Troy: Myth and Reality @ the British Museum

What Troy means to me

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

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

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

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

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

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

The exhibition

1. Long gallery of ancient artifacts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Archaeology and Schliemann

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

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

3. Troy in European art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modern art interpretations

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

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

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

The Shield of Achilles by Spencer Finch (2019)

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

Feminist interpretations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even the powerful goddesses are subject to male judgement.

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

BP

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

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


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Every room in the Guildhall Art Gallery

The Guildhall Art Gallery is a newish building, opened in 1999 to exhibit selections of the 4,500 or so art works owned by the Corporation of London. It replaced the original Guildhall Art Gallery which was destroyed by fire during the Second World War.

At any one time the gallery has room to exhibit about 250 artworks in its five or so spaces (the main, balcony, ground floor, corridor and undercroft galleries), as well as special exhibitions in the exhibition rooms. But the overwhelming reason to visit the Guildhall Art Gallery is to see its fabulous collection of Victorian paintings.

The gallery is FREE and there are chatty and engaging tours of the pictures every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at 12.15, 1.15, 2.15 and 3.15.

Victorian painting

Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901) saw the fruition of the Industrial Revolution and the growth and consolidation of the British Empire, but neither of these subjects is much in evidence in the paintings here. Instead the wall labels emphasise the way Victorian artists widened the scope of painting from traditional Grand History paintings or mythological subjects or portraits of the rich, to include a new and wider variety of subjects, especially of domestic or common life treated with a new dignity or compassion, and with a growing interest, as the century progressed, in depictions of beauty for its own sake, in the work of the later pre-Raphaelites and then the Aesthetic Movement.

The Rose-Coloured Gown (1896) oil on canvas by Charles H.M. Kerr (1858-1907) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

The Rose-Coloured Gown (1896) oil on canvas by Charles H.M. Kerr (1858-1907) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Main gallery

Go through the main entrance and there is a wide staircase leading up to the Main Gallery, a big, relaxing open space lined with sumptuous Victorian paintings. They’ve been hung in true Victorian style, clustered one above the other and against a dark green background. It looks like this:

Although the paintings have labels displaying names and dates, they have no description or explanation text whatsoever, which is a change and a relief. Instead, the paintings are arranged in themes each of which is introduced by a few paragraphs setting the Victorian context.

Work

Love

  • Listed (1885) by William Henry Gore. My favourite painting here.
  • The Garden of Eden (1901) by Hugh Goldwin Riviere. The tour guide pointed out the irony of the title which is actually about a mismatch between a wealthy woman who has fallen for a man much below her station: note his clumpy shoes and his trousers rolled up. Also the way he’s carrying not one but two umbrellas, intertwined like the two lovers and, if you look closely, the tiny raindrops hanging from the black branches.

Leisure

History

The main gallery on the first floor has an opening allowing you to look down into the gallery space below and hanging on the end wall and two stories high is the vast Defeat of the floating batteries at Gibraltar, 1782 by the American artist John Singleton Copley. Grand history painting like this is about the genre of art furthest from contemporary taste and culture, but there’s lots to admire apart from the sheer scale. Rather like opera, you have to accept that the genre demands stylised and stereotyped gestures of heroism and despair, before you can really enter the spirit.

Faith

The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away (1868) oil on canvas by Frank Holl (1845-1888) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away (1868) oil on canvas by Frank Holl (1845-1888) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

My First Sermon (1863) oil on canvas by John Everett Millais (1829-1896) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

My First Sermon (1863) oil on canvas by John Everett Millais (1829-1896) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Beauty

As the century progressed an interest grew in Beauty for its own sake: one strand of this was Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings of voluptuous, red-haired ‘stunners’ as he called them. Strands like this fed into the movement which became known as Art for Art’s sake or Aestheticism, which sought a kind of transcendent harmony of composition and colour.

  • The violinist (1886) by George Adolphus Storey
  • La Ghirlandata (1873) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
  • On a fine day (1873) by Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes. Although the detail is patchy, from a distance this is staggeringly effective at conveying that very English effect of sunshine on hills while the foreground is clouded over.
  • The blessed damozel (1895) by John Byam Liston Shaw
  • The rose-coloured gown (Miss Giles) (1896) by Charles Henry Malcolm Kerr. The face is a little unflattering but the rose-coloured gown is wonderfully done, lighter and airier than this reproduction suggests. There are several histories of ‘the nude’; someone ought to do a history of ‘the dress’, describing and explaining the way different fabrics have been depicted in art over the centuries.
  • A girl with fruit (1882) by John Gilbert. Crude orientalism.
  • spring, summer, autumn and winter (1876) by Alfred Emile Leopold Joseph Victor Stevens

The Guildhall

Home

During the 19th century home and work became increasingly separated and distinct. Home became a place to be decorated, shown off, furnished in the latest fashions purveyed by a growing number of decoration books and magazines. There is a massive move from the bare interiors often described in Dickens’s novels of the 1840s and 50s, to the fully furnished interiors and incipient consumer revolution of 1900.

  • Sweethearts (1892) by Walter Dendy Sadler. Late for such an anecdotal painting.
  • The music lesson (1877) by Frederick Leighton. Characteristically smooth and sumptuous.
  • A sonata of Beethoven (1912) by Alfred Edward Emslie. Is that the great man himself, blurrily depicted in the window seat?
  • Sun and moon flowers (1889) by George Dunlop Leslie. Note the fashionable blue and white china vases.

Imagination

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

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

A staggering, monumental work, down to the tricklets of blood leaking from the axe over the stone step.

The ground floor gallery

This actually consists of two tiny rooms next to the lifts, to the left of the main stairs, showing nine City of London-related works.

Ninth of November (1888) oil on canvas by William Logsdail (1859-1944) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Ninth of November (1888) oil on canvas by William Logsdail (1859-1944) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

The tour guide pointed out the face of the boy about to pinch an orange from the basket at the far left of the crowd; the black and white minstrel complete with banjo, next to him; and to the right of the white-faced soldier at the foot of the main streetlamp, is a man in brown bowler hat, a portrait of fellow artist John William Waterhouse, of Lady of Shalott fame.

The undercroft galleries

As the name suggests these are downstairs from the ground floor entrance lobby. You walk along the ‘long gallery’ (see below), through a modern glass door on the right and down some steel and glass steps into a set of small very underground-feeling rooms. The paintings are again grouped in ‘themes’, although now applying across a broader chronological range than just the Victorians, stretching back to the eighteenth century and coming right up to date with a Peter Blake work from 2015.

London

The Thames During the Great Frost of 1739 (1739) oil on canvas by Jan Griffier the Younger (1688-1750) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

The Thames During the Great Frost of 1739 (1739) oil on canvas by Jan Griffier the Younger (1688-1750) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Seems clear to me that the paintings from the 1700s are of documentary interest only. Maybe there are elements of composition and technique to analyse, but they aren’t doing anything as mature, challenging and psychological as paintings like ClytemnestraOn a fine day or Listed.

War

The corridor gallery

Matthew Smith (1879-1959) was born into a family of Yorkshire industrialists. Like a lot of rich men’s sons he decided he wanted to be an artist and went to study with post-impressionist French painters in Pont Aven in 1908, then under Matisse in Paris. He served in the Great War, after which he suffered a nervous breakdown. The City of London Corporation was gifted a collection of some 1,000 of his paintings, watercolours, pastels, drawings and sketches in 1974.

The short corridor between the steps down from the lobby and the door into the undercroft displays some dozen of his works. Because they all have similar titles it’s almost impossible to track them down online.

These works struggle to compete with the masterpieces in the main gallery. In Matthews’ work, after the modern art revolution, the paint is laid on thick and draws attention to itself and to the canvas, to the surface and solidity, to the process of painting itself. They are about the interplay of oils, the composition of tones and colours in regard to each other, as juxtapositions of colours and shapes, of bands and shapes and lines and swirls. One result of this is that, having abandoned the realistic depiction of the outside world – using it now merely as inspiration for exercises in colour – there is an absence of the light effects which make so many of the Victorian paintings upstairs so powerful and feel so liberating.

Conclusions

Victorian painting is a game of two halves: as a general rule everything before about 1870 (except for the PRBs) was badly executed or village idiot kitsch; after the 1870s almost all the paintings have a new maturity of execution and subject matter. The change is comparable to the growth of the novel which, up to the 1860s was mostly a comic vehicle with only episodic attempts at seriousness; after around 1860 an increasingly mature, deep and moving medium for the exploration of human consciousness.

Seeing this many oil paintings together makes you realise the ability to oil to brilliantly capture the effect of sunlight – to dramatise a mythic subject and pose as in Clytemnestra – or to evoke a sense of shadow and light which is so characteristic of the English countryside, as in On a fine day – and then, in later Victorian experiments, to convey the hushed, muted shades of light at dawn and dusk – as in my favourite painting from the collection, Listed.

Oil painting can do this better than photography, in which it is very difficult to capture the difference between light and shade without glare or over-exposure. I hadn’t quite appreciated the wonderful ability of oil painting to convey the impression of sunlight in all its different effects.


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