Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece @ the British Museum

In my spare time I simply haunt the British Museum. (Rodin, 1892)

Rodin and the British Museum

François Auguste René Rodin (1840 – 1917), known as Auguste Rodin, is widely seen as the godfather of modern sculpture. He visited London for the first time in 1841. On a trip to the British Museum, he discovered the so-called Elgin Marbles, the supersize Greek sculptures of men horses and mythical creatures which once lined the Parthenon in Athens – and was immediately captivated by their scale and power.

For this exhibition the Museum has had the strikingly simple and effective idea of borrowing a substantial number of Rodin’s classic works from the Rodin Museum in Paris, and placing them next to and among a generous selection of original Parthenon sculptures. Over 80 works by Rodin in marble, bronze and plaster, along with some 13 of Rodin’s sketches, are displayed alongside major pieces of ancient Greek art from the Museum collection.

Thus the exhibition includes a number of Rodin’s greatest hits, iconic sculptures which are part of the Western imaginarium, such as The Thinker, The Kiss, The Gates of Hell and the Burghers of Calais.

Years ago, when a teenager, I hitch-hiked to Paris, kipped in the Bois de Boulogne,and spent the days going on pilgrimages to all the art galleries and museums. I remember being bitterly disappointed by the Musée Rodin and that disappointment has lasted to this day. The exhibition was an opportunity to see if my largely negative image of Rodin stood up to the evidence or was just a personal prejudice.

The ancient Greeks

Between 1800 to 1812 workmen employed by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin – British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, or ‘the Sublime Porte’ as it was referred to in those days –  removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, the vast temple to Athena in Athens, as well as sculptures from the nearby buildings Propylaea and Erechtheum. These were shipped to Britain and put on display but, even at the time, contemporaries were critical enough for Parliament to hold an enquiry into his actions. Seeing the way the wind was blowing, Elgin sold the marbles to the British Government who passed them along to the recently created British Museum where, despite vocal lobbying by the Greek government, they remain to this day.

Cavalcade from the north frieze of the Parthenon, by Phidias (around 440 BC)

Cavalcade from the north frieze of the Parthenon, by Phidias (around 440 BC)

Throughout the nineteenth century the art of ancient Greece, and especially the statuary, was seen as the peak of human creativity and art. Renaissance giants like Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo had attempted to recreate some of their magic in painting, but the Greeks remained the source of artistic ideas of Beauty, which were built around realism – the realistic depiction of the human and animal body, with accuracy, elegance and grace.

The Parthenon figures were carved to fill the triangular pediment at the west and east of the building, as well as to fill the metopes or square alcoves roughly above each of the 46 outer columns. There was also a set of inner columns supporting an inner wall, and above these ran a continuous frieze of figures carved in relief.

There was, in other words, a huge amount of space to be filled by more than life size carvings of gods and heroes and animals (mostly horses being ridden in battle). Hence the fact that, even though the Elgin Marbles only represent a fraction of the originals, they still fill a vast gallery at the Museum.

Because all the statues we have now are worn to a kind of perfect white, people forget that Greek sculpture was originally brightly painted, and sometimes had gold leaf applied. This is a fanciful imagining of how the Parthenon would have looked when new. At this end we can see the pediment filled with freestanding statues of gods, small in the narrow ends, growing larger in size to gesture up towards the King of the Gods at the apex. And underneath you can see a set of 14 metopes above each column, each with an individual carving of an incident from Greek myth.At the Museum the curators tried to recreate the effect of the arched pediment by placing the scattered fragments in their correct positions relative to each other, with the metope carvings placed separately. This is how Rodin saw and was overwhelmed by them.

The Parthenon gallery in the British Museum, about 1890. Photograph. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Parthenon gallery in the British Museum, about 1890. Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum

What is so special about the sculptures from the Parthenon? They were thought, even by the Greeks themselves, to be the peak of their artistic achievement. The sculptor in charge of the works, Phidias, was credited with a godlike power for realism, for his ability to summon the gods from Olympus, and heroes from the Elysian Fields, and place them before the viewer.

For me the important factors are:

  1. They are larger than life. They had to be since they were embedded 30 metres high on walls.
  2. As a result their gestures are clear and distinct. The overall positioning of all the figures creates harmonies and rhythms which are perceivable even at a distance.
  3. Counter-intuitively, maybe, there is a staggering amount of detail in the sculptures. Observed down at eye level in an exhibition like this (as they were never intended to be seen), you can see the amount of effort that has gone in to depicting the muscles, ligaments and veins of, for example, this wonderful horse’s head, with its flared nostrils and bulging eyes. It’s called the Selene horse’s head because it is part of a frieze depicting the moon goddess, Selene.
Selene horse's head, East Pediment of the Parthenon, designed by Phidias (c. 435 BC)

Selene horse’s head, East Pediment of the Parthenon, designed by Phidias (c. 435 BC)

There is therefore, to my mind, a kind of super realism about the figures. They are larger than life in both senses – the subjects are gods of heroes of legend, and the figures are all larger than life size – yet they include finely carved details which also work to ennoble, expand and aggrandise the figures. They are images of power, imaginative, political and cultural power.

Rodin

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, about 1910 Photo: Albert Harlingue. Image © Musée Rodin

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, about 1910
Photo by Albert Harlingue. Image © Musée Rodin

By the 1880s Rodin had made his reputation as a sculpture and was gaining public commissions. He had always been fascinated by the sculpture of the ancient Greeks, still in his day held up as the absolute peak of human artistic achievement.

He had already studied Greek sculpture from books, sketches and casts available to him in Paris (he never, in fact, went to Greece). After all the Louvre in Paris has a large collection of ancient Green sculpture. Where possible Rodin collected fragments of ancient sculpture when they became available, placing them around the garden of his property in Meudon. Apparently he moved and repositioned them among the trees and bushes to create changing artistic effects.

Eventually he amassed a collection of some 6,000 fragments and he never ceased sketching and drawing them, from all angles. The result is a vast archive of sketches, drawings, half-finished carvings and completed sculptures.

Rodin’s aesthetic

But Rodin wasn’t slavishly devoted to simply making copies of ancient Greek perfection. He had a more modern aesthetic than that. He came to believe that sculptures had a life cycle of their own, an inner artistic integrity. If many had been damaged, well, that was their fate, and their current damaged state was somehow ‘true’ to their inner destiny. Thus Rodin resisted various suggestions that ancient Greek statues be ‘repaired’. You can see what he’s getting at.

Rodin liked the way that powerful expression was conveyed through the fragmented bodies of the Greek statues. He even removed the heads and limbs from his own figures to make them closer to the broken relics of the past. By doing so, he created a new genre of contemporary art – the headless, limbless torso.

This explains the prominence of process in Rodin’s own work. Many of his pieces seem to be emerging from the stone they are carved in, often with struggle. Similarly his ‘finished’ pieces often betray the work and effort required to make them.

The exhibition displays a massive male torso from the Parthenon next to a similar sized male torso by Rodin. The Parthenon one is smooth (though with pockmarks and gouges caused over time) but the Rodin one has a deliberately knobbly bobbly surface – at its core it is a realistic depiction of the male body, muscles and all, but in Rodin’s hands the sculpture also preserves the sense of effort which went into making it. The statue is not so much an image of Perfection as a symbol of the human effort to create Perfection.

Torso by Auguste Rodin

Torso by Auguste Rodin

On reflection, it is this deliberate favouring of a muddy, impure, less than precise, deliberately knobbly, bulgy, imperfect surface, which I don’t like about Rodin.

You see it in individual works and in his larger compositions.

The gates of hell

In the same year he visited the British Museum, 1881, aged 41, Rodin received his first big public commission, to create the bronze gates for a new museum of the decorative arts in Paris. Inspired by Dante, Rodin decided to create a set of gates on the theme of hell (‘Abandon hope all ye that enter here’ being the motto carved above the gates of hell in Dante’s medieval poetic epic, The Divine Comedy).

To this day I remember the massive build-up given to this piece at the Musée Rodin in Paris, and then my massive disappointment on seeing it. Instead of clarity and order – the clarity and rhythm you see so perfectly achieved in the Parthenon friezes – what I was immediately struck by was what a mess it is.

The gates of hell by Auguste Rodin

The gates of hell by Auguste Rodin

I defy you to figure out what is going on here. Your eye is drawn to the three figures at the top (themselves in a demoralising, broken backed huddle) then to the figure of the Thinker beneath them and beneath him? What the devil is going on in the two panels of the doors? And what is happening on the two columns either side of the doorway? I still find it as muddy and confusing as I did forty years ago.

The exhibition has a large section devoted to the gates. Rodin worked on it for decades, even after the planned museum was abandoned and the commission rendered redundant. He continued tinkering with all the small figures, taking many of them out of the gates and blowing them up into full-scale figures.

The most famous is The Thinker and there is a huge cast of it here. For me it epitomises Rodin’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

On the pro side it captures an archetypally human action in such a profound way that it quickly became an icon of Western art, and is probably among the half dozen most famous art images in the world (along with the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David etc).

But, up close and personal, I don’t like it. It looks lumpy and unfinished. (Alas it reminded me a bit of The Thing from the Fantastic Four comics in the way the surface, though polished and shiny, is ridged and gnarled and patched with what look like strips of clay used to build up the figure, rather than the actual lineaments of cartilage and muscle.)

The Thing from the Fantastic Four

The Thing from the Fantastic Four

It looks unfinished in exactly the way that the Gates of Hell look unfinished to me – muddy and indistinct.

This, I’m sure, is part of Rodin’s conscious aesthetic, a muscular, sculptural style which makes a virtue of flagging up its own effort, the struggle of creation.

Aesthetic of the unfinished

Among other aspects of this, Rodin encouraged the assistants and students who often helped him to carve his figures (he ran a workshop full of assistants) to leave secondary parts of the sculpture unfinished, and even to emphasise the physicality of the work by marking secondary areas with notches created by claw hammers and chisels.

This is perfectly obvious in Rodin’s other supersonically famous work, The Kiss of 1882. The exhibition curators a) are proud to have borrowed this larger-than-lifesize plaster cast of the kiss from the Rodin Museum. And b) make the ingenious suggestion that the pose of the two lovers (actually a scene from Dante’s Inferno of two adulterous lovers about to be discovered and murdered by the cuckolded husband) is based on the pose of two female goddesses, originally on the East Pediment of the Parthenon, one of which reclines luxuriously in the lap of her companion.

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin, large version, after 1898. Plaster cast from first marble version of 1888–98 © Musée Rodin

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin, large version, after 1898. Plaster cast from first marble version of 1888–98 © Musée Rodin

But for me the really dominant motif is the deliberately rough unfinished nature of the rock they’re sitting on. On the plus side I suppose the proximity of the gouged and hacked rock emphasises and brings out the luxurious smooth polished surface of the lovers’ two young bodies. But I still don’t like it.

To clarify further, here are two works which are directly related. The first one is a scene from the fight between the lapiths and the centaurs, which takes up a large part of one of the friezes on the Parthenon and is thought to be an allegory of the struggle between reason and animality. Note the clarity, even the stylised nature of the pose, and the clarity of line of each of the figures.

Lapith and centaur fighting from the Parthenon

Lapith and centaur fighting from the Parthenon

Next to it the exhibition places a sculpture titled The Centauress (1904), a figure Rodin expanded from a minor position on the gates of hell.

The Centauress by Auguste Rodin (1901-04)

The Centauress by Auguste Rodin (1901-04)

I found this object particularly ugly and clumsy. The device of having the figure emerge from heavily-notched stone really doesn’t work for me at all. The way her overlong arms are merging with the pillar strikes me as some kind of horrifying physical deformity or mutation. It is not a very good depiction of either a horse’s body or a woman’s torso, and the less said about the unformed / melting head the better.

To summarise – Rodin’s attempt to assimilate the Greek influence and go beyond it to create a new ‘modern’ aesthetic of fragments which foreground the effort of their own creation has, in my opinion, very hit and miss results. Mostly miss.

His large masterpiece, The Burghers of Calais, is here – as a complete piece showing six larger-than-lifesize statues of the six men, alongside individual preparatory studies of some of the figures.

If you are a student of sculpture or a fan of Rodin this is a really thrilling opportunity to study his sketches, his inspiration, his working practices and the models which go towards creating a masterpiece. But for me, set among the light and clarity of line and design of the Greeks, they felt clumsy and hulking, their postures contrived and awkward.

Rodin

The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin

The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin

Phidias

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC, Marble, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC, Marble © The Trustees of the British Museum

On the cusp of modernism

Rodin lived long enough to see the advent of full-blown Modernism. By 1905 Matisse and Picasso in their different ways were experiencing the influence of ‘primitive’ masks from Africa and the Pacific which were suggesting entire new ways of seeing and thinking about ‘art’.

Within a few years a new generation of sculptors would break decisively with the entire Western tradition and its indebtedness to the naturalism of the ancient Greeks – the ones that spring to mind being Jacob Epstein (b.1880), Eric Gill (b.1882), Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (b.1891) and Alberto Giacometti (b.1901).

I suppose it’s unfair to compare Rodin to what came after him, but for me this next generation of sculptors blow the world apart, open the doors to an infinity of possibilities, and are the true creators of modern sculpture.

For me, a piece like Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Red Stone Dancer (c.1913) is worth more than everything Rodin did put together. I like clarity of line and design as against muddiness and vagueness, crisp geometry as against random lumpiness, and energy as against languid kissing, dull thinking and the hapless, demoralised postures of the Calais Burghers.

Red Stone Dancer (c. 1913) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska © Tate

Red Stone Dancer (c. 1913) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska © Tate

For me the Henri Gaudier-Brzeska is sensuous but with a virile, alert, energetic sensuality, the sensuality of athletic life.

Light and airy exhibition space

By far the most striking thing about the exhibition is that the Museum has opened up the big windows at the end of the Sainsbury Gallery in order to let light flood in.

The partitions between different sections of the show do not extend to the ceiling so the effect is not of separate ‘rooms’ – rather dark and gloomy rooms as they had for, say, the Scythians exhibition – but of light flooding throughout the space, showing the Greek works, in particular, in something more like the fierce Mediterranean light of their homeland.

Installation view of Rodin and the art of ancient Greece at the British Museum

Installation view of Rodin and the art of ancient Greece at the British Museum

I’m afraid this isn’t a very good photo, but enough to show how the individual statues are staged at the window end of the exhibition, building up to the full cast of the Burghers of Calais in the middle distance of the shot.

The effect of this natural light, and the clean lines and clarity of the modern floor-to-ceiling windows, are wonderfully uplifting. It was relaxing to just sit on the benches conveniently placed next to them, and to enjoy the precise, geometrical architecture of the Georgian houses opposite, and the bright patio space with its carefully tended shrubs and small trees.

The video


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Charmed lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor @ the British Museum

The British Museum is a vast maze and labyrinth full of treasures – that is part of its charm. Part of the embarras de richesses is that, as well as the two big exhibition spaces (at the back of the courtyard and on the first floor of the Rotunda) where you generally have to pay quite a lot to see the blockbuster exhibitions – there are a number of other rooms and spaces devoted to ad hoc displays and exhibitions, most of which are free.

Thus if you turn left immediately on entering and walk through the long narrow cloakroom, packed with schoolkids, towards room 6 (The Assyrians), you’ll come across the entrance to a free and lovely exhibition currently on in room 5, about the lives and work of three influential writer-artists, who lived and worked and loved in post-war Greece and, to some extent, created many British people’s austerity-era image of this beautiful sunlit country.

Study for a poster by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1948) © Benaki Museum 2018

Study for a poster by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1948) © Benaki Museum 2018

Charmed lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor examines the friendship between Greek modernist painter Nikos Ghika, English painter John Craxton, and English travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor.

All three made homes in Greece, writing, drawing, painting, and socialising. Hence the show brings together not only their published writings and plenty of their paintings, but memorabilia from all aspects of their lives, including letters and personal possessions, and lots of wonderfully evocative black and white photos.

Nikos Ghika

Which one first? How about Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1906–1994).

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika in Hydra, 1960. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. Photo by Suschitzky. © The Estate of Wolfgang Suschitzky

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika in Hydra, 1960. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. Photo by Suschitzky. © The Estate of Wolfgang Suschitzky

To paraphrase Wikipedia:

Nikos Ghikas was a leading Greek painter, sculptor, engraver, writer and academic. He was a founding member of the Association of Greek Art Critics. He studied ancient and Byzantine art as well as folk art. During his youth he was exposed in Paris to the avant-garde European artistic trends and he gained recognition as the leading Greek cubist artist. His inspiration was in the harmony and purity of Greek art, and he aimed to deconstruct the Greek landscape and intense natural light into simple geometric shapes and interlocking planes. Today in Greece he is celebrated as one of the most important modern Greek painters. His house has been converted to a museum and is run by the Benaki Museum.

The combination of French avant-garde influences with the sunlit environment of Greece resulted in the distinctive light and airy feel of his paintings immediately after the war.

Chairs and tables by the sea by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1948) © Benaki Museum 2018

Chairs and tables by the sea by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1948) © Benaki Museum 2018

Nikos (as his friends, and we, shall call him) lived in a grand 18th century mansion built by his great-great-great-grandfather overlooking the town of Hydra, a hilly port town, which provided the subjects for hundreds of paintings and sketches. To this grand setting he invited numerous friends, including, among others, Patrick Leigh Fermor and John Craxton who he had met, separately, on visits to London.

Paddy was given a room of his own for an extended stay during which he wrote his successful travel book, Mani. And Nikos arranged a studio for Craxton, who gave him support and encouragement: Craxton acknowledges his enduring debted to the Greek. For fifteen years after the war this mansion was Nikos’s base and he made it a popular venue for artists, writers and performers in all the arts to meet and mingle.

Evocative black and white photos on display show some of the celebrity guests who came to stay, to enjoy the wonderful climate, the great view and the stimulating company, including ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn, choreographer Frederick Ashton, critic Cyril Connolly, the poets Stephen Spender and Giorgos Seferis, the American novelist Henry Miller, and many more.

Nikos and Barbara Ghika, John Craxton, Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor on the terrace of the Ghika house, Hydra 1958. Photo: Roloff Beny © Library and Archives Canada

Nikos and Barbara Ghika, John Craxton, Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor on the terrace of the Ghika house, Hydra 1958. Photo: Roloff Beny © Library and Archives Canada

There are lots of examples of Nikos’s work. Broadly speaking, he is a figurative painter, in that his pictures always have a real-world object, but he gives everything a strongly geometric stylisation.

The Black Sun by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1947) Courtesy of Rosie Alison © Benaki Museum 2018

The Black Sun by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1947) Courtesy of Rosie Alison © Benaki Museum 2018

He himself said he was interested in ‘austere structures’, which he saw embodied in the higgledy-piggledy flow of white Greek houses down the hillside at Hydra, or in the stone walls zigzagging across the dry landscape. Where Craxton painted lots of people, Nikos tended to do landscapes; he is the more abstract of the two. His early works contain Picasso-like birds, and wibbly lines reminiscent of Miro. Later on his style gets thicker, as in 1973’s Mystras.

Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011)

There’s an excellent 8-minute long video in which the English and Greek curators of the exhibition (it’s a joint effort) explain the relationships between the three men and – since Craxton was gay – between the wives of Nikos and Paddy as well.

Aged just 18 Paddy impressed his friends by setting off to walk to Constantinople. In 1977 he published the account of his trek, A Time of Gifts, sometimes described as the best travel book in English.

Paddy was a dashing figure during the war, spending two years working underground on Crete, helping the Greeks resist the German occupation. The highlight was his capture (with a fellow Brit and partisan help) of a German general, who he smuggled off the island to a waiting British submarine. When his second in command, Stanley Moss, wrote up the story in his book Ill Met by Moonlight in 1950 it made Paddy famous, redoubled when the book was filmed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger starring Dirk Bogarde as the dashing hero, and released in 1957.

Patrick Leigh Fermor at Ghika's house in Hydra in 1955. Benaki Museum – Photographic Archive, Athens © Benaki Museum 2018

Patrick Leigh Fermor at Ghika’s house in Hydra in 1955. Benaki Museum – Photographic Archive, Athens © Benaki Museum 2018

Having had such a heroic and glamorous war, Paddy was initially at rather a loss when it ended. Eventually he took up a post with the British Institute in Athens, and combined this with extensive tours of Greece. His extensive tours round the Peloponnese resulted in his travel book Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958), which was followed by Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece (1966). As mentioned, Paddy spent a lot of time at Nikos’s house, becoming close friends with the Greek painter and that’s where most of Mani was written.

Eventually, in the early 1960s Paddy and his wife Joan discovered a crumbling house in an olive grove near Kardamyli in the Mani Peninsula in the southern Peloponnese. He commissioned local builders to create a modern dwelling, and there are splendid black and white photos of him supervising and even dancing (!) with the builders, as well as happy snaps of himself writing, strolling round the garden with his wife, and of the dazzling view across pine trees to the rocky bay.

View of the house in Kardamyli. Photo by Joan Leigh Fermor. National Library of Scotland, Joan Leigh Fermor Photographic Collection © Estate of Joan Leigh Fermor

View of the house in Kardamyli. Photo by Joan Leigh Fermor. National Library of Scotland, Joan Leigh Fermor Photographic Collection © Estate of Joan Leigh Fermor

Both Nikos and Craxton visited him here, painting the house itself and its beautiful view. Craxton shared with Paddy’s wife a love of cats, and in among all the letters and notes and postcards they sent each other, are some lovely sketches and paintings which Craxton made of Joan’s cats.

John Craxton (1906–1994)

Craxton first visited Crete in 1947 and was bowled over by the light, the clarity and also by the simple earthiness of the people. In his early years in Greece, he stayed regularly at Hydra with Nikos, meeting and becoming close friends with Paddy and Joan.

John Craxton painting in Ghika’s house in Hydra in 1960. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. Photo: Suschitzky. © The Estate of Wolfgang Suschitzky

John Craxton painting in Ghika’s house in Hydra in 1960. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. Photo: Suschitzky. © The Estate of Wolfgang Suschitzky

The exhibition features a lot of paintings by both Craxton and Nikos and it’s natural to compare and contrast them, and also to notice how their styles changed over the long period of their friendship.

Craxton is the more naturalistic of the two. He painted lots of Greek people, cats and goats. Craxton learned peasant Greek and was attracted to young men, sailors, goatherds.

Three dancers, Poros, 1953-1954 by John Craxton. Courtesy of Lincoln College, Oxford © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

Three dancers, Poros, 1953-1954 by John Craxton. Courtesy of Lincoln College, Oxford © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

Arguably his book illustration work from the 1950s is the most enjoyable, like the fabulous depiction of a fish market or of a carnival horse.

Installation view showing Fish market, Three dancers and Carnival horse by John Craxton

Installation view showing Fish market, Three dancers, and Carnival horse by John Craxton

He went through a phase of doing dark linear works in the 1960s, with a kind of harsh abstract horizon, epitomised by several paintings here, including Landscape Hydra 1963.

In 1960 Craxton discovered a crumbling house and studio on the Venetian harbour of Chania, Crete’s second biggest town. As with the other dwellings, the exhibition shows us photos of the house, the stunning view over the harbour, Craxton at work, and some of the paintings he made there.

The exhibition includes large-scale works from the 1980s which show how far his style changed and evolved in three decades. Compare two men in a taverna with works like Three sailors, Voskos or Reclining figure with asphodels (1983). They are much bigger, and often a bit more garish.

Still Life with Three Sailors by John Craxton (1980-85) Private Collection, UK © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

Still Life with Three Sailors by John Craxton (1980-85) Private Collection, UK © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

The book covers

The friendship between Craxton and Paddy was crystallised when the writer asked the artist to do the covers for all six of his travel books, starting with Mani. The exhibition includes not only the original art works, but first editions with dedications to Paddy’s wife, to Craxton, to Nikos, to this close circle of friends which made his writing possible. (It even includes Paddy’s typewriter!)

The covers aren’t available to include here, so I’m linking off to the books’ Amazon pages, where you can see the Craxton’s cover art work which they retain to this day.

It’s a smallish exhibition but with quite enough to enjoy and admire. I kept going back round it to look at another atmospheric photo, to look closer at one of Craxton’s wonderful goat paintings, or Nikos’s geometric fields; to reread the snippets from Paddy’s clear evocative prose which are quoted liberally on the walls, to watch the video again, with its snippets of interviews by the three artists.

What wonderful lives they led! And what a privilege to share even at one remove their happiness and creativity.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum shows

Living with gods @ the British Museum

There are two major exhibition spaces in the British Museum, the big Sainsbury Gallery at the back of the main court where they hold blockbuster shows like The Vikings or The Celts; and the more intimate semi-circular space up the stairs on the first floor of the central rotunda.

The setting

This latter location is where Living with gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond is currently showing.

The space is divided into ‘rooms’ or sections by translucent white linen curtains, on which the shadows of exhibits and visitors are cast. At floor level hidden lights project shimmering patterns onto the wall. Low-key ambient noises – strange rustlings, breathings, the rattling of unknown instruments – fill the air.

All this sets the scene and creates a mood, because this is an exhibition not of religious beliefs, but of religious objects, designed to tell the story of the relationship between human beings and their gods, or – more abstractly – their sense of the supernatural, through rare and precious religious artefacts from around the world.

Terror mask Pende, Republic of Congo, 20th century This mask is worn to frighten away women and nosy pople from initiation ceremonies for yound men. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Terror mask Pende, Republic of Congo (20th century) This mask is worn to frighten away women and nosy people from initiation ceremonies for young men © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Themes

The objects are grouped by ‘theme’, namely:

  • Light, water, fire
  • Sensing other worlds
  • Sacred places and spaces
  • Prayer
  • Festivals
  • The cycle of life
  • Sacrifice
  • Coexistence

There are brief wall labels introducing each theme. Personally, I found these rather weak and obvious but then it’s a tricky task to summarise humanity’s entire history and relationship with, say, Prayer, in just four sentences.

Very often these texts are forced to state pretty empty truisms. One tells us that ‘Water is essential to life, but also brings chaos and death’. OK.

Another that ‘Religions shape the way people perceive the world by engaging all their senses.’ Alright. Fine as far as they go, but not really that illuminating.

Wonder toad China © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Wonder toad from China © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Individual information

The labels of individual exhibits are more specific and so more interesting. But here again, because artefacts from different cultures, geographical locations, religions and periods are placed next to each other, it is difficult, if not impossible, to get any real sense of context.

It may well be that:

Seeing out the old year in Tibet requires a purifying dance or cham. These lively masked and costumed dances are performed by Buddhist monks to rid the world of evil and bring in compassion.

Or that:

On 31 October every year, Mexicans remember the dead by staying at the graves of loved ones through the night. Theatrical processions symbolise fears and fantasies of the world of the dead. Judas, who denounced Christ to the Roman authorities, is displayed as a devil. Judas figures are also paraded and exploded on Easter Saturday.

But by the time you’re reading the tenth or fifteenth such snippet of information, it’s gotten quite hard to contain or process all this information. The whole world of religious artefacts for all known human religions is, well… a big subject.

Judas-devil figure, Mexico City © The Trustees of the British Museum

Judas-devil figure, Mexico City © The Trustees of the British Museum

So the weaknesses of the exhibition are its lack:

  • of intellectual depth – none of the room labels tell you anything you didn’t already know about the importance of light or water in religious belief
  • and of conceptual coherence – just giving each section a ‘theme’ and a few explanatory sentences isn’t, in the end, enough

Best objects

On the plus side, Living with gods is a rich collection of fascinating, evocative and sometimes very beautiful objects from all round the world. Because they’re so varied – from prayer mats to medieval reliquaries, from the tunics which Muslim pilgrims to Mecca wear to Inuit figures made of fur, from a statue of Buddha to a wooden model of a Hindu chariot – there’s something for every taste.

I had two favourite moments. One was the display case of African masks. I love African tribal art, it has a finish, a completeness, and a tremendous pagan primitive power, combined with high skill at metal working, which I find thrilling.

Installation view of Living with gods showing African masks (left) and the Mexican Judas figure (right)

Installation view of Living with gods showing African masks (left) and the Mexican Judas figure (right) In the background is a painted model of a Hindu temple vehicle.

The other was a modern piece by Syrian-born artist Issam Kourbaj, called Dark Water, Burning World, a set of model boats made out of refashioned bicycle mudguards, filled with burnt-out matches, representing the refugee crisis. How simple. How elegant. How poignant. How effective.

Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj

Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj

I don’t quite understand how this latter is a religious artefact. It strikes me as being probably more a work of art than a religious object.

The show as a whole goes heavy on artefacts from the obvious world religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Daoism, Shintoism – as well as the ancient beliefs of the Persians, Assyrians and so on, plus sacred objects produced by non-literate tribal peoples such as the Yupik of Alaska or Siberian tribes. It is nothing if not global and all-encompassing.

Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India (1800-1900) As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India (1800-1900) As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Static

Although the exhibition claims to ‘explore the practice and expression of religious beliefs in the lives of individuals and communities around the world and through time’, it doesn’t.

Most religions are expressed by actions and rituals, dances, prayers, blessings, festivals, processions and so on. A moment’s reflection would suggest that the best way to convey this – in fact the only way to really convey these events and activities – would be through a series of films or videos.

Downstairs in the African galleries of the British Museum there are, for example, videos of tribal masks being worn by witch doctors and shamen performing dances, exorcisms and so on, which give a vivid (and terrifying) sense of how the head dresses, masks and implements are meant to be used in religious rituals, how they’re still being used to this day.

There is none of that here. Nothing moves. No words are spoken, in blessing or benediction. It is a gallimaufrey of static artefacts – all interesting, some very beautiful – but all hermetically sealed in their display cases. I found the lack of movement of any kind a little… antiseptic. Dry.

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Bethlehem, Palestine, 1600–1700 The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places of Christianity and attracts many pilgrims. Souvenir models of the church are bought and taken all over the world. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Bethlehem, Palestine (1600–1700) The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places of Christianity and attracts many pilgrims. Souvenir models of the church are bought and taken all over the world. © The Trustees of the British Museum

BBC radio series

The exhibition was planned to coincide with a series of 30 15-minute radio programmes made by BBC Radio 4 and presented by the former Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor.

MacGregor scored a massive hit with his wonderful radio series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, broadcast in 2010. The 30 programmes in the Living with the gods series were broadcast in the autumn of 2017. Quite probably the best thing to do would have been to listen to the series and then come to look at the objects he mentioned. Or to have downloaded the programmes to a phone or Ipod and listened to them as you studied each object.

You can still listen to them free on the BBC website.

MacGregor is a star because he is so intelligent. Without any tricks or gimmicks he gets straight down to business, describing and explaining each of the objects and confidently placing them in the context of their times and places, within their systems of belief, and in the wider context of the development of the human mind and imagination. Just by listening to him you can feel yourself getting smarter.

I recommend episode 4, Here comes the sun, as one of the most awe-inspiring.

The radio programmes score over the actual exhibition because, at fifteen minutes per theme, there are many more words available in which to contextualise, explain and ponder meanings and implications, than the two or three sentences which is all the space the exhibition labels can provide.

The individual fire-related items are fairly interesting to look at in the exhibition. But MacGregor can weave an entire narrative together which links the perpetual fire in the Temple of Vesta in Rome, the worship of Ahura-Mazda in Sassanian Persia, the great Parsi fire temple in Udvada, India, and the Flame of the Nation which burns beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

His words bring to life exhibits which I found remained stubbornly lifeless in this hushed and sterile environment.

Religious belief as tame anthropology, drained of threat

Above all I bridled a little at the touchy-feely, high mindedness of the show, with its tone of hushed reverence and for its equation of all religious into the same category of cute Antiques Roadshow curiosities.

The commentary goes long on human beings’ capacity for ‘symbolising our thoughts in stories and images’, on our capacity for ‘love and sorrow’, on how ‘powerful, mystical ideas govern personal lives as well as defining cultural identities and social bonds’, and so on.

The commentary wistfully wonders whether human beings, rather than being labelled Homo sapiens shouldn’t be recategorised as Homo religiosus. Here as at numerous points in the commentary, I think you are meant to heave a sensitive sigh. It all felt a bit like a creative writing workshop where everyone is respecting everyone else’s sensibilities.

None of this is exactly untrue but I felt it overlooks the way that, insofar as religious beliefs have been intrinsic to specific cultures and societies over the millennia, they have also been inextricably linked with power and conquest.

To put it simply:

  • human history has included a shocking number of religious wars and crusades
  • religious belief and practice in most places have reinforced hierarchies of control and power

Rather than Homo religiosus, an unillusioned knowledge of human history suggests that, if man is anything, he is Homo interfector.

There is ample evidence that religion provides a way for believers to control and manage their fear and anxiety of powers completely beyond their control, the primal events of birth and death, natural disasters, the rotation of the seasons, the vital necessity of animals to hunt and kill and crops to grow and eat.

Central to any psychological study of religion is the way it provides comfort against the terror of death, with its various promises of a happy afterlife; and also the role it plays in defining and policing our sexual drives. Finding answers to the imponderable problems of sex and death have been time-honoured functions of religious belief.

On a social level, religion hasn’t only been a way to control our fears and emotions – it also has a long track record as a means to channel internal emotions into externalised aggression. You can’t have a history of Christianity without taking into account the early internecine violence between sects and heretics, which broke out anew with the 150 years of Religious War following the Reformation; without taking into account its violent conquests of pagan Europe which only ground to a halt in the 13th century or recognising the crusades to the Holy Land, or admitting to the anti-Semitism which is built deep into Christianity’s DNA. For every Saint Francis who wrote songs to the birds there is a man like Cistercian abbot Arnaud Amalric who told his troops to massacre the entire population of Béziers in 1209, claiming that God would sort out the good from the bad. ‘Kill them all. God will know his own.’

The history of Islam  may well be a history of religious sages and philosophers, but it is also a history of military conquest. The Aztecs and the Incas practiced really horrifying human sacrifices. As did the Celts And bloodily so on.

My point is summarised by the great English poet, Geoffrey Hill, who wrote back in 1953:

By blood we live, the hot, the cold
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.

(Genesis by Geoffrey Hill)

‘There is no bloodless myth will hold’.

Christianity is represented here by processional crosses and rosary beads and a beautiful golden prayer book. The other religions are represented by similarly well-crafted and beautiful objects.

But my point is that Christianity is based on the story of a man who was tortured to death to please an angry God. Blood drips from his pierced hands and feet. The early theologian Tertullian wrote, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.’ Shiah Muslims flagellate themselves every Muḥarram (I watched them doing it in the mountains of Pakistan. The hotel owner told me to stay indoors in case one of the inflamed believers attacked me.) As I write some 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced from their homes by Buddhist populations.

My point is that religion isn’t all uplifting sentiments and beautiful works of art.

Religion does not show us what we all share in common: that is a pious liberal wish. Much more often it is used to define and police difference, between genders, castes and races.

Religion is just as much about conquest and massacre. And I’m not particularly knocking religion; I’m saying that human beings are as much about massacre and murder as they are about poetry and painting. And that poetry, painting and exhibitions like this which lose sight of the intrinsic violence, the state sponsored pogroms and the religious massacres which are a key part of human history give a misleading – a deceptively gentle and reassuring – view of the world.

Tibetan New Year dance mask Tibet © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Tibetan New Year dance mask © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

I’m one of the few people I know who has read the entire Bible. Certain themes recur but not the kind of highbrow sentiments you might hope for. I was struck by the number of time it is written in both the Old Testament and the New Testament that:

Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10)

There are many very beautiful and very interesting objects in this exhibition but I felt that they were presented in an atmosphere of bloodless, New Age, multicultural spirituality. Put bluntly: there wasn’t enough fear and blood.

Some videos

Promotional video

Exhibition tour


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum shows

The American Dream: pop to the present @ the British Museum

American prints

The first thing to emphasise is that this is an exhibition of American prints, so it might have been more accurate and factual to have titled the show ‘American Prints’ rather than ‘The American Dream’. The latter title leaves open the possibility that the exhibition includes oil paintings or sculptures, the whole range of artistic media. It also suggests that the selection will be somehow presenting a historical or political or cultural analysis of ‘the American Dream’- and, when it increasingly does this, in the second half of the exhibition, it introduces political and social issues which, I think a) increasingly distract from the art as art and b) are surprisingly limited.

The title, these later political galleries, and even the introduction by exhibition sponsor, the global financial services firm Morgan Stanley – for whom the show ‘charts the story of the modern Western world as seen through the lens of the United States’ – are designed to stimulate the visitor to reflect on the post-war history of America. I have expressed my views in a separate blog post; this post focuses on just the prints themselves.

The American Dream: pop to the present

The British Museum has one of the biggest collections of prints in the world, with more than two million in storage. This huge, beautifully laid out and imaginatively designed exhibition sets out to showcase:

‘the Museum’s outstanding collection of modern and contemporary American prints for the first time… shown with important works from museums and private collections around the world.’

Flags I. Colour screenprint (1973) by Jasper Johns. Gift of Johanna and Leslie Garfield, on loan from the American Friends of the British Museum. © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2016. © Tom Powel Imaging

Flags I (1973). Colour screenprint by Jasper Johns. Gift of Johanna and Leslie Garfield, on loan from the American Friends of the British Museum. © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2016. © Tom Powel Imaging

The American boom in prints

The exhibition covers American prints from the last 60 years. Why that particular period?

A revolutionary and enduring change in the production, marketing and consumption of prints took place in the 1960s. Inspired by the monumental, bold and eye-catching imagery of post-war America, a young generation of artists took to printmaking with enthusiasm, putting it on an equal footing with painting and sculpture and matching their size, bright colour and impact. Meanwhile, the growth of an affluent middle class in urban America also opened a booming market for prints that was seized upon by enterprising publishers, print workshops and artists. Artists were encouraged to create prints in state-of-the-art workshops newly established on both the East and West Coast. The widening audience for prints also attracted some to use the medium as a means for expressing pungent, sometimes dissenting, opinions on the great social issues of the day.

It is also relevant that this exhibition is a sequel. In 2008 the Museum held a big show titled The American Scene: Prints from Hopper to Pollock, which ended at the turn of the Sixties i.e. where this one begins. Both shows were curated by Stephen Coppel, the Museum’s curator of modern prints and drawings.

This exhibition consists of twelve rooms, which take us through American prints from the early 1960s to the present day, each room focusing on a particular group of artists, periods or themes – Pop in the first few rooms, minimalism half way through, the ’80s, and then onto contemporary issues like race, AIDS and feminism in the final three.

Gumball Machine, colour linocut (1970) by Wayne Thiebaud © Wayne Thiebaud/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2016

Gumball Machine (1970) colour linocut by Wayne Thiebaud © Wayne Thiebaud/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2016

The process of print-making

Wall labels for separate eras (the 1990s) or groups (the Minimalists) or for individual works, shed light on the multifarious techniques of print making – etching, lithographs, working with stone, wood or silk – along with the micro-histories of the many workshops and businesses set up across the States to cater to the growing market for prints, like Universal Limited Editions in Long Island (est. 1957) and Gemini set up in Los Angeles in 1966.

Half-way through the show there are two big video installations showing artists actually creating prints, including Andy Warhol working with silk prints and Ed Ruscha creating his Dead End signs. A later video includes interview snippets with Lichtenstein, Ruscha, Chuck Close, Kiki Smith, Glenn Ligon and Julie Mehreti.

Interesting though these were, they were really snippets from longer films and so, for example, although I saw Warhol and an assistant running a wooden block up and down a print presumably to press paint into the paper, I still didn’t understand how a silk screen print is made and had to look it up on YouTube.

Standard Station. Colour screenprint (1966) by Edward Ruscha. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. © Ed Ruscha. Reproduced by permission of the artist

Standard Station (1966) Colour screenprint by Edward Ruscha. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. © Ed Ruscha. Reproduced by permission of the artist

The exhibition room-by-room

Room 1 Pop art

The early 1960s saw an explosion of artists incorporating the imagery of consumer culture, adverts, movie posters, newspaper photos and so on, adapted whole, or cut up into collages, or remodelled into huge spoof cartoons. The first room (and arguably the entire exhibition) is dominated by Andy Warhol and his genius for identifying stand-out iconic imagery. One wall is covered by ten enormous silk prints of Marilyn Monroe (1962), plus the original poster for the 1953 movie Niagara, which inspired them.

Opposite them is a set of ten prints depicting the electric chair (1964) along with the source photo.

Lining another wall is an enormous 86-foot-long print by James Rosenquist called F-111 (1964), a characteristic hymn to gleaming chrome technology and itself an epitome of America’s super-confidence: Bigger. Brighter. Shinier.

There’s a so-so print of Claes Oldenburg’s Three way plug (1970) beside which is hanging the only non-print in the show, an enormous wooden sculpture of the same object suspended from the ceiling.

It’s the 1960s, pre-feminism and awash with kitsch ads and comics from the 1950s, so American babes can be celebrated without guilt, as in Tom Wesselman’s series The Great American Nude (1963). Work on numerous iterations of  this image took up most of Wesselman’s 60s, in fact the final, hundredth, version was only published in 1973. It is odd that an exhibition which (later on) features feminist artists being very cross about the sexual objectification of women opens with such a glaring example.

Next to them is king of comic art, Roy Lichtenstein’s Reverie (1965) hanging alongside is one of his canonical action cartoon-paintings, Sweet Dreams, Baby! (1965).

Repetition 

The obvious thing about prints is not only that they can be run off in large numbers to be sold and owned by a potentially limitless audience – but, as Warhol above all else discovered – they can also be repeated with deliberate variations, in detail, design or colouring.

Warhol dominates the field with his series of iconic silk prints of Marilyn, Mao, Elvis and so on, but it is striking the way so many of the other artists shown here, right up to the present day, conceived of their prints as parts of sets or series on specific topics, themes, images, issues. This is not possible in painting; it is an artistic option only really available in print.

What is it about these repetitions and iterations, – something unnerving, subverting, and yet mythologising at the same time? All those Marilyns become shallower and shallower and yet simultaneously more and more powerful. Ditto Jasper John’s obsessive reiterations of the American flag or Jim Dine’s multiple series of household tools – Repetition equals… what? Maybe we need a perceptual psychologist to explain what they do to the brain.

Room 2 Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Jim Dine

Jasper Johns comes from an earlier generation than Warhol. He began his blank-faced paintings of humdrum objects in the 1950s. He repeatedly uses motifs of numbers, letters and words, generally working in large sets or series which showcase all the types of variations which print-making produces: there are so many variations on Flags I and Flags II it’s difficult to decide which is the ‘key’ example (see first illustration, above). There are also sets devoted to: Grey alphabetNumbers, Targets.

There’s something about the blankness and the obviousness of these subjects which suggests a kind of zombieness of American culture. I like that Johns has rarely if ever commented or interpreted his work. There it is. The flag. Letters. Numbers imposed over each other (the Colour Numeral series). Make of them what you will. Johns started in the mid-50s and is represented well into the ’80s.

Robert Rauschenberg was recently given a massive and hugely enjoyable retrospective at Tate Modern. His prints are as great as everything else he did. Here he is represented by some works from his Stoned moon series, a set of 33 lithographs which he created in response to the manned Apollo flights to the moon (Rauschenberg was actually invited by NASA to be the official Moonshot artist). Make a collage of press photos and technical diagrams. Run off prints of it using different colour washes. Voila!

Sky garden at 2.2 metres tall broke the record for the largest hand-printed lithograph of the day. Bigger. Brighter. Shinier.

Sky Garden from Stoned Moon. Colour lithograph and screenprint (1969) by Robert Rauschenberg © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York

Sky Garden from the Stoned Moon series (1969) Colour lithograph and screenprint by Robert Rauschenberg © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York

One of the Stoned moon variations is Sky rite – I like the blurred, half-obliterated image of the NASA technician pointing to the skies. The selection, the arrangement and then the partial obliteration of these bold clear photos and designs by pencil lines and colour washes say so much – about dynamism and thrusting confidence, but at the same time somehow about those things being eclipsed and washed out – so much that is difficult to put into words – as art should. Nearby was one of another large series based on X-rays of his own body, Booster (1967).

Jim Dine seems to have rejected big grandiose subjects and concentrated on the here and now, banal household objects, a kind of artistic William Carlos Williams. I liked his series about Paintbrushes (1973), showing different numbers of paintbrushes lined up neatly, but with different amounts of sketching, light and shade in each one. Here we had examples of the ‘first state’, ‘third state’ and ‘sixth state’, presumably as the image became more worked over, scarred and scratched and busy. The more you look, the more beguiling they become.

Given the same treatment are images of a saw, hammers – each becoming strangely luminous, charged with meaning – or just beautiful by virtue of the deadpan depiction of their wonderful functional design. Nearby is one of the extensive series he made of his own dressing gown (1975), for me redolent of the cocaine and rock star 1970s. Why not?

There is a kind of wonderful emptiness about so many of these images. They shoot through the retina and flood the image-recognition centres of the brain as a MacDonald’s hamburger floods the hungry palate, pushing all the big obvious buttons. Lots of fun, but taken together, somehow hinting at a huge emptiness, at the isolated unhappiness which has been the subject of so much American fiction these last 60 years.

Room 4 Made in California – the West Coast experience

The next room swaps focus to the West Coast, to the California of swimming pools and endless sunshine.

  • Claes Oldenburg Profile airflow (1969) an intriguing three-dimensional relief print made of polyurethane.
  • Ed Ruscha – an artist of the archetypal post-War west, with its highways, gas stations and huge signs – Every building on Sunset Strip (1966), Hollywood (1968), Sin (1970), Whiskers (1972) Made in California (1971)
  • Wayne Thiebaud – Careful etchings and linotypes of colourful fatty American sweets –Gumball machine (see above), Boston cremes (1962), Suckers state (1968)
  • Robert Bechtle’s quiet depictions of California suburbs, mostly empty of people with only a parked car suggesting human presence – Burbank Street – Alameda 1 (1967), 60 T-Bird (1967), Alamedo Carrera (1967) cars which make me think of the movies Bullitt (1968) or Dirty Harry (1971)
  • Bruce Naumann – a harsh negative vision obsessed with the power of words, not phrases, just potent words, arranged forwards and backwards, often in slanting italics, often in harsh black and white – Clear vision (1973), Malice (1980)

Talk on the wall label of clear blue skies and swimming pools made me think of David Hockney and, turning a corner, who do we find! Hockney is another great fan of sets and series:

Room 5 Persistence of abstraction – gestural and hard-edge 1960s-1970s

Pop was seen by many as an anecdote to the angst and bleak psychologising of 1950s Abstract Expressionism (as recently displayed at a major retrospective at the Royal Academy). This room shows how some print-makers continued, despite the shiny externalities of real life celebrated by Pop, to experiment with abstract shapes, and blurs and swirls of paint.

Walking into this room after the previous four was like walking into the screening of some European art movie after spending a couple of hours watching Star Wars and chomping on popcorn. It required quite a change of pace to calm down from the big bright, super-colourful and, above all, instantly recognisable imagery of Pop, to get back to grips with more abstract experiments in colour, texture and design.

Room 6 Minimalism and conceptualism from the 1970s

The sobering up process continued in the next room with a sample of the very black and white, minimalist aesthetic which came in in the early 1970s, as a reaction against everything bright and shiny. I very much like the sculptures of American minimalism – many of which can be seen in Tate Modern – but my palette had been so spoilt by the Mickey Mouse pleasures of the preceding rooms that I found it hard to tune in to their subtleties.

Room 7 Photorealism – Portraits and landscapes

Apparently there was a revival in the 1970s of the deeply unfashionable genre of portraiture.

Of the landscapes I liked Craig McPherson’s Yankee stadium at night (1983), a powerful and absorbing image because it is in fact so entirely figurative. Best things in the room were prints of the hyper-realistic / ‘photorealistic’ paintings done by Richard Estes, from his Urban Landscape series.

Room 8 The figure reasserted

Had the figure ever been away? Well figurative depictions of the human form were grouped together in this room, though often in a stilted or deliberately naive style – maybe a refreshing change after the blank coolness of ’70s minimalism.

The standout images were to almost life size prints wonderfully capturing a fully-clothed man and woman in the act of dancing, writhing, jiving.

  • Robert Longo – Eric (1985) from the Men in the cities series. Cindy (2002)

Room 9 – Politics and dissent

Once again Warhol trumps the room with his fabulous silk prints of Nixon and Mao (1972), alongside the more subdued print of Jackie II (1966).

Vote McGovern, Colour screenprint (1972) by Andy Warhol © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

Vote McGovern (1972) Colour screenprint by Andy Warhol © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

Note these dates, though. This is very old protest. Johnson? Nixon? Beautiful, striking, imaginative but – old.

The Politics and dissent room segues into a room about AIDS which was first clinically observed in the United States in 1981. The 1980s was, therefore, among other things, the decade in which medical investigation of the condition went hand in hand with growing public awareness, with attempts to overcome the stigma of illness and then lobby for more research to be done. This room features prints by gay artists responding to the crisis.

Room 10 Feminism, gender and the body

Big Daddy with Hats (1971) Colour screenprint by May Stevens © May Stevens. Reproduced by permission of the artist and Mary Ryan Gallery, New York

Big Daddy with Hats (1971) Colour screenprint by May Stevens © May Stevens. Reproduced by permission of the artist and Mary Ryan Gallery, New York

I found a lot of this work a little understated, almost amateurish. The correctness of your beliefs or vehemency of your faith don’t of themselves make for particularly interesting art.

For a palette spoiled by big shiny consumer images, the most immediate impact in this room was made by the sharp, advert-based images of the Guerrilla Girls.

If Pop in the ’60s cut up and pasted cheesy adverts, the GGs in the ’80s create what amount to striking ads in their own right. They’re still very active.

Room 11 Race and identity – Unresolved histories

The inclusion of a room of Feminist art and a room of Black art gives the visitor a strong sense of the academic background of the exhibition’s organisers. I’m not saying they’re not big issues, but the inclusion of these issues, and only these issues, at the end of the show reflects their dominance of academic life and university campuses and doesn’t necessarily reflect the major social, economic and technological upheavals of the last 30 years.

Stowage. Woodcut on Japanese paper (1997) by Willie Cole © Willie Cole. Reproduced by permission of the artist courtesy of Alexander and Bonin Publishing, New York

Stowage (1997) Woodcut on Japanese paper by Willie Cole © Willie Cole. Reproduced by permission of the artist courtesy of Alexander and Bonin Publishing, New York

In this room the standout artist for me is Kara Walker, with her stylised black and white silhouettes of slave figures. 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 it 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

Room 12 Signs of the times

The wall label in this last room mentions 9/11 and the financial crash of 2008 but addresses neither of them directly. Instead the 12 prints in this concluding section comment obliquely on the sense of America’s economic decline, or at least the decline of traditional industries and jobs. Commercial collapse, bankruptcy and anomie. The unwinding of America.

It is a depressing conclusion, but it follows logically from the AIDS, feminism and black rooms. Somewhere in the 1980s America began to hate itself and look for someone to blame. A lot of the AIDS images are angry at the slowness of medical research into the condition, the stigma attached to it, Reaganite persecution of gays, the slander of calling it a ‘gay plague’. The feminist room is full of anger at the Patriarchy, at the countless ways women have been suppressed, silenced, objectified and abused. And the black room is also angry at the grotesque abomination of slavery, the slave trade, the systematic abuse of millions of men, women and children bought and sold like cattle, worked to death, raped and murdered and ongoing discrimination against people of colour, police shootings of black men, the huge black prison population.

A sympathetic reading of these three rooms leaves the visitor shaken and exhausted, and this final small downbeat section matches your mood with images of an America which has somehow reached the end of the line. The breezy confidence of the 1960s has evaporated. Gays, blacks and women are just the most vocal of the groups attacking a culture which seems on its knees.

The most haunting image, deliberately and carefully chosen to end the show, is Ed Ruscha’s reprise of his 1966 brilliant iconic image of a gas station – now redone in pure white, emptied out, a ghost of itself. In fact one of the stylish ‘windows’ cut here and there into the exhibition walls, means you can look directly back into the earlier gallery where the 1966 print is hanging and compare the two.

The hollowing out, the blanking of Ghost station suggests that the chrome-plated consumer paradise depicted in thePop art of the 1960s has become a drug-addicted, derelict shell of itself.

What happened? Where did it all go wrong? And if Donald Trump is the answer, what on earth is the question?


Post script 1: The elephant in the room

This is a panoramic and exciting exhibition which brings together many of the biggest names in American art, alongside lesser-known but just as interesting artists, to give a vivid sense of the boundless experimentation and creativity of this huge country. Above all it successfully stakes a claim for print as a medium as creative, varied and beautiful as painting or sculpture. You exit the show, mind ringing with all kinds of images, ideas, issues and reflections.

For me, at the end, one big question stood out. The exhibition’s publicity encourages us to combine the art with history and politics, to experience post-war American history through these artists’ eyes. Which is why it seems to me extraordinary that there is only one throwaway mention of the single most important event in 21st century American history – 9/11.

From this traumatic attack stem the War on Terror, the Patriot Act, the war in Afghanistan and the ill-fated invasion of Iraq, the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, official defence of waterboarding and torture at Guantanamo Bay, further acts of domestic terrorism, along with armed interventions in Libya and Syria and the ever-increasing use of drone attacks.

All these events have contributed hugely to the sense contemporary America has of being embattled and threatened by forces it doesn’t understand and can’t contain, to the tide of anxiety and xenophobia which helped Donald Trump to the White House. It seems to me extraordinary that an exhibition which at least in part claims to survey American history ‘to the present’ omits this seismic subject.

Surely there are American artists making prints on these subjects – 9/11 is burned into our minds as a set of horrible images, not to mention iconic images of Osama bin Laden’s face, Saddam’s statue being pulled down, the torture victims in Abu Ghraib, drones cruising the skies. I can’t believe that scores of American artists haven’t addressed these issues and haven’t mined these images for creative purposes.

Why aren’t they here?

Postscript 2: Native Americans

The feminist artists complain about the oppression of women in general, of women artists in particular, of the suppression of their stories and experiences by the Patriarchy, which women artists are only now bravely telling. The black artists complain about the oppression of Africans, the brutality meted out to slaves, the suppression of their narratives and stories, which black artists are only now exploring.

My son asked me, So where’s the room for Native Americans? There isn’t one. Why not? If there aren’t many Native American artists, why not? Isn’t that a bit of an issue? And if there truly aren’t many Native American artists, doesn’t that mean that any history of America told through its art will inevitably privilege European forms of expression and necessarily exclude the voice and experience of its original inhabitants?

In between the endless artworks, books, documentaries and conferences about gender and the body or slavery and the black experience – just possibly the occasional mention should be made of the original inhabitants of this huge continent who were almost exterminated and the survivors shunted to the edge of American life and for so long written out of the American story. And – in this exhibition at least – are still written out of the American story.

No Native American artists? No Native American print makers? No Native American narratives or stories? Not even one solitary mention of them? No.

Gays, blacks, women – these are the academically-approved minorities, the groups which have their own political movements and voices, novels, plays, movies, Hollywood stars lobbying for them, TV shows about them, and art and criticism and exhibitions and academic papers and dissertations and conferences and books devoted to them, which are, in other words, part of the state-approved cultural discourse.

As for the original victims of European colonisation? Silence. Absence. Invisibility…


The video

Related links

Newspaper reviews of The American Dream

Reviews of other British Museum shows

Celts: art and identity @ The British Museum

The key words in this exhibition are ‘perhaps’, ‘maybe’, ‘might’ and ‘may’. The most important single fact about the ‘Celts’ is that they were illiterate: they wrote nothing down. All we have is the relatively small number of artifacts they left behind and the scattered – often unreliable – references in texts by the literate Greeks and Romans. This means that almost every sentence on the wall panels and the exhibit labels was hedged around with ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’.

The second most important fact which emerges from this exhibition is that the word ‘Celt’ is loaded more with political, historical and cultural, than with racial, ethnic or archaeological, meanings. We know very little about the peoples we label ‘Celts’, who were in fact a diverse group of tribes and peoples – a ‘mosaic of communities’ – that inhabited Europe north of the Alps – a vast area stretching from Geneva to the Outer Hebrides – from around 500 BC until, well, when do you end the period? With the arrival of the Romans around 50 BC? Of the Angles and Saxons 500 AD? Of the Vikings 800 AD? Of the Normans in 1066?

By contrast with the obscurity of the historical record, most use of the word ‘Celt’ nowadays is dominated by the meanings it has acquired in the struggle for identity by nationalist movements of modern times (since the industrial revolution, say, roughly 1800) in countries like Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and in regions like Cornwall and Brittany.

In fact, from its use by the ancient Greeks to refer to people living ‘outside’ their literate Mediterranean culture, to its use by 20th century nationalists to distinguish themselves as ‘outsiders’ from the English Empire, the function of the word has always been to indicate difference.

It is this confusion between what the archaeological record shows us the people who lived in this area were actually like from 500 BC to 1000 AD – and the stories, legends and wishful thinking that writers, poets, politicians and myth-makers have concocted about them in the last couple of hundred years, that the exhibition seeks to untangle.

1. Pagan history 500 BC to 500 AD

The exhibition says (rather vaguely) that around 500 BC the people referred to as Celts lived across much of Europe north of the Alps. The term Keltoi was first used by the ancient Greeks but it isn’t a Greek word. Where exactly these people came from, and why, and what they believed and what language(s) they spoke, are challenging questions which this exhibition doesn’t really answer as clearly as you’d like.

The Glauberg statue, Holzgerlingen, Baden-Wüttemberg, Germany 500 – 400 BC. Sandstone; H 2.30 m. Wüttembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart.

The Glauberg statue, Holzgerlingen, Baden-Wüttemberg, Germany 500 – 400 BC. Sandstone; H 2.30 m. Wüttembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart. 1848,1

The Celts were pagans (although this is another word coined by Latin Christians to indicate ‘outsiders’ from their literate Mediterranean faith) and their paganism endured into the centuries when the Romans expanded across the Alps to the borders of the Danube and the Rhine and came into increasing contact with them. In encountering Celtic peoples the Romans recorded their lifestyles and culture, though in shreds and patches, sometimes exaggerating or basing their statements on rumour and hearsay.

As you would expect, there is a lot of detailed scholarship on display here, for example noting the subtle influence of Romano-Greek design on Celtic artefacts, as the Celts inevitably traded with the encroaching Romans and learned to incorporate imagery associated with the Empire. But it is the inexplicable, mysterious artifacts, the ones from the dark unexplored lands, which bespeak unknown religions, unknown beliefs, which gripped me.

Gundestrup Cauldron. Silver. Gundestrup, northern Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1. © The National Museum of Denmark.

Gundestrup Cauldron. Silver. Gundestrup, northern Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1. © The National Museum of Denmark.

Maybe the wonderful Gundestrup Cauldron (‘the largest known example of European Iron Age silver work’) records the exploits of a hero as full of legend as Herakles. Maybe each panel records one of his famous adventures. The faces glaring from the inner panels are ‘probably’ gods. The cauldron as a whole was ‘probably’ reserved for important rituals. We don’t know. In fact the cauldron was discovered as disassembled plates and there is debate to this day about whether it has been reconstructed with the plates in the right order.

This lack of certainty, the prevalence of ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’, was typified by a panel explaining the provenance of some treasure found in Lake Neufchâtel in Switzerland. These artifacts probably once lined a walkway out into the lake and they probably fell into the lake as the walkway decayed – though, the panel almost sheepishly adds, they might also have been a deliberate sacrifice to a water god. We don’t know.

So sparse is our information that the wall labels and commentary are sometimes forced back on rather obvious generalisations: The Celts liked feasting, which was probably the focus of their social life. The Celts probably worshiped an array of gods and revered nature. The Celts were a warlike race and the warrior had high status in their culture. Well, which ancient cultures is this not true of?

The Battersea Shield. Bronze, glass. Found in the River Thames at Battersea Bridge, London, England, 350-50 BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Battersea Shield. Bronze, glass. Found in the River Thames at Battersea Bridge, London, England, 350-50 BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

In our islands the key dates are Julius Caesar’s first expeditions (55-54 BC) and the commentary he wrote on his Gallic Wars with the north European Celts in what would later become France. Then came the Emperor Claudius’s conquest of 43 AD which led to the 400-year colonisation of the island the Romans named Britannia, their rule eventually stretching as far as the borders with Wales and with the highlands of Scotland. Famously, the Romans never colonised Hibernia, Ireland.

Whereas the Celtic natives lived in farms, villages or small hillforts, the Romans brought towns, cities even, stone buildings, straight roads. The administrative system they set up across England lasts to this day, whereas in the Celtic ‘fringes’ and in Ireland, it never penetrated. Largely obliterated by the Roman colonisation in continental Europe, ‘Celtic’ identity survived in these fringes. Hence artifacts found from these areas show the true Celtic strangeness lingering on long after the Romans had been and gone.

Tully Lough Cross. Wood, bronze. Tully Lough, north-west Ireland, AD 700–900. © National Museum of Ireland

Tully Lough Cross. Wood, bronze. Tully Lough, north-west Ireland, AD 700–900. © National Museum of Ireland

Torcs

The most characteristic artifact from ‘Celtic’ culture seems to have been the ‘torc’ and there are scores of them on display here. Torcs are large metal neck rings, sometimes made from a solid block of metal, more often from exquisitely spun and woven strands of precious metal. In recent years a number of archaeological finds, including the Snettisham hoard and the Blair Drummond hoard, have revealed hundreds of torcs, in a breath-taking variety of shapes and sizes, making us as confident as we can be that they were a common feature of Celtic life.

The Blair Drummond torcs. Blair Drummond, Stirling 300-100 BC. Gold; D of loop-terminal torc 15 cm. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh

The Blair Drummond torcs. Blair Drummond, Stirling 300-100 BC. Gold; D of loop-terminal torc 15 cm. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh. 1968.L

The exhibition refers to the famous Greek sculpture called The Dying Gaul, showing a wounded Gaulish warrior naked except for a torc. The Greek historian Polybius described the wearing of torcs by the gaesatae, Celtic warriors from northern Italy, who fought at the Battle of Telamon in 225 BC. Torcs have been found at scores of locations across Europe and maybe 50 are on display here, the two obvious conclusions being:

a) they came in an astonishing variety of shapes and sizes, some massive and clunky, most of really exquisite craftsmanship
b) they must have been extremely uncomfortable and impractical to wear.

Bronze age bling.

How did Celtic art evolve?

Despite the wealth of scholarly information on display, I found myself becoming a little confused about Celtic art as the exhibition progressed. On the one hand there are images as raw and primitive, as unsymmetrical and crude, as the faces and animals on the Gundestrup cauldron, along with some of the earliest statues and figurines (eg the Glauberg statue, above) which resonate a great sense of virility and pagan power. These reminded me very much of the similar pagan, northern imagery in the Museum’s fabulous Viking exhibition.

But at some point there began to emerge alongside this the style that we nowadays think of as ‘classic Celtic art’ – characterised by beautifully crafted geometric shapes with complex interwoven patterns, the weaving lines often ending in animal heads, like birds of prey; or just wonderfully intricate, ordered patterns designed to fill the interstices of sword hilts, crosses, brooches, helmets.

Leaving me puzzled: so what is Celtic art? The pagan figures or the intricate craftsmanship? And if it’s both, it would have been good to have the process by which the classic patterns evolved more completely and explicitly explained (as far as possible).

Hunterston brooch. Silver, gold and amber. Hunterston, south-west Scotland, AD 700–800. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh

Hunterston brooch. Silver, gold and amber. Hunterston, south-west Scotland, AD 700–800. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburght.1968.L

In fact, revisiting the exhibition to go over these objects more carefully, I noted:

  • In the bronze anklets and chariot fittings and shield bosses and some of the torcs a kind of bulbous, spherical decoration was far more characteristic of ‘Celtic’ art and for centuries before the knot motifs appeared – eg the spheres on the Roissy Dome, France, 300-200 BC, or this bronze hohlbuckelring from Plaňany in the Czech Republic (3rd century BC) . Referring to textbooks, I discover this bulbousness is characteristic of the ‘Plastic’ era of Celtic art in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, something not mentioned in the exhibition.
  • The torcs – by common consent the most widespread Celtic artifact – feature corkscrew, pearl, filigree and ‘crown’ designs but – strikingly – few if any of them display the so-called ‘Celtic knot’ patterns.
  • When the knot, the classic ‘Celtic’ design emerges, as in the Hunterston brooch, above – it is very late, well into the early middle ages, around 700 AD: as evidenced in objects like the St Chad gospels, the brooches or the contemporary bell shrine of St Cuileáin.

2. Christian history 500-1000 AD

The Romans abandoned us in 410 (as Gildas is quoted, plaintively lamenting) and after a confused period the Angles and Saxons and Jutes began arriving from 450 onwards. The Venerable Bede tells the story of the conversion to Christianity of each of the Saxon kingdoms in turn until the whole island was christianised by around 700. From late in this period date the enormous Celtic crosses, with their characteristic circle at the crux, and the beautiful illuminated manuscripts of bibles and psalters at the numerous monasteries and abbeys being founded across the land.

There are three or four mighty crosses here, towering over the visitor, and glass cases containing beautifully illuminated bibles. It is a powerful and distinctive style, but it is obviously Christian: how can it be said to be a continuation of the pagan primitivism of the cauldron? It looks completely different.

Cross-slab, Monifeith, Angus AD 700-800, stone; L 26 cm, W 30 cm, T 9cm. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh

Cross-slab, Monifeith, Angus AD 700-800, stone; L 26 cm, W 30 cm, T 9cm. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh

How does the figure with reindeer horns relate to the geometric patterning of the crosses and psalters? It seemed to me that it is only us, thousands of years later, who call both the primitive pre-Christian art ‘Celtic’ and the big stone crosses ‘Celtic’, it is we who group these peoples from all over Europe and across the immensely long period from 500 BC to the Norman Conquest, together into one cultural identity. I felt unsure whether we really are justified in doing so…


3. Cultural creation

The second half of the exhibition (art and identity) tells the story – or snapshots of the story – of how Celtic identity was created and shaped over the last couple of hundred years, resulting in the powerful sense of identity and nationhood felt in our time by the Scots and Welsh and Irish.

Apparently the word ‘Celt’ is recorded in no English text before 1600. The etymological dictionary says:

c. 1600, from Latin Celta, singular of Celtae, from the Greek Keltoi, Herodotus’ word for the Gauls (who also were called Galatai). Used by the Romans of continental Gauls but apparently not of the British Celtic tribes. Originally in English in reference to ancient peoples; extension to their modern descendants is from mid-19th century.

Aha, the mid-19th century, that’s the clue – when the industrious Victorians were recording, measuring, categorising and classifying everything in sight – animals, languages, stars, peoples – and cooking up all sorts of theories about race and language and ethnicity.

The exhibition shows interest in things Celtic and pre-Roman beginning to warm up in the 18th century: In 1757 Thomas Gray wrote a long poem about The Bard which prompted various artistic depictions. In the Tate Britain exhibition Fighting History there are several paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries showing highly romanticised scenes ‘from ancient British life’. It is emblematic – or typical – that one of the most influential texts glamorising Celtic life – the cycle of epic poems supposedly narrated by and featuring the hero Ossian, and published by the Scottish poet James Macpherson – later turned out to be fakes. A great deal of fake heroism and sentimentality is entangled with Celtic nationalism from the start.

But the revelation they were forgeries didn’t stop the Ossian poems having a huge influence in the creation of images of stirring, heroic, pre-Christian heroes, not only throughout these islands but far into continental Europe. Why? Because their time had arrived. People were looking for things wild and primitive and untamed.

The Romantic Movement represented a deepening of this moor, a continuation and broadening of interest in all things anti-modern, anti-industry, anti-mercantile, roaming over old poems, ‘native’ traditions, wild mountain landscapes, in search of what began to be seen as the purer, somehow more authentic, cultures of Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

With typical efficiency the Victorians set about measuring, mapping, defining and categorising all things Celtic and the central part of this second section shows how supposedly ‘Celtic’ traditions were captured in Victorian oil paintings, poems and even in the ‘revival’ of ‘Celtic’ rituals and traditions, which were often invented for the purpose.

The Welsh Eisteddfod was founded in 1861 and the exhibition shows photos of the first event, detailing how robes for the ‘druid’ and ‘high priest’ were designed, along with a Celtic Welsh harp, a sword and other ceremonial paraphernalia. In Scotland, traditions surrounding characteristically Celtic dress, such as the Scottish kilt, were formalised.

Along with the creation of Celtic traditions went the complex relationship between the genuine beliefs of the practitioners, and the discovery that ‘Celtic’ means money: where the poets led, the tourists followed, coming on early package tours round ‘Sir Walter Scott’s highlands’, buying up tea towels and genuine ‘Celtic’ ornaments. If their Celtic identities have been a rallying cry for ardent nationalists in Wales, Scotland and Ireland, they have also been good copy for hoteliers, tour operators, gifte shoppe owners and whisky manufacturers.

‘Poster for the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts’ by Herbert McNair, Margaret and Frances Macdonald. c.1894. Lithograph: ink on paper; 236 x 102 cm. Printer: Carter & Pratt, Glasgow. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

‘Poster for the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts’ by Herbert McNair, Margaret and Frances Macdonald. c.1894. Lithograph: ink on paper; 236 x 102 cm. Printer: Carter & Pratt, Glasgow. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

Some of this material feels stretched to be included: The exhibition argues for the art nouveau of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his associates as being influenced by, or related to, those tall stone Celtic crosses. Maybe, though the debt to the elongated, lily patterns of European Jugendstil is surely more important.

More obviously showing ‘classic’ Celtic design are the umpteen medievalising paintings of the pre-Raphaelites and their Arts and Crafts heirs, a sample of which are on display here. But this isn’t because these artists were influenced by Celtic patterns, it’s because they’re depicting them, as appropriate trappings to their wildly romantic images of the era. (Hence the accurate depiction of the famous Battersea shield which the third rider in John Duncan’s painting is carrying.)

The Riders of the Sidhe. Tempera on canvas. John Duncan, 1911. © Dundee City Council (Dundee's Art Galleries and Museums)

The Riders of the Sidhe. Tempera on canvas. John Duncan, 1911. © Dundee City Council (Dundee’s Art Galleries and Museums)

The last room of the exhibition is meant to be a celebration of modern Celtic identity, with a big video screen showing scenes of happy Celts dancing in kilts, strumming harps, blowing bagpipes and so on. Next to them is a display supposedly showing how interpenetrated contemporary culture is by ‘Celtic’ designs, and containing a copy of Asterix and the Picts, books of Celtic patterns to colour in or use as tattoos, to prove it. We are in every way in a very different world from the mystery and darkness of the pagan beginning, a less interesting world, the modern world. Next stop, the gift shop.

Conclusion

The first part of the exhibition brought together a lot of artifacts but failed, for me, to really nail down what Celtic art was or is. The wonderful war-horn or carnyx, the cauldron and some of the torcs made you feel close to these obscure people, but an impenetrable mystery remains – we don’t know what they spoke or thought or did or believed. And the exhibition didn’t tell a coherent narrative – something I’d dearly like to understand – of how the geometric patterns we all think of as Celtic, came about. Where are they first recorded? When? How did they change over time? How did the strictly mathematical patterns emerge from the cruder hand designs?

The second part, the cultural creation of the Celts, felt (rather like the Greek beauty exhibition) as if it was taking on too much: the creation of national myths of Scotland, Wales and Ireland is a vast subject, or series of subjects, too big, too complex, too fraught and often tragic, to be dealt with so sketchily.

Photos from the early Eisteddfods, of nationalist murals in Northern Ireland namechecking the legendary Irish hero Cú Chulainn, video footage of girls in kilts and men playing bagpipes – this doesn’t scratch the surface of how important the myth of a Celtic heritage is to modern-day Scots, Welsh and Irish and has been in British – and colonial – politics for centuries. Surely there are national museums of Scotland, Wales and Ireland which do this, in the necessary detail, and really well.

I think this British Museum exhibition would have been more powerful, more lasting, if it had stopped around the Norman Conquest, ditched the Celtic Revival kitsch, and instead dug deeper into those earlier, Iron Age aspects of Celtic life: instead of putting coins or cups from Switzerland next to ones from Suffolk and Romania, I’d like to have seen the vast continent of Europe broken down a bit more into regions and the story followed through in each of these areas.

Instead of a section telling me the Celts were warriors or the Celts liked feasting, I’d have preferred detailed accounts of the Celts of the Rhineland or of the Highlands, drilling down much closer to the actual course of events in each region, showing the uniqueness of the art and artefacts, the archaeological and historical record from that place, following what it seemed to mean to be a ‘Celt’ as closely as we can from the start of the period, through the encounters with the Roman Empire, and on into the christianisation of the 6th and 7th centuries.

This exhibition is full of marvellous, inspiring, mysterious and beautiful objects. I think I’d have got much more from it if they had been placed in a more deeply investigated and thoroughly explained historical and geographical context.

Related links

  • Celts: art and identity @ The British Museum continues until 31 January 2016
  • Celts: Art and Identity (book) on Amazon The book of the exhibition does give a detailed account of the historical development of the various Celtic styles – the so-called Early, Plastic, Sword, Mirror styles and so on – and explains more clearly that what we think of as the Celtic ‘interlacing’ pattern a) only appeared well after the Romans had left, in what is called the ‘Insular Fusion’ style b) isn’t Celtic at all, but an import from Roman and Germanic art. The exhibition is like edited highlights of the much more thorough account in the book.
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