British Museum blog

One-hit wonders: spear points from the Kimberley

Rachael Murphy, Project Curator, Oceania, British Museum

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation has been open for a few weeks, long enough, it seems, for some favourite objects to emerge. Many visitors have remarked on a 2-metre-long mask in the form of crocodile with an open mouth full of white teeth – it was made of plates of turtle shell on the island of Mabuiag in the Torres Strait, Queensland. Michael Cook’s photograph Undiscovered #4, a reimagining of early colonial encounters, is another favourite. The image positions an Aboriginal man on the shore, dressed in the red-and-white 18th-century uniform of the British military, as a tall ship sits on the horizon.

Michael Cook, Undiscovered #4, Inkjet on paper, 2010 National Museum of Australia

Michael Cook, Undiscovered #4, Inkjet on paper, 2010
National Museum of Australia

Perhaps the most talked about exhibit is a group of spear points from the Kimberley region of Western Australia. For anyone who is familiar with Kimberley points the interest is unsurprising. Tear-shaped and double-edged, their uneven, symmetrical surfaces catch and reflect the light. More often than not they are made from exceptional materials – one is of mottled grey stone intersected with quartz veins, others are shaped from translucent green bottle glass. It is difficult to deny their aesthetic appeal, especially when they are displayed as a group.

A group of spear points Kimberley region, Western Australia, c. 1885–1940 © The Trustees of the British Museum

A group of spear points
Kimberley region, Western Australia, c. 1885–1940
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The points are also great ambassadors for much of Indigenous Australian technology – they present an economy of form that is underpinned by deep knowledge and skill. At one time all spear points in the Kimberley region were made from various types of stone. Men made the points using wood and bone tools to shape and sharpen the point. Each stage of the process requires a different technique, the final stage being the precise application of pressure to sharpen the edges by flaking off small pieces of stone. The points are attached to a wooden shaft with gum and cord made out of plant fibre. It is a time-consuming process and they are something of a one-hit wonder – the brittle stone tends to break on impact.

Points made out of bottle glass and ceramic insulators (taken from telegraph poles) are innovations from the late 1800s. Ceramic is particularly good spear point material as it is less brittle than stone, meaning the points can often be reused. John Carty of the Australian National University describes the meanings, making, uses and evolving importance of spear points in the book Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, which accompanies the exhibition.

One of the joys of seeing so much interest in the points lies in the fact that stone tools are not usually regarded as show-stopping objects. Around a third of the British Museum’s 6,000 objects from Australia are stone implements, so it is great that visitors are recognising and celebrating such an important technology. It is especially so since the Kimberley points are displayed with a simple label, describing dates and materials. The points appear to be doing a good job of transmitting their value for themselves.

Some other unsung heroes of the exhibition are the people who care for the collection. In the past few years the staff of the Oceanic section have been assessing, measuring and photographing Australian stone implements and adding this information to the Museum’s database. Shooting, editing and uploading these images falls into an important, but often unnoticed, category of Museum work. By the time I took a turn, the glamorous spear points and axes had already been documented and we were working our way through several hundred tiny scrapers and flakes, often overlooked products of the skilled manufacturing process. Most of this work was done by Curator Ben Burt and Museum Assistant Jill Hassel, assisted by a number of volunteers. It is a point of pride in our department that the records for the Museum’s entire Australian collection are online and soon every object will have a photograph too. The benefits of this are enormous, as not only does it allow audiences around the world to view the collection, but it also permits us to gain from their knowledge and research and feed this back into the collection database.

One of the best examples of the value of this type of collection work is the exhibition itself. The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation was enabled and enriched by the contributions of others, in particular the Indigenous Australian individuals and groups who have been so generous with their time and knowledge.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015

Supported by BP

Organised with the National Museum of Australia

Logistics partner IAG Cargo

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , , , ,

The passion of Ajax

Ian Jenkins, Curator, ancient Greece, British Museum
I am often asked what my favourite object is in the exhibition Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art. I answer this by marching my interrogator past the great white marble sculptures glowing in the mysterious half-light of the gallery to a showcase containing a primitive and seemingly unprepossessing bronze figure, only seven centimetres high. I am usually greeted with a look of incredulity. But this is my favourite object; partly because I discovered it in 1996 in what we now call the Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory, and partly because of what it shows and how it shows it.

The object is a helmeted matchstick man, forged from solid metal tubing, drawn out to represent the subject, sitting on a low stool, with his arms extended in front of him and a dagger turned inwards. At a glance, you can see that this is, by virtue of the action, a suicide caught in the moment before the dagger is forced in.

Bronze figure of Ajax. Greek, 720–700 BC. H. 6.7 cm. British Museum 1865,1118.230

Bronze figure of Ajax. Greek, 720–700 BC. H. 6.7 cm. British Museum, London 1865,1118.230

The short version of the story of Ajax’s suicide as told in Greek myth goes something like this: Ajax was big dumb-dumb Ajax, brave and good-hearted but not a subtle thinker. It was he who carried the body of Achilles, dead from the battlefield, and it was he who should have had the armour Achilles was wearing – armour that was made by the god of smiths himself, Hephaestus. But with weasel words, wily Odysseus manages to deprive Ajax of this prize. In rage and shame a night-long fit of madness fell upon the hero, who thought he could hear an attack by the Trojans on the Greek camp and set about single-handedly defending his companions from the danger. It was not until the cold light of the morning lifted the veil of his madness that the nature of his folly was revealed. For in fact there had been no attack – only the sound of the herd of Greek cattle moving about in their pen, every member of which he had slaughtered. With nothing left by way of honour, now twice humiliated, Ajax killed himself.

The image of the death of Ajax that comes most readily to mind is that in Sophocles’ tragic dramatisation of the story, where the brooding hero prepares to fall on a sword set into the Trojan earth. This, as Ajax bitterly remarks, is a hostile soil and the sword is that of his old enemy Hector. The sad story of Ajax’s suicide is not told by Homer in the Iliad. This centres instead on a quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, and its impact on the progress of the Trojan War and the lives of those people caught up in it. In this Achilles does not yet die but his eventual end is related in a number of other contemporary epic poems, including The Aithiopis, which relates the heroic life of Memnon, king of the Ethiopians, sometimes known as ‘The Black Hector’. The little bronze has none of the literary power of either 8th-century BC epic poetry, nor of the 5th-century BC tragedy. But it has an indefinable poetry all of its own that, in spite of its great simplicity, seems to capture something of the bleak and solitary circumstances of Ajax’s death.

Like the great Greek sculptors of a later age, the smith of this bronze has chosen not to represent the act of suicide itself, but the moment just before the dagger is buried in the body of the hero. What really, though, evokes absolutely the mental agony of Ajax is his large erection. This has nothing to do with any ideas of the erotic charge of death. It is instead a metaphor used to mark Ajax as a figure undergoing extreme trauma. In the symbolic use of the phallus, the smith is straining at the very limits of his powers. He has departed from actual representation and makes a metaphysical statement instead. When we compare such art with contemporary literature, we find nothing in the former of the narrative and descriptive power of the latter. Nonetheless, our little stick-man Ajax points at the direction in which Greek artists will go in their quest to tell stories of the kind that Homer had already mastered in the medium of words.

The object dates to around 720–700 BC and as such may be among the earliest representation to survive of a named mythological character in Greek art. Because of its phallic nature, it had been previously misclassified in the Museum’s collection, now dispersed, of erotica. Its appearance in our exhibition seems unpromising on first acquaintance but, on reflection, it turns out to be an object with great poetic presence and one which anticipates the visual power of later Greek art.

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is at the British Museum
until 5 July 2015
.

Sponsored by Julius Baer
Additional support
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

Filed under: Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Exhibitions, , , , ,

Indigenous Australia: before the sheep arrived

Gaye Sculthorpe, Curator, Oceania, British Museum

As curator of the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation it is a great privilege to be presenting this major exhibition in London. Over the past two years, it has been a special and sometimes moving experience to view and discuss objects in the collection with artists and community visitors from Australia – and to see these special objects up close. It is a big responsibility to put together an exhibition that does justice to the cultural and historical complexity of the story of Indigenous Australia – a story that is still unfolding.

Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters) by Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington. Acrylic on canvas, H 1790 mm, W 2330 mm, British Museum, London 2014,2009.1 © The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project.

Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters) by Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington. Acrylic on canvas, H 1790 mm, W 2330 mm. British Museum, London 2014,2009.1 © The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project

Early British visitors to Australian shores were surprised to learn that there was more than one Indigenous language spoken across the vast continent. Even today in London, audience research makes clear that it is still a revelation to many to learn that there are hundreds of different Aboriginal language groups, each associated with a particular defined territory, and each with distinctive traditions and customs. Few here have heard of the Torres Strait islands and the distinctive culture and history of the Islanders. Familiar names and words in Australia – such as Namatjira, Mabo, ochre, dugong, sheep station and goanna – are foreign to British audiences. Questions such as ‘were there sheep in Australia before the British arrived?’ indicate that Indigenous Australia is still a subject about which international audiences know comparatively little (*see below). Some of the art styles may be recognisable, but the complex meanings and history remain little understood.

Ceremonies involving wearing masks of turtle shell were an important part of traditional life on Mer. From Mer, Torres Strait, Queensland, before 1855. British Museum, London Oc1855,1220.169

Ceremonies involving wearing masks of turtle shell were an important part of traditional life on Mer. Mask, from Mer, Torres Strait, Queensland, before 1855. Turtle shell, shell, fibre; L 400 mm. British Museum, London Oc1855,1220.169

In telling this story, with many objects collected in the late 1700s and 1800s, questions of how these pieces were brought to the British Museum and where should they be housed now are likely to arise. Some of these issues are addressed both in the exhibition itself and in the accompanying book. There are individuals who think there are objects in London that should be returned to Australia; others consider that objects exhibited here have an key role in showing the world that the history and culture of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders is as important, valuable and unique as any other civilisation in the world. These matters will no doubt be further discussed during the exhibition run in London and when many objects go on loan later this year to a related exhibition at the National Museum of Australia.

James Cook – with the Declaration by Vincent Namatjira, 2014. Acrylic on canvas, H 1010 mm, W 760 mm, British Museum, London 2014,2007.1

James Cook – with the Declaration by Vincent Namatjira, 2014. Acrylic on canvas; H 1010 mm, W 760 mm. British Museum, London 2014,2007.1 © Vincent Namatjira

For me, it is particularly significant that these objects are being exhibited first at the British Museum in London, a city that once sat at the heart of a Britain that ruled Indigenous Australians and the colonies that joined to become the nation of Australia in 1901. Indigenous Australians have been engaging with London and its museums since 1792 when Governor Phillip brought back Bennelong and Yemmerawanne, who visited the Parkinson Museum in London that housed objects from Cook’s voyages. In the mid-1800s Aborigines, such as those on Flinders Island in Tasmania and in the state of Victoria, made appeals to and sent diplomatic gifts to the Crown. At one level, the curation of this exhibition and the engagement of contemporary Indigenous artists in its creation and related events is an extension of this ongoing relationship between Indigenous Australia and the UK, but it puts Indigenous Australians in the centre rather than the periphery.

In the coming two weeks, the British Museum will be visited by a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, artists, and museum professionals who will be participating in discussions, giving lectures and seminars, and reconsidering the legacies of colonialism for contemporary museums.

This includes a special event on Friday 1 May: The art of country: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art today, and the conference: Challenging colonial legacies today: museums and communities in Australia and East Africa on Saturday 2 May.

These and other events offer British audiences the opportunity to hear more about the nuances and regional variation in this rich story. I hope visitors to the exhibition and those who attend the related events appreciate the beauty of, and knowledge embedded in, the objects presented, the diversity of Indigenous cultures across Australia, and the complexity of the engagement with outsiders since 1788. Despite being affected by direct violence and the impact of new diseases, this history demonstrates that rather than being passive victims of an aggressive British colonisation, Indigenous Australians have since 1788 engaged with outsiders in strategic and diplomatic ways that continue today.

Land rights placard from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy erected, as a site of protest, in 1972 at Old Parliament House, Canberra

Land rights placard from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy erected, as a site of protest, in 1972 at Old Parliament House, Canberra. Paint on Masonite board; H 485 cm, W 815 cm. National Museum of Australia, Canberra

I would like to acknowledge the generosity of those Indigenous communities and individuals in Australia who participated in discussions about the objects and the exhibition (not all of whom may agree with my views). I would also like to acknowledge the input of my colleagues in Australia at the National Museum of Australia and the Australian National University who, with the help of funding for research through the Australian Research Council, have contributed significantly to the exhibition and associated publication.

*Sheep came with the First Fleet of British settlers and convicts in 1788 and merino sheep, famous for fine wool, in 1796. Spot the beautiful woman’s apron made of wool in the exhibition.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015
Supported by BP
Organised with the National Museum of Australia
Logistics partner IAG Cargo

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , , ,

Designing beauty

Caroline Ingham, Senior Designer: Exhibitions, British Museum

Doryphoros

Detail of a Bronze reconstruction of around 1920 by George Römer of the Doryphoros or ‘spear-bearer’ by Polykleitos, made around 440–430 BC. H 212 cm. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is the first major temporary exhibition of sculpture at the British Museum since Hadrian: Empire & Conflict in 2008. It is also the first sculpture show in the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery (Room 30). For the Museum’s Exhibitions team this is the culmination of over a year of intensive work with the exhibition’s designers, Caruso St John architects and Matt Bigg, Surface 3 graphics.

Doryphoros, Diskobolos, Ilissos2

Sculptures on display in the exhibition, from left to right: Bronze reconstruction of around 1920 by George Römer of the Doryphoros or ‘spear-bearer’ by Polykleitos, made around 440–430 BC. H 212 cm. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich. Marble statue of the Diskobolos or ‘discus-thrower’. Roman copy from 2nd century AD of a bronze original of the 5th century BC, from Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Italy. H 169 cm, W 105 cm. British Museum, London 1805,0703.43 Ilissos, marble statue of the river god, from the west pediment of the Parthenon in Athens. Greek, about 438–432 BC. H 81.28 cm, D 56 cm. British Museum, London 1816,0610.99

The exhibition presents some of the most beautiful and best-loved classical sculpture in the Museum’s collection. It includes some key pieces that have been temporarily removed from the permanent galleries to be juxtaposed for the very first and perhaps the only time, with loans of similar international significance. The movement of such important sculptures from the permanent day-lit galleries, into the controlled lighting environment of the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery presented the Exhibitions team with a unique opportunity to experiment with their display.

Through the design brief we challenged the designers to explore how they could present the objects differently, using dramatic lighting and by experimenting with display heights. We encouraged them to exploit the scale of the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, in particular the 6-metre height and the very flexible lighting system, to encourage visitors to engage with these very familiar objects in a new way and at a deeper level.

Testing fabric colours

Testing fabric colours
Marble statue of a Nereid, from the Nereid monument, Lycian, about 390–380 BC, from Xanthos (modern Günük), south-western Turkey. H 137 cm. British Museum, London 1848,1020.81

It took many months to develop the design scheme. This included trying colours and fabrics against the objects, working up scale drawings of each object group, building a scale model and mocking up full-size elements of the design. We used our new purpose-built mock-up room, adjacent to the new gallery, which has the exact ceiling and floor specification of the gallery itself, to test the plinth heights and lighting.

The result is a scheme that transforms the way we see familiar objects in the collection. The designers have achieved this through the use of colour, lighting and displaying the sculpture at height. Many of the sculptures are lifted to 1.5 metres (approximately shoulder height) and our relationship to them is immediately transformed. The objects are lit from the ceiling track and not the space around them. This privileges them and makes them visible on key vistas – for instance, the Amazon can be seen at the west end of the gallery at a distance of 20 metres or more.

Dionysos

Sculptures on display in the exhibition Foreground: Marble statue of Dionysos from the east pediment of the Parthenon. Greek, about 438–432 BC, from the Acropolis, Athens. L 174 cm, H 127 cm. British Museum, London 1816,0610.93 Background: Belvedere Torso, 1st century BC. Marble copy after a Greek bronze, probably of the early 2nd century BC. H (including base) 156.5 cm, W 87.5 cm. Vatican Museums, Vatican City

The exhibition may not offer the definitive answer to the successful display of sculpture in all circumstances, but what it has done is given us a wonderful opportunity to display these sculptures for a short period, in a new and thought-provoking way.

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is on display from 26 March to 5 July 2015.

Sponsored by Julius Baer
Additional support
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

Filed under: Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Exhibitions, , , , , , , , ,

The shock of the nude

Ian Jenkins, Exhibition Curator, British Museum

I’m currently working on the Museum’s major exhibition Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, which opens 26 March 2015. When you see the sculptures on display, you might be forgiven for thinking that the standard dress for men, in ancient Athens especially, was a state of undress. The Greeks, if their art is anything to go by, spent a lot of time starkers.

Although we must separate art from life, nevertheless, they enjoyed many more occasions for nudity than any other European civilisation before or since. The reason why they performed athletics in the nude was said to be because, in the early Olympic Games, a runner lost his knickers and as a result also lost the race. That story may be true or not but either way, it doesn’t explain the true nature of Greek athletic nudity as an expression of social, moral and political values.

The Westmacott Athlete

The Westmacott Athlete. Roman marble copy of a Greek bronze original, 1st century AD. 1857,0807.1

The circumstances in which men and boys appeared naked were dictated by an exclusive attachment to certain values held by an elite ‘club’ of male citizens. To be naked was not the same as to be nude. The first befits manual workers or those engaged in lewd behaviour. Nudity by contrast was the uniform of the righteous. When a young man in ancient Athens exposed his athletic body to his peers, he was not asserting his sexuality, rather, he was demonstrating his qualification to compete in athletics and at the same time to be worthy of putting on a second skin of bronze and defending his city on the battlefield. Such young men were called Kaloi and Agathoi, that is to say, the beautiful and the good. Death in battle was the Kalos Thanatos or the beautiful death.

There is an interesting anecdote recorded in the life of the 5th-century BC philosopher Socrates, when he meets a fellow citizen Epigenes by chance. Socrates remarked tactlessly that his friend was looking rather chubby, which was rich coming from Socrates who, although he was a brave soldier, was notoriously pug-faced and pot-bellied. Epigenes told Socrates it wasn’t his business. He was now not in the army and, as a private citizen, he didn’t have to go to the gymn. Socrates replies that Epigenes owed it to his city and himself to be as fit and beautiful as possible. It was, said Socrates, the moral duty of every citizen to maintain himself in readiness in case called upon to defend his city. And besides, Epigenes was obliged to keep himself as pretty as he could be, while he was still young. The Greek body beautiful was a moral condition and one to which only the Greeks among the peoples of the ancient world were attached. Neither the Egyptians, nor the Assyrians, Persians or the Cypriots cultivated in art and in life ideal nudity.

Bronze statuette of a veiled and masked dancer

Bronze statuette of a veiled and masked dancer. Hellenistic, 3rd–2nd century BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 1972.118.95

The ideal Greek male body, then, is at the very heart of the Greek experience. Female nudity was much rarer than male nudity and the wives of well-to-do citizens were expected to stay indoors preserving their reputations with their pale complexions. Sculptors become increasingly skilled at showing the body beneath thin tissues of drapery and to judge from such objects as terracotta figurines and white marble sculpture, women were adept at flaunting their figures using drapery as a means of exaggerating their shape and so drawing attention to the body beneath. Aphrodite, goddess of love, is alone among the female Olympian gods in being represented naked. Hers is an ambiguous presence, however, for crouching or standing at her bath she appears to lure us in to erotic pleasure, only then to punish us for having the presumption to gaze upon her divine beauty.

Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath

Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath, also known as Lely’s Venus. Roman copy of a Greek original, 2nd century AD. Royal Collection Trust/Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015. 1963.1029.1

To conclude, the Greek body is a pictorial sign through which the Greek experience is communicated. Nudity in ancient Greece was all part of an obligation to promote moral values that were amplified and endorsed through the culture of athletics and military training.

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art opens 26 March 2015.
Sponsored by Julius Baer
Additional support
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

Filed under: Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Exhibitions, , , , , , ,

The many faces of Napoleon: ‘Little Boney’ or Napoleon le Grand?

Sheila O’Connell, Curator: British Prints, British Museum

On a Tuesday at the end of January, we unpacked the marvellous large bronze head of Napoleon Bonaparte made by Antonio Canova for Lord and Lady Holland in 1818. It currently sits in pride of place at the beginning of the exhibition Bonaparte and the British: prints and propaganda in the age of Napoleon, on display in Room 90 until 16 August 2015. The Hollands set up the Canova head in the garden of Holland House in Kensington after the former emperor had been exiled to St Helena. In so doing, they signalled they demonstrated their admiration for the man who had influenced the course of European history for 20 years.

1540195---Bronze-head

Antonio Canova (1757–1822), bust of Napoleon. Bronze, 1817–1818. Private collection.

Most of our exhibition consists of satirical caricatures showing Napoleon in a far from flattering light. These started to appear in 1797, once the young general became internationally known after his military successes in Italy. At first, when his face was still unfamiliar, he was portrayed as a wild moustachioed bandit humiliating the Pope and driving out the Austrian imperial forces. Then in Egypt in 1798, he met his first defeat at the hands of the British when Horatio Nelson destroyed most of the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile. Napoleon, an intellectual as well as a brilliant soldier, had taken more than a hundred scholars with him to study the little-known country. The ancient objects that these scholars acquired included the Rosetta Stone, which came to the British Museum along with other treasures in 1802.

In 1799, Napoleon became First Consul of France and the following year he led his army across the St Bernard Pass to drive the Austrians out of Italy again. Peace treaties were signed with the continental European powers and eventually in 1802 between Britain and France. After nearly a decade of war, Britons flocked to Paris. James Gillray’s portrayal of the meeting of a fat Britannia and a sly Frenchman reflects the lack of trust between the two countries that would lead to an outbreak of war before long.

01516410---kiss-print

James Gillray (1756–1815), The First Kiss this Ten Years! Hand-coloured etching and aquatint. Published by Hannah Humphrey, 1803. 1868,0808.7071

From 1797, Gillray had been receiving regular payments from the government to ensure that his talents were used to support official policy. His most lasting contribution to the denigration of Napoleon was his invention in 1802 of ‘Little Boney’, an aggressive bully of tiny stature. It was at that time that Britain’s fear of French invasion became focused on Napoleon who was in fact about 1.67m tall (5 foot 6 inches). It is thanks to Gillray and his caricaturist colleagues that history remembers Napoleon as a tiny man with huge ambitions.

As well as looking at Napoleon’s career through the eyes of caricaturists, the exhibition shows examples of portraits made for his admirers and expensive prints made to record the famous battles of the war. The cheaper end of the market was also targeted by the print publishers. The triumph of Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805 was followed by the publication of a huge number of prints mourning the great admiral’s death. These include mass-produced prints aimed at the sailors who hero-worshipped Nelson.

Napoleon’s great victory at Austerlitz, shortly after Trafalgar, received less attention in Britain. At this point in the exhibition we show examples of Napoleon’s own print campaign against the British. He ordered French printmakers to show John Bull, the archetypal Englishman, handing bags of gold to the Austrian emperor to fund his army. In another pair of French satirical prints, William Pitt, the British prime minister, is shown dreaming of victory and waking to defeat.

01517874---print

Anonymous, François II partant pour la guerre (Emperor Francis II leaving for war). Hand-coloured etching and aquatint. Published by Aaron Martinet, 1805. 1868,0808.6905

In 1807, as Napoleon’s army entered Spain, Britain rallied to the cause of the Spanish guerrillas as they tried to defend their country. Caricatures by Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson were copied in Spain to encourage the resistance that continued for years. The next profusion of British satirical prints came with Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1812. By then, Gillray had suffered from a mental breakdown and his place as the leading anti-Napoleon caricaturist was taken by the young George Cruikshank. News of Napoleon’s army struggling through the snow of the Russian winter inspired Cruikshank to high comedy.

In 1813, the tide began to turn. Prints satirising Napoleon had previously been harshly suppressed in the countries that he dominated, but in that year they began to appear all over Europe. A particularly popular example showed a devil rocking a baby Napoleon. There were around 20 versions of this image, one of which was made in London by Thomas Rowlandson and given the title The Devil’s Darling.

186254---devil-print

Thomas Rowlandson (1757–1827), The Devil’s Darling. Hand-coloured etching, 1814. Published by Rudolph Ackermann, 12 March 1814. 1868,0808.8116

Napoleon’s crushing defeat at Leipzig in October 1813 and the crossing of the Franco-Spanish border by the Duke of Wellington’s army, led to Napoleon’s abdication in April 1814. He was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba, but returned in less than a year. His renewed rule lasted only 100 days before the final Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815. Lifelong exile to the remote south Atlantic island of St Helena followed.

As soon as Napoleon was removed as a threat, Britain began to perceive him as something of a hero. His most prominent admirers were Lord and Lady Holland but, as the French ambassador to London later recalled, by 1822: ‘Souvenirs of Bonaparte were everywhere; his bust adorned every mantelpiece; his portraits were conspicuous in the windows of every printseller’.

Our exhibition aims to show both sides of the British response to Napoleon. On the one hand, the view of him as the devious and belligerent ‘Little Boney’; on the other, admiration for his military prowess and administrative genius by those who hoped that he might rescue Europe from the excesses of the old hereditary regimes.

The exhibition Bonaparte and the British: prints and propaganda in the age of Napoleon is on display in Room 90, the Prints and Drawings Gallery, until 16 August 2015.

The exhibition catalogue by Tim Clayton and Sheila O’Connell is available from the British Museum shop online.

Filed under: Bonaparte and the British, Exhibitions, , , , , , , , , ,

Bringing a Ming painting back to life

Jin Xian Qiu, Senior Conservator of Chinese Paintings and Carol Weiss, Conservator of Chinese Paintings, British Museum

On entering the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, one of the first objects visitors see is a large silk painting depicting an official in front of Beijing’s Forbidden City. This Ming dynasty painting by artist Zhu Bang was conserved especially for the exhibition, using traditional Chinese scroll mounting techniques that have been passed down from master to student since before this 500-year-old painting was even painted.

The British Museum is extraordinarily fortunate to have as its Senior Conservator of Chinese Paintings Mrs Jin Xian Qiu, who originally trained and worked in Shanghai Museum before coming to the British Museum 27 years ago. It is thanks to her expertise that many of the Museum’s Chinese paintings can be displayed today. For this particular project, along with the help of her assistants and colleagues in the Hirayama Studio (part of the British Museum’s Department of Conservation and Scientific Research, working on East Asian paintings) Mrs Qiu was joined by Mr Chu Hao, a Senior Paintings Conservator from Shanghai Museum, who assisted with some of the processes that make up this painstaking treatment.

Anonymous, Portrait of an offical in front of the Beijing imperial palace, hanging scroll, ink and colours on silk, c. 1480-1580 (British Museum 1881,1210,0.87.CH). Before conservation.

Anonymous, Portrait of an offical in front of the Beijing imperial palace, hanging scroll, ink and colours on silk, c. 1480-1580 (British Museum 1881,1210,0.87.CH). Before treatment.

Traditionally, East Asian scroll paintings are habitually conserved and cared for over the course of their lifetimes by a process of remounting. The paintings themselves are cleaned and repaired, whilst the surrounding silk borders and accompanying lining papers are replaced with new materials. It is because of this remounting that many silk paintings survive today as hanging scrolls. Because our painting was in poor condition, it was decided to completely remount it.

Before any work could start on the painting, its condition was documented using detailed photography and microscopy. At the same time, appropriate materials had to be prepared and sourced; from dyeing the new first lining paper to exactly the right shade and tone, to finding matching old silks to repair all the missing areas. Mrs Qiu donated a Ming dynasty silk, which matched very closely the colour and weave of the painting, from her own collection (which was passed down to her by her scroll mounting teacher in Shanghai).

Strengthening pigments with nikawa (a traditional East Asian consolidant)

Strengthening pigments with nikawa (a traditional East Asian consolidant)

After consolidating any vulnerable pigments, the treatment could begin. The old unsuitable mount was removed from the painting, and in the process of doing so, wider hidden painted edges and more of a seal were revealed. The painting was then ‘washed’ four times in a wet treatment that removes acidity and discolouration from the silk. This process involves carefully sprinkling water onto the surface of the painting before gently removing the excess.

After cleaning, in order to stabilise the silk weave during the upcoming treatments, a temporary facing was applied to the painting’s surface, now nicely flattened by the wet treatment. This facing is made of tong oil paper (a specially treated water-resistant paper) with further layers of xuan paper (a short-fibred paper used in all Chinese scroll mounting and much East Asian calligraphy and painting) applied on top for extra stability.

Mrs Qiu with her two assistants, Valentina Marabini and Carol Weiss, removing the painting’s old backing papers

Mrs Qiu with her two assistants, Valentina Marabini and Carol Weiss, removing the painting’s old backing papers

With the surface protected, the painting could be turned over and stuck to the table face-down to reveal many layers of backing papers. These were removed with tweezers, sometimes in long strips, sometimes fibre by fibre, along with old unsuitable silk repairs. Only now was the real extent of damage to the painting revealed, and while still damp, misaligned silk pieces were carefully realigned to their correct positions.

Mrs Qiu repairing the missing silk areas

Mrs Qiu repairing the missing silk areas

Once dry, the process of silk repair could begin, being careful not to waste any of the precious ancient silk resources. Shaped patches of repair silk were adhered to the back of the missing areas and once dry any overlapping edges were carefully pared away. Because the painting was in such bad condition, this process alone took three conservators working for around six weeks.

Mrs Qiu with her assistants and Mr Chu Hao from Shanghai Museum, after the painting has been lined and its facings removed.

Mrs Qiu with her assistants and Mr Chu Hao from Shanghai Museum, after the painting has been lined and its facings removed.

It was at this stage that Mr Chu Hao from Shanghai Museum joined the team to help apply the new lining papers. The first lining was dyed Chinese xuan paper, and the second, long-fibred Japanese usumino paper. Mrs Qiu developed this technique, which she thinks provides extra strength, after coming to the British Museum’s Hirayama Studio, where our Chinese and Japanese expert scroll mounters work together – a wonderfully unique situation, and one of its kind here in Europe. After this double-layer of lining was applied to the painting using wheat starch paste, it could be turned over and the temporary facings removed. Then it was applied to a drying board to allow the process of toning the repairs to begin.

Mrs Qiu and Mr Chu Hao retouching the painting on the drying board.

Mrs Qiu and Mr Chu Hao retouching the painting on the drying board.

With the conservation aspect of the treatment finished, the mounting work could begin. Mount silks were lined and dyed to best enhance the painting, before being cut into carefully proportioned rectangles that were adhered to the painting’s edges to make an aesthetic border. Slender paper reinforcement strips were applied to the back of the lined painting wherever there was previously a crack or crease, and then the whole mounted painting was given a final backing of two layers of xuan paper with cover silk at the top (to protect the scroll once rolled). This was attached to the drying board for many months, before it was removed and the back burnished, producing a smooth finish ideal for a scroll that will be rolled up. Finally, wooden fittings including the top stave, bottom roller and roller knobs were attached, and the hanging braid and tying ribbon tied on to produce a finished hanging scroll.

Anonymous, Portrait of an offical in front of the Beijing imperial palace, hanging scroll, ink and colours on silk, c. 1480-1580 (British Museum 1881,1210,0.87.CH). After conservation.

Anonymous, Portrait of an offical in front of the Beijing imperial palace, hanging scroll, ink and colours on silk, c. 1480-1580 (British Museum 1881,1210,0.87.CH). After conservation.

From undertaking the first analysis to tying the final ribbon, the entire process took over a year, with other paintings worked on during the long periods of drying. The painting is now stable and can be rolled and unrolled for display without risk of damage; the silk has been cleaned and strengthened by the washing and repair processes and the entire painting has been flattened by its new lining. Details in the painting, previously hidden by stains or creases, are visible once more. A hundred or more years should pass before this painting will need to be remounted again, its journey of conservation and potential to be preserved never-ending while there are still expert scroll mounters to care for these works in the traditional Chinese style.

The BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum until 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP

The exhibition catalogue, The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China, edited by Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall, is available in paperback and hardback from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Conservation, Ming: 50 years that changed China, , , , , , , , , , ,

East meets west in Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi

Dr Caroline Campbell, interim head of the Curatorial Department and Curator of Italian Paintings before 1500, National Gallery, London

One of the most remarkable objects in the British Museum’s extraordinary BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China isn’t Chinese at all. It’s a quiet, subdued painting, made by Andrea Mantegna in the late 1490s, probably in the north-eastern Italian city of Mantua. It is in the exhibition because of the delicate blue-and-white porcelain vessel held by the oldest of the three Magi, who kneels bareheaded before the tiny infant Christ, humbly proffering his gift of gold coins.

Andrea Mantegna (c. 1431–1506), Adoration of the Magi, c. 1495–1505, Distemper on linen. © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (85.PA.417)

Andrea Mantegna (c. 1431–1506), Adoration of the Magi, c. 1495–1505, Distemper on linen. © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (85.PA.417)

Mantegna (1430/1–1506) is one of the most extraordinary talents of the 15th century. He trained as a painter in Padua, the pulsating university town near Venice, at the time one of the most exciting places in Europe to live and to learn. Indeed, Mantegna was such a remarkable artist that Jacopo Bellini, the greatest Venetian painter of his day, arranged a marriage between his daughter Niccolosa and Mantegna so that the Bellini family workshop could benefit from his genius. The marriage endured, but the benefits to the Bellini were short-lived: Mantegna moved to Mantua, where he spent the remainder of his life as court painter to the city’s rulers, the Gonzaga family. Mantegna was one of the first artist-printmakers, and his inventions spread throughout Europe in the form of prints by him and his students.

Andrea Mantegna, Battle of the sea gods, engraving on paper, c. 1470-1500, British Museum (V,1.66)

Andrea Mantegna, Battle of the sea gods, engraving on paper, c. 1470-1500, British Museum (V,1.66)

We know that Mantegna had a life-long passion for antiquities. It’s a feature of much of his surviving work as both a painter and graphic artist, and it evidently permeated his life. One of the most famous anecdotes about the artist – which also happens to be true – concerns a boat trip he made to Lake Garda in 1464, together with the scholars Felice Feliciano and Samuele da Tradate. Not only did they search for and copy old Roman inscriptions, they dressed up as classical Romans and made ancient music as they worked – ‘Emperor Samuele constantly playing the cithara and jubilant’. We can see Mantegna’s response to Greek and Roman forms, such as survivals of antique sculpture and architecture, in an engraving such as the ‘Battle of the Sea Gods’, a vigorous, lively, and very un-classical recreation of ancient sarcophagi and friezes.

Andrea Mantegna, Samson and Delilah, c. 1500 © National Gallery London (NG1145)

Andrea Mantegna, Samson and Delilah, c. 1500 © National Gallery, London (NG1145)

Many of his works also meld classical form with 15th–century function, but perhaps none do this as beautifully as the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah of around 1500. It has been painted to look like a cameo, a miniature relief carved in the different strata of a precious stone by Roman gem-cutters. Such objects were much admired and collected in Mantegna’s circle.

But Mantegna also recreated lost forms of classical art. Although he had never seen an ancient Roman painting, his highly-coloured pictures ‘The Triumphs of Caesar’ made for Francesco Gonzaga around 1485 (probably his greatest achievement, now in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court) were inspired by written accounts of Julius Caesar’s military celebrations in Rome, as well as surviving Roman antiquities.

Andrea Mantegna, Adoration of the Magi, detail showing Ming bowl filled with gold coins. © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (85.PA.417)

Andrea Mantegna, Adoration of the Magi, detail showing Ming bowl filled with gold coins. © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (85.PA.417)

It is in the context of Mantegna’s interests in antiquity that we should view the blue-and-white porcelain cup in the ‘Adoration of the Magi’. Chinese ‘export ware’ wasn’t directly traded with Europe until the 16th century, but the potteries of Jingdezhen were producing Ming porcelain that made it to Europe in the previous century. The bowl in Mantegna’s painting is decorated with a delicate floral motif which is typical of some bowls and cups produced in the Imperial factory in Jingdezhen, still the symbolic centre of China’s porcelain industry, during the Yongle reign (1403–24). Interestingly, Mantegna’s bowl was not a new object by the time he painted it in the late 15th century.

How had it come to Mantua? Chinese ceramics, highly valued for its rarity and beauty, are recorded in European collections as early as the 14th century. During Mantegna’s lifetime, only a few major gifts of Chinese porcelain were made to European rulers, such as the twenty objects sent by the Sultan of Egypt to Lorenzo de’ Medici, de facto ruler of Florence, in 1487. Several examples are recorded in Mantua – there are four mentioned in the 16th-century inventory of Isabella d’Este’s possessions – but none are for certain the bowl depicted in the ‘Adoration of the Magi’.

What we can be sure of is that these were highly valued objects, often embellished with European metal mounts, and found either in princely collections or ecclesiastical treasuries. These collections were also often home to other luxury objects from outside Europe, from the far closer Eastern Mediterranean, including carpets, fabrics, metalwork and glass. These could also be set into mounts or ‘Europeanised’ in some other way, and many were also celebrated for their connection with the Holy Land. As objects made in the geographical regions where Christ and his disciples had lived, they could have a sacral value. But as some scholars, particularly Alexander Nagel, have argued persuasively, they could also, legitimately, be considered ‘antiquities’, even if they were made in more recent centuries. Their foreignness could make Europeans think of them as objects made in a distant time, which was far removed historically as well as geographically.

Could the same be true of the Ming bowl in Mantegna’s picture? Its very rarity and value manifestly adds dignity and prestige to Mantegna’s elderly Magus, but it also serves to situate the sacred story of the Magi’s discovery of Christ as taking place outside of historical time, as well as to accentuate how exotic he and his companions were. Mantegna’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’ may seem a simple retelling of a familiar story, and a straightforward depiction of a Ming bowl, but, in fact, nothing is quite as it seems.

The BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum until 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP

The exhibition catalogue The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China is available in paperback and hardback from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Ming: 50 years that changed China, , , , , , , , , , , ,

The unregarded woman: another look at a Ming painting

Craig Clunas, Professor of the History of Art, University of Oxford and co-curator of the BP Exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China

Of the many paintings included in the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, one of the most famous is the ‘Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden’, showing a swanky party held in 1437 in the garden of Yang Rong (1371–1440), Grand Secretary and all-round important person of early fifteenth-century China. It’s in all the books on Ming painting, appears on loads of websites, and is generally one of the most reproduced images dating from the period covered by the exhibition. This is partly because of where the painted silk handscroll now is, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and so it has been relatively easy to view and study, as well as to publish in books about Chinese art. I’ve used it myself in the classroom and lectures in all sorts of ways, as it’s a very rich image for talking about patronage of the arts, the relationship between politics and art in the Ming, the role of the artist and lots of other topics. I find it is one of those images that you can always learn more about, and indeed there remain a number of mysteries.

Who is it by? It bears the signature of an artist called Xie Huan; his dates used to be a bit vague, but recent research by Yin Ji’nan, Professor of Art History at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, has established definitively that he was born in 1377 and died in 1452. He was an important person in the early Ming art world, apparently working as an advisor and painter to the Yongle and Xuande emperors, as well as maintaining a presumably lucrative private practice, producing images like this for important people like Yang Rong and his friends.

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377-1452), 'Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden' (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377–1452), ‘Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden’ (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

The nature of the event – senior officials of the empire demonstrating the calm and peaceful state of affairs by gathering for a day of relaxed gentlemanly pastimes – means that more than one person present might have wanted to have an image of the party. Indeed another version of the same subject exists, in the Zhenjiang Museum in China. Are both paintings by Xie Huan? Did he, like Italian artists at the time, run a workshop where multiple versions of the same subject were turned out with the help of assistants? Is one painting the original, and the other just a copy?

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377-1452), 'Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden' (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377–1452), ‘Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden’ (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

All of these views have been put forward by art historians at some point, and indeed I’ve contributed in my time to the scholarship on this painting; I’m particularly intrigued by the painting within the painting (of which we can only see a tiny corner). So it’s a bit humbling to confess that there is a detail of this painting that I’ve never really noticed before, though I’ve looked at it many times, both in reproductions and at the Met in New York. The figures depicted as attending the party are all men, since mixed-sex gatherings would have been vaguely indecent affairs in the Ming, where men and women were strictly segregated in most aspects of elite life. The servants who attend them are all male too, young boys who hold up the painting for viewing, or roll up scrolls no longer wanted, or attend to incense or bringing in the drinks.

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377-1452), 'Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden' (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377–1452), ‘Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden’ (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

Except (and this is what never registered properly with me until I had the chance for extended viewing of the picture in the exhibition), that there is one woman visible. She is right at the very left edge of the scroll, the last section to be unrolled when the painting was viewed in sections. She is peeping out from behind a tree, coming out from (presumably) the kitchens carrying a large handled basin. We can’t see the contents, perhaps it is hot water to warm the wine, or maybe it is meant to represent a serving of snacks to go with the drinks. She is doing something important, but unregarded. As it happens, historical Ming gossip tells us that Yang Rong had a famously dowdy wife, a woman from his home province of Jiangxi in the south; she was once given a makeover by the empress, to the extent that she was unrecognisable beneath the added palace glamour. I don’t think the woman in the painting is meant to be her. Yang Rong’s wife was after all a lady, she did not serve the drinks at parties. But I’ve become aware that my own failure to notice her until recently has compounded the invisibility of women, which skews our understanding of Ming art and Ming culture more generally.

In 1437 the emperor was a young boy, and the gentlemen we see here were in fact governing the empire in coalition with the powerful women of the imperial family, the child ruler’s mother and grandmother. I like to think – in fact it’s entirely reasonable to think – that in the depths of the palace they and their ladies-in-waiting were partying in their own way. But they’re not in the picture.

The BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum from 18 September 2014 to 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP

Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall are editors of the exhibition catalogue, The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China, which is available in paperback and hardback from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Ming: 50 years that changed China, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Poetry and exile: contemporary art from the Middle East

Holly Wright, administrator, British Museum

The current temporary display in the John Addis Gallery: Islamic World, Poetry and exile: works by Abdallah Benanteur, Ipek Duben, Mireille Kassar, Mona Saudi and Canan Tolon, curated by Venetia Porter, brings together the recently acquired work of six artists all exploring the phenomenon of exile. In a gallery predominantly populated with Islamic art and objects dating as early as the 7th century, it could be said that this display of contemporary art is incongruous. So why is it here?

Ahmed Mater, Magnetism,2012 One of four photogravures showing different stages of the installation of the magnet and iron filing (2012,6018.3, Funded by Abulaziz Turki). © Ahmed Mater

Ahmed Mater, Magnetism, 2012. One of four photogravures showing different stages of the installation of the magnet and iron filing (2012,6018.3, Funded by Abulaziz Turki). © Ahmed Mater

I first became interested in the modern and contemporary collections of the Middle East department in 2012, while visiting Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam. The work of Ahmed Mater immediately stood out to me, as it added an unexpected emotional interpretation of the pilgrimage to Mecca which was unique and surprising to me as a visitor. I would later go on to study the collection of modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art in greater detail for my MA, still barely scraping the surface; as it continues to grow and to be used in increasingly imaginative and diverse ways.

In this display the concept of exile is approached through the personal experiences of each artist and their political and humanitarian views. Each work directs the viewer to the incidents that have inspired them and it is these references which place the art within a broader context. Not only do the works inspire an emotional response but they also ignite curiosity as to what inspired those artists. It is this emotional engagement and varied approach which makes the pieces so important and interesting to me, and hopefully to the visitors who will see the display.

Ipek Duben, Refugee, 2010, photoprint and hand-stitching on synthetic silk on Canson paper, (2011,6029.1, funded by CaMMEA, the Contemporary and Modern Middle Eastern Art Acquisitions group). &copy Ipek Duben

Ipek Duben, Refugee, 2010, photoprint and hand-stitching on synthetic silk on Canson paper, (2011,6029.1, funded by CaMMEA, the Contemporary and Modern Middle Eastern Art Acquisitions group). © Ipek Duben

The works in the display were not created in isolation; their influences overlap whether it be on specific political or personal events or the work of poets such as Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) and Farid al-Din Attar (c. 1145–c.1221). The works are all united by difficulty, whether that of the artist or the experiences of others. Ipek Duben formulates this difficulty in her book Refugee by overlaying images of suffering with delicate gauze and simple embroidered text and in doing so she starkly contrasts the hardship shown in the images. The simplicity of the technique employed gives the work a scrapbook feel, rendered incredibly moving as it highlights the experiences of refugees from Kosovo, Pakistan, Liberia and elsewhere.

Mona Saudi, Homage to Mahmoud Darwish, The Poem of the Land, 1979, silkscreen on watercolour. (2014,6026.2, funded by CaMMEA). © Mona Saudi

Mona Saudi, Homage to Mahmoud Darwish, The Poem of the Land, 1979, silkscreen on watercolour. (2014,6026.2, funded by CaMMEA). © Mona Saudi

Mona Saudi’s work Homage to Mahmoud Darwish, one of three displayed on the opposite wall, is inscribed with the poetry of the renowned and revered Palestinian poet (1941–2008). The one illustrated here is The Poem of the Land. For me, an interesting element of this work is that the style of Saudi’s drawings echo posters which she created for the Plastic Arts Section of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, some of which are displayed alongside Homage and are part of a group that have been donated by the Palestinian Poster archive. This is a unique quality of the British Museum’s collection of Middle Eastern art, in that the works often contain references that extend beyond the collection itself and in doing so give even small displays the ability to explore more widespread elements of history and human experience.

Canan Tolon, Futur Imparfait, 1986-9. Ink and graphite on Mylar (2013,6039.1.1-33 funded by CaMMEA and SAHA, an association which supports artistic projects connected to contemporary Turkish art). © Canan Tolon

Canan Tolon, Futur Imparfait, 1986-9. Ink and graphite on Mylar (2013,6039.1.1-33 funded by CaMMEA and SAHA, an association which supports artistic projects connected to contemporary Turkish art). © Canan Tolon

In Canan Tolon’s series, Futur Imparfait, her exile is more singular and personal. Inspired by her experience of illness as a child, the series acts as a memory of her protracted stay in a French hospital when she was separated from her home. The thirty delicate drawings on Mylar add a voice from another perspective. It is a series executed in ethereally light washes of ink and graphite, reflecting the removed reality she experienced while in a strange country and environment. Tolon’s own words are relevant regarding not only her own work but of the artists in the exhibition as a whole:

… it is not the misfortune of others which fascinates and astonishes but the extraordinary will of a child to live…

This sentiment is characteristic of the message and draw of the works in this display; there are painful and violent stories here, but predominantly it is the human reaction to these events and not the suffering in itself which is explored. The aftermath of war, illness and displacement is discussed through delicate drawings and through poetry. This alone is reason enough for these pieces to be here.

This space within the gallery of Islamic art is used for rotations of works on paper from across the collection that we are not able to put on permanent display. These include Persian or Mughal paintings, even shadow puppets as were featured in a previous display. With the ever-expanding collection of Middle Eastern art, this small area will continue to host increasingly diverse and exciting exhibitions, so watch this space! Further information on this collection and the Middle East department as a whole can also be found on the Museum’s collection online.

Before joining the Museum as an administrator in the Middle East Department in 2013, Holly Wright studied for the MA in Museum and Artefact Studies at Durham University. Her dissertation was ‘Collecting the contemporary: modern and contemporary art in the Middle East Department of the British Museum’.

Poetry and exile: works by Abdallah Benanteur, Ipek Duben, Mireille Kassar, Mona Saudi and Canan Tolon is on display in Room 34 until 1 March 2015, admission free.

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