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.

Culture Nature

What a Walrus

Found while browsing the British Museum archive of 2D art, a walrus head drawn by Albrecht Dürer:


It looks even better viewed large. I think that deserves to be as famous as his equally marvellous rhinoceros.


‘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.

Culture Other

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.



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.