the better off, to the little cottage.

8. The Knees of the Gods

The Boer War breaks out on 11 October 1899. Raffles and Bunny read about it and then, as the tide turns against Britain, decide to volunteer. Being a bit old, unable to be conscripted in England, they take ship to South Africa and wangle their way into a regiment there, as privates.

Here a very strange thing happens. Hornung’s style turns into Rudyard Kipling’s. Having read almost all of Kipling’s 120 or so short stories, I can report that, in his later tales, he made a point of revising the stories again and again, to remove extraneous words and phrases, repeatedly paring and chipping away at the stories to make them more and more clipped and allusive, often to the point of obscurity.

To my surprise, that’s what happens to Hornung’s style. It’s as if he’s incapable of broaching on the subject which Kipling’s massive imaginative presence, in poems, short stories and novels, virtually owned – Britain’s imperial wars – without adopting his style.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around a corporal in Bunny and Raffles’s platoon who they come to suspect is a Boer spy, and catch in the act of releasing British horses and packing them off to the Boer lines. Raffles impresses an officer in the regiment who, it turns out, he was at school with – presents definitive evidence of the corporal’s guilt – and the corporal is shot as a spy (after Raffles and this officer spent forty or so minutes chatting, inevitably, about cricket, that great social marker of the pukka Englishman).

But it’s the adoption of Kipling’s often puzzlingly clipped and allusive style which dominates the story, for me. For example, this dodgy corporal, Connal, picks on Bunny until Raffles steps in to defend him (in best public school style).

Connal was a hulking ruffian, and in me had ideal game. The brute was offensive to me from the hour I joined. The details are of no importance, but I stood up to him at first in words, and finally for a few seconds on my feet. Then I went down like an ox, and Raffles came out of his tent. Their fight lasted twenty minutes, and Raffles was marked, but the net result was dreadfully conventional, for the bully was a bully no more.

That phrase, ‘Their fight lasted twenty minutes, and Raffles was marked’ – the clipped understatement of ‘Raffles was marked’ – is fantastically redolent of the stiff-upper-lip, public schoolboy tone of Kipling’s stories about schoolboy hi-jinks, Stalky and Co.

This obliqueness really comes over as the story builds to a climax. The platoon is tasked with taking a hill held by Boers, and is crawling forwards when Bunny is drilled by a bullet through the thigh. Raffles of course comes to his aid, pulling him into the shelter of a rock and taking it upon himself to try and locate and shoot the sniper who did it. Up and down he pops behind this rock, chatting away merrily to Bunny, commentating on his progress in identifying the blighter’s location, ducking down again to reload, popping up again to take another pot shot.

Until he is shot dead. Raffles proves himself the ultimate good chap by dying for his Queen and Country. This puzzled me because I know there is at least one more set of Raffles short stories, plus an entire novel, so I am intrigued how Hornung got around the difficulty of killing off his hero.

But what impressed me more than Raffles’s death was the extraordinary way it is described. These last few pages consist almost entirely of Raffles’s confidant chat to Bunny, who is by now, in pain and losing consciousness, with each long paragraph of dialogue, just briefly ended by a phase about Raffles reloading from his bandolier.

His entire activity of jumping up to take pot shots, then ducking back down again, is not described, it is only implied, through the couple of references to bandolier, and some of Raffles’s banter about ‘missing the blighter’ and so on.

It took me a page or so of rereading to figure out what was happening and I was really struck by the technique because this is exactly what Kipling’s later short stories are like. In Kipling’s short stories, also, the explanatory text is pruned so far back that it is often difficult to work out exactly what is going on. Only a long quote can give the effect, the way rhythm supersedes sense, and the way concrete detail is omitted and key facts only implied.

It was not a minute before Raffles came to me through the whistling scud, and in another I was on my back behind a shallow rock, with him kneeling over me and unrolling my bandage in the teeth of that murderous fire.

It was on the knees of the gods, he said, when I begged him to bend lower, but for the moment I thought his tone as changed as his face had been earlier in the morning.

To oblige me, however, he took more care; and, when he had done all that one comrade could for another, he did avail himself of the cover he had found for me. So there we lay together on the veldt, under blinding sun and withering fire, and I suppose it is the veldt that I should describe, as it swims and flickers before wounded eyes.

I shut mine to bring it back, but all that comes is the keen brown face of Raffles, still a shade paler than its wont; now bending to sight and fire; now peering to see results, brows raised, eyes widened; anon turning to me with the word to set my tight lips grinning. He was talking all the time, but for my sake, and I knew it. Can you wonder that I could not see an inch beyond him? He was the battle to me then; he is the whole war to me as I look back now.

‘Feel equal to a cigarette? It will buck you up, Bunny. No, that one in the silver paper, I’ve hoarded it for this. Here’s a light; and so Bunny takes the Sullivan! All honour to the sporting rabbit!’

‘At least I went over like one,’ said I, sending the only clouds into the blue, and chiefly wishing for their longer endurance. I was as hot as a cinder from my head to one foot; the other leg was ceasing to belong to me.

‘Wait a bit,’ says Raffles, puckering; ‘there’s a gray felt hat at deep long-on, and I want to add it to the bag for vengeance…. Wait—yes—no, no luck! I must pitch ’em up a bit more. Hallo! Magazine empty. How goes the Sullivan, Bunny? Rum to be smoking one on the veldt with a hole in your leg!’

‘It’s doing me good,’ I said, and I believe it was. But Raffles lay looking at me as he lightened his bandolier.

‘Do you remember,’ he said softly, ‘the day we first began to think about the war? I can see the pink, misty river light, and feel the first bite there was in the air when one stood about; don’t you wish we had either here! ‘Orful slorter, orful slorter;’ that fellow’s face, I see it too; and here we have the thing he cried. Can you believe it’s only six months ago?’

‘Yes,’ I sighed, enjoying the thought of that afternoon less than he did; ‘yes, we were slow to catch fire at first.’

‘Too slow,’ he said quickly.

‘But when we did catch,’ I went on, wishing we never had, ‘we soon burnt up.’

‘And then went out,’ laughed Raffles gayly. He was loaded up again. ‘Another over at the gray felt hat,’ said he; ‘by Jove, though, I believe he’s having an over at me!’

‘I wish you’d be careful,’ I urged. ‘I heard it too.’

‘My dear Bunny, it’s on the knees you wot of. If anything’s down in the specifications surely that is. Besides – that was nearer!

‘To you?’

‘No, to him. Poor devil, he has his specifications too; it’s comforting to think that…. I can’t see where that one pitched; it may have been a wide; and it’s very nearly the end of the over again. Feeling worse, Bunny?”

No, I’ve only closed my eyes. Go on talking.’

‘It was I who let you in for this,’ he said, at his bandolier again.

‘No, I’m glad I came out.’

And I believe I still was, in a way; for it WAS rather fine to be wounded, just then, with the pain growing less; but the sensation was not to last me many minutes, and I can truthfully say that I have never felt it since.

‘Ah, but you haven’t had such a good time as I have!’

‘Perhaps not.’

Had his voice vibrated, or had I imagined it? Pain-waves and loss of blood were playing tricks with my senses; now they were quite dull, and my leg alive and throbbing; now I had no leg at all, but more than all my ordinary senses in every other part of me. And the devil’s orchestra was playing all the time, and all around me, on every class of fiendish instrument, which you have been made to hear for yourselves in every newspaper. Yet all that I heard was Raffles talking.

‘I have had a good time, Bunny.’ Yes, his voice was sad; but that was all; the vibration must have been in me.

‘I know you have, old chap,’ said I.

‘I am grateful to the General for giving me to-day. It may be the last. Then I can only say it’s been the best – by Jove!’

‘What is it?’ And I opened my eyes. His were shining. I can see them now.

‘Got him – got the hat! No, I’m hanged if I have; at least he wasn’t in it. The crafty cuss, he must have stuck it up on purpose. Another over … scoring’s slow…. I wonder if he’s sportsman enough to take a hint? His hat-trick’s foolish. Will he show his face if I show mine?’

I lay with closed ears and eyes. My leg had come to life again, and the rest of me was numb.

‘Bunny!’ His voice sounded higher. He must have been sitting upright.

‘Well?’

But it was not well with me; that was all I thought as my lips made the word.

‘It’s not only been the best time I ever had, old Bunny, but I’m not half sure – ‘

Of what I can but guess; the sentence was not finished, and never could be in this world.


Comments

I’ve just read a few novels by H.G. Wells, who is almost always exact and clear in his imagining of a scene (no matter how preposterous). By contrast, I began to get irritated by Hornung’s lack of sequentiality. I mean that:

  1. His sentences often skip over logical connections so you have to do a bit of work to figure out what he’s talking about.
  2. At the same time, his descriptive abilities are limited. I got little or no sense of the interior of the British Museum which is a sitting duck of a subject for a writer – in fact his descriptions of rooms and places is generally thin.
  3. Obscure phrasing.

Maybe I am just not getting his banter but pretty regularly there are phrases I just don’t understand. At the very end of The Last Laugh he writes:

But the worst did not come to the worst, more power to my unforgotten friend the cabman, who never came forward to say what manner of men he had driven to Bloomsbury Square at top speed on the very day upon which the tragedy was discovered there, or whence he had driven them. To be sure, they had not behaved like murderers, whereas the evidence at the inquest all went to show that the defunct Corbucci was little better. His reputation, which transpired with his identity, was that of a libertine and a renegade, while the infernal apparatus upstairs revealed the fiendish arts of the anarchist to boot. The inquiry resulted eventually in an open verdict, and was chiefly instrumental in killing such compassion as is usually felt for the dead who die in their sins.

But Raffles would not have passed this title for this tale.

I’ve no idea what this final sentence means. It makes you appreciate all the more the lucidity and clarity of Conan Doyle’s prose in his Sherlock Holmes stories of the same period.

In the following example, I think Hornung is straining a simile until it breaks. Bunny is waiting with bated breath for Raffles to return to their flat.

I can give you no conception of the night that I spent. Most of it I hung across the sill, throwing a wide net with my ears, catching every footstep afar off, every hansom bell farther still, only to gather in some alien whom I seldom even landed in our street.

What? By ‘alien’ does he mean alien and so useless fish i.e. he saw and heard things but nothing relevant to his watch for Raffles? Or:

Then one night in the autumn – I shrink from shocking the susceptible for nothing – but there was a certain house in Palace Gardens, and when we got there Raffles would pass on.

I have no idea why he is shocking the susceptible, and no idea what the phrase ‘would pass on’ means. Does it mean ‘and when we got there Raffles made me carry on walking right past it’? Why doesn’t he say so?

Every few pages there are phrases like this, which require a bit of effort to parse or understand, and this lack of fluency rises to a peak in the final story, where Hornung appears to be making a virtue of it, emphasising a clipped and deliberately allusive style in – if I’m right – conscious or unconscious imitation of Kipling.

Pop culture

There are high speed chases, priceless jewels, kidnaps and poisonings. It’s a tell-tale sign that an author knows he is writing popular rubbish using popular stereotypes when he knowingly compares his characters to…er… popular stereotypes.

With his overcoat buttoned up to the chin, his tall hat pressed down to his eyes, and between the two his incisive features and his keen, stern glance, he looked the ideal detective of fiction and the stage.

‘For the moment I did think you were one of these smart detectives jumped to life from some sixpenny magazine; but to preserve the illusion you ought to provide yourself with a worthier lieutenant.’

Overtly acknowledging that you’re using penny shocker clichés doesn’t raise you above them, it just tends to confirm the reader’s perception.

ITV dramatisation

ITV made television dramatisations of the stories in the 1970s, starring the dishy Anthony Valentine.


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Rudyard Kipling

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

Oceania @ The Royal Academy

How to say Oceania

First the pronunciation. All the curators and scholars on the audio-guide (£2.50 and well worth it) pronounced it: O-SHE-EH-KNEE-ER. They are mostly Oceanians (Auusies and Kiwis) themselves. Whereas Tim Marlow, RA artistic director, pronounces it: O-SHE-ARE-KNEE-ER. Maybe that’s the British pronunciation.

The map

Second, the map. Oceania is immense, covering – at its widest extent, about a third of the earth’s surface. Yet it is almost all water. Apart from the continent of Australia, the big islands of New Guinea and New Zealand, it mainly comprises hundreds of small to tiny islands or atolls, scattered over the immensity of the Pacific Ocean.

Map of Oceania

Map of Oceania

It was only later that European geographers divided the vast area into Polynesia (Greek for ‘many islands’), Melanesia (meaning ‘islands of black people’) and Micronesia (‘small islands’).

The people

It took a vast period of time for them to be settled. Indigenous Australians migrated from Africa to Asia around 70,000 years ago, and arrived in Australia around 50,000 years ago. Papua New Guinea was first colonised 30,000 years ago.

But most of the islands of Oceania were populated a lot later (or more recently), starting maybe around 3,000-3,500 BC on Fiji, 1400 BC in the Bismarck Archipelago, 1000 BC on Tonga, 300-400 AD for Easter Island and Hawaii, New Zealand between 800 and 1200 AD.

So the problem any exhibition of ‘Oceania’ faces is this extraordinary diversity of histories, cultures, languages and religions to be found over this vast extent.

The timeline

It can be simplified as:

  1. Tribal peoples travel across the islands, settling them over a huge time span from 50,000 BC to 400 AD.
  2. European discovery: various Pacific islands were ‘discovered’ from the 16th century onwards by European explorers from Portugal, Spain and Holland (e.g. the Dutchman Abel Tasman who gave his name to Tasmania in 1642). But Anglocentric narratives tend to focus on the four voyages of Captain James Cook, the first of which arrived at Tahiti in 1769 with Cook going on to map the islands of the Pacific more extensively than any man before or since.
  3. Colonisation: during the 19th century one by one the islands fell under the control of European powers, namely Britain and France and Holland, with Germany arriving late in the 19th century and then America seizing various islands at the turn of the 20th century. Everywhere Europeans tried to impose European law, brought missionaries who tried to stamp out tribal customs, sometimes used the people as forced labour, and everywhere brought diseases like smallpox which devastated native populations.
  4. Political awakening: during my lifetime i.e. the last 30 or 40 years, the voices of native peoples in all the islands have been increasingly heard, fighting for political independence, demanding reparations for colonial-era injustices, a great resurgence of cultural and artistic activity by native peoples determined to have their own stories heard, and a great wind of change through western institutions and audiences now made to feel guilty about their colonial legacy, and invited to ask questions about whether we should return all the objects in our museums to their original owners.
  5. Global warming: unfortunately, at the same time as this great artistic and political awakening has taken place, we have learned that humanity is heating up the world, sea-levels will rise and that a lot of Oceania’s sacred places, historic sites and even entire islands are almost certainly going to be submerged and lost.

The peg for the exhibition

250 years ago, in August  1768, the Royal Academy was founded by George III. Four months earlier, Captain James Cook had set off on his epoch-making expedition to the Pacific. This exhibition celebrates this thought-provoking junction of events.

The exhibition itself

I love tribal art, native art, primitive art, whatever the correct terminology is. Some of my favourite art anywhere is the Benin Bronzes now in the British Museum (and other European collections), so I should have loved this exhibition. There are well over a hundred carved canoes, masks, statues, spears and paddles, totems, roof beams, and other ‘native’ or ‘tribal’ objects which emanate tremendous artistic power and integrity.

Tene Waitere, Tā Moko panel (1896-99) Te Papa © Image courtesy of The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Tene Waitere, Tā Moko panel (1896-99) Te Papa © Image courtesy of The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

I think one of the problems is that I found it, in fact, too immense. Overwhelmed by wall after wall of extraordinary masks and carvings I found the narrative or explanations behind the objects difficult to follow. It is the challenge of ‘Oceania’ as a subject that it is so huge and so diverse. Every single island had its own peoples, with their own myths, legends, traditions and ways. It wasn’t like reading about the ancient Greeks or Egyptians which are reasonably uniform and stable entities – it was like reading about a thousand types of ancient Greek or Egyptians.

The exhibition attempts to create order from this profusion by allotting objects to themed rooms, thus:

1. Introduction

A huge map of Oceania takes up one wall of the central octagonal room, whose other dominating feature is a vast cascading blue curtain, a work of art invoking the enormous Pacific made by the Mata Aho Collective of four Māori women. And on another wall, a video of Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands reciting one of her poems in a strong American accent.

2. Voyaging and navigation

This room contains some breath-takingly beautiful carved wooden canoes, paddles, prows, fierce wooden headposts, ornate carvings and painted figureheads. In the background, on the left, you can see a display case which contains several of the ‘stick charts’ which native peoples used as navigational aids.

Installation view of canoes at Oceania, the Royal Academy

Installation view of canoes at Oceania at the Royal Academy

Tupai, a native from Tahiti, who I learned about when I read the biography of Captain Cook, was a native who joined Cook’s crew and became extremely useful as an interpreter with tribes on the islands he visited. Tupai made a number of drawings of natives and Europeans and these and a number of other drawings are scattered throughout the show. interesting, but dwarfed by the visual and imaginative impact of the enormous canoes and masks and statues.

3. Expanding horizons

Spears, head dresses, statues, ceremonial clubs and dance shields.

The commentary makes the point that a lot of the artefacts now on display in Western museums were not stolen and looted. Most Oceanic cultures placed importance on gift-giving for cementing alliances, mediating power, exchanging brides and grooms, and so on. Hence a lot of the stuff on show here was given freely by native peoples keen to establish their idea of good relationships with the newcomers by exchanging. And of course, the European ships exchanged or ‘sold’ to the natives all sorts of European goods, from trashy gewgaws, to useful tools and equipment.

4. Place a community

A room about buildings showing how native peoples decorated their buildings with paintings or carvings depicting myths, legends, important ancestors, and how the architecture not only mediated space, but also, in some sense, controlled time. For example as you entered a chamber decorated with carvings of your ancestors, you were literally going back to their time.

This room included one of the highlights, an enormous long, carved, wooden roofbeam from the Solomon Islands which featured some exquisitely carved figures of seagulls, pinned tail up to the side of the wall, as if diving down to catch the wooden fish depicted swimming along beneath them.

Also included were some fairly explicit images of the sexes, a number of men with penis sheathes and the goddess Dikulai carved with her legs wide apart and, apparently, pulling apart her labia.

Carved wooden pole for a ceremonial house, Magura village, Solomon Islands, 17th century

Carved wooden pole for a ceremonial house, Magura village, Solomon Islands, 17th century

5. Gods and ancestors

This is another room full of enormous carved wooden and stone statues, for example of the two-headed figure of Ti’i from Tahiti, or the immense stone Maori figure of Hava Rapi Nui. There’s a wooden depiction of Lono, the Hawaiian god who was to be Captain Cook’s nemesis.

Installation view of canoes at Oceania at the Royal Academy

Installation view of canoes at Oceania at the Royal Academy

6. The spirit of the gift

Examples of the gifts whose exchange was such an important part of the culture of many of the islands: necklaces made of teeth or shells, armshells, half a dozen enormous decorated barkcloths the size of Persian carpets, cloaks made of feathers or flax, and a couple of three-foot-tall, feathered godheads.

7. Performance and memory

Most of these artefacts were not ‘art’ in our sense, objects to be kept hanging on a wall or in sterile conditions in galleries. Most of them were made to be used – to be worn, moved or swung, in an atmosphere of incense and music and celebration, or commemoration or ritual.

Objects like a lifesize costume for a ‘chief mourner’, or the huge display of fans, figures, masks, a dance paddle, a head crest, carved wooden shields, a war club, a ceremonial adze, a crocodile mask. Things that were meant to come alive in the hands of experienced users.

8. Encounter and empire

Here come the horrible Europeans bringing their Christianity, their ‘rule of law’ and their ideas of ‘private property’ which could be bought and sold at a profit, instead of freely exchanged as gifts.

That said, the exhibition emphasises how native peoples used all the new objects and materials which Europeans exchanged with them to produce new hybrid forms of art, incorporating European materials and motifs, precursors, in some ways, to tourist souvenirs.

In the enormous display case which took up one entire wall and housed some 15 stunning carved objects, pride of place went to another long slender carving, this time of a feast trough carved in the shape of a crocodile, from Kalikongu, a village in the West Solomon Islands.

19th-century feast bowl from the Solomon Islands, nearly 7 metres long. Photograph: Trustees of the British Museum

19th-century feast bowl from the Solomon Islands, nearly 7 metres long. Photograph: Trustees of the British Museum

9. In pursuit of Venus (infected)

The exhibition completely changes tone as you round the corner and come across the longest continuous video projection I’ve ever seen. Onto the wall of the longest room in the Royal Academy is projected this 21st century live-action animated art work by Lisa Reihana, a 26-metre wide, 32-minute long installation.

To quote from Reihana’s website:

In 1804, Joseph Dufour created Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, a sophisticated 20-panel scenic wallpaper whose exotic subject matter referenced popular illustrations of the times and mirrored a widespread fascination with Captain Cook and de la Perouse Pacific voyages. Two hundred years later Lisa Reihana reanimates this popular wallpaper as a panoramic video spanning a width of 26 metres.

While Dufour’s work models Enlightenment beliefs of harmony amidst mankind, Reihana’s version includes encounters between Polynesians and Europeans which acknowledge the nuances and complexities of cultural identities and colonisation. Stereotypes about other cultures and representation that developed during those times and since are challenged, and the gaze of imperialism is returned with a speculative twist that disrupts notions of beauty, authenticity, history and myth.

If you’re puzzled by the title, it is explained by the fact that Captain Cook’s 1768 voyage to the Pacific was commissioned by the Royal Society to record the transit of Venus, a phenomenon it was hoped would help improve navigation, and which astronomers knew would be better observed from the South Pacific than from Britain.

The subtitle, ‘infected’, rather brutally reminds us of the immense devastation wrought on native populations by the disease-bringing Europeans (whose diseases had earlier ravaged the populations of the Caribbean, north and central America).

Here’s a clip from In pursuit of Venus (infected):

The film presents a panorama of all kinds of social interactions from the colonising period including, inevitably, scenes of brutality and killing.

For me this completely changed the tone of the exhibition. Up till then I had been admiring Oceanic culture from the past: from this point onwards, for the last two rooms, the exhibition transitions to being about contemporary art by contemporary artists from the Oceanic region, a different thing entirely.

A completely different thing because these artists, without exception, being 21st century artists, employ what is now the universal, global language of contemporary art. They may have been born in New Zealand or the Marshall Islands, but they have been educated into the international visual language of contemporary art from New York to Beijing.

Thus a lot of their visual and artistic distinctiveness was lost.

10. Memory

These last two rooms mix a handful of awesome traditional masks or wood carvings with bang up-to-date contemporary works of art.

For example, The Pressure of Sunlight Falling by Fiona Partington (b.1961 New Zealand) consists of five enormous digital photographs of casts made of the heads of Pacific people. The work is based on the fact that, on the Pacific voyage of French explorer Dumont d’Urville, from 1837 to 1840, the eminent phrenologist, Pierre-Marie Dumoutier, took life casts of natives that the expedition encountered. Centuries later, Pardington heard about this, and dug around in the archives to discover some of the original casts. In the words of the catalogue, she:

reinvests their mana by highlighting their neoclassical dignity and beauty through immaculate lighting and composition.

This is all well and good and interesting. And the photos are stunning.

Some photos from The Pressure of Sunlight Falling by Fiona Pardington

Some photos from The Pressure of Sunlight Falling by Fiona Pardington

But for me they come from the world of contemporary art, they could be hanging in the Serpentine or Whitechapel or ABP gallery – all of which are worlds away from the anthropological imagination required to imagine yourself into a Maori canoe or a Solomon Island hut filled with wood carvings of the ancestors.

11. Memory and commemoration

The final room contains a couple of ‘tribal’ works, but the balance has now shifted decisively towards very contemporary Oceanic art.

These include Blood Generation (2009), a collaboration between artist Taloi Havini and photographer Stuart Miller. Between 1988 and 1998 there was a brutal civil war between Papua New Guinea and the people of Bougainville, triggered by external interests in mining. The young people who grew up during this era are known locally as the ‘blood generation’. The art work consists of a series of brooding, mostly black and white, photos of young people from the blood generation and the mine-scarred landscape they grew up in.

Still from Blood Generation by Taloi Havini and Stuart Miller (2009)

Photo from Blood Generation by Taloi Havini and Stuart Miller (2009)

One whole wall of this last room is devoted to an enormous painting on canvas, Kehe tau hauaga foou (To all new arrivals) by John Pule (2007).

Installation view of Kehe tau hauaga foou (To all new arrivals) by John Pule (2009)

Installation view of Kehe tau hauaga foou (To all new arrivals) by John Pule (2009)

And a video, Siva in motion, in which video artist Yuki Kihara is dressed in a black Victorian dress, and then slowly performs dance movements traditionally ascribed to the Hindu god Siva. The work is in memory of the 159 victims of the 2009 tsunami, which is why it is in the room devoted to ‘Memory and commemoration’.

I hope you can see why, by the end of these eleven rooms packed with geography, history, new peoples and languages and gods and customs and traditions, I felt that these final, absolutely contemporary art works, though they may well bring an exhibition of Oceanic art right up to date, also threw me.

They had the regrettable effect of overwriting much of the visual impact of the native objects I’d seen earlier in the exhibition. Photography and video are so powerful that they tend to blot out everything else.

I wish I’d stopped at room eight, among the amazing carved head and feathered masks and strange threatening statues, and kept the strange, powerful, haunting lost world of Oceania with me for the rest of the day.

Video

The RA did a live broadcast from the opening of the exhibition, featuring Tim Marlow, RA artistic director and scholars discussing artefacts, and also including a live performance.


Related links

  • Oceania continues at the Royal Academy until 10 December 2018

Related reviews

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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

Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia @ the British Museum

This is a brilliantly conceived and designed exhibition. Not only does it display over 200 fascinating and beautiful objects covering all aspects of Scythian life, but it is imaginatively laid out – many of the walls covered with enormous blown-up photographs of the ravishingly unspoilt landscape of Siberia, or draped with wall-height hangings showing beautiful silver birch trees.

There is an enormous animation covering a whole wall, showing computer-generated Scythian horsemen riding across a real Siberian landscape, and on another wall an enormous slideshow showing a series of watercolours made of Siberia by Russian artist Pavel Pyasetsky in the 1890s. Siberia, as the commentary reminds us, makes up nearly 10% of the entire land mass of the planet and, on the evidence of the photos here it contains some absolutely stunning scenery.

Throughout the exhibition there are subtle sound effects from hidden speakers broadcasting forest sounds, wind effects and the stamping and snuffling of horses, to convey the huge empty spaces of the steppe and the main noise these Scythian nomads would have heard all their lives, the sounds of their trusted, loyal, equine companions.

Southern Siberian landscape with burial mounds. © V. Terebenin

Southern Siberian landscape with Scythian burial mounds. © V. Terebenin

I’ve been to a lot of exhibitions which aspire to this level of immersion in the world they are depicting – but this is one of the few that really succeeds.

The Scythians

The Scythians is the name given to confederations of nomadic tribes people who inhabited the vast steppes of Siberia between 900 and 200 BC. They probably spoke various dialects of early Iranian but were illiterate and so left absolutely no written record; all we have is a few scattered references in ancient Greek texts and what has been discovered by archaeologists.

Gold artefacts started being dug up by random explorers from stone burial mounds in remote Siberian steppe in the 1720s. Tsar Peter the Great heard about it and issued a decree that all such finds must be sent to him, and ordered explorers and antiquarians to go and find out more. Thus he began the collection of Scythian remains which he stored at the huge Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

Gold plaque depicting a Scythian rider with a spear in his right hand (second half of the 4th century BC) Kul’ Oba. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin

Gold plaque depicting a Scythian rider with a spear in his right hand (second half of the 4th century BC) Kul’ Oba. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin

Over the centuries this core collection has been augmented as new expeditions discovered new burial sites, and as advances in aerial photography, digital analysis and archaeological surveys in the past thirty years have led to a wave of new discoveries. The great bulk of the objects on display are on loan from the Hermitage, topped up with contributions from other generous loans from the National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Ashmolean Museum, the Royal Collection and Achaemenid Oxus Treasure from the British Museum’s own collection, here to show how its motifs were influenced by Scythian art.

Extent in time and space

At their furthest extent the Scythians ranged from the border of China in the east to the northern shore of the Black Sea in the west. A wonderful animated video shows their impact in the west, where Scythian arrow-men apparently were used as a kind of city police in ancient Athens in the 430s, and in Persepolis, capital of the Persian empire, where friezes dating from emperor’s palace in the 550s depict Scythian warriors.

Here and there Herodotus is quoted on the warlike nature of the Scythians, on their practice of making pacts sealed in blood, of their notorious drunkenness. As to their contacts with the East, a case of Scythian armour made from woven fabric explains that it was hardened using lacquering techniques which originate in China.

The Scythians touched and traded with the cultures at either end of their huge, cold, forbidding territory but were never conquered or controlled by them.

Eurasia showing the extent of the Achaemenid empire (in red) and the Eurasian steppe and mixed woodland largely occupied by the Scythians (in Green). Map produced by Paul Goodhead.

Eurasia showing the extent of the Achaemenid empire (in red) and the Eurasian steppe and mixed woodland largely occupied by the Scythians (in light green). Map produced by Paul Goodhead.

That’s a sketch of the historical record, but the exhibition is really concerned with what the archaeological finds tell us about the Scythians’ culture and society, and here the show is a real revelation – not just about the Scythians themselves, but about just how much modern archaeological science can tell us about a people who left no records or writings of any kind.

All areas of their lives and culture are covered. First and foremost they were warriors, feared adversaries and neighbours of the ancient Greeks, Assyrians and Persians between 900 and 200 BC. Numerous cases are devoted to their pointed battle-axes and short swords for close combat, nasty-looking barbed arrow-heads for long-distance archery. Their quivers were set on their saddles for quick access. Remains of several bows indicate their flexibility and power.

Painted wooden shields, armour and a helmet have survived from the ancient tombs. The Scythians were skilled horsemen and the exhibition shows a range of accessories, saddles and head-dresses made for their horses. When a chief died he was buried not only with retainers (presumably executed for the occasion) but with his favourite horses which would be specially adorned with elaborate costumes, with masks, saddle pendants and covers for the mane and tail. All these accessories helped to transform them into mythical beasts.

Horse headdress made of felt, leather and wood from Pazyryk 2 burial mound (late 4th-early 3rd century BC) © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.

Horse headdress made of felt, leather and wood from Pazyryk 2 burial mound (late 4th-early 3rd century BC) © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin.

But actually, unlike quite a few other ancient cultures, what came over a lot more powerfully than their warlikeness was the tremendous artistry of their peacetime culture. The dead chiefs were buried in carefully constructed tombs which they then covered with stone burial mounds. They were constructed in such a way that the winter freeze locked the tomb solid, preserving the dead and their belongings. And we have been the beneficiaries because this meant that many of the content were perfectly preserved.

Many of the objects are from finds made in the high Altai mountains of southern Siberia, right at the southern extent of Russia and near the China border. Although most of them are in the order of 2,500 years old, the frozen ground prevented them from deteriorating.

Horse bridles - the central one features plaques representing eagles, rams' heads and a mythical predator (Late 4th-early 3rd century BC) Burial mound 1, Pazyryk, Altai Mountains, southern Siberia

Horse bridles – the central one features plaques representing eagles, rams’ heads and a mythical predator (Late 4th-early 3rd century BC) Burial mound 1, Pazyryk, Altai Mountains, southern Siberia

Thus the exhibition includes multi-coloured textiles, fur-lined garments and accessories, unique horse headgear and tattooed human remains. Quite a few mummified human remains have been found and every single one is extensively tattooed. Soot was, apparently, the medium of choice, because it is common and chemically stable. It was incredible, not to say, macabre, to be scrutinising human skin from 2,500 years ago, with readable, discernible animal shapes and zoomorphic patterns.

Part of human skin with a tattoo, from the left side of the breast and back of a man (from Pazyryk 2 burial site, late 4th-early 3rd century BC) © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin

Part of human skin with a tattoo, from the left side of the breast and back of a man (from Pazyryk 2 burial site, late 4th-early 3rd century BC) © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin

There was a wealth of other cultural artefacts, including multi-coloured textiles, fur-lined garments, bowls and ladles. The Scythians developed unique head gear, the women wearing tall, narrow conical hats, the warrior men wearing a distinctive type of decorated cap (which is how we identify them in the Persepolis friezes).

Reconstruction of Scythian horseman based on the excavated finds from Olon-Kurin-Gol 10, Altai mountains, Mongolia, by D. V. Pozdnjakov, Institute for Archaeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Department of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Reconstruction of Scythian horseman based on the excavated finds from Olon-Kurin-Gol 10, Altai mountains, Mongolia, by D. V. Pozdnjakov, Institute for Archaeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Department of the Russian Academy of Sciences

There’s a kind of brazier which was, apparently, used for burning hemp seeds, related to marijuana. We have no written records so we can only speculate that it was possibly burnt in order to purify and cleanse the tent or teepee, or maybe used to induce collective highs as part of religious rites, or maybe was breathed in to relieve pain – in a primitive world which must have been plagued by illness, infection and injury and which, quite obviously, afforded few if any forms of pain relief. The fifth century BC Greek historian Herodotus described how Scythians ‘howled with pleasure’ when they inhaled the smoke. Much like teenagers today.

But what I haven’t mentioned yet is the gold. Gold. Lots of beautiful golden ornaments. I missed the wall label which explained where they mined or found it, but they did so in large quantities and developed advanced techniques for both working the gold by hand and casting it in moulds large and small. Modern X-ray photography and microscopy has added to our understanding of how the numerous gold ornaments on display were worked and shaped. It’s extraordinary that a nomadic people, with no towns or settlements at all, managed to support a class of master craftsmen who developed goldsmithing to such a fine art.

A gold belt plaque of a Scythian funerary scene (4th–3rd century BC) © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Photo: V Terebenin.

A gold belt plaque of a Scythian funerary scene (4th–3rd century BC) © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Photo: V Terebenin.

This is one half of a gold belt buckle belonging to Scythian nobility. We deduce from their art works that gold was associated with the sun and power. The scene depicts a dead man lying prone, his head in the lap of a female deity on the left – identifiable by her tall narrow circular hat – behind them both the tree of life on which is hanging a quiver of arrows, and to the right a seated man holding the reins of two horses. It is presumably a scene redolent of symbolic power and myth but we have no idea what it means. Is it the climax of some Scythian legend about a hero who dies in battle and is cradled by his patron goddess? Or some deeper myth to do with death and rebirth? Nobody knows but this powerful object, pregnant with meaning, was my favourite thing in the whole exhibition.

There are quite a few other stunning pieces of gold jewellery. In particular I was struck by several artefacts which, in their day, had been covered with scores and scores of tiny gold applique items, created by using a small punch on soft gold to create scores of tiny gold ornaments, smaller than buttons, generally in the shape of a stylised animal and with one or two tiny holes. The holes were to allow these gold decorations to be sewn onto tunics and, in one case, onto the leather case for a Scythian bow.

The gold plaque below is tiny, about a centimetre across. The ear, eye, nostril, mouth and various other slots would have contained decorative stones, probably turquoise.

Gold plaque in the shape of a coiled panther (4th–3rd century BC) Siberian Collection of Peter the Great © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin

Gold plaque in the shape of a coiled panther (4th–3rd century BC) Siberian Collection of Peter the Great © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin

The animal motifs on these gold artefacts are a whole subject in themselves. Scythian animal art featured birds of prey, plant-eating animals, feline predators, ferocious beasts. Some depict leopard-like creatures, and we know that wild leopards lived in the Altai mountains. Others show fantastic beasts from the underworld preying on hoofed animals (presumably symbolising the horses the Scythians so relied on, and maybe pointing to the anxiety about the instability, the fragility of nomadic life, which must have stalked Scythian culture at every moment).

Lots of gold artworks, large and small, all exquisitely made, and with their depictions of mythical beasts locked in predatory combat, teasingly hinting at a whole mythology, a world of folk lore and legends, now completely lost to us.

Afterlife

In about the second century BC the Scythians disappeared and were replaced by other nomadic powers. The exhibition concludes with an exploration of what happened afterwards, mentioning the races who succeeded them, the Mongols and the Huns, peoples who were to have a much larger, more ominous and disastrous effect on their neighbours.

For a long time afterwards the Scythians were nothing but a name and a few references in the ancient authors. This wonderful, atmospheric and deeply evocative exhibition shows that we now have more than enough objects of all shapes and types to recreate a good deal of the lives and arts of this long dead people.

Southern Siberia landscapes with burial mounds © V. Terebenin

Southern Siberia landscapes with burial mounds © V. Terebenin

Videos

The British Museum has made not one but eight short videos about the exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum shows

Places of the mind: British watercolour landscapes 1850–1950 @ the British Museum

This is a lovely exhibition and it is FREE.

Go into the main entrance to the British Museum, walk through the Great Court round the side of the shops, on through room 24 with its colourful displays of tribal artifacts, and through to the double staircase right at the back. Walk up, or take the lift, to the 4th floor where you come to the modern glass doors and darkened spaces of rooms 90 and 90a, which are devoted to changing displays of the Museum’s vast collection of prints and drawings.

These rooms are currently hosting the first ever exhibition devoted to landscape drawings and watercolours by British artists from mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century – Places of the mind: British watercolour landscapes 1850–1950.

The poet Laurence Binyon worked as a curator at the BM and – apparently – personally reviewed every watercolour in the BM’s collection in order to create its watercolour catalogue, work which led to his 1933 book English Water-Colours. There’s a quote from him on a wall label saying that English watercolours of the period showed ‘no neat or orderly progress… [but] an array of very diverse and individual artists.’

That is very much the impression given by the 125 works on show – they can be grouped into periods and styles up to a point, but the ultimate impression is of range and diversity. And eminence. Many of the greatest artists of the era produced notable watercolours, including Whistler, Edward Burne-Jones, Rossetti, John Singer Sargent, Paul Nash, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland.

The exhibition’s title is borrowed from the poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson’s 1949 collection of essays, Places of the Mind. The general idea is that every landscape drawing is as much a construct of the mind and imagination of its creator as a depiction of an actual ‘place’.

Given the title I was surprised that some of the works weren’t in watercolour at all, but included other techniques on paper – for example, the use of bodycolour, pastel, chalk and pen and ink.

Victorian market

There was a massive and lucrative market for watercolours during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Artists whose names are now mostly forgotten made fortunes selling exquisitely detailed depictions of the grand scenery of Scotland, Snowdonia and the Lake District to the northern barons of the Industrial Revolution. Very broadly speaking the Victorian watercolours could be divided into Sublime Landscapes, and quite often rather cheesy depictions of a fantasy version of Rural Cottage Life.

N.B. Where possible I have linked images to their pages in the British Museum Collections website. Click on the image to see a bigger version. Click on the section titled ‘Curator’s comments’ to read detailed comments on the artist and work.

The Sublime i.e. Scotland, Wales, the Lake District

John Ruskin said artists must be true to nature, walk with nature, study nature, and so on. He was one of many tributaries into the Great Victorian Idea that the landscape contained noble, spiritual, religious truths. Take the View on the River Teme, Ludlow (1873) by George Price Boyce. The depiction of dark heather or rock interspersed among the greenery behind the angler reminds me of the same effect in William Holman Hunt’s Our English Coasts (1852). Boyce knew and was friendly with some of the PRBs.

View on the River Teme, Ludlow, Shropshire (1872–73) Watercolour with bodycolour © The Trustees of the British Museum

View on the River Teme, Ludlow, Shropshire (1872–73) Watercolour with bodycolour © The Trustees of the British Museum

  • A Scottish farm (1853) by William Henry Millais, brother of John Everett Millais, thus close to the Pre-Raphaelite circle.
  • Snowdon (1856) by David Cox, a prolific painter of the landscape of North Wales. The label picks out the rough manner of the paintwork, which certainly gives it a kind of virile strength. Cox gave lessons to young artists sketching in the area, such as George Price Boyce and Alfred William Hunt whose work is displayed nearby.
  • Dolwyddelan castle (1857) by Alfred William Hunt
  • Rydal Falls by Arthur Croft (1865) Croft was known for his depictions of the Alps, the classic setting of Romantic picture-making. The highly stippled effect gives a slightly blurred impression and makes it feel more dated than some of the other Victorian works. A similar affect to the kind of would-be-antique prints you get in a certain type of country pub.
  • View near Cotehele, Cornwall (1868) by William Frederick Yeames. It captures the distinctive feel of sunlight coming through thick cloud cover, the veiled light itself reflected silver in the river water. This silver light caused by dense overcast is, I think, a characteristic of the English landscape – compared to the dazzling blues of the Mediterranean.
  • Gordale Scar, Yorkshire (1877) by Arthur Severn. It’s blurrier than it first appears, because of the lack of hard outlines. Note the pattern or rhythm of shadow.
  • A sheep farm on the Duddon, Windermere (1891) by Hubert Henry Coutts. An oddly and unusually bright orange palette among so many images of green and brown.

Rural idylls

It’s easy enough to claim that the new wealthier Victorian middle class had a taste for nostalgic pretty-pretty images of idealised rural life. It’s also easy enough to dismiss them as cheesy kitsch. As I’ve got older I’ve tended to overlook the wish-fulfilment aspects of the images and grown a respect for the tremendous artistry and craftsmanship involved. Take The Old Bowling Green (1865) by John William North. This is a masterpiece of accurately rendered detail, given focus by the conversation of the lady and rural worker at right – a pair of Hardyesque star-crossed lovers, maybe? – with an added layer of sentiment given by the little child sitting forlorn in front of the game of bowls. Maybe her mother/maid has abandoned her to chat to the swain?

'The Old Bowling Green’, Halsway Court, Somerset (1865) by John William North. Watercolour with bodycolour © The Trustees of the British Museum

‘The Old Bowling Green’, Halsway Court, Somerset (1865) by John William North. Watercolour with bodycolour © The Trustees of the British Museum

  • Potato Digging in the Kitchen Garden (1871) by William Small – this is another miracle of fine detail. I enjoyed the way the woman carrying the trug is having to lean her body to the right to counter-balance the weight. Hard to see are the numerous fine white strands of dessicated grass which are poking out along the borders of the vegetable patch, just as they do in my garden come high summer.
  • Cowdray cottage (1890s) by Helen Allingham. One of the many saccharine images of the cottages, gardens and people Allingham made of the area of mid-Sussex where she lived. Allingham was the first female artist to be elected to the Royal Watercolour Society. Cheesy but brilliant. I love the detail of the woman in the road hitching up her skirt a little and the detail of both women’s laced boots.
  • Washing day (1892) by Walter Langley. Langley moved to Newlyn in Cornwall where he helped establish an artists’ colony and tried to depict the harsh lives of the locals fishermen and farmers. The detail of the roof tiles and jugs is breath-taking. But overall it is the striking use of shadow covering all the human figures which is remarkable.

The exotic

The British have always been great travellers, no doubt partly to escape the grim weather of their own grey and drizzly islands. During the eighteenth century it became more or less obligatory for artists to go on the ‘Grand Tour’, which took in the sublimities of the Alps and climaxed amid the ruins of Rome.The nineteenth century saw all kinds of variation on this theme.

  • Choropiskopos, Corfu (1856) by Edward Lear. What strikes me about this beautiful work is the way it contains two completely different styles: the mid and far distance are drawn in with immaculate draughtsmanship and a multitude of lines suggesting slopes and foliage; but the foreground with its rougher splodges of golden yellow and green colour, and the dryness of the brush revealing the grain of the brushstroke at, say, bottom left, suggest a wildly different aesthetic – they could be by Minton or Sutherland a hundred years later.
  • Karnak (1868) by Henry Stanier. Note the yellow highlight stone. And the shadows.
  • Bay of Salamis and Piraeus from Xerxes’ seat (1880) by William Simpson. This is larger than the reproduction suggests, with a quite breath-taking topographical accuracy of hills and horizons, covered in the pale water blues.

Personally, as the years go by, I dislike these kinds of subjects. The artists were pretty harmless tourists but, still, they were often touring round countries held by the British Empire, and I have a slight nagging feeling of cultural imperialism about them.

Impressionism 1890s

Of course the last decades of the 19th century saw the birth of the modern concept of an ‘art movement’. The Pre-Raphaelites had evolved into the Arts and Crafts Movement (1880), which paralleled the rise of the Aesthetic Movement and Art for Art’s Sake. On the continent French Impressionism came to prominence during the 1870s. As the names suggest these movements all reflected a movement away from strict linear draughtsmanship and towards vaguer softer outlines which tried to capture the effect of light and dark.

  • Amsterdam nocturne (1883) by James McNeil Whistler
  • Street scene, Venice (1890) by Hercules Brabazon Brabazon. Using the soft washes and blobs of colour available in watercolour to create a very impressionistic image.
  • Torrent in Val d’Aosta (1907) by John Singer Sargent. Sargent was one of many artists here who made their living from oil painting or illustrations, but enjoyed doing watercolours in their spare time and for their own pleasure. The handful of watercolours by him here, although using the same broad brush approach as his oil paintings, are strikingly unfinished.
View from a Window, Genoa (c.1911) by John Singer Sargent. Watercolour and oil over graphite © The Trustees of the British Museum

View from a Window, Genoa (c.1911) by John Singer Sargent. Watercolour and oil over graphite © The Trustees of the British Museum

  • Graveyard in Tyrol (1914) one of numerous watercolours Sargent made on his annual summer tour round the Continent, which lasted into August 1914 so that he found himself caught up in the mobilisation for the Great War.
  • Port Vendres (1926) by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Mackintosh is famous for his wonderful Art Nouveau architecture and designs yet he left Scotland after the war, feeling he had not achieved recognition for his architectural work, and lived for five years in Port Vendres near the border with Spain.

Standing slightly to one side of any kind of linear narrative (as, in fact, many of the works here do), is a beautiful watercolour by the famous book illustrator, Arthur Rackham.

  • Landscape near Bezan (1901) by Arthur Rackham. Fascinating to see how impressionist it is and, apparently, unlike the detailed line drawings of his illustrations although, on closer examination, there is a kind of family likeness in the shape of the blobs and squadges.

War 1914-18

Although some foreign and exotic locations are included, it is surprising that, given the centrality of war in this period – the Crimean War (1853-56), the American Civil War (1861-65), the Boer War (1899-1902), the Great War (1914-18), the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the Abyssinian War (1935-6), the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and the Second World War (1939-45) – there are in fact remarkably few depictions of bomb-blasted landscapes. Only the Great War features, of all the century’s wars the one which the English seemed to take most to heart. The one that damaged us most.

Paul Nash seems to be a transitional figure here. As we learned from the recent Paul Nash exhibition at Tate Britain, Nash was enraptured by the southern English landscape from an early age, but was then thrown into the carnage of the Great War, commissioned as an official war artist, and produced many memorable images of the devastated landscape in a linear, geometric, modernist style.

Modernism 1910-20

Out and out Modernism, self-consciously feeding off European cubism and Futurism, is not so well represented.

  • Slag heaps at Leeds (1920) by Edward Wadsworth. In fact this painting shows a significant retreat from Wadsworth’s highly abstract pre-War work. Like many contemporaries he rejected complete abstraction as somehow not conveying the urgent emotional and social truths of the time.
  • Air street by CRW Nevinson – The British Museum owns many prints directly about the Great War (in which he served) by Nevinson (e.g. Bomber, 1918), but chose to represent him with a much later work which is actually in chalk.

Nevinson, like Nash, like many other English artists, consciously retreated from the extremes of geometric modernism they’d espoused just before and during the War. Maybe they’d had a bellyful of hard unforgiving often violent images.

Back in England after the war, Nash recuperated at Dymchurch, where the Tate exhibition explained that he had a sort of slow-motion nervous breakdown, personal trauma that may – or may not – be reflected in his obsessively repeated imagery of the sea wall at Dymchurch.

In Wadsworth, Nash and Nevinson you can see the progression from the 1914 to 1924 as a retreat from pure angularity towards an angularity softened and humanised. Leading towards…

Neo-Romanticism 1930s

Victorian landscapes are easy to understand and enjoy, ditto impressionism. And of course highly skilled painters continued to work in the older tradition, for example William Russel Flint, who wrote a manual on watercolour painting.

But after the trauma of the war and the break in tradition represented by the various forms of modernism with their rejection of the figurative in favour of abstraction or surrealist juxtapositions – I find the 1930s and 40s to be the most strange and challenging period of modern art. Some artists continued to feel a deep reverence for the English landscape, but couldn’t return to the innocence of Victorian literalism. What to do?

The commentary points out the revival that took place during this period in the reputations of a group of pre-Victorian landscape artists – John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), Francis Towne (1740-1816) and Samuel Palmer (1805-1881).

Cotman and Towne’s watercolours are elegant and stylised. They don’t feel the need to produce the Grand Sublime of the mid-Victorians or the gorgeous colouring. Their classical lines and spaces of flat, pale wash seem open and retrained. They suited the chastened mood of the 1920s and 30s.

Samuel Palmer is a different thing altogether. Palmer is best known for the paintings he did at Shoreham in Kent in the 1840s, which charge the staid and gentle landscape of the south of England with a resonant mysticism. His use of stippled colouring, especially round gold and orange and red, the vagueness of the human figures, and settings at dusk or dawn, create images of the countryside deeply charged with some ineffable meaning.

  • Classical river scene (1878) by Samuel Palmer. A late work which nonetheless conveys Palmer’s love of the equivocal effects of twilight, and his fondness for red and orange and auburn. The human figures aren’t distinct but that is the point – they are part of the landscape.

These predecessors, with their more classical approach to line and colouring (Towne and Cotman, or their concern for the numinous symbolism of landscape (Palmer), provided ways forward for the post-war artists. Again this can best be seen in the work of Paul Nash who took his boyhood late-Victorian spiritualism through the battlefields of Flanders and out into a new way of conceiving landscape. In Nash’s hands landscape becomes symbolic of inner quests and impressions. It becomes much more psychological.

But the figure who emerges as central to the 1930s – in this account, anyway – is Graham Sutherland, an artist I’ve always disliked. His semi-abstract shapes have always seemed to me both ugly in design and horrible in colouring. But he appears to have been a revelation to younger artists who he taught and mentored. Sutherland is quoted as saying, ‘I felt that I could explain what I felt by paraphrasing what I saw.’ It’s a thought-provoking analogy: as a paraphrase takes the meaning of a text but casts it into new words, so paraphrasing what he saw in nature meant casting it into radically semi-surreal, abstract but still zoomorphic shapes.

One of Sutherland’s devotees, Keith Vaughan, said that Sutherland thought landscape needn’t be looked at scenically … but symbolically. This idea of converting the directly seen into another, symbolical language, opens a huge doorway into new styles of art. The Sutherland watercolours in this exhibition are small and unconvincing, but he profoundly influenced the artists who became known as the neo-Romantics who he helped liberate to recast landscape into a variety of new and stylised forms.

  • Scottish City, the Gorbals (1945) by John Minton. Leaving aside the strange shape of the heads, the colour washes over the stick-like derelict buildings recalls Sutherland.
  • Figure leaning on a garden wall (1948) by Keith Vaughan
  • Churchyard (1942) by John Craxton. Most of the other prints the BM holds are notably more Sutherland-ish. This one shows what happens when you simplify the elements of a scene, using modernist techniques to create an image which is, paradoxically, childish and reassuring. Which looks like a book illustration.

The illustrators

A million miles from the gnarly hyper-realism of Rackham’s gnomes and princesses, the retreat from experimental modernism, combined with a neo-classical backlash against the war, led somehow, mysteriously, to images which are supposedly adult but which have a definitely childish simplicity of design and execution.

Take Essex Landscape (c.1947) by Michael Rothenstein. It is doubtless a ‘serious’ work. But it could also be the cover illustration of one of those 1940s or 50s travel books.

Essex Landscape (c.1947) by Michael Rothenstein. Watercolour with pen and ink © Reproduced by permission of the artist’s estate

Essex Landscape (c.1947) by Michael Rothenstein. Watercolour with pen and ink © Reproduced by permission of the artist’s estate

Other notable examples include:

  • Eric Gill’s House at Ditchling (1922) by David Jones
  • The red cottage (1927) by Eric Ravilious. What is not to absolutely love about Ravilious’s open, clear, pure-lined children’s paintings.
  • Wannock dew pond (1923) by Eric Ravilious. These early examples have something of the freshness, lack of drama, the understatement of Paul Nash. Different, but a similar sense of… restraint. And a kind of cartoon simplicity.

The 1930s modernists

During the same period and overlapping with the neo-Romantics were many other artists using the multiple currents of the time, especially the very dominant influence of surrealism, to rethink countryside, landscape and watercolour as a form. Probably the most dominant figure of the time was Henry Moore, who was as prolific in his paintings, watercolours and prints as he was in his big humanoid statues.

  • Crowd looking at a tied up object (1942) by Henry Moore. You’re supposed to find modern art disturbing but Henry Moore is maybe the only 20th century artist I find genuinely uncanny and upsetting.
  • Reclining figure and red rocks (1942) by Henry Moore. It’s hard to put into words but I find Moore’s sheer prolificness terrifying. I feel a gaping hole open at my feet. I really dislike looking at his work.
  • Two upright forms (1936) by Henry Moore

Ben Nicholson was another key figure of the time, who I find difficult to like. He also produced thousands of art works all of a kind of so-so domesticated abstraction.

Newlyn (11 April 1950) by Ben Nicholson. Graphite with watercolour © Angela Verren Taunt

Newlyn (11 April 1950) by Ben Nicholson. Graphite with watercolour © Angela Verren Taunt

  • Seashell (1936) by Cecil Collins. The transformation of landscape into something completely phantasmagorical.
  • October 2 1938 by Reuben Mednikoff who has clearly swallowed the entire Surrealist proposition whole.
Portreath (1949) by Peter Lanyon. Black chalk with grey wash © The estate of Peter Lanyon

Portreath (1949) by Peter Lanyon. Black chalk with grey wash © The estate of Peter Lanyon

Right at the end of the period, you can read works like this as the exhaustion of the tradition, and exasperation at what to do next.

Trees

Theming the exhibition by period and style makes sense. But it could have been sliced completely differently by subject e.g. wide landscape, flowers, cottages. And a central subject would have been trees. Scattered remarks by artists about trees could have been brought together and, once again, the key figure might have been Nash, who worshiped trees, whose earliest works depict a ghostly brake of trees near his house in Hertfordshire, who became obsessed with the ancient trees on Wittenham Clumps, and who was devastated by the sight of so many tens of thousands of trees blown to fragments in the horror of the Great War. He wrote:

– ‘I sincerely love and worship trees and know they are people’

and I know just what he means. For me the two standout works in this wonderful exhibition are both of trees, in different aspects:

Ravens’ Toll, Ashburnham (1883) by William Fraser Gordon, a wonderful, magical distillation of a southern English heathland, captured crystallised focused, on a clump of spectral trees.

November evening in the Welsh wood by James Thomas Watts. Born in Birmingham, Watts was deeply influenced by the writings of Ruskin and the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, as ividenced by his minute depiction of nature and the intense realism of his landscape painting. Watt was fascinated by the play of light in wooded landscapes at varying times of the year and times of the day. Watts exhibited in both oils and watercolour, but the latter was his preferred medium. His ability to capture the essence of trees and woodlands in the varying seasons is astonishing. Between the late 1870s and 1905, he confined himself nearly entirely to woodland scenes like this, becoming an absolute master of them.

A passing world

The population of England was 15 million in 1851; 38.6 million by 1951, and today it is about 54 million. The pressure of urban growth is, by definition, not recorded in an exhibition devoted to pure landscape. Much of England’s countryside has been lost, much despoiled, but there is still much to see and enjoy. The passing of the old rural England is suggested by this late Victorian work which was in fact produced after the Great War and the advent of a new age, but it commemorates the crepuscular feel of an older, pre-industrial world.

The Homeward Load (1921) by Frank Dicksee

The Homeward Load (1921) by Frank Dicksee


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum shows

Abstract Expressionism edited by David Anfam (2016)

This is the catalogue or book of the 2016 Royal Academy exhibition of Abstract Expressionism – ‘arguably the most significant movement of the twentieth century’ (Christopher Le Brun) – the first large retrospective in this country since 1959.

It’s a massive hardback book, 320 pages long, and containing:

  • four long essays – by exhibition curator David Anfam, Susan Davidson, Jeremy Lewison, Carter Ratcliff
  • a twenty-page chronology of the movement
  • followed by 200 pages of illustrations of paintings and sculptures, then a further section of watercolours and sketches, and then key photographs from the era

Several thoughts arise from a slow careful perusal of this enormous tome.

Earlier than realised

Although I associate it with the 1950s, and the style did indeed dominate that decade, the creation, labelling, and publicising of Abstract Expressionism all happened in the 1940s. It was as early as 1946 that the art critic Robert Coates, writing in The New Yorker, first used the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’, perceptively describing how the new school took the anti-figurative aesthetic of modernist French and Dutch artists but combined it with the emotional intensity of the German Expressionists.

It was even earlier, in 1943, that Jackson Pollock was talent spotted by the rich heiress Peggy Guggenheim, signed up to her gallery and given his first one-man exhibition, invited to paint a mural in the entrance to her New York apartment (Mural – ‘the first outstanding large-scale painterly abstraction ever created in America’, p.33). This was seen by umpteen influential visitors including the critic Clement Greenberg who promptly wrote an article declaring Pollock ‘the greatest painter this country had produced.’ To step back a bit, this was all happening in the same year as the Battle of Stalingrad i.e. the first decisive defeat of Nazi Germany, and the Allied invasion of Italy. The Second World War hadn’t even finished yet. Nobody knew about the Holocaust.

It was still only in the 1940s that Abstract Expressionism was reaching a mass audience – August 8, 1949 to be precise – when Pollock was given a four-page spread in Life magazine that asked, ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’ and which projected him to nationwide superstar-artist fame. The next year he dropped his trademark ‘drip’ technique, which in fact only lasted the short period from 1947 to 1950, in order to explore new styles. Neither the critics nor buyers were interested. They wanted more drips. ‘Play us the old songs, Jackson.’ Given the pressures and the spotlight, it’s surprising that he soldiered on till 1956 before dying in a drunken car crash which might have been suicide.

This all lends support to the revisionist view of Stephen Polcari, that the Abstract Expressionists were not responding to the crises of the Cold War – though that is how they were marketed and perceived at the time – but in fact had their roots in the social, economic, and political crises of the 1930s, when they were all impressionable young men. If they shared a tragic sense it was shaped by the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, the war in Spain and then the descent into darkness of the entire continent whence ‘civilisation’ supposedly originated.

It was well before the Cold War and the A-Bomb, way back in 1943 that Rothko and Gottlieb wrote a letter published in the New York Times which expressed the kind of doom-laden intensity which all the AEs seem to have shared, asserting that:

the subject matter is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. (quoted p.21)

Is Abstract Expressionism a good label?

As usual with many art ‘movements’, many of the key players weren’t particularly happy with the label imposed on them – Abstract Expressionism – and others went the rounds, like ‘the New York school’ or ‘Tenth Street painters’. But AE stuck. They never produced a manifesto or exhibited together, and there’s no one photo with the main players together. But people – curators, collectors, galleries, journalists, and us – the poor uninformed public – we all need labels to hang on to, especially in the middle of the century when art movements came and went with such dizzying rapidity.

And the artists certainly all knew each other, lived in the same area of Downtown Manhattan, hung around in the same taverns and bars, and were subject to the same washes of influence as America experienced the Depression, the great influx of refugee artists from the Nazis, reacted (in different ways) against the naive nationalist art of the 1930s, against Regionalism and Social realism, but engaged in highly individual struggles to find a new idiom, new ways of seeing and doing art.

The paintings

This brings us to the actual art and the obvious conclusion that the mature styles of the four or five main players were very different and extremely distinctive. There were a lot of second string artists floating around, who produced good work or influenced the Big Boys in one way or another – and the generous selection in the RA exhibition and this book goes out of its way to include works by Adolph Gottlieb, Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Joan Mitchell, Conrad Marca-Relli, Jack Tworkov, Milton Resnick, some 20 artists in all.

But leafing through the beautiful reproductions, again and again the works of five key names stood out for me, emerging as titans above the crowd. (In essay four, the gallery owner Betty Parsons who played a key role in promoting AE, is quoted describing Pollock, Rothko, Still and Newman as ‘the Four Horsemen’.)

A word about aesthetics

It’s challenging and entertaining to try and put into words what it is that makes some paintings canonical and some redundant or not-quite-there. The latter phrase gives a clue to my approach. I find that, for most art or museum objects I see, some give the sense of being finished and completely themselves. Thus among my favourite works of art anywhere are the Benin bronzes at the British Museum. They seem to me to have set out to do something and to do it perfectly and completely. They are completely themselves, impossible to alter or improve. Similarly, the famous helmet from Sutton Hoo completely (ominously, threateningly) says what it sets out to, bespeaks an entire world and civilisation.

So if I have any aesthetic theory it is not the application of any external guidelines of beauty, requiring a work of art to conform to this, that or the other rule. It is something to do with a work coming entirely into its own, its own space and design. Having suggested a certain form or subject or shape, then delivering on that idea, completely. Fulfilling its premises.

Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)

Pollock’s best drip paintings dominate the era and all his contemporaries as clearly as Andy Warhol dominated Pop Art. Possibly others were better artists, showed more consistent artistic development and certainly others have their fans and devotees – but nobody can deny Pollock and Warhol’s works are immediately recognisable not just as art, but as icons of a particular period and place.

And, in my opinion, they fulfil my theory of completeneness – that an artist has a moment when they crystallise a signature style by fully developing the tendencies implicit in their approach (as discerned in their earlier developing works).

Thus it is very obvious that there is a long run-up of pre-drip Pollock (Male and Female 1942, Eyes in the heat 1946) as he groped his way in the dark from works whose size and shape was influence by his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton the mural-maker, but whose content is often dominated by Guernica-period Picasso — and there is a hangover of post-drip Pollock (when he experimented for a while with just black – Number 7, 1952). Both of them are interesting, but so-so.

But then there is drip PollockBlue Poles (1952) is a masterpiece, a completely immersive experience, as completely itself as the huge lily ponds of Monet. Immersive because it is vast and its size is an important factor. After splatting the surface with a preliminary network of black, white, yellow and red loops, Pollock used the edge of a plank dunked in blue paint to create the eight poles. Like Matisse’s dancing cutouts, this is an example of perfect taste, perfectly ‘getting’ the possibility of a visual rhythm. It isn’t classical or symmetrical or figurative of anything – it is a pure design which, for some reason to do with perceptual psychology, just works. Close up you can appreciate the extraordinary lacework of other colours dripped across the canvas, trademark yellow, red and whites, to create a dense tapestry weave of texture and colour. It is entirely itself. It is a summation of everything implicit in the drip approach to painting. And it is this sense of completing all the potential of the method which gives it its thrilling excitement, which makes it a masterpiece, and also a ‘classic’ of this style.

Along with works like Summertime (1948) and Number 4 (1949) these seem complete expressions of what they’re meant to be, of a certain Gestalt. Once you’ve thought of dripping raw paint across the canvas, then it turns out that certain levels of complete coverage and a certain level of complexity of the interlinking lines is somehow optimum, others less so. Too much and it is just mess; too little and it looks empty. At his peak Pollock produced a string of works which experiment with colours, shape of canvas and so on, but which all display an innate feel for just how to do this kind of painting.

Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)

Rothko, also, is up there in the recognisability stakes in the sense that his final, achieved style is instantly distinctive. He too struggled to find his way from a sort of blocky blurry realism (Interior, 1936) on a journey via a completely different look in a work like Gethsemane (1944), which looks like washed-out surrealism, before coming to the brink of his mature style with experiments in big blotches of soft-edged colour (No.18 1948, Violet, Black, orange, Yellow on White and Red, 1949).

But then – bang! – he hits it, he finds his voice, he claims his brand, he crystallises his vision, he stumbles upon the formula of big rectangular blocks of shimmering colours which will last the rest of his life, what Anfam calls his ‘chromatic mirages’ (p.21).

Rothko left the murals he’d prepared for the restaurant in the new Seagram building to London’s Tate Gallery. There’s a darkened room containing all of them in Tate Modern and you can sit staring into them for hours. Critics saw in them the same kind of existentialist anxiety (all those massive blocks terrifying threatening the viewer, all the anxiety of those unknown fraying edges) that they saw in Pollock — but these days they are more like aids to calm reflection and meditation, and the audioguide plays very quiet meditative music by American experimental composer Morton Feldman. From Cold War angst to post-modern pleasure.

But however you read them, there’s no denying that Rothko stumbled upon (worked his way through to) an entirely new way of conceiving of coloured paint on canvas, a discovery and a formula – and then spent twenty years working through hundreds of variations, exploring and stumbling across further discoveries. Big, bright, abstract, moody. And a world away from Pollock’s splats. the casual viewer could be forgiven for asking how the two could ever be bracketed together, where the one is very much about the dynamic power of vibrantly interlacing lines and the other is very much about the calming meditative effect of enormous blocks of shimmering colour.

Clyfford Still (1904 – 1980)

The much-told story about Still is that he was prickly and difficult, went his own way, argued with all the other AEs, in the early 1950s terminated his contract with a commercial gallery and ended up neither exhibiting nor selling any of his pieces, but working away steadily in provincial obscurity in Maryland. He died in possession of 95% of everything he’d ever painted and made a will leaving his life’s work to whichever organisation could create a museum dedicated to housing and showing it. After numerous negotiations this turned out to be the City of Denver and it was only in 2011 that there finally opened a museum dedicated to Still, and that this vast reservoir of work was made available to critics and the public. In the short time since then his reputation has undergone a major revaluation and the room devoted to his work at the Royal Academy exhibition was, arguably, even more impactful then the displays of Pollock and Rothko. Still was a revelation.

Like the others, Still took a long journey, and his early work is represented by another semi-figurative work from the 30s, PH-726 (1936). But by 1944 he has stumbled upon his formula – sharp rips or tears against solid fields of colour, PH-235 (1944), all done in a really thick impasto or thick layer of paint which adds to the sense of presence and impact.

What are they? Wikipedia says his mature works ‘recall natural forms and natural phenomena at their most intense and mysterious; ancient stalagmites, caverns, foliage, seen both in darkness and in light lend poetic richness and depth to his work.’ Because the commentary goes heavy on his upbringing in the mid-West and of the associations of Denver, Colorado, I saw in several of them the pattern of cattle hides, the tans and blacks and beiges which you see in some Indian art, teepees, shields. Just a fancy.

Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970)

Newman had his first one-man show in 1948, the year he broke through to his mature style with the Onement series. Again, his was a long journey out of 1930s figurativism, until he made a discovery / stumbled across an idea / achieved a mature style (delete as applicable), creating what Anfam calls his ‘transcendent spatial continuums’ (p.21). Once he’d found it, repeated it through countless iterations.

A classic Barnett Newman has a vertical line – or ‘zip’ as he himself called them – dividing a field of colour – initially drab colour but becoming brighter and brighter as the 1950s progressed. The zip defines the picture plane, separates the composition yet binds it together, sunders it yet gives it a weird tremulous unity.

Why does it work? I’d give good money to read an analysis by a psychologist or expert in the psychology of perception, of shapes and colours, who could explain the effect they have on the mind of the viewer.

According to this book, among the big-name AEs, Newman was rather overlooked in favour of the brasher bolder works of his peers. Also, Pollock and Still, to name two, used highly expressive brushwork and thick or spattered layers of paint. Standing close you can see the thick clots of oil on the surface. Newman’s paintwork is flat and restrained. In fact his colourfulness and geometric designs link him more to the school of ‘post-painterly abstraction’ which emerged in the 1960s and are almost connected to the cool understatement of minimalism.

Franz Kline (1910 – 1962)

Kline’s breakthrough moment is much mythologised. Working as a commercial illustrator in New York while struggling to work his way towards some kind of abstract language, Kline was visited by Willem de Kooning who suggested he use a projector to blow up & project his complicated paintings onto the wall and then select small details to reproduce as full scale canvases. Taking this insight, Kline quickly worked out a style of broad black brushstrokes on white, which continually seem to gesture towards something yet are abstract. Are they fragments of larger designs and shapes? Or references to Japanese calligraphy (which Kline always denied)? Or dramatic actions in themselves?

Like all the other AEs, Kline’s work is big, really really BIG. Whatever the differences in style and approach, the AEs had this one thing in common – their work is huge and immersive. (A sign at Barnett Newman’s second exhibition at the Betty Parson’s Gallery in May 1951 actually requested visitors to stand close up to the picture; visitors had been requested to do the same at the Pollock exhibition which immediately preceded it – p.93.)

Kline is further evidence for my theory that artists often reach a recognisable defining style and produce a number of works which somehow express the quintessence of their voice or vision, only after a journey upwards and, alas, sometimes a later decline or wandering away… Having perfected the black and white calligraphy style – so instantly recognisable – by the time he was just 40, after a while at the top of his game, Kline had nowhere to go except back into colour, and these later colour works, although fine in their own way, represent a really noticeable falling away of the energy which the stark black-and-white contrasts produced. For some reason this style looks terribly dated, very late 50s early 60s, whereas the black and white calligraphic works look timeless to me.

Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997)

De Kooning is the one big AE I couldn’t get on with at all, and the more I saw the more I disliked his stuff. Partly because I think he never did develop a defined style. To me, all of his stuff looks like messy sketches on the way towards something better, they all look like the dispensable journey works on the way to… nowhere. The same horrible messy scrawl effect is his one signature effect.

All the other AEs strike me as having a purpose, a direction. Pollock’s works are far more artful than they appear, Rothko’s are careful experiments, Newman achieved a kind of classic restraint and Still’s jagged compositions are unerringly ‘right’, conveying something much bigger than the images seem to warrant.

Only de Kooning’s works, out of the whole show and this long book, consistently look to me like a slapdash mess, a dog’s dinner, victims of what Anfam calls his ‘lacerating sweeps’ (p.21). And the series of depictions of women  – his ‘wrenching engagements with the female sex’ (Anfam, p.22) – which are often singled out by the critics for praise, to me could hardly be uglier and more repellent if they tried.

Adolph Gottlieb (1903 – 1974)

Apparently Gottlieb is perceived as a second string AE, his career weaving through a series of styles, including surrealism in the 1930s, a spell in the Arizona desert simplifying images to a primal essence, and the development of ‘pictographs’ representing psychologically charged shapes and patterns. It was as late as 1956 that he developed the ‘burst’ style, dividing the canvas into two halves, with a round sun-like object above and a busy earth-like mass below – creating a dialectic between calm and busy, with the use of bright colours to interfere and resonate.

Hundreds of bursts resulted and I can see why critics looking for world-shattering angst and grand existentialist statements might deprecate them, but I like him for devising a new ‘look’ and then producing fascinating variations on it.

Neglected women

One of the most pressing concerns of our times, in the arts and elsewhere, is restoring the reputations, the overlooked achievements and untold stories, of neglected woman. Four women artists worked in and around Abstract Expressionism and are included here:

Janet Sobel (1894 – 1968) began painting at the mature age of 43 when her son left home leaving behind his copious art materials. She progressed from figurative paintings featuring dreamy rather Chagall-like faces enmeshed in zoomorphic patterns, through to pure abstraction and eventually the technique of dripping paint. Some scholars claim it was Sobel who arrived at the drip technique before Jackson. That’s one for the scholars. All her works have a lightness. Maybe it was the light decorative effect as opposed to the Big Boys’ existentialist histrionics more than the fact she was a woman which wrote her out of the story for so long.

Lee Krasner (1908 – 1984) Krasner evolved through a series of styles. During the heyday of the AEs she tended to be overlooked by virtue of the fact that she was married to the top dog, Jackson Pollock. But the works included here show she had a related but distinct vision of her own.

Just living with Jackson sounds like a demanding job, but creating alongside him, in a related but clearly distinctive style, is little less than heroic. The next two are to one side for the simple reason that they were of a younger generation

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) You can see the importance of the gesture but, a little like de Kooning, I don’t see it going anywhere.

They’re big, one of the simplest criteria for being an abstract expressionist. But arriving at Salut Tom at the end of the exhibition felt like we’d moved a long way from late-40s existentialism into a brighter more decorative world. Same style, different world.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) She painted onto unprimed canvas so that the paint soaked into it, thus creating a very flat surface.

Peggy and Betty

The fourth essay in the book is in many ways the most interesting, telling the complementary stories of two hugely important gallery owners who promoted the work of the Abstract Expressionists from the first – the Jewish millionairess Peggy Guggenheim and the scion of a wealthy WASP family, Betty Parsons. Peggy lived in Paris between the wars, becoming fantastically well-connected among the city’s avant-garde, arranging exhibitions and starting her own staggering collection, before fleeing ahead of the Nazi invasion in 1940, back to New York, where in 1942 she set up The Art of This Century Gallery.

Like Peggy, only without the millions, Betty went to live in Paris, where she herself pursued a career as an artist, taking lessons, before losing her money in the Wall Street Crash and being forced back to the States, to teach, and then to work in commercial galleries. She learned the trade, becoming popular among artists for her good taste and business sense (i.e. selling their pictures and making them money). In 1945 she set up the Betty Parsons Gallery which ran till her death in 1982. When Guggenheim returned to Paris after the war, Parsons took on many of ‘her’ artists, and the article turns into an impressive roster of the exhibitions she put on for one after another of all the key artists of the time, working hard to promote them and get them sales.

The essay is a fascinating insight not only into the achievements of these two vital women, but into the art world in general. It’s shocking to learn how little the artists sold at these shows – they’d display a dozen or 16 new works, for between $250 and $1,400 – and quite frequently none would sell at all. Or only small watercolours would sell to what turn out to be friends of the artist or the gallery owner herself. Works which now fetch tens of millions of dollars at auction.

In a fascinating detail, the book mentions several times that one problem was the paintings’ sheer scale: it was one thing to create a fourteen foot square canvas in the space of a half derelict loft-cum-studio, quite another thing to expect even quite rich people in New York to find enough wall space to hang it, back in the cluttered 1940s and 1950s. It was only well into the 1960s and more so in the 1970s that ideas of interior design changed significantly, that clutter was thrown out and rooms knocked together to create large airy spaces, often painted white, in which the vast canvases of the Abstract Expressionists suddenly made sense.

But by this point the AEs were up against the equally large creations of Post-painterly Abstraction, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and so on and New York was established as the centre of a fast-moving, big money art culture.


Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

The American Dream: pop to the present by Stephen Coppel and Catherine Daunt

The British Museum is currently hosting a huge exhibition of prints by American artists from the 1960s to the present. It showcases over 200 works by over 70 artists, including most of the important US artists of the period, and so manages to be a brilliant introduction to the art and artists of the period as well as shedding an oblique light on the history of America over the past 60 years.

This is the catalogue of the show, a large format, beautifully produced and lengthy book (332 pages) which includes every work from the show in lavish colour, each given a brief analysis and discussion alongside a thumbnail profile of each of the artists, all prefaced by a couple of introductory essays. It is not only a record of the show but also an introduction to the sweep of American art from the past 60 years, and well worth the exhibition price of just £15.

I have written a thorough review of The American Dream in another post. Over and above being able to review the images you’ve already seen in the show at your leisure, the book has several other features and benefits.

Introductory essays

The introductory essay by Stephen Coppel, the lead curator, reinforces the sense that the exhibition struggles to escape from the overbearing influence and success of the Pop Art of the 1960s. His essay is eight pages long and it’s only half way down page five that he finally wriggles free of Warhol and Rauschenberg and Hockney; the remaining topics of the exhibition and the book (protest, AIDS, feminism, African Americans) get relatively brief and dutiful paragraphs.

The standout contribution is the long essay by Susan Tallman – The rise of the American print workshop. This is a really interesting and detailed account of the rise of print as a technological medium across America and explains a) the huge variety of print-making techniques b) how they were explored by the post-war generation of artists c) how print-making is necessarily a collaborative enterprise with a lead role going to the actual printers and to the many technicians who have to come up with technical solutions to achieving the artists’ visions.

The essay introduces us to pioneers like Tatyana Grosman who single-handedly set up the innovatory firm Universal Limited Art Editions in 1957, more or less in her own back yard, which went on to work with some of the most important artists of the day. And describes numerous other collaborations between new or existing firms and between well-known printers and artists. It’s a big, complex story and Tallman tells it really well. And she has a handy way with words:

  • Pollock and the giants of Abstract Expressionism are engaged in a ‘visible struggle to wrest private truths from intransigent matter’.
  • An early convert to print-making was Jasper Johns, whose iterated images of flags, numbers and targets were already playing with ‘the conundrum of repetitive uniqueness which is at the heart of printmaking’.

Technical complexities

It’s only once you’ve had the technical processes explained that you can begin to understand the ways in which the different artists here tried to stretch, adapt and innovate what was possible – and this allows you to return to the images with a new and deeper appreciation of the vision, work and persistence which went into their making.

For example, it is fascinating to learn that for his lithographic series 0-9 (Black) Jasper Johns carved into a lithographic stone the numerals 0 to 9 in a grid at the top and then a big 0 below, and ran off prints; then carved a 1 over the 0, and ran off a set of prints; then carved a 2 over the 1 over the 0, and ran off a set… until he had completed a set of 0 to 9. Each consecutive number shows the scars and scraping made by the previous numbers, creating a palimpsest, a building site of numerology, or as Tallman puts it, a portfolio of prints which are:

visually intimate, epistemologically complex, and emotionally elusive.

And daunting and impressive to learn that the complete process took three years! It took Chuck Close two intensive months to carve by hand the plate for Keith, an intaglio print of one of his trademark photorealist paintings (1972). Or to learn that it took Claes Oldenburg an entire year to carve the relief mould for his innovative 3-D print in polyurethane, Profile airflow (1968) while the printer, Ken Tyler, experimented with a wide range of polyurethanes to find one which would be firm enough to stand be solid but appear fluid, be rigid but flexible enough to be fitted into a larger frame. The effort!

It makes you look anew at many of the images here once you realise quite how much work their creation involved, not just from the ‘artist’ but from a whole team of collaborators, technicians, master printers and publishers.

No tradition

Her account makes clear that the new start-up American printers benefited hugely from having no tradition, unlike the very hidebound and often masculine milieu of traditional printers in Europe, above all the home of modern art, Paris. By contrast a striking number of the pioneering founders of new printworks were women – Tatyana Grosman (Universal Limited Art Editions 1957), June Wayne (Tamarind Lithography Workshop 1960), Kathan Brown (Crown Point Press 1962) – ditto new young print publishers – Rosa Esman (Original editions, Tanglewood Press) or Marian Goodman (Multiples Inc 1965).

Escaping artistic control

She also makes a solid point when she says that the move to print-making represented an escape from the overbearing egocentrism of Abstract Expressionism. The praise of randomness in the writings of John Cage, the invention of ‘happenings’ which can involve any number of people, along with the collaborative vibe of the Black Mountain College, all these straws in the wind represented artists seeking to escape the prison house of total autonomy and total control – ‘strategies for relinquishing control’.

The collaborative aspect of printmaking, the technical limitations, the frequent accidents and mishaps, all introduced chance and randomness beyond the artist’s overt intentions. Warhol, as usual, is an easy example in the way that he a) stumbled over the impact of printed colours not lining up with the outlines, creating a whole new aesthetic and b) delegating a large amount of the work, even the selection of which colours to print his Marilyns and Maos in, to his assistants.

This is a beautifully produced book which greatly deepens your understanding and enjoyment of the vast array of images collected for this breath-taking exhibition.

Promotional video of The American Dream


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum shows

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