British Museum blog

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, , , , , , , , ,

Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: a moving experience

Joanna Kosek, conservator, British Museum

Dürer's paper triumph: the arch of the Emperor Maximillian

The display of Albrecht Dürer’s (1471–1528) monumental Triumphal Arch in the Asahi Shimbun Display in Room 3 in autumn 2014 was a great success. The enormous print, produced at the height of Dürer’s career to glorify the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (r. 1486–1519), appeared appropriately majestic in the softly lit room and attracted over 70,000 visitors in three months. Originally designed to be pasted on the walls of princely castles, the impression at the British Museum was never used as originally intended, and is one of only a handful to have survived. In the Museum the print, which measures four metres by three metres, had been lined onto a textile backing and had long been displayed in a massive frame by the Gallery Café. After the Room 3 show it was time to take the print down to inspect, conserve and store it in darkness to help preserve it.

Dismantling the exhibition started with detaching the glazing which consisted of three four-metre-high pieces of laminated glass that had been painstakingly installed back in September by expert glass handlers.

Now we watched the delicate operation of lifting the heavy glass in the reverse order of installation and, yet again, held our breath when giant suckers manoeuvred the heavy green-tinted glass panes, one by one, to expose the beautiful cream-coloured early 16th-century paper.

Detaching the glazing from the print.

Detaching the glazing from the print.

In the meantime, in preparation for taking the print down, we had constructed a huge half-metre-diameter tube in the Museum’s state-of-the-art Paper Conservation Studio. This ‘quicker-by-tube’ production needed to be sturdy but light. As nothing like this was commercially available, the team of conservation mounters made their own using transparent plastic sheeting filled in with foam padding and cardboard rings to prevent collapse, which could damage the print. There was a lot of laughter as two of the team plunged inside the roll to fix the padding! No effort was spared to make the roll perfect for the job.

The specially made tube being carried to Room 3 via the Great Court.

The specially made tube being carried to Room 3 via the Great Court.

The day of the great descent arrived on 17 November. Equipped with two scaffolding towers and supported by heavy object handlers and curators, and filmed by the Museum’s Broadcast team, we first attached the top edge of the vast print to a four-metre-long rod using heavy linen tape.

Attaching top edge of the print to a rod and taking the print down.

Attaching top edge of the print to a rod and taking the print down.

We could then slowly lower the rod plus print down through three successive platforms from person to person and from hand to hand. The print itself was also supported on a huge sheet of plastic with its sides and bottom held taught. Soon Dürer’s masterpiece was safely supported on the floor, and the moving of this flat paper giant did not seem such a difficult challenge now…

Inspecting and rolling the print up for transport.

Inspecting and rolling the print up for transport.

With so many helpful hands to roll it safely, in no time the print was taken onto its grand ascent to our Paper Conservation Studio in the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre. As we had already rehearsed the route carrying the empty roll, we had no surprises, although that did not apply to crowds of bewildered visitors.

The print being taken through the Great Court to the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre.

The print being taken through the Great Court to the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre.

At last the arch was unrolled on the large tables in the Studio and while admiring it and planning what should come next we posed for picture as a memento.

The print laid out in the WCEC Paper Conservation Studio.

The print laid out in the WCEC Paper Conservation Studio.

The conservation of Dürer’s Triumphal Arch has been made possible by the generous support of Howard and Roberta Ahmanson.

You can see an interactive zoomable image of the print here.

Filed under: Conservation, Dürer’s Triumphal Arch, , , , , , , ,

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, , , , , , , , , ,

Beyond propaganda? North Korea in the British Museum

Sascha Priewe, curator, The British Museum

When the embassy of the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) opened its doors for an art exhibition in November, here at the British Museum we were busy preparing the Korea Foundation Gallery for its re-display, which opens today. Given the curiosity about the mysterious state and the artists working there, it seemed timely to write about the British Museum’s collection of art from North Korea.

Silver coin commemorating the meeting of the leaders of South and North Korea in 2000, Pyongyang, DPRK, 2000. In June 2000 South Korean president Kim Dae-jung (1924-2009) met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (1941-2011) in the first Inter-Korean Summit in Pyongyang. As one result, working level talks continued between the governments and tourist visits to the Diamond Mountains for South Koreans became possible. (British Museum OR.9666)

Silver coin commemorating the meeting of the leaders of South and North Korea in 2000, Pyongyang, DPRK, 2000 (British Museum OR.9666)

In June 2000 South Korean president Kim Dae-jung (1924-2009) met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (1941-2011) in the first Inter-Korean Summit in Pyongyang, the DPRK capital. It was the time of ‘sunshine’ relations between the north and the south. Although north-south relations have iced over in recent years, this brief period allowed the world a glimpse into one of the planet’s most inaccessible societies.

In 2001 and 2002 colleagues from the British Museum and the British Library visited the DPRK. Jane Portal, then the curator of the Korean collections (and now the BM’s Keeper of Asia) built of one of the largest collections of DPRK works of art in a Western museum. On her first trip Portal collected woodblock prints, ink paintings, oil paintings, posters, calligraphy, ceramics, lacquer and commemorative coins. On her second visit she collected mostly prints and posters. Thanks to this initiative the British Museum now has about 80 objects from the DPRK.

The Steelworker, Song Chan-yong (b. 1930), Oil on canvas. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, about 1990-99 (British Museum 2001,0607,0.6)

The Steelworker, Song Chan-yong (b. 1930), Oil on canvas. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, about 1990-99 (British Museum 2001,0607,0.6)

The DPRK’s regime leaves artists few of the freedoms that artists in other parts of the world take for granted. Art from the DPRK is usually seen as a state-controlled propaganda tool. Often there has been little room to appreciate the works as works of art. But once we understand the context and constraints in which art is produced, we have the opportunity to think about their qualities as works of art. One example is The Steelworker, an oil painting by Song Chan-yong (b. 1930). The portrayal of a worker is naturally in tune with the tenets of a socialist country, however, with Song’s own words we can add a layer of appreciation to the work:

I have dedicated all my artistic life to drawing the subject of the working classes. The base of our society is the working class so I should draw them. I always like to place my easel in a glaring blast furnace not in a splendid studio. Then it seems to be more realistic. I intended to be an artist of the workers in the world of workers.

This and other works in the collection permit glimpses into an isolated world, which for most of us seems like a different universe.

Celadon-glazed porcelain with inlaid decoration. From Pyongyang, DPRK, c. 2002. (British Museum 2002,0930.1)

Celadon-glazed porcelain with inlaid decoration. From Pyongyang, DPRK, c. 2002. (British Museum 2002,0930.1)

When I visited the Pyongyang and other parts of the DPRK as a tourist in 2005, I felt as if I was stepping into the photographs, footage and stories of 1970s China. The place felt otherworldly, but realising that this physical manifestation is a reality for millions of people held me firmly on the ground. But it is within this context that great works of art are being created. There is politics behind some art, but there is also art behind some politics.

Filed under: Korea Foundation Gallery, , , , , , , , , ,

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

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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.

Filed under: Exhibitions, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Understanding art in religion

Robert Bracey, curator, British Museum

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The term ‘religion’ covers a diverse range of thoughts and beliefs. Some people understand their religion to prohibit all acts of violence, even to the smallest animal, while others believe their religion compels them to go to war. For some people religion is central to their identity and infuses every aspect of their life while for others it is something that relates to a particular place on a certain day. Religion’s diversity makes it hard to define though we all feel we recognise religiosity when we see it.

Over two days in June this year, a group of staff from the British Museum and guests took on the problem of trying to define religion and think about how religion affects, or is affected, by the sort of objects that make up the British Museum’s collection. This seminar took place as part of the Empires of Faith research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The project is about comparing religious objects from different cultures in the first millennium AD. This is a hugely important period for the religions we know today. Christianity and Islam both began in the first millennium, and the beliefs and rituals of many other religions (Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism and Buddhism) took the form we recognise today at this time.

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It is very easy to let preconceptions get in the way of thinking about big ideas like religion. To help the members of the research team break out of their comfort zone we invited five guests with very different expertise to speak about the topics. Averil Cameron (University of Oxford) is well-known for her work on Byzantine history. Matthew Canepa (University of Minnesota) is an art historian and expert on the Sasanian world (ancient Iran). Simon Coleman (University of Toronto) is an anthropologist and an expert on pilgrimage. Bruce Lincoln (University of Chicago) works on the history of religions. Joan Pau Rubies (Universitat Pompeu Fabra) studies the history of European missionaries. Such a diverse range of expertise helped push everybody to think in new ways.

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This wasn’t a conventional seminar with formal lectures. Instead, it was a discussion, sometimes a debate, about ideas that could shape the project. So, although the project team will write lots of research over its course, there will be no book of the seminar. The participants agreed instead to let their ideas and discussion be ‘sketched'; a new concept for most of us. The artist Clarice Holt sat quietly in the corner while we talked at, argued and harangued each other. Clarice prepared eighteen sketches of the meeting, encapsulating different points that were raised during the discussion. You can see the full sketches in the slideshow at the end of this post.

Not often is one’s mind stretched so far and in so many captivating directions. I hope very much that the images I created for the Empires of Faith Project will allow a wider range of people access to what is a vibrant and relevant area of historical research, and to gain insights into this weird and wonderful area.

Clarice’s reflections on the seminar.

The first day of the seminar was spent trying to find a way of defining religion. One of the disagreements was about whether a single definition of religion was useful or if what was, or was not, religious had to be defined for each historical period. The single definition makes sense to us because we live in a world where there are sharp divides between the religious and non-religious (or secular). Some people, and some places, and often certain days are ‘for’ religion but in the past religion was part of everyday life. People saw the world as constantly shaped by magical or divine forces beyond their control. Thinking ourselves back into that perspective is very hard and that made these days very useful for the project as a whole.

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The second day was about objects and what they tell us about religion. One topic that was discussed was the ambiguity of images. The Empires of Faith team is very interested in how the same image can represent different gods in different places. So, for example, an image of the Greek god Hercules found in modern Pakistan would probably represent Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha, or in Iran it could be the divine being Verethragna. What did the people who made the images, or used them, think about the relationships between these different gods?

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The two days were tiring but enlightening. Everyone came away with plenty to think about and some more questions that the project will try to answer in the future. Can objects shape what you believe? Can they be more important than doctrines and scripture? Does a sacred object possess some intrinsic quality that sets it apart, or does sacredness only exist in our perceptions?
Traditionally the study of religion in the ancient world has focused on what people wrote about regarding their beliefs or practices. The Empires of Faith project is seeking to balance that by looking at how visual culture and religious artefacts relate to religion. It feels appropriate that the thinking from our first seminar was recorded not as a series of written articles but as a set of images.

Click on one of the images below to view as a slideshow

More about the Empires of Faith project on the British Museum website.

Filed under: Empires of Faith, , , , , , , , , , ,

The divided self: Germany, art and poetry

Edward Doegar, General Manager, The Poetry Society

When the British Museum contacted the Poetry Society about commissioning an event responding to their exhibition Germany divided: Baselitz and his generation, we were thrilled. It seemed particularly fitting as the fate of the artists represented was shared by so many of the poets of the period. The exhibition traces the work of a generation who were all, at some point, forced into exile moving from East to West Germany. This unwelcome journey was also familiar to many of East Germany’s dissenting poets, most famously in the case of Wolf Biermann who found himself stripped of his citizenship in 1976 while on an officially organised tour in the West. Sarah Kirsch, Reiner Kunze and Kurt Bartsch all followed soon after.

If the challenges of artistic life in the GDR were shared by many, this certainly didn’t reduce the vitality and range of the art (and poetry) that it produced. Indeed, the author of the exhibition catalogue, John-Paul Stonard, has explained (in a post on this blog) how the sense of division that exile created was often intensely personal and psychological in its effect, so the highly individual artwork that resulted seems inevitable. With this in mind, we decided to broaden the commission to an evening of poetry exploring the theme of the ‘divided self’ and asked three remarkable poets to write a new poem responding to this. The poems were then premiered during an evening of readings in the Museum’s Clore Education Centre as part of the British Museum’s BM / PM series. The event was held on 11 April and was tremendously successful; below you can listen to each of the commissioned poems.

Sam Riviere is a formally inventive poet whose work often engages with new media. His first collection 81 Austerities was published by Faber in 2012 and won Forward Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection. His recent work ‘Kim Kardashian’s Marriage‘ was published as a blog series which was available online for only 72 days, mirroring the length of Kardashian’s marriage.

Ohne Titel (Selbstportrat), ('Untitled (Self-portrait)'), 1975, A R Penck (b.1939), grey and black ink wash on paper. Presented to the British Museum by Count Christian Duerckheim © A.R. Penck / DACS 2013

Ohne Titel (Selbstportrat), (‘Untitled (Self-portrait)’), 1975, A R Penck (b.1939), grey and black ink wash on paper. Presented to the British Museum by Count Christian Duerckheim © A.R. Penck / DACS 2013

His commissioned poem, ‘Preferences’, seems to recall A R Penck’s Ohne Titel (Selbstporträt). In Penck’s ink drawing the self-portrait emerges from an almost-uniform blanket of spaced dots, recalling a dot matrix printer. Likewise, Riviere’s poem is designed to completely fill a piece of A5 paper with a one inch margin, yet out of this seemingly arbitrary setting he makes the language flex with meaning and wit.

Kathryn Maris’ many awards include Academy of American Poets University & College Prize and a Pushcart Prize. She has published two highly-acclaimed collections, the second of which, God Loves You, was published by Seren in 2013. Maris’ work couples a fierce intellect with an emotionally resonant lyric fluency. Her commissioned poem, ‘The House with Only an Attic and a Basement’, seems to originate principally from the idea of the theme itself, taking an epigraph from R D Laing’s book The Divided Self.

Georg Baselitz, Zwei Streifen ('Two Stripes'), charcoal, watercolour and graphite on thin laid paper, 1966

Georg Baselitz, Zwei Streifen (‘Two Stripes’), charcoal, watercolour and graphite on thin laid paper, 1966

The wonderful symmetry and asymmetry of the poem keeps us oscillating between laughter and a shocked silence. In its polarising verticality the poem seems a match for Baselitz’s Zwei Streifen (Two Stripes).

Finally, Michael Hofmann is an award-winning poet whose Selected Poems appeared from Faber in 2008. In addition to his own work he is also one of the world’s leading translators from the German and has introduced Anglophone audiences to the work of Dürs Grunbein, Gunter Eich and Gottfried Benn. We were very lucky to be able to persuade Hofmann to come over from Florida in order to deliver his commissioned piece in person. His poem, ‘Baselitz and his generation’, offers a sort of multiple choice version of the lives of the artists in the exhibition. The language of biography is wittily turned on its head, so that the phrases with which we usually distinguish individual lives become a means to amalgamate them.

All three of the commissioned poems are available on the Poetry Society website and were printed in The Poetry Review 104:2. The exhibition is now in its final weeks and is not to be missed.

Germany divided: Baselitz and his generation is on show at the British Museum until 31 August 2014.

Read more about this period of art and history in the beautifully illustrated catalogue which accompanies the exhibition, written by John-Paul Stonard.

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Writer and women's rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft was born #onthisday in 1759.
#history #art #portrait The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was born #onthisday in AD 121.

Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-80), who appears on the coin set in this ring, is best known for his philosophical work, The Meditations. Although he was the most powerful man in the Roman Empire, he dwelt on the emptiness of glory: 'Shall mere fame distract you? Look at the speed of total oblivion of all and the void of endless time on either side of us and the hollowness of applause... For the whole earth is but a point, and of this what a tiny corner is our dwelling-place, and how few and paltry are those who will praise you.' It is ironic that such sentiments as these have preserved his fame to this day.
#ancientRome #emperor #history #museum #BritishMuseum Good luck to all in the #LondonMarathon today! Be inspired by this Spartan running girl from 520-500 BC, which features in our exhibition #DefiningBeauty It’s World #PenguinDay! This handsome King Penguin on display in the Enlightenment Gallery is on loan from the @natural_history_museum
#penguin #museum #BritishMuseum Born #onthisday in 1599: Oliver Cromwell. Here’s a terracotta portrait bust from around 1759
#history #Cromwell #art #bust Greece lightning: this exquisite bronze depicts Zeus, chief of the Greek gods #FridayFigure

In ancient Greece, powerful, shape-shifting gods provided compelling subjects for artists. The famous sculptor Phidias created a gold and ivory statue of Zeus, ruler of the gods, that was over 13 metres high for his temple at Olympia. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it symbolised the awesome presence of the god at his sanctuary site. There was also drama to be found in the gods’ ability to change their form as a means of disguise. Zeus, ruler of the Olympian gods, could take animal form – he seduced Leda as a swan, carried away Europa as a bull and Ganymede as an eagle.

This bronze statuette splendidly represents the majesty of Zeus, ruler of the gods on Mount Olympus and lord of the sky. Zeus holds a sceptre and a thunderbolt, showing his control over gods and mortals, and his destructive power. Although just over 20cm high, this exquisite work appears to be a copy of a much grander statue that does not survive.

You can see this figure in our exhibition #DefiningBeauty, until 5 July 2015.
Bronze statuette of Zeus. Roman period, 1st–2nd century AD, said to be from Hungary.
#art #museum #exhibition #ancientGreece #Zeus #gods
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