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

South Africa: The art of a nation @ the British Museum

This is an interesting and enlightening exhibition with plenty of good things in it, but which in parts is a little puzzling and frustrating.

Deep prehistory

The curators (John Giblin, Chris Spring and Laura Snowling) say they’re setting out to give an overview of the art of South Africa and this they certainly do with visual representations of every period of South Africa, beginning in the inconceivably distant past with a stone from a site inhabited by pre-humans some 3 million years ago. The experts think it was brought from some distance away because of its presumable similarity to a human face, and so indicates self-awareness in our remotest ancestors.

There’s a hand axe made by Homo ergaster, a predecessor of Homo sapiens, and dated to 1 million years ago – apparently, in fact, not that practical as an axe, but here to demonstrate that an aesthetic sense seems to have existed in our remotest ancestors.

There’s the Blombos Cave beads, created some 75,000 years ago, painted and pierced in order to be strung together as a necklace. There’s the Coldstream Stone from 9,000 years ago.

Coldstream Stone, ochre, stone (c. 7000 BC) © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town

Coldstream Stone, ochre, stone (c. 7,000 BC) © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town

And the beautiful Zaamenkomst Panel, cave paintings made between one and three thousand years ago.

Taken together, these wonderful objects give a powerful sense of South Africa as one of the origins not only of early humans but of the earliest art works.

Contemporary art

What’s a little confusing is that right from the start this very museum-y ancient history is mixed in with works by contemporary South African artists – a lot of works. It may be creative curating, but it means it’s quite a lot to take on board – the origins of our species, the ancient prehistory of the area, done rather quickly – while, at the same time, we’re trying to understand post-apartheid art which, by its nature, mixes African traditions with the confusing panoply of postmodern artistic techniques and assumptions.

Thus I can see that it’s clever to place Potent fields by Karel Nel (2002) next to the ancient cave paintings, since both use ochre as a colour and material. And the curators have put a tapestry, ‘The Creation of the Sun‘, made by artists at the Bethesda Art Centre, opposite the cave paintings to show the continuity of style and creativity from South Africa’s first peoples, the San|Bushmen and Khoekhoen, to their contemporary descendants. In these first rooms we also see:

Clever but… it demands quite a lot of the visitor to juggle all these different frames of reference.

Tone

Another slightly disorienting element is the rather patronising or simplistic tone of the commentary. Right at the start there’s a wall panel titled ‘Cradle of Humanity’, which points out that the prehistoric finds gathered here prove that humanity evolved in Africa and so that – contrary to Eurocentric narratives – we are all in a deep sense Africans. What puzzled me is that I’ve never thought otherwise, I’ve never read anywhere anywhere any alternative theory of human origins: all my adult life I’ve known that humans evolved from apelike ancestors in Africa, my children know that, everyone knows it. A quick search reveals that Darwin suggested it as long ago as 1871 in The Descent of Man. Who are they arguing with? If apartheid taught that humans evolved in some other place – like Holland – it would have been informative and funny to have read more about it.

Scattered throughout the exhibition are wall panels talking about the need to fight and counter apartheid ‘narratives’ about the ‘savagery’ of the blacks or their ‘lack of culture’ – all cast in the present tense, as if this is an ongoing struggle.

a) I was there in the 1980s when we all wore anti-apartheid badges, sang along to ‘Free Nelson Mandela‘ and ‘Biko‘, and boycotted South African products. I never met anybody who in any way defended apartheid. Looking around the visitors to the show, I don’t think there was much risk that any of them would defend ‘apartheid narratives’ about ‘savage’ blacks or the ‘lack of black culture’.
b) It was all such a long time ago. The apartheid regime collapsed in the early 1990s and free elections brought the ANC government to power in 1994, 22 years ago. Many of the wall panels give the impression the curators are still bravely fighting a battle which, in fact, ended a generation ago. My companion joked that maybe their next exhibition should be devoted to bringing down the Soviet Union.

Because of the interleaving of big and very varied works by contemporary artists I found the timeline of pre-colonial South African art a bit hard to follow. I got that the Bantu people spread across the region (which in fact I knew from Chris Stringer’s book The Origin of Our Species). There was a case of exquisite gold statuettes of African animals, including a golden rhino which, we were told, are from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290). Maybe I blinked and missed the follow-up information, but I would really have liked to learn much more about the rise of kingdoms and territories and language groups and cultures and traditions across this huge area.

Gold rhino from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290) Department of Arts © University of Pretoria

Gold rhino from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290) Department of Arts © University of Pretoria. The golden rhino is now the symbol of the Order of Mapungubwe, South Africa’s highest honour that was first presented in 2002 to Nelson Mandela.

Maybe the history just isn’t there, I mean the written history that would allow that kind of detailed narrative to be constructed. There were a few display cases showing weapons – a big shield made of hide alongside spears – and another one containing traditional carved wood figures, including a really beautiful ‘stylised wooden figure’, examples of traditional beadwork and some striking traditional dresses.

But I felt slightly afraid of liking anything because the wall labels made quite a point, repeatedly, of emphasising how the European colonists from the first Dutch arrivals in the 1650s through to the end of apartheid in the 1990s, had in a whole host of ways denied the validity of pre-colonial art and culture, denying in fact that the land was inhabited at all or, if conceding that it was, then only by ‘savages’ who didn’t plough or reap, by non-Christians who needed to be converted, by violent tribesmen who needed to be pacified.

And that one of the ways the European colonists/imperialists/racists limited and controlled the native people was by defining their art and traditions as ‘exotic’, pigeonholing them as ‘primitive’, demeaning and debasing their traditions and achievements. Thus told off, I felt a little scared about ‘liking’ any of the pre-colonial art in case I was displaying an ‘ethnocentric’ and patronising taste for ‘the exotic’.

Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox, South Africa (Late 19th Century) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox, South Africa (late 19th Century) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This unnerved me because some of my favourite objects in the whole British Museum are the wonderful bronzes of Benin, among the most complete and finished works of art I know of from anywhere – as well as the whole range of weird and wonderful and powerful fetishes, images and carvings in the Museum’s Africa galleries.

Contemporary art 2

Anyway, the main thing about this exhibition is that interwoven among the pre-colonial artefacts which you would normally associate with the British Museum, are the works of a large number of modern and contemporary South African artists, black and white, men and women. Hopefully we are freer to express an opinion about these without running the risk of being considered ethnocentric or Eurocentric.

Apparently, the Museum has been collecting contemporary South African art for some 20 years, since – in other words – the collapse of apartheid, the first free elections and the coming to power of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. This explains why so many contemporary artworks are threaded through the show right from the first room and why the later rooms are entirely full of what you’d call modern art.

Artists and works

  • The Watchers by Francki Burger (2014) a photo montage of the site of the Battle of Spion Kop in the Boer War.
  • Oxford Man by Owen Ndou
  • Pantomime Act and Trilogy by Johannes Phokela
  • The Battle of Rorke’s Drift by John Muafangejo
  • Butcher Boys by Jane Alexander (1986) not actually physically in the show, there is a vivid photo of it here.
  • It left him cold – the death of Steve Biko (1990) by Sam Nhlengethwa
  • The Black Photo Album/Look at Me by Santu Mofokeng, who has spent years researching and retouching hundreds of b&w photographs commissioned by urban black working and middle-class families in South Africa between 1890 and 1950.
  • Christ playing football by Jackson Hlungwani (1983)
  • Candice Breitz’s extended video ‘Extras’, filmed on the set of a popular black soap opera, in which all the actors play out straight soap opera scenes except with the artist herself, blonde Candice, placed in bizarre stationary positions around the set. I laughed out loud when I read that it explores ‘an absent presence or a present absence’ – it’s good to know that Artbollocks is a truly international language.

Willie Bester’s Transition (1994) commemorates seven children killed when security forces stormed a house supposedly occupied by terrorists. (See a video of the artist talking about it)

Transition (1994) by Willie Bester (born 1956). Private collection © the artist

Transition (1994) by Willie Bester (born 1956). Private collection © the artist

South African Timeline

It was difficult to grasp the ancientness of the earliest exhibits here, which wasn’t helped by their interspersion with bang up-to-date contemporary art. Apart from the gold animal statues from Mapungubwe (which I’d like to have learned more about), you got little sense of the region’s pre-colonial history. Many artefacts (carvings, weapons, figurines), yes; but a clear chronology with maps? Less so.

Purely from the point of view of being able to orient oneself in time and space, it was in many ways a relief to enter recorded, written history with the arrival of the Europeans and the (all-too-familiar) story of colonisation. The Portuguese made the first contacts in the 1490s, but it was the Dutch who built a settlement at Table Bay in the 1650s, as a stopover on the long sea voyages to their trading colonies in the East Indies. The British seized Cape Town from the Dutch during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). It was this dual colonisation which explains why the country is English-speaking but with a large Dutch or Afrikaans minority, a minority the British went to war with twice, in the First Boer War (1880-81) and the more famous second Boer War (1899-1902).

It was informative to learn how in the 19th century the British Empire imported labour from elsewhere in Africa and Asians from Indonesia and India, to work in South Africa. The exhibition includes one of the distinctive pointed hats worn by Chinese immigrants, as well as a pair of sandals the most famous Indian immigrant – Mahatma Gandhi – made for the country’s leader, General Jan Smuts, while he was in prison in 1913. Gandhi was to formulate many of the ideas in racist South Africa which he then took back to India to use in his campaign for independence.

As a language student I learned:

  • That ‘Hottentot’ was a Dutch nonsense word meaning ‘one who stutters’, insultingly applied to the native blacks because of the use of click sounds in the San language. Hence it is a derogatory word which is not now used.
  • That ‘Kaffir’, another derogatory term for blacks widely used in colonial times, derives from the Arabic for ‘unbeliever’.
  • That ‘Boer’ derives from the Dutch word for ‘farmer’.

What I’ve never really understood and didn’t get any enlightenment about here, is the period between the First World War – when South Africa sent troops to fight alongside the British – and the end of the Second World War, when the foundations were laid by Nationalist governments for the system which would become apartheid. There were several rooms about the evils of apartheid and one about the end of apartheid, but I was left as ignorant as before about the origins of apartheid – about the economic, social and cultural forces which led to its creation, with the main milestones clearly marked out and explained.

Modern South Africa

The room full of images of the horror, violence and oppression of 1960s and 70s and 80s apartheid, with records of the Sharpeville Massacre (1960), the murder of Steve Biko (1977), a display case full of ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ badges and so on, felt very familiar to me from my school days in the 1970s and student days in the 1980s, when we all protested against apartheid, signed petitions, boycotted South African goods and so on.

As I viewed photos and artworks depicting the humiliations, poverty, incredibly long hours forced to work in menial jobs and the debasement and restrictions imposed on blacks by the apartheid state, I wondered whether the exhibition was going to dwell on the exploitation, the anger and the resistance of people during that era, and move on to cover the 25 years since Nelson Mandela was released, when things have got a lot less black and white.

For according to the newspapers, TV, documentaries and films which I consume, since liberation South Africa has developed into one of the most crime-ridden societies in the world, with just over 50 murders a day, and so many rapes that it has been called ‘the rape capital of the world, with one in four men admitting to having raped someone’.

At the same time South Africa is thought to have more people with HIV/AIDS than any other country in the world – 5.7 million, 12% of the population of 48 million. There was a small display case showing some dollies made in a traditional style which were a response to the AIDS epidemic by an artistic collective – but nothing about the era of ‘denialism’ under Thabo Mbeki (president from 1999 to 2008), who refused to accept the link between HIV and AIDS, and whose ban on antiretroviral drugs in public hospitals is estimated to be responsible for the premature deaths of between 330,000 and 365,000 people.

BMW Art Car 12 (1991( by Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935) © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives

BMW Art Car 12 (1991) by Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935) © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives

Contemporary South Africa today faces immense social, political, economic and medical challenges.

In the videos supporting the exhibition, the Museum curators make the point that this is quite a ‘political’ exhibition. That would have been the case if this was 1986 and voices could be found – in Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party, say, or the CIA – which defended the South African apartheid regime as a vital bulwark against Soviet-backed communism – but that was an era ago and it feels like they are fighting yesterday’s war.

Throughout the exhibition the curators criticise the Eurocentrism and racism of the colonists and the Imperialists and the founders of apartheid, who denied or denigrated black cultural achievements – as if this was still a battle being fought now; as if apartheid is still a flourishing regime which urgently needs challenging; as if unregenerate imperialist views about pre-colonial South African history are still widely held by lots of people.

In the exhibition, gold treasures of Mapungubwe will be displayed alongside a modern artwork by Penny Siopis and a sculpture by Owen Ndou that encourage the viewer to challenge the historic assumptions of the colonial and apartheid eras. (Press release)

Really? Does anyone even know what ‘the historic assumptions of the colonial and apartheid eras’ are, that are being challenged? In this respect it feels incredibly old-fashioned: the Us-versus-Them mindset made me nostalgic for my student days when international politics were so much clearer cut.

Meanwhile, back in 2017, the modern ‘struggle’ in South Africa is to formulate economic and social policies which will boost the economy and try to spread wealth and well-being out to the great bulk of the (black) population who have never seen the benefits of the end of apartheid and who are still mired in poverty and illness. A much harder ‘struggle’ because it is no longer so easy to identify the goodies and the baddies and, in fact, there may be no easy solutions.

Credit

Hats off to Betsy and Jack Ryan who sponsored the exhibition and to IAG Cargo who transported many of these objects from museums and galleries across South Africa. It’s a brilliant opportunity to see all kinds of works from South Africa, from the rarest prehistoric artefacts to bang up-to-date contemporary art. Maybe it’s my fault if I found so many complex histories and paradigms difficult to process in one visit.


The trailer

Museums and galleries are producing more and more videos to explain their exhibitions. The British Museum has set up a channel containing eight videos about this show.

I strongly recommend watching the videos before going to see the exhibition, as they explain the rationale for the layout, and prepare you for the emphasis on modern artworks, ahead of your arrival.

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Reviews of other British Museum shows

Sicily: culture and conquest @ the British Museum

I’m aware of three exhibition spaces at the British Museum: the big Sainsbury space for blockbuster exhibitions at the back of the main hall; the temporary display room 3a, immediately on the right of the main entrance; and the medium-sized space on the first floor of the Rotunda in the main hall.

This exhibition is a medium-sized one in the Rotunda: the ticket collector on the door said it would take an hour to go round and this compactness was confirmed by the lack of audio-guide.

Two eras

I was expecting a comprehensive historical overview of Sicily – the largest island in the Mediterranean, the triangular island at the foot of Italy and only 96 miles from the coast of Tunisia. In the event, the exhibition manages to be so compact because it focuses on just two key eras in the island’s long and chequered history.

1. Classical Greek

First is the classical Greek era, from the earliest colonies founded in the 730s BC, which overlapped with sporadic Phoenician settlement in later centuries, all the way through to the period of the Roman conquest, circa 200 BC. In fact the decisive battle in which Rome won the island was fought on 10 March 241 BC.

The early rooms contain fascinating artefacts from this long period, which taken together show the evolution of Greek sculptural art from abstract designs through stylised human figures and onto the astonishing realism of full classical Greek art. As an example of the earliest artefacts, there is a large stone tomb cover, decorated with a huge abstract carving – fertility symbols, some kind of religious imagery? No one knows.

Representing the middle period is a marvellously preserved terracotta altar, dating to about 500 BC, featuring the standing figures of three fertility goddesses.

Terracotta Altar with three women and a panther mauling a bull. Gela, Sicily. C.500 BC. Museo Archeologico Regionale di Gela © Regione Siciliana

Terracotta Altar with three women and a panther mauling a bull. Gela, Sicily. C.500 BC. Museo Archeologico Regionale di Gela © Regione Siciliana

There are numerous other statues, including a glass case with 10 or more foot-high figures of Cybele, goddess of fertility, festooned with her distinctive necklace of grapes, hieratic heads from temples, along with numerous coins from this, the earliest period of coin history, before you start to encounter the supremely realistic depictions of human and animal figures which are the glorious achievement of classical Greek art.

For me the outstanding example of this later period was the stunning  terracotta horse’s head from an equestrian group which surmounted a temple in Sicily, c. 480–460 BC.

The flared nostrils and the swollen veins of the horse bring it vividly to life; you can hear the whinnying, the snorting and smell the hot sweaty horse smell.

2. The Normans

Then – surprisingly – the show skips the Romans altogether, along with the reconquest by the Byzantine Empire of Justinian I (530s) and conquest by Muslim forces (820-1020), leaping over 1,000 years forward to the Norman period, starting when the Normans conquered the island in 1061 and continuing through their period of dominance to around 1300.

I found this second section the more interesting of the two, which may be a simple reflection of the fact that we have much more written evidence from this period. Normans (descendants of 9th century Vikings who had settled the area that became ‘Normandy’ in north-west France) had already established bases on mainland Italy and during the 11th century mounted raids on Sicily. Eventually in 1061 they established control over the entire island.

Marble bust of Frederick II, Italy, 1220–50 AD. Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Rome. © H. Behrens, DAI Rom

Marble bust of King Frederick II of Sicilty, 1220–50 AD. Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Rome. © H. Behrens, DAI Rom

Due to its long history, sketched above, the island was now home to a checkerboard of communities including Italians, Byzantine Greeks, Muslims, Jewish immigrants and now its Norman rulers. Sicily was ruled by a succession of Norman kings – Roger II, William I and William II – who turned it into a military power base but also created a unique hybrid, multi-cultural court. The exhibition has a room devoted to the amazing Palatine Chapel, commissioned by Roger to sit at the heart of the royal palace at Palermo, which was covered in gorgeous decoration mixing twelfth-century Byzantine-style mosaic with marble and wooden Islamic-influenced architectural decorations.

Sicilian facts

Sicily has always enjoyed an unusually fertile soil created by the regular volcanic eruptions of Mount Etna. This large sloping mountain dominates the island in every direction.

Sicily contains some of the best-preserved classical temples in the Mediterranean and a stunning ancient theatre built on a hillside overlooking a bay with Mount Etna in the background.

Speaking of stunning landscapes, probably the most striking feature of the exhibition is a number of really massive, wall-sized, colour photographs of the Sicilian landscape, along with temples and ruins, which cover many of the walls and really bring the subject to life. It’s a technique the Museum used in the Viking exhibition a few years ago, and it really helps situate the dry artefacts into a living breathing (and very sunny) environment.

My favourites

The show includes some 200 artefacts from its two chosen eras. I went with my son and we each chose our favourite objects. I liked:

Gilded falcon, dating from the early 1200s and harking back towards the winged eagles and birds of prey which formed bowsprits to Viking warships.

Gilded bronze falcon, Bronze, traces of gold, Sicily or southern Italy, 1200–1220 AD © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gilded bronze falcon, Bronze, traces of gold, Sicily or southern Italy, 1200–1220 AD © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Palatine chapel ceiling The chapel stood at the centre of the royal palace in Palermo. It was commissioned by the Norman King Roger II and consecrated on 28 April 1140. For the exhibition the extraordinary ceiling of the chapel has been recreated (admittedly the three-dimensional roof with alcoves and arches has been recreated as a flat two-dimensional photograph) and is suspended low above one of the exhibition rooms. Shame there wasn’t a mat for visitors to lie on and look up and study the highly detailed intermixing of abstract patterns, decorated with Islamic script, among which sit rosettes holding quaint medieval portraits of Christian saints and holy men – all the work of Fatimid woodworkers and painters from North Africa.

My son’s favourites

Bronze rostrum The exhibition includes a direct remnant of the battle in which the Romans conquered Sicily in 241 BC: a bronze battering ram that was fitted on the front of the Roman warships to sink enemy ships, and which was only recently excavated from the waters around the island.

Bronze rostrum from Roman warship, from the seabed near Levanzo, Sicily. c.240 BC. Soprintendenza del Mare © Regione Siciliana

Bronze rostrum from Roman warship, from the seabed near Levanzo, Sicily. c.240 BC. Soprintendenza del Mare © Regione Siciliana

Tabula Rogeriana The book of maps which King Roger II commissioned from the Arab scholar Al-Idrisi, who took 15 years creating a description of the world and world map, the first one anyone had attempted in a thousand years. The Tabula Rogeriana was completed in 1154 and the exhibition has a splendid 14th century copy of it.

14th Century copy of a map of Sicily - A double page map of Sicily from Al-Idrisi’s Treatise, Unknown, c.1300–1500AD © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

14th Century copy of a map of Sicily – A double page map of Sicily from Al-Idrisi’s Treatise, Unknown, c.1300–1500AD © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Summary

So the exhibition is far from being a complete overview of Sicilian culture. Instead it’s a collection of many wonderful artefacts from two distinct moments of European history which – along with the dazzling and enormous colour photos of various landscapes of the island – really whet your appetite to go and visit this fascinating and beautiful island.

The trailer

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The Lewis Chessman by James Robinson

The British Museum published a dozen or so ‘Objects in focus’ books, short paperbacks (60 pages) focusing on one specific object from their vast collection (of some 8 million artefacts). Subjects include the Franks Casket, the Sutton Hoo helmet, the Rosetta Stone etc.

This one is devoted to the Lewis chessmen, 78 small (10cm high) chess pieces, carved from walrus ivory sometime in the 12th century. They were discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and chapter one tells the obscure story of their discovery and sale in Edinburgh and London. The actual finder, supposedly a local peasant, is never interviewed, instead various collectors and antiquaries generated improbable and conflicting accounts of their provenance and discovery.

Number

What is certain is that there are in existence 93 artifacts: 78 chess pieces, 14 tablemen (flat discs with a hole in the middle) and one belt buckle. 82 pieces are owned by the British Museum in London, and the other 11 are at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Origin

They’re Scandinavian in origin, but from where? The most popular theory is that they come from Trondheim in Norway because Trondheim was one of the centres of the essentially Scandinavian trade in walrus tusks from further north in the Arctic circle or from overseas in Greenland. As such it was home to a number of walrus-ivory carving workshops.

So what were they doing buried on a beach in the Outer Hebrides? We’ll never know, but an educated guess is that they were temporarily hidden there by a merchant taking them to sell in part of what was then the network of Scandinavian kingdoms and earldoms stretching from Norway across the mainland and islands of northern Scotland, to Iceland in the north and Ireland in the south.

The kings The eight kings all sit on square thrones, hold swords in both hands, have long braided hair and patriarchal beards although two of them, surprisingly, are clean shaven.

The queens The eight queens sit on similar square thrones, their hair covered by lace-like drapery, holding their chins in their right hand, cupping the right elbow with their left hand – is this a stylised gesture of throughtfulness and wisdom? Whatever it is, it’s not uniform as two aren’t i that pose, instead holding a drinking horn.

The bishops Sixteen bishops, seven sitting on thrones, nine standing. All the standing bishops hold croziers and their full-frontal depiction helps date the pieces to after 1150 when this way of representing bishops came in. Also, surprisingly, no earlier known representation of the bishop in the game of chess survives. The arrival of the bishop in the game coincides with a surge in worldly power of bishops in the real world, epitomised by the conflict between Henry I and Thomas Becket (martyred 1170) in England, and warrior bishops who fought in the Third Crusade (1189-92).

The knights The fifteen knights sit on shaggy little ponies and hold kite-shaped shields in their left arms. Apparently, the range of arms, armour and equipment they carry has been a useful source of information on 12th century warfare.

The warders There are twelve warders, or rooks, wearing conical helmets and holding shields in their left hands, swords in their right. Three of the BM warders are biting the tops of their shields in the gesture described in contemporary texts as characteristic of berserkers, Norse warriors who whipped themselves up into a psychopathic frenzy before battle. Grettir fights one in the Norse saga, Grettir the Strong.

The pawns The 19 pawns are simple geometric salt cellar shapes.

The book goes on to describe the spread of chess from its origins in India into Persia and on into the Muslim world which, in the early Middle Ages included not only the Middle East and north African coast, but Sicily and most of Spain. It was probably through cultural interaction in these centres that chess spread north through Spain and into France, and up through Italy and across the Alps.

The Indian game consisted of four pieces: chariots, elephants, cavalry and infantry. Rukh was the Persian for chariot, which morphed into our castle. The bishop, who first appears in these pieces, was previously known as the ‘prince’ and, in the original Indian game, ‘the elephant’.

The existence of chess in the West in the 11th century is evidenced by a number of texts, including the 11th century poem Ruodlieb, in which a knightly guest is challenged to a series of games by his king host. The book mentions wills in which various rulers left their sets to religious houses, but in fact the Church had a big problem with chess as a time-consuming distraction from religious contemplation and made repeated attempts to ban it. On the other hand some writers thought the ability to play chess as one of the skills necessary to the elegant courtier. The book quotes texts from the 1100s and 1200s to bring out the pros and cons of what seems to have been a burning issue of the day.

I also learned that the heyday of carving in walrus tusk was from the 11th to the 13th centuries. It expanded to fill a gap in the market caused by the decline of elephant tusk imports, no-one is sure why, maybe because of conflict with the Muslim world. So while it lasted, the walrus ivory trade provided economic underpinning to the Viking settlement of Greenland (settled 985, flourishing in the 11th and 12th centuries). When elephant ivory again became accessible during the 13th century, the walrus trade fell off, possibly contributing the economic decline of the Greenland settlement which was abandoned in the 1400s.

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Every room in the British Museum

A friend’s son comes to stay from Spain. He’s studying art and culture and so we spent two days, from 10am till chucking out time at 5.30pm, on a mission to visit every room in the British Museum. And we did it.

The British Museum owns some 8 million artefacts, of which fewer than 1% are on display, amounting to around 50,000 objects. It is the most popular tourist attraction in the UK with nearly 7 million visitors annually. Before the doors even opened at 10, the crowds flocking into the main forecourt reminded me of the crowds heading for the turnstiles at a football match.

Confusing layout

  • The official floorplan gives 95 numbered rooms, but closer examination shows several are missing. For example, I couldn’t find mention of the 80s, whereas some numbers are used two or three times: eg 18, 18a and 18b are the rooms dedicated to the Elgin Marbles – or 33, 33a and 33b, sound like one number but turn out to label the long hall running along the north wing of the building, the room at the end and a long narrow hall running south from it, which between them contain all of India and China: two distinct and massive subjects/areas, covering a profusion of sub-subjects – all contained by one innocent sounding 33.
  • The collection is spread vertically between levels -2 to level 5, so there are lots of floors and lifts. But not all the stairs give access to all the levels ie some stairs only go from one level to another, or only to one or a few room: like the steps which only go from room 21a down to rooms 77 and 78 (devoted to Greek and Roman architecture, an interesting collection of just the tops of classical columns which allow you to get close to the various decorative styles and patterns, and to classical inscriptions). Or the one staircase (the North stairs) which are the only way to get up to the Japan displays (rooms 92 to 94).
  • The way some rational sequences of numbered rooms are suddenly interrupted or require a detour up or down back stairs, give the place a pleasing element of chance or randomness eg the way room 67 (the Korea Foundation Gallery) continues seamlessly into room 95 (the Sir Joseph Hotung Centre for Ceramic Studies). But overall, the visit prompted two big questions:
  • Why are the Egyptian and Roman and Greek collections split up? The massive long hall-type room 4 contains a wonderful collection of Egyptian sculptures and next to it are rooms displaying the similarly huge Assyrian sculptures (rooms 6 to 10) and then loads of rooms – 11 to 23 –  displaying the development of Greek sculpture (including the vast Duveen Galleries showing the Elgin Marbles). But then you have to go across the Museum and up to level 3 to visit the completely separate suite of rooms – 61 to 66 – displaying Egyptian mummies and sarcophaguses, in carefully explained chronological order. Why are the Egyptians split up like this? Why not have everything Egyptian all together? Similarly why, after you’ve done the evolution of Greek sculpture, do you have to go across and up to level 3 (rooms 69 to 73) to see more Greek pots and find out about the Greek colonies in the south of Italy before the rise of Rome?
  • Why is the chronological account of civilisations sometimes done in rooms numbered sequentially, but sometimes done against the order of the rooms? For example, rooms 11 to 23 on the ground floor take you through the history of Greek art in a nice logical sequence, from the earliest, primitive cycladic figures through to the artistic heights of the Parthenon, then on to Alexander the Great and the Romans. Whereas on the third floor, rooms 52 to 59 have to be visited in reverse order to experience the chronological progression, with 59 introducing the Levant ie Mesopotamia, Persia, Turkey – and then rooms moving forward in time as the numbers decrease (room 56 Mesopotamia 6000-1500, room 55 Mesopotamia 1500-539 and so on). Similarly, the history of Europe starts in room 51 (Europe and Middle East 10,000 to 800) then proceeds through rooms which count downwards: room 50 for Britain and Europe 800BC – 43 AD, room 49 for Roman Britain. Just when you’re getting used to this backwards progression, you have to leap straight to room 41 (Sutton Hoo and Europe 300-1100) and room 40 (Medieval Europe 1050-1500), because the missing rooms in between – rooms 46, 47, 48 (admittedly off to one side) turn out to contain rather unexpected and rather odd displays of Europe 1400-1800, Europe 1800-1900, and Europe 1900 to the present, respectively (mostly made up of ceramics, pottery, vases and plates).

In other words, finding your way around the British Museum is neither logical nor intuitive, making the visit of anyone with a limited amount of time really quite demanding. Especially if you’re trying to please impatient hectoring children. Don’t give up! It’s not you, it’s the museum.

On the other hand, if you do have the time or the opportunity to visit more than once, then the quirky layout, with countless unexpected and hidden treasures to stumble upon, maybe adds to the mystery and romance of the place…

Highlights

Obviously, not any kind of official highlights, this is a list of things that made me stop and think or want to make a note:

  • A dentil is a small block used as a repeating ornament in the ‘bedmould’ of a cornice. Picture of dentils.
  • African wooden fetishes contained the spirits of gods, ancestors or spirits. Banging nails or bits of metal into them activated the god, woke up the spirit. Photo of African fetish
  • Porcelain was invented around 600AD in China and was a practical cheap new way of making dishes, pots, cups etc.
  • In a traditional Korean house the male area or sarangbang, was prized for its simplicity and clarity: here the man of the house studied, worked, wrote poetry. The woman’s room, or anbang, was highly decorated, painted, adorned and ornamented.
  • Ganesh, the Hindu god, has the head of an elephant because his father, Shiva, cut off his human head in a fit of anger and said he’d replace it with the head of the first thing he saw.
  • The Buddhist chant Om mani padme om means ‘hail to the jewel in the lotus’.
  • The hands of the Buddha in statues can represent a number of meanings, in fact they are broken down into categories. The palm raised towards the viewer is the abhayamudra, which symbolises reassurance. (The right hand in this image.)
  • Many of the Indian statues are posed in the traditional tribhanga posture where the body is slightly bent at the neck, waist and knee, giving it a sensuous S shape. Tribhanga Wikipedia article
  • The Egyptian cat god was named Bastet. Epitomised by the famous Guyer-Andersen cat. The udjat-eye hieroglyph on its chest is a symbol of protection.
  • Egyptians were buried on the west bank of the Nile (eg the Valley of the Kings) right on the edge of the desert. They were buried facing east, facing back towards the living.
  • No-one knows who the mysterious figurines found in earliest cycladic sites represent or why they were nearly all female. Cycladic figure.
  • King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (685-627 BC) held lion hunts, where caged lions were brought to an enclosure and released so the king could chase after them on his chariot. He is depicted with one lion leaping up into the chariot and, while two soldiers hold it back with spears, Ashurbanipal in person leans forward to deliver the coup de grace with a short sword. Ashurbanipal killing a lion 640BC.
  • Egyptians believed the scarab beetle symbolised the sun, because each day as the sun rose beetles emerged from their dung balls or holes. Egyptian scarab statue.
  • At the temple complex of Kom Ombo in Upper Egypt, where crocodiles were worshipped as symbols of caring and nurturing, but also images of fear (?), over 300 mummified crocodiles have been found. The mummies include mummified versions of their tiny baby crocodiles, placed along the mother croc’s back. The crocodile god is Sobek.
  • My favourite thing in the Japanese gallery wasn’t the magnificent Samurai armour, it was the painted screen, ‘Pine trees at Maiko-no-hama beach‘, by Mori Ippo (1847).
  • Farming was invented about 12,000 years ago. Writing was invented about 5,000 years ago. Money was invented around 600AD.
  • The Queen of the Night dates from 1800BC in Mesopotamia.
  • The walls of ancient Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian empire in the 7th century BC, are now cheek-by-jowl with the modern Iraqi city of Mosul, which is currently held by forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
  • The most beautiful statue I saw was of Antinous, the young man beloved of the Roman emperor Hadrian.
  • I learned that it was during the Hellenistic period after the death of Alexander the great (323BC) that Greek art became more individualised. When Greek statues reached their peak in the Athens of Pericles (495-429 BC) they depicted idealised images of power which reflected the communal values of the city state. After Alexander the Great (died 323 BC) effectively unified the Mediterranean world in one cosmopolitan culture, the rich became more individualistic, collecting rare and precious objects, and wanted to be depicted as they actually appeared. So by the time the Roman republic reached its peak and then became the Empire (27 BC), although bodies were still depicted with the Greek idealism – the super-defined muscles and bone structure etc – the faces had become the faces of individuals. Hence the faces of the Roman emperors, which are so individualised and evocative.
  • The invention of the pendulum clock in 1656 by Christiaan Huygens was a massive step forward in accurate measure of time and therefore of all kinds of processes, from the movement of the planets to new industrial or chemical processes. The super-accurate telling of time was one of the foundations of the industrial revolution and of the West’s dominance over the rest of the world.
  • When wound up this Mechanical Galleon, made in Germany in the 1590s, played music from a little organ as it trundled over the dinner table until it came to a stop and the model guns fired little puffs of gunpowder.
  • The Ram in a Thicket is one of a pair of figures excavated in Ur in southern Iraq. They date from 2600 to 2400 BC.
  • I’d heard of most of the other cultures mentioned here, but never of Urartu, a kingdom in the east of Turkey near Mount Ararat. This is a bronze winged bull’s head from the handle of a large cauldron, 8th to 7th century BC.
  • King Ashurbanipal established the world’s first library (as far as we know) consisting of thousands of clay tablets from the 7th century BC. The British Museum is embarked on a large project working with the University of Mosul to digitise the original texts and translations, making the entire library available online.
  • The double headed snake was important in Aztec mythology. The Museum houses an elaborate sculpture of a double headed snake covered in hundreds of tiny fragments of turquoise. What interested me is that this nearby mosaic skull also has snake motifs curling around the eyes of the nose and down to the lips.
  • A cabinet of curiosities is a display case an Enlightenment or Victorian collector might use to display his collection of interesting and unusual objects. It is in stark contrast to a ‘treasure room’ (exemplified by room 2, the The Waddesdon Bequest, donated by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild MP (1839–1898)) which contains objects of exquisite beauty and craftsmanship designed to highlight the owner’s refined taste. I preferred the cabinets.

Room one

Room 1 runs the length of the ground floor, along the right hand side as you enter the courtyard. The entry, opposite the east part of the bookshop, looks like a dusty old library, but don’t be put off: room 1 is dedicated to a permanent exhibition, in seven themed sections, showing why the Enlightenment period (roughly the 1700s) saw a new fashion among the rich and educated for collecting everything – stones, flints, flowers, trees, books, manuscripts, languages, paintings, sculptures, machinery, statues – you name it, someone somewhere, rich aristocrat or modestly funded vicar, was collecting it.

And how it was from the urge to collect and assess and categorise and compare all these innumerable specimens, that many of the disciplines we know today emerged – most notably archaeology, the science of dating and naming and categorising and understanding all the objects from the human past.

It may look a bit unexciting, but room 1 not only contains many objects which are fascinating in their own right, but provides just the right introduction, not just to the museum but to the whole ‘idea’ of a museum and what museums are for. And since the British Museum was founded with the bequest of one such personal collection, that of the physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane, in 1753, room 1 is the ideal place to begin to understand the urge to collect and the urge to view, see and understand, which underlies the whole place and explains why you’re there.

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Indigenous Australia @ the British Museum

‘The first major exhibition in the UK to present a history of Indigenous Australia through objects’

1. Artefacts

In three medium-sized rooms The BP exhibition, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, packs scores and scores of artworks and artefacts designed to illustrate and illuminate the history of the indigenous peoples of Australia. A timeline on the wall starts 60,000 years ago with the first evidence of humans on the continent, proceeds to the first artefacts and art some 40,000 years ago (at a time when Neanderthals were still living alongside homo sapiens in Britain), among much other evidence that Indigenous Australian is the longest continuous, unbroken culture anywhere in the world.

A huge map of Australia on the wall shows the patchwork of tribes and peoples which covered this vast country – the size of Europe – and, when the Europeans arrived, home to some 1 million Indigenous people speaking an estimated 250 separate languages.

From the BM’s collection of 6,000 Australian objects, this exhibition showcases a range of bowls, masks, spearheads, boomerangs, pendants, belts, shields, shell ornaments, speartips, generally dating from the Early Colonial Period (1770-1850) when missionaries and explorers began to collect them, most beautifully crafted and decorated with very appealing abstract and geometric designs.

Standout objects included a 5-foot-long crocodile ‘mask’ designed to be worn on the head and a small (6 inch square), wonderfully evocative head and shoulders carved out of coral.

Mask in the form of a human face and a bonito fish, Attributed to Kuduma, Murala.  Turtle shell, goa nut, cassowary feather, shell. Nagir, Torres Strait, Queensalnd, Australia before 1888.  © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Mask in the form of a human face and a bonito fish, Attributed to Kuduma, Murala. Turtle shell, goa nut, cassowary feather, shell. Nagir, Torres Strait, Queensalnd, Australia before 1888. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

2. Art

Interspersed with these generally anonymous folk artefacts were large, sometimes very large, paintings by named and much more contemporary aboriginal artists. Almost without exception these were stunningly beautiful and inspiring. The artists included:

They are generally acrylic paint on canvas and there are enough of them, showing enough similarities in style, to have become known as ‘desert paintings’. (There are photos showing the large canvases laid out on a patch of desert and being worked on by one or several artists simultaneously with wide open spaces in the background.) They show abstract patterns derived from natural objects or creatures, but converted into flat panels covered in geometric patterns.There is no attempt at naturalism, they are not confined or trapped by Western notions of perspective or the notion that a painting must be a ‘window on the world’.

‘Kungkarangkalpa’; Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington (2013) Acrylic on canvas © The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project.

‘Kungkarangkalpa’; Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington (2013) Acrylic on canvas
© The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project.

I really liked the way the patterning suggests geometric regularity but is never actually exact, always has an organic-feeling variety and fluidity in its lines and circles, its matrices and swirls. And I loved the use of stippling, large dots of coloured paint to create a mosaic affect.

A century ago most Westerners lived in a post-Renaissance visual world, inculcated to think of ‘Art’ as depictions of heroic white men and docile gauze-veiled women (as exemplified in the recent exhibition at Leighton House). It took decades, maybe a century, of Modernism, the influence of Picasso and his generation breaking free from Renaissance traditions and taking inspiration from South Sea Island masks and African carvings to teach us how to see beauty in art which bears little or no relation to the stifling realism of the Western tradition, and to enjoy images like this for their confidence and imaginative power.

As well as examples of this ‘desert painting’ style, there were other bang up-to-date art works:

James Cook - with the Declaration; Vincent Namatjira (b.1983) South Australia (2014) Acrylic on canvas © Vincent Namatjira

James Cook – with the Declaration; Vincent Namatjira (b.1983)
South Australia (2014)
Acrylic on canvas © Vincent Namatjira

  • James Cook with declaration by Vincent Namatjira (2014) a large naive-style painting of Captain Cook holding a big white document representing the law by which the white man will steal the land
  • Undiscovered #4 by Michael Cook (2010) a large print of a photo of a beach showing a Captain Cook-era sailing ship anchored and a man in 18th century British Army uniform standing on the beach – except it is an aborigine in the uniform
  • Barama/Captain Cook by Gawirrin 1 Gumana (b.1935)  a large ‘totem pole’ type pole covered in painted patterns with two heads at the top representing Cook and a native god, Barama

And the Museum has commissioned works specifically for this show from Indigenous artists, including two from Judy Watson (b.1959) – the holes in the land 3 and the holes in the land 4 – in which she’s taken floor plans of the current museum and of the museum extension, created standard-size framed prints of the plans, then given them a wash of colour and superimposed on them the outlines of large dark Indigenous artefacts, in the first case, piturri bags.

3. Aboriginal beliefs

A large video screen just inside the door showed a montage of shots of contemporary Australia, breath-taking landscapes, the beaches and sea and islands, mysterious tree-fringed rivers and wide expanses of red desert dotted with spinifax plants, and then humans, the white world of highways and cars and shopping malls, and groups of aboriginals together in camps, painting young boys’ bodies with traditional designs, and the sound of flies in the desert.

Bark painting of a barramundi.  Western Arnhem Land, about 1961  © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Bark painting of a barramundi.
Western Arnhem Land, about 1961
© The Trustees of the British Museum.

Against this visual and aural backdrop the wall labels and audio commentary didn’t attempt a summary of aboriginal beliefs but dropped insights. Not least because Aboriginal religion or traditional beliefs stretch the western mind, their traditions and holistic mindset completely different from our crisp, clearly demarcated divisions of meaning. I don’t pretend to understand it but it includes:

  • the importance of ‘country’ or the land
  • really ancient traditions and stories stretching back thousands of years
  • the songlines and dreamworld, a difficult concept to grasp, to do with the way the ancestors walked through the land and called it into being, called the animals and flora into existence, and the trails and tracks they left across the land which record these legends…

Something which struck me is the way the songlines stretch right across the land and are shared by different groups, so that someone walking them has to pass on to a different song in a different language to continue the journey. Different tribes and sub-tribes inhabited specific areas, but there was much migration and movement, and people could travel freely across the country.

In a small but, I think, significant way this sharing and overlap is exemplified in some of the desert paintings which are actually the product of many hands – the largest painting in the show, right at the start – exhibit 1 – was created by five artists.

‘Pukara’ by Roy Underwood, Lennard Walker, Simon Hogan and Ian Rictor Acrylic on canvas Western Australia (2013) © the artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project

Pukara by Roy Underwood, Lennard Walker, Simon Hogan and Ian Rictor
Acrylic on canvas
Western Australia (2013)
© the artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project

4. Politics

I was already well aware that most of the artefacts here are in some sense ‘loot’, sometimes bought or given but most often simply plundered from their rightful owners, often in violent circumstances, and almost always separating the artefacts from the tribe, the location and the tradition which produced them, thus stripping them of much of their meaning and power.

After all, this is true of almost everything in the British Museum which, from one perspective, is a vast stash of loot from the criminal enterprise known as the ‘British Empire’.

But in the second room of the exhibition the dire history of British colonialism began to make its presence increasingly felt, with a sequence of images of the first British explorers, Dampier and then Captain Cook. Cook and his party had only been ashore ten minutes before they stared firing their guns at a couple of curious natives who’d come down to the beach to see them and relations with the Indigenous peoples continued in the same spirit of misunderstanding and one-sided aggression for the next couple of centuries.

The show is, after all, not an art exhibition but an attempt to tell Indigenous Australian history via objects, and no history of Australia is complete, or can even begin to be written, without taking account of the fact that the land was for tens of thousands of years inhabited by hundreds of tribes of people with an intimate relationship with the land, with rich and strange culture and traditions, and with expert knowledge of coaxing a livelihood out of the dryest continent in the world. Until we showed up and started shooting them, enslaving them, hunting them down, introducing them to alcoholism, prostitution and – even worse – western law about property and land ownership.

All this is indisputable and, if you wanted to be sickened and disgusted by the behaviour of the British explorers, colonists and convicts I recommend Robert Hughes’s massive history of crime and injustice, The Fatal Shore.

But as the exhibition moves into room three and the political injustices are laid on thicker and thicker the show becomes quite oppressive.

Land rights placard from the aboriginal Tent embassy, erected, as a site of protest, in 1972.  Paint on Masonite board, Old Parliament House, Canberra, Australia (1972) National Museum of Australia

Land rights placard from the aboriginal Tent embassy, erected, as a site of protest, in 1972.
Paint on Masonite board, Old Parliament House, Canberra, Australia (1972)
National Museum of Australia

The final room is dominated by a wall-size video screen showing a 3-minute sequence of stills recording the aborigines’ liberation struggle, with highlights such as the way protesters renamed the 150th anniversary of the claiming of Australia for the British Crown, on January 26 1938, ‘A Day of Mourning’. And other milestones in the 1970s, 80s, 90s and up to the present day (‘Key moments in the struggle for indigenous rights 1901-2015’). Among other striking facts we learned that the 1901 constitution which actually created the nation of Australia from six self-governing British colonies, for the purposes of census and population counting, explicitly excluded the aborigines, who were thereby declared non-people, non-existent, in their own country.

All this is true and important and tragic and disgusting BUT it had the regrettable affect of almost completely destroying the impact of the first half of the show.

For the first half hour I was straining my brain to understand concepts of land and tradition and art which are completely alien to the Western tradition, well beyond my understanding – as well as learning more tangible insights into Aboriginal art such as, snakes are an important symbol as they are bringers of water to this dry land – or about techniques of painting with ochre on bark. I was working up a feeling of wonder and awe at the age and depth and beauty of these works and of this culture.

Spear thrower. North Western Australia, late 19th or early 20th century © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Spear thrower. North Western Australia, late 19th or early 20th century
© The Trustees of the British Museum.

But I felt the delicacy and fragile insight conveyed in these early impressions was rained all over by the increasing politicisation of the show. No doubt the Indigenous peoples have to fight fire with fire and join in the governing western discourse in order to win their due and their rights. No doubt they had to hire lawyers and sign petitions and lobby the authorities and protest and create posters and banners and march for freedom. But I am over-familiar with the rhetorics of western political discourse; like a lot of other people I am sick of western politics and politicians.

With an audible thump the show went from celebrating the invaluable and barely comprehensible insights of a unique and priceless culture, to feeling like I was listening to John Humphreys barking at a lying politician on the Today programme.

I was much more interested to learn that Uta Uta Tjangala (1926-90) was a native artist who initiated the transfer of sand and body paintings onto canvas, and therefore a ‘pioneer of contemporary Australian art’. Or to see the photo of aboriginal artist Byron Brooks painting on a large canvas stretched out on the dirt floor outside with a vista of desert stretching into the distance and surrounded by ten or more dogs lazing or sleeping in the hot sun.

You’d have to be quite tough-minded to retain the fleeting feelings the wonderful art and artefacts evoke in the first part of this exhibition and not allow them to be tainted by mounting feelings of anger and shame at the miserable treatment of the Aborigines which the second half documents.


5. The oppressiveness of the Greek legacy

Greek sculpture The aborigine show is a few hundred yards away from the bigger, blockbuster exhibition about Greek sculpture also currently showing at the British Museum. That show ends with Michelangelo adulating fragments of Greek statuary and so, along with the rest of the Renaissance, passing on the worship of the perfect body into the Western tradition. I made the point in my review of it that, just as all Western philosophy can be said to be footnotes to Plato, so all Western art could be said to be footnotes to Greek sculpture.

The power of perfection Going further, the Defining Beauty exhibition shows the intimate connection between images of perfection and power: the gods were powerful because they were perfect embodiments of the human form: their power somehow stemmed from their perfection; and their perfection gave them power. They are stunningly perfect.

Discobolus: Marble statue of a discus-thrower (discobolus) by Myron. Roman copy of a bronze Greek original of the 5th century BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Discobolus: Marble statue of a discus-thrower (discobolus) by Myron. Roman copy of a bronze Greek original of the 5th century BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Athenian imperialism People often forget that Athens, at the peak of its artistic and political achievement, was a slave-owning society at the head of an Empire which it had conquered by force. In this sense the Greek statues in the Defining Beauty show are not innocent. They represent Power.

The power of ideas But not just the power of an army. They represent the power of Greek ideas, the fundamental notion that you gain control over things, over the world, by defining and distinguishing, just as the Greeks pioneered mathematics by exploring all aspects of the interactions of precise, defined values or Plato’s dialogues pursue the definition of abstract terms like the Good, the Beautiful, the Just into mind-boggling depths of analysis.

Plato’s theory of Ideal Forms In fact, Plato found himself persuaded that all earthly objects are the fallen, imperfect copies of things which exist in Ideal Form in another dimension. In some heaven or the Mind of God reside the permanent and Perfect Forms of Beauty, Justice, Law, Power, Morality and so on. These abstract ideas had one perfect form which we lesser mortals, in this fallen world, invoke every time we mention them. Just as, on a cultural and religious level, there was one god to an idea – the god of war, the god of the sea, the goddess of love, the king of the gods and so on.

Precision of Idea. Unity of Idea. Intellectual Perfection. Physical Beauty. Power. All are interlinked. (And were of course handed on into Christianity, the intellectual heir of the ancient world.)

The clash epitomised I had these Greek ideas in mind as I walked through the Indigenous Australian show and the vast distance between the two worlds crystallised, for me, in a photo included in the video of key moments in the aborigines’ struggle for justice. This photo shows a white man (presumably a lawyer) standing with three Indigenous men in western suits, all in the shadow of a neo-classical statue of Justice, perfect in shape and form with a light toga falling off her perfect breasts and holding the requisite scales of justice.

One of the tens of thousands of copies of Greek-style super-realist statues which were deployed all around the British Empire to embody ‘our values’: eg the rule of law (ie the rule of lawyers), democracy (for white men only), justice (if you can afford it), the integrity of private property (once you’ve stolen it from its rightful owners) and so on.

What Captain Cook brought When Captain Cook and his crew came ashore they brought not just the obvious tools of conquest – the guns and metal tools and diseases which would decimate the natives. More insidiously, they brought Western law with its vast array of definitions of property and ownership, the precise and pedantic system of codes and rules which was to steal an entire country from its inhabitants. They brought minds educated to venerate big abstract ideas: Civilisation, Culture, Law, Justice, Writing – and used to ‘reading’ those ideas in their chracterstically classical embodiments – Architecture, Public Spaces, Libraries, Statues.

Indigenous culture In Australia they found none of that. The reverse. The early part of the exhibition emphasises aboriginal culture’s fluidity and depth and localism, the land inhabited by numerous tribes with their own histories, cultures and languages and myths of ancestors criss-crossing the terrain in mysterious tracks and passages, creating the animals and the stories and the means for survival.

Difficult-to-grasp, intangible ideas which the earliest settlers simply didn’t see, couldn’t touch or understand, and so ignored, and so assumed the land was, to all intents and purposes – to white men’s intents and purposes – empty, because the aborigines’ life and culture couldn’t be captured or defined in our precise and pedantic legal terms, wasn’t embodied in forms, in objects or buildings or books, which we could understand.

Mask from Mer, Torres Strait, Queensland, before 1855.  Turtle shell, shell, fibre  © The Trustees of the British Museum

Mask from Mer, Torres Strait, Queensland, before 1855.
Turtle shell, shell, fibre
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Plunder And the scattered artefacts, the beautiful things the natives made and which gained their meaning from the location and tradition they arose from, these also couldn’t be defined, didn’t refer to One God (as Christian missionaries understood it) or even to one Pantheon of Gods (as a classically-educated Westerner would be familiar with) couldn’t be explained according to the kind of unitary system which Westerners understood and insisted on as the only method to generate meaning. And so could be looted and shipped back to the vast lumberyard of the Museum with impunity, higgledy-piggledy, stripped of their mystical associations, the spoils of Empire.

Conclusion

All of which led me to wonder: If all philosophy can be said to be footnotes to Plato, then can the whole history of Western colonialism and imperial conquest be said to be footnotes to the Greek ideals of discrete, defined, logical concepts – to Greek notions of perfectionism – to the tyranny of Perfect Ideas and concepts — a mindset, a way of thinking, which the conquerors repeatedly failed to find among the native peoples in America, Australia and Africa who instead practiced more holistic, overlapping, complex and less authoritarian modes of belief.

And that this fateful clash of cultures is epitomised – in the realm of art and iconography, at any rate – in these two fascinating exhibitions at the British Museum.


P.S.

On the way out, right next to the main entrance to the museum, don’t miss the room off to one side which is displaying a handful of larrikitj, or memorial poles by contemporary artist Wukun Wanambi, made from the trunks of young-ish trees, absolutely covered with minute designs based on swarms of mullet fish – creating a mesmeric swirling pattern of tiny lozenges or facets which, on closer examination, turn out to be teeny, tiny stylised images of fish. Wonderful, beautiful, enchanting.

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Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art @ British Museum

‘To the ancient Greeks the body was a thing of beauty and a bearer of meaning.’

When the people in front of me opened the big swing doors into the first room of this exhibition, I couldn’t help exclaiming ‘Wow!’ Four stunning life-size Greek statues, dramatically spotlit in a darkened room, appear as if in a temple, a cave, a magician’s treasury. (They are Lely’s Venus crouching; the river god Ilissos, by the greatest ancient Greek sculptor, Phidias; the Townley Discobolus, a Roman copy of the lost original by Myron; and Georg Römer’s reconstruction of the Doryphoros by Polykleitos.)

This is a wonderfully uplifting and insightful show, full of objects which can make you marvel at human creativity.

Discobolus: Marble statue of a discus-thrower (discobolus) by Myron. Roman copy of a bronze Greek original of the 5th century BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Discobolus: Marble statue of a discus-thrower (discobolus) by Myron. Roman copy of a bronze Greek original of the 5th century BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition’s approach

Greek art and its importance in the tradition of Western Art is a vast, a never-ending and potentially exhausting subject, so this exhibition comes as a relief in several ways: it is not chronological (there are a few handy maps but no chronology) and it does not set out to be exhaustive (two sides of the same approach). (Not being chronological it admittedly doesn’t have the drama, the excitement, of following the evolution of statuary (and what painting survives) through the ancient Egyptians, the other empires of the East, via the primitive art of the Cyclades, and into the sudden efflorescence of the Body Beautiful in 5th century Athens.)

Instead, the show is a) based on themes and b) very selective, showcasing a relatively small number of perfect works, each chosen to demonstrate aspects of the themes, surrounded by a number of lesser pieces designed to give context.

The exhibition doesn’t in fact define beauty: it quotes some of the many Greek thinkers’ words about beauty, and invokes various ideas in the wall signs and the audio-commentary. But these are all fragments, angles, approaches. Helpful, but not definitive. You are left to ponder.

The human body as embodiment of social values

For me the biggest new thing I learned was the notion that the Greeks used the human body to make sense of the world. The human form embodied their values, and the quest for the Perfect and perfectly balanced, rational, harmonious human body, embodied the search for those moral, political and philosophical values.

The human body as embodiment of the universe

I sort of knew the above, but I had never explicitly encountered the related idea, that the human form embodies the Greeks’ sense of destiny and fate and of the forces of the universe.

It is through the human body that we understand the major events in human life (there is a gallery devoted to rites of passage, depictions of birth, marriage and death as, obviously enough, depicted by the body because these are obviously bodily events) but also the forces external to us, the forces of nature, the fierceness of the sun, the fury of storms, and so on.

It was through the human body that they thought about not only human perfection, but human destinies, and the impersonal forces which act on all of us. The body was like a tool for thinking about the world with.

So, for example, the basic human urge to anthropomorphise everything around us (to lend them human attributes, to assign motive and agency to a tree, a key, a car, the kettle, particularly to anything which resists or obstructs us) results, for the Greeks, in myths and legends where human bodies epitomise those forces – where human bodies change shape into animals and other elements of nature.

At a stroke this attitude – the human body as a vehicle for explaining of the world – made sense of all those many Greek stories of metamorphosis, where a young man or woman turns into a reed or a flower or a bull or a tree.

Perfection and power

There is a hierarchy of the universe with humans near its peak and the gods-who-take-human-shape at its apex. But these gods aren’t invisible and unknowable like the Jewish god, or crude warriors as in Near Eastern religion, they are people like you and me except of perfect power; and this power is expressed in their perfect bodies. The two are inextricably blended. Bodily perfection is a kind of power.

Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath, also known as Lely’s Venus. Roman copy of a Greek original, 2nd century AD. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath, also known as Lely’s Venus. Roman copy of a Greek original, 2nd century AD. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

The commentary dwelt on the fact that these images of Aphrodite are extraordinary for the ancient world. No other culture showed its women naked and, of course, real Greek women were kept covered in swathes of cloth and locked up at home. But such was their love of the Perfect Body that depictions of the goddesses breached all social etiquette and showed them stark naked but powerful. Mortals (men, generally) who offended against the purity of their nudity always died harrowing deaths. We should be frightened of their perfection.

Why here?

In all the other cultures anywhere in the world at the time (5th, 4th, 3rd centuries BC) various types of limited and stylised images of the human body sufficed for their purposes (religion, political power). Of all the cultures of the world, it was only the ancient Greeks who invented a naturalistic account of the human body, depicting it as it actually appears (albeit in an idealised and perfect form). Why? Ancient Greece was the only culture in the ancient world to depict its gods nude and the only culture to depict full nudity at all. Why? Why this extraordinary achievement?

The Ideal

Greek philosophy is awash with the notion of the Ideal. Plato’s writings about Socrates show him developing the idea that behind this fallen world lies a world of Perfect Forms, created by a Perfect Being. The entire practice of Greek art didn’t stem from his philosophy, the reverse: his philosophy derived from a culture seeking perfection of mind and body. A culture which sought the Ideal, perfection, in all areas of life – in politics, in philosophy, in morality, in warfare, in everyday behaviour.

Contrapposto to display harmony

Balance. Pythagoras and his school expounded the importance of the Golden Mean. Aristotle said the chief forms of beauty are order, symmetry and clear delineation. This idea is embodied in the pose which Italian critics 1,500 years later named Contrapposto – a pose where all the weight of a body is placed on one foot and leg, thus allowing the other leg and hip and the torso to be turned, to appear to be moving, yet poised. The contrapposto position is a vast distance in sophistication and technical achievement from the fixed, hieratical posture of Egyptian statuary. The commentary suggested it is the embodiment of the rational self-contained man, moving through three dimensions yet self-knowing, controlled, ideal.

The old saying goes that all philosophy is footnotes to Plato; this exhibition suggests that all Western art – and maybe our entire attitude to the human body – is footnotes to the Greek achievement.

The ideal man – a young warrior

Though we like to think of them as the fons et origo of Reason, the ancient Greeks were in fact in a state of almost continual warfare: hence the cultural fascination with the ideal young male body, the body of the athlete and warrior. (Note the contrapposto pose.)

Reconstruction, by Georg Roemer, of the 3rd century BC Greek bronze Doryphoros, or ‘Spear bearer’, of Polykeitos of Argos. 1920-21. © DAI German Archaeological Institute

Reconstruction, by Georg Roemer, of the 3rd century BC Greek bronze Doryphoros, or ‘Spear bearer’, of Polykeitos of Argos. 1920-21. © DAI German Archaeological Institute

Though Greeks wore clothes in everyday life, their athletes trained naked, demonstrating to themselves, their instructors and onlookers their fitness. But not only physical fitness; that fitness was achieved to support an ideal, to be a warrior for the city. Physical fitness – outward physical perfection – reflected internal moral virtue.

I went to the gym the evening before visiting the exhibition and had in my mind the men in the weights room working out for themselves, for the cameraderie of the activity and continually checking how they look – I’ve always thought the most important piece of equipment in a gym is the mirror. There is a tremendous self-consciousness in the Greek cultivation of the Body in art and life which is echoed today.

Arete was the ancient Greek word for youthful excellence, and kouros the name for the perfect young man. God, there were some beautiful, gorgeous male bodies on display, illustrating the ideals of balance and proportion. And I realised they were making me aspire. I know I can’t look like them but I wanted to reach out and touch these perfect images, to stroke the cold stone. Was that a permissible feeling in Greek times? Or would it have been blasphemy punished by madness and death, as in so many of the myths?

Physical challenge

The audio-commentary featured a (woman) journalist from the magazine Men’s Health who brought up the importance of challenge to men, to young men, of physical challenge, activity which tests us: from army training to triathlons. This (presumably deep biological urge) is strongly present in Greek art, and there is a section dedicated to a selection of Greek vases illustrating its embodiment in the legend of the Twelve Labours of Herakles.

Statues of the ancestors

Statuary had a strong moral and social meaning: the halls of Roman houses contained rows of statues of the family ancestors looking down and judging and guarding. I had the same sensation walking past a bust of Herakles positioned on a column a few feet above head level, staring out and down with an eerily imperious blankness. Watching. Judging from his position of youthful physical perfection, the shabby elderly crowd shuffling past his gaze.

Colour

Always comes as a shock to the unwary that the statues were vividly painted. One room is devoted to the different ways they were decorated, copper or bronze statues obviously having the colour of their material but often with different metal inserts to create contrast. The marble statues we see in their cool white perfection, were in fact always colourfully painted and sometimes draped in lifelike fabrics.

A vivid example is given of the Lycian archer – for centuries thought to be a wonderful example of plain white marble statuary and only in recent times conclusively shown to have been highly decorated in a harlequin-like design of blue, red and green lozenges on his arms, legs and quiver.

The threat of chaos

If the Ideal was one of Balance and Reason, then that Ideal is continually threatened in real life by the Irrational, the Violent, the Anarchic. And since the Greeks translated meaning into bodies, morality into human shape – the Greeks embodied the irrational and anarchic as satyrs and maenads, centaurs, and innumerable monsters, the Minotaur or Cyclops or Harpies. Because this exhibition partly exists to highlight items from the British Museum’s collection, it was an opportunity to demonstrate this with the metopes decorating the south wall of the Parthenon, part of the collection notoriously known as the Elgin Marbles. These metopes, the panels lining the greatest architectural achievement of their civilisation, depict in great detail an embodiment of just this struggle – the legendary battle between the Lapiths (a human tribe) and the centaurs (half man, half horse), after the drinking at a wedding party got disastrously out of hand. An embodiment of the forces of Unreason and Anarchy which are always lurking in the universe and in human society.

Marble metope from the Parthenon (South metope XXXI). The South metopes in the British Museum show the battle between Centaurs and Lapiths at the marriage-feast of Peirithoos. Designed by Phidias, Athens, Greece, 438BC-432BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Marble metope from the Parthenon (South metope XXXI). The South metopes in the British Museum show the battle between Centaurs and Lapiths at the marriage-feast of Peirithoos. Designed by Phidias, Athens, Greece, 438BC-432BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Small penises

I’ve always wondered about the relatively small penises of so many of the classic statues, odd in artefacts devoted to Perfection. This exhibition explained what I should have known years ago, that the genitals are small to downplay the (disruptive) erotic power of the image and to promote the moral aspect of having a fine body. Same goes for the women’s breasts, which are notably different from the plump peardrop shape we are fed by modern media in countless newspapers, magazines and movies, and are smaller and more like symmetrical and perfectly round hillocks.

Oversexed

Talking of sex, there was a conversation on the audio-commentary where the main narrator mentioned the genitals bulging out from the loose folds of a man being hacked down in a frieze selected to demonstrate the importance of clothes and nudity in depictions of battle. Interestingly, the expert he was interviewing gently suggested that the comment was a mite ‘oversexed’. As I found at the Goya exhibition, it is all too easy to make sexual interpretations of images from the past, living as we do in a sex-obsessed, 50 Shades of Grey society, and therefore often failing to take account of the relative unimportance of sex for other and earlier cultures, and the far more dominating ethics of religious belief, social conformity, ancestral values, folk practice and contemporary (and now largely vanished) references.

Blank faces to the invention of ‘character’

The pursuit of the Ideal meant blank faces. It is striking how many statues have coldly perfect, impassive features. The interest in character, at first shown through the development of stock ‘types’, is a later development, only really flourishing in Roman statuary from the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. Thus, this characterful statue of Socrates, is late, Hellenistic (ie from the broadly-based Greek culture which spread around the Mediterranean basin after the death of Alexander 323 BC.)

Marble statuette of Socrates. A Hellenistic original of the 2nd century BC, or a Roman copy, Alexandria, Egypt. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Marble statuette of Socrates. A Hellenistic original of the 2nd century BC, or a Roman copy, Alexandria, Egypt. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Alexander understood the power of the image, had busts of himself done all over his Empire, a strategy copied by the Roman emperors and pretty much every Western ruler ever since, from Charlemagne to Charles de Gaulle.

The legacy

Most ancient Greek statues of the human body were destroyed – most of our knowledge about them comes from numerous Roman copies. These were discovered, rescued and preserved during the Renaissance, which enshrined the Greek idea of the perfect body at the heart of Western art and culture.

The exhibition ends with two of the greatest hits from the Greek tradition which have had a seismic affect on Western Art: the Belvedere Torso and Dionysos from the Parthenon. These enormous fragments of superhumanly muscled men were described and praised by Michelangelo, widely seen as the peak and acme of the Renaissance, who thought the torso the finest fragment of classical sculpture that could be seen in his day. It’s certainly the most Michelangelesque.

Belvedere Torso, 1st century BC. Vatican, Museo, Pio-Clementino. © 2015. Photo Scala, Florence

Belvedere Torso, 1st century BC. Vatican, Museo, Pio-Clementino. © 2015. Photo Scala, Florence

The semi-ruined nature of these big blocks of stone has two results:

  • It makes them more abstract – 100 years after the birth of Modernism we can see the lines of the breasts, the mid line between the ribs, the crease along the top of the diaphragm as almost cubist explorations of planes and forms, abstract squares and rectangles, allowing us to see the abstract buried in the flesh.
  • Their ruined state allows us in – encourages the viewer to complete the image, to remake it ourselves and this enables us to inhabit the work of art, to identify with it. There is no doubt these fragments, although intimidatingly large, are not intimidatingly perfect. They don’t have the icy perfection of the Aphrodites form earlier in the show. They will not kill us with a glance.

By not taking the chronological and didactic route, this exhibition successfully sheds light on and opens up new ideas about the great artists who shaped the way we think about what it is to be human, what it is to inhabit a body, to this day. It doesn’t really explain what beauty is – I suspect that is a vast and impossible task. Many details of what is ‘beautiful’ have changed over the centuries and our ideal body shapes today are not quite the same as these, as noted above.

What it does do is explain the power and importance of the notion of the Beautiful Body, the reason why we find the perfect form so haunting, so dominating in our thinking about ourselves.

For the first time I really understand what it means to say these statues give form to thought. They are not just bodies. They are ideas. The most perfect, balanced and rational ideas humanity has ever had. And that is why the importance of body shapes endures: it is central to our civilisation and impossible to escape.

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Vikings: Life and Legend @ the British Museum

This spring’s blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum is a massive one about the Vikings, the first show on the subject since 1980. It’s an international affair, mounted in collaboration with the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. It is wonderfully comprehensive, covering almost every theme or element you can image including trade patterns, coins and precious objects, religion and idols, war and weapons, homes and domestic arrangements, and the legacy of placenames and language.

Background

My experience was heavily influence by two readings of Robert Ferguson’s The Hammer and the Cross. What makes that book so pleasurable is his willingness to lay out the (often ambiguous and obscure) evidence, explain the different interpretations historians have put on it, and leave us to make our own minds up. Thus he shows that the start and the end point of the ‘Viking age’ depends which country you’re talking about and a number of other factors, for example defining at what stage Scandinavian leaders ceased to be raider-chieftains and became something like what we mean by ‘kings’ – a pretty grey area.

In England the Viking Age probably starts with the famous attack on the mainland, at Lindisfarne in 793, and lasts until the defeat of King Harald Hardrada (Hard-Ruler) who attempted to recapture the Kingdom of York and was defeated by the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinsson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 – a date generally more familiar from the battle Harold then had to fight a few weeks later down on the south coast, and which didn’t turn out so well. In Ireland they date the end to the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. In Normandy the start and end points are different again. And so on.

Brooch shaped like a ship, 800-1050. Tjornehoj II, Fyn, Denmark. Copper alloy. Copyright of The National Museum of Denmark

Brooch shaped like a ship, 800-1050. Tjornehoj II, Fyn, Denmark. Copper alloy. (Copyright of The National Museum of Denmark)

The exhibition cuts through these and other problems/issues/enjoyable quibbles by defining the The Viking Age as 800–1050. Similarly, they boldly define the word ‘viking’ – which Ferguson spends pages explaining is obscure and has a variety of possible meanings and derivations – in the traditional way as meaning pirate or raider.

I can see the practical need to define terms and set clear parameters, but the exhibition sometimes skims over issues. It is very broad, covering all aspects of life and trade and war and domestic arrangements and boat-building and burials and gods and farm design and building projects and politics: but sometimes feels a little light, lacking follow-up on themes just as you’re starting to get interested. Then again, that’s what the shop is for, providing plenty of resources to investigate further, including the  weighty catalogue and many history books like Ferguson’s. It can be seen as a very comprehensive taster.

Images

The exhibition largely consists of objects and artefacts, most of them small, many of them coins and brooches etc. By contrast with these small objects (which are frequently difficult to see because of the crowds – this exhibition is PACKED), the most memorable images for me were a series of stunning photos of the Vikings’ stomping-grounds and locations.

A wonderful video in an early room held me spellbound as it traced the routes of Viking expeditions across the North Sea, to Iceland and Greenland, round France to Spain, across the Baltic and down the Russian rivers to the Black Sea etc – and for each route brought up large and beautifully composed photos of, for example, a carved cross in Ireland, the site of the settlement in Greenland, the steppes of Ukraine, a beaver dam in Poland, which conveyed more than anything else the physical geography, and therefore the mental and imaginative terrain, these people inhabited. These photos are almost works of art in themselves!

Network and Empire

For one major emphasis of the exhibition is on the trading aspects of Viking culture, on the amazingly farflung nature of its communications and commerce, so that silver dirhams from Baghdad are found in ship burials in Iceland etc. Thus the Vale of York trove is displayed in its entirety (and the main affect on me was surprise at how small a space such a famous haul amounts to: it looked like it could all fit into a cereal bowl).

Photo of the Vale of York hoard

The Vale of York hoard, AD 900s. North Yorkshire, England. Silver-gilt, gold, silver. (British Museum, London/Yorkshire Museum, York. Copyright of he Trustees of the British Museum)

There’s another interesting thread running through the exhibition explaining how Viking artefacts show the influence of designs from Anglo-Saxon England or from the Frankish empire, explaining in detail how slightly differing designs can help both date and locate objects, scholars are now so expert in regional variations and styles.

Objects

Case after case displayed the kinds of objects you associate with archaeology: coins and brooches and pins and combs and pots (interestingly, in their home territory they had no pottery but used carved stone or wood), rings and bracelets and necklets made from silver or gold.

I particularly liked the objects which had runes carved into them – for example, the Christian reliquary which had runes naming the new heathen owner is evocative of raids and pillage and the great culture clash which Ferguson puts at the heart of the Viking story, between literate Christians and illiterate pagans.

Photo of a carved Odin figure

Odin or volva figure, 800-1050. Lejre, Zealand, Denmark. Silver with niello. (Photo Ole Malling. Copyright of the Roskilde Museum)

The boat

The exhibition publicity gives pride of place to a huge longboat which dominates the final, enormous room. That’s true and not true: certainly the exhibition leads through half a dozen normal sized rooms into a massive bay or airplane hangar of a space and fitting almost the entire length is the metal frame of a vast longboat.

Photo of the Roskilde 6 boat

The Longship (Roskilde 6). The largest Viking ship ever discovered. The thirty-seven meter long warship was built in southern Norway around 1025, and deliberately sunk in Denmark in the mid-11th century. (Copyright of the National Museum of Denmark.)

This warship is one of a series found at Roskilde in Denmark and now labelled Roskilde 6. A hundred and twenty feet long with forty oars to each side, you see it from a viewing platform slightly above, and then, as you walk along the side, it looms larger and larger, until you are on ground level next to its keel and experience a powerful feeling of just how strong the rowers must have been, how fast and sleek it must have moved through the water, how terrified anyone on the receiving end of its raiding must have felt.

However, I was slightly disappointed to realise that almost the entire object is made of modern metal struts, including both prow and tailpiece. No romantic carved dragon, just a modern steel strut. Only long rows of planks along the very bottom give you a sense of the clinker-building technique and looks, frankly, like a very long rowing boat. Nonetheless, the sheer length, as you walk along it, does give you a hair-raising sense of the mighty physical presence, of the fear and terror it must have inspired.

The Jelling Stone

As vivid and wonderful, for me, as the ship, was a replica in the same room of the famous Jelling Stone, a massive 10th century runestone located at the town of Jelling in Denmark. Ferguson tells the story that it was found on the beach and ordered dragged to its present location by the mighty King Harald Bluetooth who ordered one side carved with Heathen zoomorphic patterns, the other with a carved image of Christ, and runes inscribed along the bottom which read: ‘King Haraldr ordered this monument made in memory of Gormr, his father, and in memory of Thyrvé, his mother; that Haraldr who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.’

As with classical statues, it is a dizzying shock to see the thing painted in bright day-glo colours and realise the world of these people of long-ago wasn’t as black and white and sparse as the few surviving relics often imply, but was as bright and colourful and decorated as their means allowed.

Audio commentary and price

The audio commentary was voiced by Sandy Toksvig who can’t really escape the comic tone which 30 years as a stand-up comedian and TV presenter have ingrained into her voice. A generation ago it would have been narrated by Magnus Magnusson, saga scholar and historian, pointing out depths and connections. Now, a comedian, making it more ‘accessible’.

The exhibition costs £16.50 to get in, plus £4.50 for the audio. If you add the transport and any merchandise you’re tempted to buy, it’s a pricey experience. But if you’re a fan, totally worth it!

Vikings: Life and Legend continues at the British Museum until 22 June.

Related links

Replica of the Jelling Stone showing how it would have looked with its original paint

Replica of the Jelling Stone showing how it would have looked with its original paint

Sagas

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