Archive for the 'British Museum' Category

Art in London

A while back, I took a trip to London in order to look at paintings and sculptures. As I did on my trip to Paris, I made notes of my tours of the British Museum, Victoria and Albert, National Gallery, and the Tates and these posts are based on those notes. I’m pretty much uneducated in art matters, so the result is a sort of reconstructed memory of my effort to educate myself. Here’s a list of the posts minus the romances, little scenes which I attached to certain Modernist paintings:

(1) Meeting Old Friends in the British Museum
(2) The Arrogant Spectator
(3) The Elgin Marbles
(4) The Mona Lisa of the British Museum
(5) Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas
(6) Gods Are Dead and I Feel Fine
(7) Sunshine Horrorshow
(8) Shape and Texture
(9) How Good Can You Get?
(10) Whaam!
(11) Just Express Your Feelings
(12) Explosive Decompression
(13) Who Owns Andy Warhol?
(14) A Flange of Venuses
(15) It Was Ever Thus
(16) It Was Ever Tush
(17) Allez, vivants, luttez, pauvres futurs squelettes
(18) The Hapsburg Jaw
(19) J’en ai assez de ces putains de serpents!
(20) Paint Orgasm
(21) Cartoon Saints
(22) Off with His Head Already!
(23) Virgins and Their Children
(24) Past the Wit of Man
(25) And After the World Exploded
(26) Paint / Glass / Rage
(27) Messianic Complexes
(28) A Sight I Didn’t See
(29) Hodge-Podge
(30) Bernini Clinical
(31) Truth and/or Reality

There’s a tendency for these to get more bizarre as the paintings become more abstract and hence have less to say. That could also be taken as an issue with editing and quality control, but this is an internet blog and both of those terms are, after all, the very opposites of quality control. Therefore, don’t expect carefully constructed essays with each post. You might call them “impressions” if you have to call them something.

The Mona Lisa of the British Museum

Source: Wikipedia

I’ve always wondered how heavy the Rosetta Stone is and now I know: about 760 kilograms or 1,676 lb. I never wondered if one could buy a Rosetta Stone novelty tie, but apparently one can. Anyway, the Stone itself is an example of the Ptolemaic Decrees, the Ptolemaic Dynasty being the one you should look into if you are into things Hellenic and Roman or even Asterix, because the Dynasty begins with a general of Alexander the Great and winds down with Cleopatra. For someone interested in history, that’s pretty cool. But for someone interested in linguistics and writing, this slab of stone is the Holy Grail. It’s like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre in that there’s always a group of people around it, making it almost impossible to see anything but the backs of people’s heads, but while I did not have the patience to wait for my turn to take a closer look at the Mona Lisa, I waited patiently to get to see this piece.

If you don’t know the story of how it ended up in the British Museum after Napoleon’s archaeologists found it in the coastal city of Rosetta, Wikipedia is your friend. There’s also a TV movie about Champollion, the guy who pulled off a small miracle translating the text, but somehow it seems more appropriate to read the story.

Source: Wikipedia

But what does the Stone itself say? There are translations available and as far as these things go it’s pretty exciting stuff. The Linear B tablets, for instance, are famous for being incredibly disappointing content-wise, just a bunch of lists for provisions of grain, wool, and the like. Nevertheless, the content is pretty boring business-stuff for someone more blown away by the fact that the thing was translated in the first place. There’s stuff about money and offerings, not to mention endless statements about how great the king is, but it is, in essence, business.

The lesson of the Greek, demotic, and hieroglyphic writing on the Stone is much deeper than that. Of course it has value as a major historical document, but that’s peanuts compared to the knowledge of the scripts it made possible. The Museum’s blurb says:

Before the Ptolemaic era (that is before about 332 BC), decrees in hieroglyphs such as this were usually set up by the king. It shows how much things had changed from Pharaonic times that the priests, the only people who had kept the knowledge of writing hieroglyphs, were now issuing such decrees.

I didn’t know “Pharaonic” was a word. You learn something new every day and you should, because, as the Rosetta Stone makes quite clear, knowledge is the key to power if not power itself.

The Elgin Marbles

About half of the marbles from the Parthenon were transported to Britain by the 7th Earl of Elgin and ended up in the British Museum. The rest of them are scattered around the world in museums and galleries, but the Elgin Marbles are the biggest single collection of these incredible public works. They have been controversial from day one, from Elgin’s time to the present when their return has been demanded by a number of people. The British Museum has not been cooperative and it is unlikely it will ever be.

Source: Wikipedia

As you can hopefully see from the detail of the frieze above, everything was perfect. The stolen friezes go around the rooms, and they are no small rooms, and every single fold of canvas has been done with a meticulousness that seems miraculous even after the paint has been stripped away, after time and the winds have done their damage and they have been shipped to the other side of Europe. They have even been blown up and yet their former glory is more than apparent.

Clothing on the pediment sculptures is even more fantastic. However, they have obviously suffered horribly and seem more like handsome corpses than decayed masterpieces.

Source: Wikipedia

At first, it seems ridiculous to think that the dresses of these figures are made of rock, but they are and they also have been blown up and, furthermore, lounged through the horrible damage done to the pieces by Elgin’s expedition as they sawed one of the greatest buildings ever erected into little bits.

Source: Wikipedia

Sometimes the work reminded me of the Louvre’s Nike and the decay of that piece and many of the Elgin marbles do make their ragged yellow dresses and severed body parts act as a terrible reminder of what has been lost forever. There was an interesting video in one of these rooms in which a virtual restoration of one of the scenes was done, one of the metope sculptures if I remember correctly, but even this made it clear that it is impossible to know what exactly these scenes were like.

Source: Wikipedia

For instance, what was the background color of this battle? What were the centaur’s colors and had these two perhaps even clothes or jewelry? They probably had weapons made of some metal, perhaps even golden ones. There are many things beyond our knowledge, so it is no surprise that often the most we can do is sit in the ruins of past glory in silence.

The Arrogant Spectator

Reading my little notebook from my visits to the British Museum and other London galleries, I sometimes find incredibly pompous reactions scribbled in letters very clearly written in motion, even in haste. One of these is: “Mycenaean pottery is pretty boring.” After a day in the National Gallery and with later red figures in the British Museum it might seem so, but surely this is a distorted perspective. It is like judging the main course in terms of the dessert; after the taste buds have been assaulted and saturated by sugary goods, they do not wish to be teased by those joyous delicacies that bring our deeper animal appetites to the surface, to those things that are not flashy and which are not supposed to be.

Source: Wikipedia

One must also remember that stuff like the scene above is from over a thousand years BC, so even if there were flashier things around, it’s only the sturdier items that have survived.

The arrogance continued with: “The Macmillan Aryballos from Corinth (c. 650 BC) kicks it up a notch.”

Source: Wikipedia

It’s a perfume bottle and its greatness is in the details. There’s a battle scene and other stuff and ornamentation. This picture does not do these scenes and squiggles justice, but I’m sure one can find better ones online with a short search.

And yet again, commenting on the Greek black figures of roughly around the same period: “Athens is modern at that time as well.” It is absolutely amazing how sharp some of these black figures are.

Source: Wikipedia

The above example from around 580 BC, and it is not a very good one, actually. It is on these occasions I curse myself for not having a camera, because online photographs do not seem to be all that good most of the time. However, I’m afraid I would have spent all my time with these pots had it been possible to make my own pictures and made no progress at all.

After this, I learned that a guy called the Andokides Painter was responsible for creating the technique behind red-figure pottery. No smug remarks this time, just an overall feeling of “Well done!”

Source: Wikipedia

The image above depicting a dramatic moment in the story of Menelaos and Helen conveys a hyperbolous version of my first reaction to the red figures. An earthly vision so arresting it warrants unconditional admiration and strips the vanity of all notions of beauty. There’s tons of them in the British Museum and going through the pieces can be quite overwhelming and exhausting, but even after hours of looking at these simple pots my appetite for the symmetry and harmony they convey remains intact. (The one thing that has happened is that I found out I was quite ready to dismiss more recent copies of the old pots just by looking at the composition and proportions of the figures.)

However, that also means there is always room for dessert before the day is done, something excessive and all too sweet from those masters of excess, the Romans. The Portland Vase is exactly that, with sugar on top.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

The vase had a little plaque next to it trying to explain the idea behind the way it was produced, but it is difficult to concentrate on technicalities in the presence of something so exquisite. The Wikipedia page for cameos says:

During the early period [Roman glass cameos] usually consisted of a blue glass base with a white overlying layer, but those made during the later period usually have a colourless background covered with a translucent coloured layer. Blanks could be produced by fusing two separately cast sheets of glass, or by dipping the base glass into a crucible of molten overlay glass during blowing.

This particular cameo has been designed and cut so that it creates shadows out of thin strips of glass which give the figures a strange glow or ambiguity. My words are too crude to describe how pleasant it is to look at, pictures capture little of the way the light plays with the details. Sometimes it is worth while to see something — not pictures of it, mind you — so over the top that it brings back to you the appreciation of simplicity done right. That way, you can see your perspective and adjust it accordingly, become the fish who finds the water. Therefore, the final arrogant comment on the Portland vase: “Look at the way you see and look again.”

Meeting Old Friends in the British Museum

Friends of mine who have spent time in Greece always remember to mention “the Islands.” They say that it’s a wonderful idea to use a few days to go island hopping. This just sounds like an excuse to hang out at the boat, and that’s what vacations are all about. But there is something else besides cheap lager and stomach problems the islands have to offer, and this is of course the old Cycladic culture that left us, among other things, these weird figurines.

Source: Wikipedia

I’m told that the ones I saw in the British Museum follow something called the Keros-Syros schema and so does the one I saw in the Louvre not long ago. However, it’s difficult to see the similarities in the Louvre’s Cycladic head, and not only because dating these things has a lot to do with the way the arms and the feet are positioned. In any case, there is a rather complicated path of development for dating, illustrated below in a picture I borrowed from Current Archeology.

Source: Wikipedia

The shape of the heads seems to indicate that the Louvre head is a bit older than the one above and this other one from ca. 2700-2500 BC.

Source: Wikipedia

As you can see below, the Louvre head has a much narrower top than the other ones and given our little evolutionary scheme it should be no surprise that it could be from as far back as 3000 BC.

Source: Wikipedia

Of course, I know next to nothing about dating old marble statuettes and hence all this might be just empty drivel. For instance, the fact that the Louvre head is from a much larger statue (estimated about 140 cm) could make all the difference in its head shape. Maybe the shape has been made to accommodate the viewing angle, or maybe the sculptor had only a small piece of marble for the head.

Experts have probably figured this out and while they’ve been out doing that, I’ve been trying to get my head around the four or five thousand years that separate the sculptor and myself. These things were definitely painted and you can see that there’s room for great big eyes that must have been pretty impressive, but all other details seem to have faded over time. The heads were supposedly a great inspiration to Modernist sculptors and their simplicity was the thing that was most appealing to them. But who knows how these were tarted up with paints and other decorations. They might just be mere skeletal remains of something much more grand, goddesses in full regalia now stripped naked. There’s probably no way of knowing how the gods dressed so long ago, but it’s easy to guess why our modern times prefer simple ones.