Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt @ the British Museum

Temple lintel of King Amenemhat III, Hawara, Egypt, 12th Dynasty (1855 to 1808 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This is a major exhibition held to mark the two hundredth anniversary of the year 1822 when French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion cracked the code of Egyptian hieroglyphs which had been puzzling scholars for the best part of 1,500 years.

At its heart is the eerily beautiful and hugely important Rosetta Stone, discovered by French troops in Egypt in 1799. The central part of the exhibition summarises the genuinely exciting narrative of the great Race To Decipher hieroglyphics, as it developed into a rivalry between Great Britain – represented by antiquarian Thomas Young (1773 to 1829) – and France – represented by the ambitious young scholar Jean-François Champollion (1790 to 1832).

The exhibition brings together a rather staggering 250 artefacts, many (as usual) on loan from foreign museums. As such it provides a unique opportunity to see so much high quality Egyptiana in one place – all presented in a beautifully designed and laid out exhibition space. If the sheer scale sounds daunting, maybe the crucial thing to grasp is that the exhibition is divided into three main areas or parts.

Part One: The end of hieroglyphics, the revival of interest

Part one briefly covers the end of the millennia-long tradition of writing and reading hieroglyphs in the years after the Greek conquest of Egypt in 320 BC. The Greek dynasty of the Ptolemy family kept up all the Egyptian traditions, but it was the advent of Roman rule from 30 BC (when the last of the Ptolemies, Cleopatra VII, committed suicide) which signalled the slow decline of hieroglyphic writing. It was the imposition of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire by the emperor Theodosius in 391, and the order to close down all pagan temples, which spelled the end of the tradition of writing and reading hieroglyphs. The last known hieroglyphic inscription dates from 394. Byzantine rule of the province continued for centuries until swept away by the great Arab Conquest of the 640s AD.

Intellectual energy in the centuries following the Muslim conquest went into elaborating aspects of Islamic religion and philosophy, as well as preserving and commenting on survivals from antiquity, especially Greek texts. There was only scattered interest in the pictorial language carved into the huge stone monuments all across Egypt.

Some Muslim scholars are namechecked, but for us in Europe it was only the revival of learning from the 1400s onwards, the period which came to be called the Renaissance, which saw sustained scholarly activity to decipher the hieroglyphs. A negative key factor was that there had been some scholarly enquiry during ancient times, with Roman scholars writing books about the hieroglyphs – but that these were often seriously wrong and misleading but were considered indisputable evidence throughout the Renaissance.

Interestingly, study of ancient Egyptian artifacts centred on Rome itself for the simple reason that victorious generals from Julius Caesar onwards had a fondness for stealing and shipping back to Rome impressive numbers of obelisks, stelae, statues, inscriptions and so on (a stela is an inscribed stone or wooden slab) – many of which were still standing 1,400 years later when the revival of interest in old texts (be they ancient Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syrian, Egyptian and so on) gathered pace.

The most significant figure was a German Jesuit and polymath, Athanasius Kircher (1602 to 1680). Working with Arabic grammars and dictionaries of Coptic acquired in Egypt by an Italian traveller, Kircher produced flawed but pioneering translations and grammars of the language in the 1640s and 1650s, leading up to his masterwork, the ‘Oedipus Aegyptiacus’ of 1652.

Unfortunately, Kircher brought to his studies a deep belief in mystic practices and magic. As a Jesuit he believed Egyptian religion must have foreshadowed the One True Religion i.e. Christianity, and so all his interpretations were coloured by a wish to find mystical meanings in even brief sets of symbols. In his hands even short texts of only a few hieroglyphic characters were translated into lengthy sentences describing mystical religious ideas.

But Kircher was only one of hundreds of scholars and commentators, including many of the early Muslim scholars, who were convinced the hieroglyphs represented ancient magic or the secrets of ‘alchemy’, and that true knowledge would allow modern practitioners to revive magical spells and incantations.

The Enchanted Basin

This belief that the hieroglyphs contained ancient magic is represented here by ‘the enchanted basin’, a large black granite sarcophagus from about 600 BC, covered with hieroglyphs and images of gods. Devotees believed that bathing in the basin (accompanied by the appropriate rituals and spells) could offer relief from the torments of love.

‘The Enchanted Basin’ aka the sarcophagus of Hapmen, Egypt, 26th Dynasty (600 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The ritual bath was discovered near a mosque in Cairo, in an area still known as al-Hawd al-Marsud – ‘the enchanted basin’ – and has been identified as simply a sarcophagus – for Hapmen, a nobleman of the 26th Dynasty.

Exhibition design 1

This first part of the exhibition is presented in the usual glass cases etc but against a backdrop of jet black walls themselves covered in silver hieroglyphic scripts which shimmer and capture the eye as you walk through them – evoking a world of black magic and mystery. Most wall panels relate to specific exhibits but the curators have also had the bright idea of creating standalone panels devoted to specific glyphs, explaining what they are and what they mean. This is one of several aspects designed, I think to appeal to children and school visits, and a charming idea.

One of the panels for schoolchildren in ‘Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt’

Part Two: The Rivalry

The second section declares its change of focus with a complete change of design, layout and atmosphere. No longer black, the gallery walls are lighter and the room is dominated by three long wooden benches, with wooden chairs set in front of them (which I think visitors are encouraged to sit at so as to study the artifacts on offer).

The dominance of stained wood reminds me of the British Museum’s extensive Enlightenment Gallery on the ground floor and is, I assume, intended to convey a sense of 18th and 19th century scholarship taking place in the civilised, wood-panelled rooms of Royal Societies and the private collections of rich European travellers across Enlightenment Europe.

This woody, benchy room is the setting for the gripping story of The Race To Decipher Hieroglyphs between the two men who are presented as rivals in scholarship and representatives of their respective nations, Thomas Young of Great Britain and Jean-François Champollion of France.

The Rosetta Stone

In fact the transition from part 1 to part 2 of the exhibition takes you past the famous Rosetta Stone itself, which was the clue to the whole thing and is a story, or several stories, in itself.

The Rosetta Stone, Rasid, Egypt (Ptolemaic, 196 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

History of the discovery

In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte led an invasion of Egypt with 40,000 troops. By this stage revolutionary France had been at war with Great Britain for five years and the Egyptian strategy was designed to cut off Britain’s lucrative trade with her greatest colony, India. But, being French and priding himself on being a man of the Enlightenment, Napoleon took with him 200 scholars, engineers, antiquarians and so on. Over the next few years these experts made numerous drawings, descriptions and maps of the antiquities of Egypt which were later published in the multi-volume Description de l’Égypte (1809 to 1829).

The following year, in 1799, French forces were rebuilding an old fort in the coastal town of Rashid, when they dug up this large fragment of stone covered in writing. Realising its importance the officer in charge sent it to Napoleon’s headquarters. It was taken into possession of the lead scientist in Napoleon’s force but events were about to take a significant twist. In August 1798 the Royal Navy defeated the French navy at the Battle of the Nile.

A treaty (the Capitulation of Alexandria) was then negotiated (in 1801) between the victorious British and the French by which the victors took possession of most of the artefacts, findings and notes created by the French antiquarians. Discussions were detailed and became heated, but to cut a long story short, the British seized the Rosetta Stone and shipped it back to London, where it was presented to the king who in turn passed it onto the fledgling British Museum. It went on public display in 1802, has been on public display at the British Museum almost continuously and is its most visited object.

Almost immediately the British Society of Antiquarians made plaster copies of the stone and printed reproductions of the text and distributed them to other institutions across Europe.

It is called the Rosetta Stone because Rosette was the name Europeans gave to the town Arabs called Rashid and the name stuck.

What I took from all this was that this breakthrough in Egyptology and understanding of the ancient world came about almost entirely because of war between the great powers.

All down the line, from the first officer to see it, through the experts on Napoleon’s staff, through to the British officers in charge of the peace negotiation, through to the king’s advisors and officials at the British Museum, everyone recognised the stone’s immense importance.

Why is the Rosetta Stone important?

Because it was the first artifact found anywhere in Egypt which contained several languages or scripts in parallel. At a glance you can see that the top part of the stone contains rows of hieroglyphics, the next section contains lines of text in another script, and the lower third of the stone contains text in yet another script, which scholars quickly recognised as Greek.

To be precise, from top to bottom, the top two scripts are in Ancient Egyptian, the top one using hieroglyphic and the second one ‘Demotic’ script, while the bottom one is in Ancient Greek.

What is ‘Demotic’? We now know that the ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphs on their official monuments, but on administrative and religious life used a form of cursive script which was easier to write and read. This cursive script changed and evolved over the thousands of years of Egyptian history:

  • the oldest form is called ‘hieratic’ from its development in the third millennium BC until the rise of Demotic in the mid-first millennium BC
  • the so-called Demotic form of the language developed and then held sway from about 650 BC to the 5th century AD
  • and was replaced by the third major form, Coptic, the final development of the Egyptian language, spoken by the common people from around the third-century AD through till the Muslim conquest in the 7th century AD. Coptic has no native speakers today, although it is preserved and still recited by priests of the Coptic church

So what the Rosetta stone presents is a text in classical hieroglyphs, a text in ‘Demotic’ i.e. the common form of written Egyptian of the day, and then a text in ancient Greek.

Scholars immediately realised that, if the three sets of script represented the same text in three different languages, then they should be able to use the Greek at the bottom to read the hieroglyphs at the top and, in so doing, identify what words or sounds individual hieroglyphs stand for and so crack the code, decipher the language of hieroglyphs.

The Rosetta Stone as it appears in the exhibition. Note the animated timeline of the Race To Decipher in the right background, and blown-up reproductions of scholarly texts hanging from the ceiling

Unexpected delay

In my ignorance I thought the discovery of the stone meant we had the key to the door, the job was done, and we could start deciphering hieroglyphs immediately.

Not at all. Turns out there was still a lot of work to be done, not least because there was disagreement on fundamental facts. For example, not all scholars agreed the three scripts contained the same text. And the stone at first presented more puzzles than solutions because antiquarians could no more read demotic than hieroglyphs. So at first sight the stone presented double the problem, two challenges – of aligning the ancient Greek (readable) with the demotic and hieroglyphs (unreadable).

It took a surprising amount of scholarly guesswork, trial and error, devising and testing different theories for knowledge to inch forward. This room – the wooden table room- presents a year-by-year account of the 20 or so years between the stone going on public display and Champollion’s breakthrough in 1822. You might think all this is a fairly niche subject, but think again; there’s an impressive number of books on the subject:

Major landmarks in the decoding included recognition that:

  • 1799: the stone shows three versions of the same text
  • 1802: the demotic text uses phonetic characters to spell foreign names
  • 1814: the hieroglyphic text uses phonetic characters as well, and so has numerous similarities to the demotic
  • 1822: phonetic characters were used to spell not just foreign names but native Egyptian words

The breakthrough 1822

Scripts for languages can be either:

  • ideographic – symbols are used for words or concepts
  • syllabic – symbols are used to convey the sounds of syllables which make up words
  • alphabetic – a symbol is assigned to individual elements out of which words are built

The latter two are examples of phonetic languages i.e:

You can look at a written word and know how to pronounce it. Or you can hear a word and know how to spell it. With phonetic languages, there is a direct relationship between the spelling and the sound.

The ancient Romans had queered the pitch and misled centuries of scholars by claiming that all hieroglyphs were symbols, one glyph directly standing for one idea or concept. Hundreds of scholars wasted their lives trying to figure out what each hieroglyph ‘stood for’.

As I understand it, Champollion’s big breakthrough was realising that Demotic and hieroglyphic i.e. ancient Egyptian language as a whole, was a combination of ideographic and phonetic. He realised this after seeing another scholar’s decipherment of foreign names as phonetic sounds in the hieroglyphs. This was the actual key – that the names of foreign (generally Greek) rulers, were spelled phonetically.

Rather than try to explain further, I’ll quote Wikipedia:

In 1822, Champollion saw copies of brief hieroglyphic and Greek inscriptions taken from an obelisk found at Philae, on which William John Bankes had tentatively noted the names “Ptolemaios” and “Kleopatra” in both languages. From this, Champollion identified the phonetic characters ‘k l e o p a t r a’. On the basis of this and the foreign names on the Rosetta Stone, he quickly constructed an alphabet of phonetic hieroglyphic characters, completing his work on 14 September and announcing it publicly on 27 September in a lecture to the Académie royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. On the same day he wrote the famous “Lettre à M. Dacier” to Bon-Joseph Dacier, secretary of the Académie, detailing his discovery. In the postscript Champollion notes that similar phonetic characters seemed to occur in both Greek and Egyptian names, a hypothesis confirmed in 1823, when he identified the names of pharaohs Ramesses and Thutmose written in cartouches at Abu Simbel.

1824 Champollion published a Précis in which he detailed a decipherment of the hieroglyphic script demonstrating the values of its phonetic and ideographic signs.

In 1829, he travelled to Egypt where he was able to read many hieroglyphic texts that had never before been studied, and brought home a large body of new drawings of hieroglyphic inscriptions.

In 1832 Champollion died from illnesses brought on by travel in Egypt.

1838 his Grammar and Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian was published posthumously. But if you thought that was the end of the affair, you’d be wrong, for Champollion erroneously assumed that the hieroglyphs could be read directly in Coptic script, whereas in fact they represented a much older stage of the language which differs in many ways from Coptic.

It took scholars the rest of the century to work through all the details of ancient Egyptian and work is still ongoing because it turns out to have developed in more forms and variations and dialects than initially thought.

What does the Rosetta Stone actually say?

At the end of all that, what does the Rosetta Stone text actually say? Each of the 3 languages records a priestly decree of 196 BC issued by a council of Egyptian priests from the city of Memphis during the reign of Ptolemy V Epiphanes (i.e. ironically, it’s a text about a Greek ruler and not one of the classic ancient Egyptian pharaohs). The text praises the righteous acts of the king and lists the honours bestowed on him by the priests.

So no magic spells or alchemical procedures, much more banal than that. Interestingly, this kind of decree wasn’t even an Egyptian tradition, but hailed from Greece, a type of inscription imported along with the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty.

Part Three: Modern Egyptology

Design 3: Airy design and huge videos

Struggling to process the complexities of this story, the visitor walks from wood-lined part two of the exhibition through an Egyptian archway into a completely different space.

Here the walls are white and the ceiling is high, creating a sense of light and clarity. On the wall on the right is a video projection of part of an ancient wall with birds flying by – but this is dwarfed by the end wall onto which is projected a huge landscape video of the River Nile itself, a long band of rippling blue water, above which sits the fabulously fertile green riverbank – all reeds, grasses and palm trees – and then the deep blue of the Egyptian sky.

So, in terms of design, the visitor has progressed from pitch black walls at the start, though the gentlemen’s-club brown wood panelling of the second part, and now arrives in the kind of bright light space typical of modern art galleries. I guess this is also symbolic of passing from ignorance, through purblind scholarship and study, into the modern age of research and understanding.

Egyptian social history

This final part of the exhibition could almost be staged in its own right, for it is a fascinating overview of Egyptian social history, social life, in all its many aspects.

If you want the history of ancient Egypt – the political history of all those pharaohs, their wars, their dynasties, maps of their territory etc – that is already available in the vast series of rooms which, as it happens, you exit into after the exhibition space, the long gallery called Room 4. This isn’t that.

Instead this third part of the exhibition presents a careful selection of objects which illustrate the modern understanding of all aspects of Egyptian society, which Champollion’s discovery (much elaborated and built on by later scholars) allowed. It is a collection of choice artifacts which shed unparalleled insight into the lives, not of kings and pharaohs, but of ordinary people – their lives, loves, marriages, divorces, financial affairs, loans and mortgages, the stories they told each other, the poems and hymns they recited, their religious beliefs and practices, maths textbooks, guides to the interpretation of dreams, their calendar and how they structured the year, the months, the weeks, the days, even shopping lists and tax returns.

For example, a papyrus from about 1200 BC explains that the Egyptian year was divided into 12 months of 30 days. Their week lasted 10 days, and the year had three seasons – Akhet (flooding), Peret (growing) and Shemu (harvest).

Or take the richly illustrated Book of the Dead papyrus of Queen Nedjmet is over 3,000 years old and more than four metres long. A recitation of the texts demonstrates the power of the spoken word and includes ritual spells. The papyrus features alongside a set of four canopic vessels that preserved the organs of the deceased. These were dispersed over French and British collections after discovery, and this is the first time this set of jars has been reunited since the mid-1700s.

Detail of The Book of the Dead of Queen Nedjmet (papyrus, Egypt, 1070 BC, 21st Dynasty) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The mummy bandage of Aberuait from the Musée du Louvre, Paris has never been shown in the UK. It was a souvenir from one of the earliest ‘mummy unwrapping events’ in the 1600s where attendees received a piece of the linen, preferably inscribed with hieroglyphs.

A 3,000-year-old measuring rod from the Museo Egizio in Turin was an essential clue for Champollion to unravel Egyptian mathematics, discovering that the Egyptians used units inspired by the human body.

Royal cubit rod of Amenemope (18th Dynasty) Torino, Museo Egizio

The cartonnage and mummy of the lady Baketenhor, on loan from the Natural History Society of Northumbria, was studied by Champollion in the 1820s. In correspondence with colleagues in Newcastle, Champollion correctly identified the inscription on the mummy cover as a prayer addressed to several deities for the soul of the deceased only a few years after he cracked the hieroglyphic writing system. Baketenhor lived to about 25 to 30 years of age, sometime between 945 and 715 BCE.

Cartonnage of the lady Baketenhor (late 22nd Dynasty, between 945 and 715 BC) Courtesy of the Natural History Society of Northumbria. Image © Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums

Prayers to Hathor, the goddess of love and music, were often accompanied by the sistrum, a musical instrument used in dances and religious ceremonies. When shaken, the sistrum produced a soft clink or a loud jangle which had power to appease the gods. Note the face at the top of the handle.

Ancient Egyptian sistrum (747 to 332 BC)

(There are references to a sistrum – ‘the sacred rattle… the jingling bronze of the sistrum…’ – being used in worship of Isis, book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and it’s also referred to in the thirteenth satire of Juvenal.)

On a much more humble level, a papyrus from 1100 BC records the separation of Hessunebef from his wife Hener and tells us that he supported her for three years after the divorce. The reasons for the divorce aren’t stated but we know from other sources that the wife probably kept the possessions she brought to the marriage.

Papyrus from 1100 BC recording the separation of Hessunebef from his wife Hener

We now know the ancient Egyptians had over 90 recipes for the treatment of eye problems. Black and green kohl had antibacterial properties and could be carried around in pots to be used as eye liner.

There’s a book helping with the interpretation of dreams, a perennial topic in the ancient world. This one belonged to a certain Qenherkhepshef and contains the following useful advice:

If a man sees himself in a dream looking after monkeys: bad – a change awaits him!

And hundreds more.

I also noticed the way a number of wall labels featured quotes all attributed to ‘Voices from Rashid’. What is this? The British Museum interviewed schoolchildren from the town of Rashid (modern day Rosetta) about the stone and ancient Egyptian life and these quotes are the opinions of the schoolchildren on aspects of Egyptian history, the hieroglyphics, the stone and so on, sprinkled on panels throughout the exhibition.

Statue of a scribe (6th Dynasty) Photo © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Georges Poncet

This exhibition is fascinating, inspiring, beautifully designed and laid out. In the section about the Race To Decipher, it is surprisingly gripping. And the wide-ranging final section brings you closer to the concerns of ordinary ancient Egyptian men and women than you would have thought possible.


Related links

Other British Museum reviews

Kara Walker @ Tate Modern

Kara Walker

Kara Walker was born in California in 1969. She is an American contemporary painter, silhouettist, print-maker, installation artist, and film-maker. I have previously come across her work in:

1. The big exhibition of prints held at the British Museum in 2017, where I wrote:

In this room the standout artist for me was Kara Walker, with her stylised black-and-white silhouettes of figures from the ante-bellum Deep South. I’ve seen an exhibition of these before, so there’s an element of recognition and familiarity in my positive response. Coming towards the end of a rather exhausting exhibition featuring over 200 images, the clarity, purity of line and savage humour of her work sets her apart.

But her style is also capable of a strange dreamlike quality, fantasias of colour, exploitation, journeying across the seas, converting history into eerie illustrations for a very grown-up set of fairy tales.

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

2. The other place I’d come across Walker is in the huge book, Women, Art and Society by Whitney Chadwick (2012) where Chadwick writes:

  • Works like [Kara Walker’s] installation Narratives of a Negress (2003) raise complex issues about history, memory, and ethnic, gender and cultural identity. (p.492)

So I was familiar with Walker’s crisp, black silhouettes, and the way that, despite their often emotive titles the actual illustrations are often more teasing, strange and fantastical than the apparent straightforward obsession with slavery would suggest.

Slavery! Slavery! by Kara Walker (1997) Installation at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Kara Walker and the Queen Victoria Memorial Monument

So when Tate announced that this year’s annual commission would be given to Walker, anyone familiar with her work will have expected it to touch on the issue of slavery – and she didn’t disappoint. She has created a huge sculpture which parodies the Queen Victoria Memorial Monument outside Buckingham Palace.

To understand how Walker has parodied the original, let’s take a moment to refresh our memories.

The Queen Victoria Memorial, outside Buckingham Palace, London

The Victoria monument is 25 metres high and contains 2,300 tonnes of white Carrara marble. As well as a solid, matronly Queen Victoria seated holding the orb and sceptre, the memorial also carries statues representing courage, constancy, victory, charity, truth and motherhood. The central monument, created between 1906 and 1924, is by Sir Thomas Brock, but the whole design, including the nearby Memorial Gardens, was conceived by Sir Aston Webb and the Memorial was formally unveiled by King George V in 1911.

Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus

Walker decided that, in London, home of the slave trade for so many centuries, and a city stuffed to the gills with very white marble statues of and monuments to very white imperial heroes, it would be an interesting gesture to create a memorial, on a similarly imposing scale, to all the victims of the transatlantic slave trade.

The result is Fons Americanus (Latin for American fountain), an enormous monument made up of various human statues and a water feature spouting water into a set of concentric pools at its base, also filled with miscellaneous statues of people and a surprising number of sharks.

Installation view of Fons Americanus by Kara Walker (2019)

Walker replaces the smooth Victorian allegorical figures of the original with crudely carved cartoon figures representing archetypes from the slave trade, topped off with a staggering female figure spouting water from her breasts (and also from a nasty gash in her neck).

Each of these figures has a symbolic meaning and, although it’s not immediately obvious, most of them actually reference works of art from the British tradition, nineteenth century paintings of rafts and slaves and so on. There’s a full list of the different figures and explanations on the Tate website:

Broadly speaking, Walker replaces the British or imperial icons, depicted in the smooth neo-classical style of the original monument, with figures from various aspects of the slave trade – a weeping boy, a native woman instead of smug Queen Vic, a generic sea captain, a kneeling praying man in chains, and a tree with a noose dangling from it to represent the countless Africans who were hunted down, tortured, lynched and hanged.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood


First thoughts

1. Scale

The most obvious thing about filing the Turbine Hall is that your work must be big, and Fons Americanus is big alright. You can view it from the ground floor walkway but it’s worth going down to the lower level to walk around it and really get a sense of its hugeness. It towers over the mere mortals at its feet.

2. Aesthetics

All the Tate labels and webpages emphasise that the point of Fons Americanus is to subvert and parody the smooth surfaces of traditional monuments, as those monuments in their turn smooth over and gloss over the violence, and horror and exploitation which lay at the basis of the British Empire.

And that this explains why the surfaces of all the figures have been left deliberately pockmarked and rough to the touch. And, in the same spirit, explains why the human figures aren’t perfectly proportioned human figures based on the ancient Greek ideals of standardised beauty; instead they are deliberately rough and crude, because life is crude and real people are rough.

I understand the intention. I understand all that. But it’s still ugly. It’s still hard not to be repelled by the crudeness and ugliness of the figures.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood

Maybe she’s intending to give repellent content a repellent appearance, I understand the intention. But it’s notable how drastically Fons Americanus with its lunking crudity is unlike the silhouettes which brought her to fame. The silhouettes were notable for their style and grace and elegance of design.

I can’t help thinking that anyone familiar with the imaginative world of her silhouette works will be surprised and pretty disappointed by the blunt crudity of this enormous object.

3. Irony

There is a sort of politico-aesthetic irony here: I have read here and about other exhibitions, that Walker and many other BAME artists and writers are protesting against the white canons and the white rules of beauty which have dominated European and American art and media for so long. My impression is that for the past fifty years or more a lot of black artists and writers and film-makers have been campaigning to have black beauty, black pride, black appearance, black hair and black faces incorporated into much more diverse and inclusive notions of ‘beauty’.

OK, I understand the aim.

But there’s a kind of irony here that Walker seems to be playing to the crudest of racist stereotypes and clichés by making her black people so insistently and defiantly brutish and ugly, unfinished, rough and repellent. Maybe we are intended to overcome our repulsion from these crudely drawn figures and make the imaginative effort to sympathise for any human in dire need, no matter how crude and ungainly and clumpishly they’re depicted? Maybe the aesthetic clumsiness is part of a kind of moral test?

4. Patronising

But the biggest problem with this installation is the wall labels, the press release and all the relevant pages on the Tate website.

They all seem to assume that we’ve never heard of the Atlantic slave trade – that the existence of slavery 200 years ago will come as a massive surprise to Tate gallery visitors – and that the work will shine a dazzling new light on a previously unknown subject, confronting ‘a history often misremembered in Britain’ as the wall label puts it.

Misremembered by whom exactly? By art gallery visitors? Probably the most bien-pensant, liberal cohort of people you could assemble anywhere.

The notion that the slave trade is an obscure historical event which needs more publicising struck me as an extraordinary claim, especially since I went to see this sculpture during the 32nd Black History Month.

Had none of the previous 31 Black History Months mentioned slavery? Have no books been written on the subject, or TV documentaries made, or articles written or exhibitions about it held anywhere else? That assumption, which is taken as the premise of all the curator commentary, seemed astonishingly patronising, to me.

In fact I gave up reading the Tate web-page about the installation when I came to the sentence carefully explaining that London was ‘the capital of the British Empire’… OK. It was at that point that I realised the entire commentary was either for schoolchildren, or for people who have little or no knowledge about Britain or British history. But are these the kinds of people you are liable to meet at Tate Modern or Tate Britain?

In fact the type of person you meet most at Tate Modern are tourists. Every time I go, I end up helping some hapless foreigners find their way about, or explain the escalators and lifts, or the layout of two buildings to them (yesterday I had to explain to a family of Italians in the lift with me that they were going to the correct floor but in the wrong building).

Almost all the voices I heard as I walked round the installation were foreign: I particularly remember a French family who were posing their little kids for charming tourist pics on the edge of Fons Americanus‘s the pool, and plenty of other family groups were posing and taking family snaps around it, just as they do by the fountains in Trafalgar Square or at any number of other great big imposing public monuments in London.

What does its radical deconstruction of the tradition of neo-classical, British imperial monumentalising mean to them, I wonder?

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Ben Fisher

5. Artists and history

History, as a professional activity, is about the careful sifting of evidence. Historians undergo an extensive training in the use of archives and other sources, and ways of judging and assessing documents, speeches, books and so on.

Historians can obviously still be terribly biased, or commissioned by the state to write propaganda, and completely ‘objective’ history is probably impossible – but nonetheless the notion of objective history is still an ideal worth preserving and striving for, and most historians generally adhere to professional standards of presenting and interpreting evidence, which is or should be made available for others to sift and assess in their turn.

And hence the intellectual discipline of History – which amounts to an endless debate about all aspects of the past backed up by evidence.

Compare and contrast this meticulous approach with the worldview of artists, who are free to make great sweeping generalisations about life and art and society and capitalism and God and anything else they feel like, with little or no comeback, with no requirement for proof or evidence.

This is fine if they want to make provocative works out of industrial junk or surrealist paintings. But if they take it upon themselves to create works designed to be a complete reinterpretation of history over a period of hundreds of years – and if their new interpretation of history is going to be taught to schoolchildren and explained to school groups – then they assume a certain amount of responsibility.

In other words, to put it really bluntly – you shouldn’t rely on artists to teach you anything about history. You should rely on historians. That’s why they’re called historians. It is because they are lifelong specialists in an area of intellectual enquiry which is defined by rules, best practice, and policed by a community of peers, in academic journals and so on.

That’s Argument Number One against artists teaching history.

Argument Two concerns the idea of respecting the complexity of human history.

In my opinion, good history should try above all to capture the complexity of human motives and experiences. It’s a mistake not to take account of the extent to which people of the past were just as multi-faceted, complicated and capable of contradictory feelings, beliefs and actions, as we are today. They were people like us, not one-dimensional caricatures.

In order to create the space to let your imagination and empathy work, in order to fully enter into the spirit of another time and try to understand the people who lived in it and the multiple pressures and compulsions they lived under – we should not rush to judgement. As the American historian David Silbey writes in his incisive account of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion against Western imperialist forces in China:

Passing judgement is a dangerous role for a historian to play. (p.202)

The kind of history I like is continually upsetting my expectations, presenting me with counter-intuitive ideas, making me stop and think and really reconsider my existing beliefs. Thus the book about Eurasian empires, After Tamerlane, which I read recently, overturned my ideas about all sorts of aspects of the past, made me view lots of general trends and specific areas of history (such, for example, as the importance of the imperial conquests of Russia) in a completely new light.

My view is that Walker’s version of history doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know – that you weren’t taught at school and haven’t had reinforced by countless books, documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles and Hollywood movies about slavery – and by thirty-two Black History Months with their annual outpouring of exhibitions, articles and documentaries.

Instead of making you really stop and think, of prompting unexpected insights and new ways of seeing, for me, at any rate, Fons Americanus seems to set out to confirm all your prejudices and stereotypes –

  • to confirm your impression that all blacks in all of history were helpless victims of the slave trade
  • to confirm the stereotype that all white masters were racist sadists
  • to erase the fact that the slaves were sold to the traders by Africans who made a fortune by enslaving their fellow blacks
  • to erase the hundreds of thousands who worked or bought their way out of slavery, set up businesses or had lives as fulfilling as plenty of the miserably poor whites (and other ethnic groups) they lived among
  • to erase the role of Britain and the Royal Navy in abolishing slavery and then policing the world’s oceans to try and prevent it. As James Walvin points out in his history of slavery, ‘Between 1820 and 1870 the Royal Navy seized 1,600 slave ships on the Atlantic and freed 150,000 slaves, especially heading to Cuba and Brazil.’ Somehow, I don’t think we’re going much about these positive achievements in the deluge of wokeness coming our way.

In other words, I feel nervous about the reduction of an immense and extraordinarily complicated history of the multifarious experiences of tens of millions of people over several hundred years down to half a dozen, crudely-drawn, Simpsonsesque cartoon figures.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood

Fons Americanus is big. It’s very big. American big. Like a skyscraper or a Big Mac.

But I recoiled from it a) aesthetically – it is crude and ugly and repellent, and b) intellectually – it is crude and patronising and dangerously simplistic.

Second Thoughts

To be honest, a lot of my negative response was triggered by Tate’s wall labels and by the Tate web-pages about Fons Americanus and the slave trade – commentary and labels which I found worryingly simple-minded, and single-minded: simplifying an enormous, complex, multifarious epoch of history down into a handful of slogans and images, and into a new, and worryingly simple-minded, orthodoxy.

My argument was, to a large extent, with the written interpretation of the work.

But there’s a different and much more obvious approach to the commission and presence of Fons Americanus here in Tate Modern, which is to ask: among all the hundreds of memorials and monuments and statues to countless white men and generals and politicians, most of whom served under the British Empire in one shape or another and which litter London’s public spaces: should there be a memorial to commemorate the transatlantic slave trade?

To which the answer is almost certainly an emphatic YES, Yes, there should be.

In which case the follow-up questions are:

  1. Should it be this one?
  2. and, Where should it go?

Where would you put it?


The Hyundai Commission at Tate Modern and global warming

Every year Tate commissions a contemporary artist to fill the vast space of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. The funding comes from Hyundai.

Hyundai is a South Korean multinational automotive manufacturer headquartered in Seoul. It manufactures nearly 5 million automobiles, luxury cars and commercial vehicles each year. If green activists have woken up to the fact that many art exhibitions are sponsored by oil companies, and violently object to their contribution to global warming, indeed have gone to the trouble of pouring oil at the front of the National Portrait Gallery which each year hosts the BP Portrait Awards… how long before the penny drops that oil is only actually a pollutant when it is burned to produce CO2 and a host of toxic poisonous chemicals hazardous to human life and all other life forms?

In other words, I wonder for how much longer a company which manufactures toxic, air-polluting ‘automobiles, luxury cars and commercial vehicles’ will be allowed to sponsor works of art and installations like this?


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Other posts about slavery / American history

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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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