Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

Grayson Perry has curated an exhibition at the British Museum that combines his own work — ceramics, textiles, ironwork — with objects from the museum collection. Which must have been *the most fun ever*. I mean seriously, I’ve spent hours browsing the BM’s collection online, looking for things to post to Tumblr, but how much more fun to actually wander around the stores, talking to the experts, poking around in drawers and cabinets, and actually handle everything, with an open-ended brief to find anything which is beautiful, or interesting, or funny.

In fact, if it had just been stuff from the collection with some commentary from Perry, that would be enough to make a very interesting exhibition, because he always writes well and interestingly about art and he clearly has an excellent eye.

But the inclusion of his own work does work well. His work always combines a seriousness with humour and absurdity, and its presence affects the way you look at the other objects. Human beings often are absurd, after all, and museums aren’t always the best places to bring that out. For that matter, museums don’t always do seriousness very well. I mean, they’re good at dry, academic seriousness, but they don’t necessarily create the environment for human seriousness.

And in turn it gives you some insight into how he sees his own art to see the things he’s chosen to show alongside his work, and the themes he arranged the exhibition around: pilgrimage, magic, sexuality, maps and so on. And since I haven’t said so explicitly yet: Perry’s work is interesting and attractive in its own right.

So, yeah, a playful, entertaining exhibition full of striking, interesting and beautiful things. Go and see it.

» The image is of a painted wooden figure of a dancing Bes holding a tambourine, standing on a lotus. It’s Egyptian, from about 1800BC. It is from the BM, but it wasn’t in the exhibition.

‘Treasures of Heaven’ at the British Museum

So I went along to see the BM’s exhibition of medieval reliquaries. Which was a pretty amazing display of medieval craftsmanship: rock crystal, enamel, ivory, glass, and lots and lots of gold.

I didn’t enjoy it as much as I might have, though, because by the time I got there I had a bit of a headache. And it really didn’t help to be peering at lots of spotlit, shiny gold, trying to make out all the exquisitely worked detail. When I came out I had to take shelter in a dark quiet pub and nurse a pint of orange and soda for a bit.

I actually think gold is a slightly unrewarding material for this kind of thing. The overall effect is spectacular; particularly, presumably, in a dark church lit only by candles: bright, shiny, warm, glowing. But the very shininess makes it much harder to pick out the fine details of the craftsmanship; it was more rewarding, I think, looking at the fine work in materials like ivory and alabaster.

Apart from the sheer quality of the exhibits, it was anthropologically interesting. The scale is staggering, apart from anything else; there was apparently one church [I think somewhere in central Europe, from memory] which had 19,000 relics. It must have been a huge industry; not just the relics themselves, but the reliquaries, altars, altarpieces. And that was just the start of it. All that religious paraphernalia — the chalices and patens and thuribles — the ecclesiastical robes, the figures of saints, the murals, the stained glass windows; the whole business must have provided employment for thousands and thousands of workers. Goldsmiths, carpenters, stonemasons, painters, embroiderers, all employed primarily to produce religious objects, either for the church or for private devotion. The Reformation must have been economically catastrophic for them: it was effectively a whole economic sector disappearing.

The other striking thing, and I know it’s not exactly an original observation, is how ludicrous the relics often are. The foreskin and umbilical cords of Christ probably win the prize in that respect, although all the other relics directly associated with Christ also tend to strain credulity: fragments of his manger, bits of True Cross, thorns from the crown, the spear that pierced his side, the sweat band, the magic sponge, all of which were claimed as relics. If you don’t believe in miracles, it’s very difficult to get into the mindset of a society that sees them everywhere; but even so, surely people must have been dubious about this stuff? Perhaps the idea was that the genuineness of the prayer was more important than the genuineness of the relic, although they certainly didn’t act that way.

Going to this exhibition soon after going to the Horniman Museum exhibition Bali: dancing for the gods, I was left thinking how ritually impoverished my own life is as a (somewhat culturally protestant) atheist. Apart from the occasional weddings and funerals, just about the only festival I regularly celebrate is Christmas — and that only consists of gift-giving and turkey. I don’t even usually do anything about Guy Fawkes Night or Halloween, let alone Easter or saints’ days or whatever. I can’t say I feel I’m missing out on an important part of life, but maybe I am. It’s hard to tell how often these events were genuinely spiritual in nature, and how much they were a kind of entertainment in a society without novels, TV, cinema and computer games to keep them amused.

» The images are all from the British Museum collection, because those are conveniently online, although the exhibition has many items borrowed from other institutions.

Top is the St Eustace Head Reliquary, German, ca. 1210.

Then a reliquary cross in cloisonné enamel and gold, Constantinople, early C11th. The Virgin is flanked by busts of St Basil and St Gregory Thaumaturgus.

The little bundle is a relic of St Benedict, one of over 30 relics in a single German portable altar from 1190-1200.

Last is the iron bell of St. Cuileáin in a copper alloy shrine, from Ireland, a C7th-C8th bell in a C12th shrine.

‘The Kingdom of Ife’ at the British Museum

I went to the BM to see the exhibition of art from the medieval west African kingdom of Ife (now in Nigeria). Ife is most famous for some extraordinarily high quality naturalistic heads cast in brass or copper, although the exhibitions also has various other pieces, including terracotta heads in the same style, jewellery, animal pieces and so on.

These heads are of such high quality that one of the first Europeans to see them felt they couldn’t possibly have been made by Africans: instead he hypothesised that they were evidence for the lost civilisation of Atlantis. Which is, umm, a bit cringeworthy. You know you’ve got a bit of a blind spot when you think that Atlantis is a more likely explanation than a previously unknown African kingdom with a strong metalworking tradition. Its especially embarrassing because while it sounds like something some Elizabethan explorer might have come up with, it was in fact… in 1900. Yikes.

He was at least right that these are genuinely remarkable objects, superbly crafted and of great beauty. In fact if you judge art by how much it looks like the thing it portrays — the Daily Mail school of art criticism — there is something extraordinary about this little flowering of naturalistic sculpture in a continent dominated by various kinds of highly stylised art. Certainly that was the Western press reaction when the bulk of the work was found; references to an African Donatello, to African sculpture standing comparison with the great works of Greece and Italy, and to these sculptures being a great mystery of African art. Because, of course, there is no higher ambition than to produce work which fits tidily into the European tradition, and it is inherently mysterious that Africans should be able to do it.

I’m being a bit glib, but actually the exhibition had me examining my own preconceptions about art (I haven’t reached any conclusions yet). Although these days we are all much quicker to see beauty in ‘primitive’ art, not least because its profound influence on Modernism helped change our expectations of what ‘fine art’ looks like, I think most of us have at least an implicit sense of a hierarchy which sees exquisite representational art as, if not better, then more developed or more sophisticated than the highly stylised carvings which we normally associate with Africa. And so these Ife heads seem to carry a significance beyond their beauty.

But the emergence of naturalism really require any special explanation? I guess it might need a society wealthy enough for some people to work as nearly full-time artists, but beyond that maybe all it needs is a shift in fashion. In fact, perhaps representational art is the kind that needs least explanation, since the logic of ‘making things that look like other things’ is so straightforward.

All such questions aside: it’s a marvellous exhibition and if you’re passing through London in the next three months you you should go and see it.

‘Moctezuma — Aztec Ruler’ at the British Museum

So, I went to see Moctezuma at the BM this week. And yes, if you’re wondering, Moctezuma II (or even more correctly, according to Wikipedia, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin) is the man I always thought was called Montezuma: the ruler of the Aztec empire when Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors conquered Mexico. Except that apparently they weren’t ‘Aztec’ either; they referred to themselves as ‘Mexica’.

knife_xray

It’s hard to believe it has been seven years since the Royal Academy’s mega-exhibition about the Aztecs; this show is nowhere near as large or spectacular as that one. And it’s more narrowly focussed on a particular geographical and historical moment; the city of Tenochtitlan and the fall of the Aztec empire. Which does at least mean that it’s easier to take in the information, even if most of the exhibits are a bit less jaw-dropping. And it means that they can supplement the Aztec material with stuff from the Spanish perspective: colonial paintings and so on.

It’s certainly worth going to, although I wouldn’t say it was the most exciting exhibition I’ve been to recently. One thing I found interesting was what you might call the ‘deathcult problem’. The Mexica civilisation was kind of revolting. The sacred courtyard at the centre of Tenochtitlan was built around a temple where they ritually sacrificed their captured enemies. It also featured a skull rack where they could display the skulls afterwards. That’s the kind of design feature that would seem a bit OTT in a Hollywood representation of Mordor. And so it’s a curatorial problem: do you emphasise the gore? downplay it? make any kind of ethical comment?

Generally this exhibition chose to downplay it — not to disguise it, but not to place too much specific emphasis on it either. I guess I think that’s fair enough; better that than salaciously revelling in it, or stigmatising a whole civilisation as somehow subhuman. And presumably they can rely on their visitors to realise for themselves that ripping the hearts out of the living chests of their enemies is a Bad Thing. And yet somehow the studiedly non-judgmental tone of the blurbs and the audioguide, which seemed to treat ritual human sacrifice as just another intriguing cultural quirk like using thorny oyster shell for decoration, left me a little queasy.

Not that the Spanish were exactly saintly themselves; they killed a large chunk of the population of Tenochtitlan in a moment of panic, just for starters. But at least the killing was a by-product of a ruthless lust for gold and power, rather than the central organising principle of their society. Going round all the skull-covered Aztec stuff feels a bit like being at an exhibition of Nazi regalia. Though having said that, an exhibition of religious art from C16th Spain would probably have a bit of a death cult quality to it, with all that graphic martyrdom all over the place. So to sum up: people are a bit creepy.

Also on at the BM at the moment is a very nice little free exhibition of dogū — that is, prehistoric clay figurines from Japan. I didn’t know anything about dogū, so I found it interesting. And they are striking objects.

» The image is an x-ray of a knife with a mosaic handle and a chalcedony blade. They reckon it’s a sacrificial knife but that it isn’t robust enough to have actually been used, so it’s probably ceremonial.

Exhibition round-up

Sorry for the slight hiatus; it was a combination of the cricket and Dragon Quest: the Chapters of the Chosen. But there’s a pause in the cricket*, so I’ll just quickly round up a few of the things I’ve been to see recently.

Firstly, the big Baroque exhibition at the V&A, which I went to see a few weeks ago and actually closed yesterday. This is exactly the kind of exhibition that the V&A does a superb job with, and I was glad I went, but I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for it because, well, it’s the Baroque. It’s the aesthetic of wealth and power, of an exquisitely crafted, gilded boot stamping on a human face forever. I didn’t warm to it.

There were interesting items and impressive ones, but not many were likeable; almost none triggered the acquisitive itch in me. The slight exception was actually a video reel of Baroque buildings. Craftsmen obviously struggled to capture the grandeur, ambition and megalomania of the Baroque in something like a  candlestick or a side-table — although it didn’t stop them trying — but if you’ve got a whole church to work with, or a palace or an opera house, you can produce something magnificent.

And I suppose you can argue that once you’ve got your church or your palace, you need some suitably pompous candlesticks and side-tables to match the decor. I still can’t get excited about going to look at them in a museum.

yogi

A more enjoyable exhibition was BM’s Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur. These are paintings that are in a style that I associate with Persian miniatures — and of course the Mughals were Persians, more or less — but on a much large scale.

Different Maharajas commissioned different works. The exhibition starts with paintings of court life, mainly represented here as lounging around in the palace garden surrounded by scantily clad women. Then as, we move into scenes from Hindu mythology — some of them looking remarkably like the first paintings except with Shiva sitting in a garden instead of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, but others with more dramatic subjects from the Ramayana. And then it shifts into a more esoteric, mystical tradition within Hinduism, with paintings of the creation of the universe from nothingness, spiritual maps of the universe, symbolic maps of the human body with chakras and so on.

The pictures were attractive, never a bad thing, as well as being interesting. And the attempts to represent the unrepresentable were beautiful and more successful (whatever that means) than most Western equivalents I can think of.

I also went to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (“now in its 241st year!”). It’s always slightly more enjoyable than I expect; apart from anything else, it’s always interesting to go to an art exhibition where everything has a price marked on it. Vulgar of me, I know. But there’s just so much of it that you’re suffering from fried brain by two thirds of the way through.

And on the subject of art prices, check out this link: ‘If Famous Architecture Were Priced Like Paintings, a Le Corbusier Would Cost the Same as the Entire American GDP‘.

*after a heroic win for England at Lord’s, the first time we’ve beaten the Aussies there for 75 years. I could probably find quite a lot to say about the first two matches in the series — that 75-year losing streak is a fascinating subject in itself — but let’s stay on topic.

»The picture is Chakras of the Subtle Body, 1823, © Mehrangarh Museum Trust.

Hadrian at the British Museum

Today I went to the BM’s exhibition about famous wall-builder Hadrian. Its not just the wall, though; he also built the Pantheon, as well as a staggering villa complex at Tivoli. He inherited the Roman Empire from Trajan when it was at its biggest and actually reduced its size slightly, abandoning some of the less manageable extremities and consolidating the borders. In fact, topically enough, on gaining power he quickly made the decision to withdraw the troops from Iraq.

I enjoyed the exhibition (pricey, though: £12 seems a lot to me), although the Romans make for pretty familiar subject matter: portrait busts, marble columns and memorial inscriptions. And in the specific case of Hadrian, I’ve been to the Pantheon and the villa at Tivoli, and I’ve read Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel, Memoirs of Hadrian, so this wasn’t one of those exhibitions which completely opened my eyes to a new subject. Still, the quality of objects on display was high, and I learnt a few interesting snippets along the way, like the fact that Hadrian had a distinctive crease in his earlobe, visible on the portrait busts, which is an indicator of heart disease.

I suppose the other thing that’s most famous about Hadrian is the fact that when his (male) lover Antinous drowned in the Nile, he founded a city named after him, Antinopolis, and encouraged the cult of Antinous which treated Antinous as a deity associated in some way with Osiris, the Egyptian god who was in charge of flooding the Nile. The homosexual relationship itself was apparently not unusual, but the very public grief and memorialising of it was. Because of the cult, there are many surviving statues of Antinous, and they have some fabulous examples in the exhibition.

The section about Antinous mentioned in passing that in Egypt at the time, the cult of Antinous was ‘in competition with Christianity’, which made me wonder how different the world would be if he’d been more popular than Jesus.

» The exhibition website doesn’t have much in the way of pictures (though there are some videos, which I haven’t looked at), but all these photos are part of the BM’s permanent collection, and are taken from their website. The coin showing Hadrian’s head is from Alexandria; the busts are Hadrian and Antinous.

Terracotta warriors at the BM

I went to see the terracotta warriors at the British Museum. It’s unusual for them to be on show outside China, so it’s a big event; they have about a dozen terracotta figures and lots of associated material.

It’s certainly worth going to, but the warriors themselves didn’t have the wow factor you might hope for. I may not have seen them in the flesh before, but they are so familiar that it felt like I had. I don’t know why some artworks—paintings particularly?—are so much more effective in the flesh than in photos, while others aren’t. In the particular case of the terracotta warriors, I think part of what makes them incredible is the sheer number of them: the iconic image is of them standing in massed ranks. And although the figures are beautifully made—they are modelled in great detail and famously every one is slightly individual—I don’t know that they are great works of Art. Whatever that means. They were made on a production line basis by prisoners doing forced labour; I don’t know whether that’s relevant.

banliang coin

So for me the most interesting thing was all the context: the stuff about the ‘First Emperor’, his conquest and unification of about a third of modern China and the standardisation of the coinage, weights and measures, and writing system; the architectural details of his palaces; and all the other stuff that was buried with him. It’s not just warriors; the exhibition had terracotta acrobats, civil servants and musicians. And all those things were found at sites away from the main tomb mound itself, which has never been excavated out of respect for the emperor. And there’s probably lots of good stuff in the tomb. This is Wikipedia:

According to the Grand Historian Sima Qian (145 BC-90 BC) [i.e. about 100 years after the event], the First Emperor was buried alongside great amounts of treasure and objects of craftsmanship, as well as a scale replica of the universe complete with gemmed ceilings representing the cosmos, and flowing mercury representing the great earthly bodies of water. Pearls were also placed on the ceilings in the tomb to represent the stars, planets, etc.

I particularly liked the writing, a form called Small Seal Script. It’s the ancestor of modern Chinese script, and they had a sample next to the modern equivalent that allowed you to see the similarities. But the seal script looks like petroglyphs: much more varied than modern hanzi, and sort of more organic, though I’m not sure that’s the right word. Partially the difference is between a script written with a pointed implement and one written with a brush, but it’s also presumably the effect of two thousand years of standardisation. There’s an interesting chart of various writing styles on this Wikipedia page.

One thing I find interesting is the terms which they chose to use to talk about the emperor. Qin Shihuangdi’s achievement in conquering the neighbouring kingdoms and unifying them was undoubtedly remarkable. But he was a megalomaniac despot. He declared himself divine emperor of the universe. His tomb complex—built, remember, by prisoners, and designed to be buried—is just him extending his megalomania into the afterlife. So when the BM refers to him as ‘one of the greatest rulers in history’, I find myself a bit uncomfortable. In some sense it’s clearly true, but I’m certainly glad I didn’t have to live in his empire. And I find the fact that the Chinese aren’t willing to excavate his tomb slightly creepy. It’s hardly a uniquely Chinese thing, of course: it’s easy to get caught up by the romance of someone like Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, but it’s hard to argue that they increased the sum of human happiness. I wonder, by the way, since the Chinese government is clearly currently running a campaign of cultural diplomacy, whether they exercise any editorial control over exhibitions like this. I imagine the BM would have been absolutely gagging for the opportunity to host the show, so they wouldn’t need to be heavy-handed about it: just a gentle hint here or there.

» There aren’t really any pictures of the warriors on the BM website, so I found a picture of a Qin dynasty banliang coin from their collection just to have something to illustrate the post.

‘Crafting Beauty in Modern Japan’ at the BM

I went to see Crafting Beauty in Modern Japan at the British Museum last week.

The exhibition presents works by members of the Japan Art Crafts Association (Nihon Kōgeikai), many of them designated ‘Living National Treasures’ in Japan, a title conferred by the Japanese government on exemplary individuals who carry on Japanese traditions.

In other words, it was lots of contemporary – or at least C20th – Japanese ceramics, kimonos, lacquer, metalwork and so on. There’s a wide range of techniques on display; the ceramics include stuff which is artfully rough-hewn as well as things which are finished to within an inch of their life; the kimono fabrics are a mix of tie-dyed, woodblock-printed, embroidered and woven. I didn’t find the items on display universally covetable; many were just not to my taste. Many of them wouldn’t have particularly stood out in a jumble sale, to my ignorant eye. I don’t think the lighting helped, mind you; it was perfectly competently lit, but I think most of them would have benefited from natural light. Others were absolutely gorgeous.

The things that appealed most to me were the lacquer and the woven kimonos. I find lacquer an incredibly tempting material; I can’t see it without wanting to pick it up and stroke it. Even just the plainest matte red and black lacquer rice bowl is a delight; I wish now I’d picked one or two up when I was in Japan, but the good ones seemed so expensive that I didn’t. The woven kimono fabrics were made with a technique called kasuri, which is the Japanese name for what I would usually call ikat. That is, the threads are tie-dyed in advance so that they form a design when woven together. Because the colour on the threads never quite lines up precisely, it forms soft-edged patterns which I find very attractive. They were mainly dyed with indigo for that classic blue and white Japanese look.

The BM website doesn’t offer any photographs, so I can’t easily illustrate any of my prejudices, but this website devoted to Japanese pottery and this virtual museum of traditional Japanese craft have plenty of pictures of the sort of thing in the exhibition. Those sites also demonstrate that even a passionate interest in visual arts doesn’t necessarily get carried over into web design. This tea bowl is from the second of those sites:

Tea bowl, Shino ware

Generally I’m slightly ambivalent about the Japanese attitude to art and craft. One is always told that the Japanese make no distinction between the two; and in some ways I find that a deeply admirable attitude. What’s great about it is the value placed on the making of beautiful things. Not just that there is a cultural and monetary value placed on beautiful objects, but that the job of making them is treated as a serious and important business. Curiously enough, I think the closest analogue in Western culture is the respect given, not to craftsmen, but to designers – Christian Dior, Charles Eames, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Hermann Zapf – who, if not exactly household names, are still remembered in a way no hands-on practitioner is. Not that the craftsmanship of the Japanese is at the expense of being designers; they are more like designer-craftsmen in the William Morris tradition. To some extent they are even descendants of that tradition, since Morris was surprisingly influential in Japan.

I think we should all hope to live our everyday lives surrounded by well-designed and well-made things, and one part of achieving that is giving due respect to the people who design and make them. So I think that is a Good Thing. My ambivalence about it arises from the fact that actually I do think there is an important distinction between design and art. I don’t think that an earthenware sake jug, however exquisitely glazed, has the potential to be a great artwork in the same way as a Rembrandt or an El Greco. When I was living in Japan I went to few galleries of Japanese art, and a few exhibitions of ceramics, and I saw some lovely things; but I tended to think that flip-side of granting importance to craftsmen was a tendency to reduce the likelihood of producing an El Greco. All art seemed to be pitched at the level of the decorative arts. I’m wary of expressing that sentiment, because I know I’m an outsider with an extremely superficial knowledge of Japanese culture, and I think of the beautiful work of Hokusai and Hiroshige which would seem to cast doubt on my theory, but that’s how I felt.

The other slight concern is the essential conservatism that the attitude can produce. Not that Japanese culture has any shortage of modernity; but it can seem a little schizophrenic. There’s a risk that the admiration for design and craftsmanship in something like a kimono gets put into a tidy mental compartment and held separate from the manufacture of MP3 players, kettles and apartment blocks. I guess though that that tension between tradition and innovation is a separate issue, really; the important thing is to value well-made, beautiful things and not to treat them as disposable.

Anyway, I’d recommend the exhibition. And if you’re visiting the British Museum for any reason, I’d suggest having lunch at Bi-Won, a Korean restaurant on the intersection between Coptic Street and New Oxford Street. It’s very reasonably priced, the food is tasty and it’s very close to the museum.

Michelangelo drawings at the BM

The British Museum has an exhibition of Michelangelo drawings at the moment. According to them:

Drawing on the outstanding collections of the British Museum, the Ashmolean and the Teyler Museum in Haarlem, Michelangelo Drawings is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to follow the evolution of some of the world’s most celebrated artworks

Which is probably fair. Being Michelangelo, it basically consists of lots and lots of drawings of contorted male nudes. There are occasional other things – a drapery study, a few architectural sketches, even a picture of a woman – but basically it’s figure studies. If he ever filled in a spare minute by sketching the cat, or a bunch of flowers, those pictures didn’t make it into the exhibition.

Apparently he was very reluctant to show people unfinished works and burnt most of his sketches before his death, so conceivably the ones he burnt included lots of pictures of bunnies and trees, but somehow I doubt it.

Despite being a tad repetitive (ooh look, another muscular torso), it’s an enjoyable exhibition. There’s a certain simple thrill in seeing the preliminary drawings for the Sistine Chapel ceiling or the dome of St Peters, and it’s interesting to get a sense of his working methods, but to be honest I have a limited tolerance for the really sketchy drawings. Fortunately there were enough more highly finished things to keep me engaged.

Mind you, drawings are never quite the real thing. The second-hand magic of photos of the Sistine Chapel and the Pietà was almost more powerful than having even the best drawings right in front of you.

One note: it’s very crowded. Despite having to wait nearly two hours to use my timed ticket, I still spent a lot of the time waiting to look at things to looking over people’s shoulders. But the wait did give me an opportunity to go to Bi Won, a Korean restaurant in Coptic Street that I’d recommend for lunch if you go to the BM. The lunch-time sets for about £6.50 are superb value.

MLT

I went to the British Museum with my sister because, having been on a Nile cruise recently, she’s keen on all things Egyptological. It turns out that the process of preparing a body for mummification is a lot like making dry-cured bacon.