Sometimes when you are surrounded by, thinking about, and constantly in contact with “contemporary” art you just need a mental and visual break from it and have to recalibrate. I like to recalibrate by looking at old things. Old things make forms and purpose feel simpler, mysterious, it creates a distance yet affirms a closeness. For this recuperation I went to Westminster Abby for a choral mass and then to the British Museum to see the Rosetta Stone but also to see what other gems, literally and mentally, that it held within its vast collection.
For those of you who have not been to this museum, it is massive. I would equate it most closely to New York’s Metropolitan Museum as a reference point. It has over eight million items in the collection and it’s old, like all things in London, and opened in 1759. What is inside is millenniums older though and this is where I ventured to.
Below I will show some photos (I apologize for the awful quality of them, I had no prior intention of making them public in any way) as well as some notes, thoughts, poppings to mind that came to me when I saw them.
This is the magic of looking at things and especially very old things, it reveals the basic humanness that threads along time and cultures but also is devastatingly normalizing as well as inconceivably awe inducing. If you are in London or will soon to be, go to this museum. There will be many times to see the contemporary masters of our times in cities and museums in many instances and iterations. There is very rare opportunity to see what is inside this place and as we know, museums of this sort are bad at sharing once they have staked claim.
The royal lion hunt, Assyrian, about 645-635 BC, From Ninevah, North Palace.
This is an incredible piece of plucked artifact. There are rooms of multiple panels that depict the hunt of lions by the king and his aids. The king pictured in the canonical hat is Ashurbanipal. These scenes are full of energy, movement and violence. There are many panels and they are masterfully relief carved. The anatomy of the lions and the warrior king is incredibly detailed and muscular, conveying tension and fibrous strength. In other scenes there are aids that are entourage and handlers and their bodies are less intense and their features less pronounced.
There is an arena and staged like quality to the hunt. There are scenes that reveal the opening of the cage as well as the backdrop of the hunt is a blank space, lacking in any reference to foliage or other natural features. The killing, stabbing of the lions is quite gruesome and the depictions show the lion’s agony, which is transferred by the intensity of the animal’s facial features, contortion of its body and also depiction of the animal vomiting blood. There is brutality that is cringe inducing but there is also this feeling of a long echo of this sort of past time, that of dominating animals and beasts through theatrical hunting and killing. It made me think very much of The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries from 1495 – 1505 that are on permanent view at the Cloisters in New York. The beauty of detail, the haunted agony of the animals and the glorified distant gaze of the humans in the scenes seems so continuously apart of human beings behavior but also so totally tragic as well.
Hand made terracottas, Corinth, about 450 BC
These fit in the palm sculptures were found in various locations in Corinth and they may depict characters in a 5th century BC drama as the information plaque suggests. Or they just might be wonderfully, quickly sculpted figures of the imagination. I love seeing things like this because they reflect an everyday and peek into the lives of the people of that time in a more personal way. Large, commissioned sculptures and temples are incredible yes, but seeing this sort of inventive play makes the time in which the person who made them seem so relatable. These are also lovely in that they have such character, animation and form/function equalization. You can just imagine someone enacting out a story aloud with these figurines.
Women and baby, Boeotia, about 450-440 BC / Bust of a women, Athens, about 450 BC / Women’s work, Athens, about 460-450 BC
Above depicts women of ancient Greece and seeing these brought some interesting questions to mind. When seeing the women holding the baby, I obviously couldn’t help but think about the Virgin and child/ piety that abounds in art inspired by Christianity. It is always wonderful to see origins of archetypes because it dismantles the more popular claims of it. The bust of the women and the box that depicts women at work making wool makes one think not only of the role of women and but the everyday of women in this time and how art and representation of them was not only relegated to the very rich or to the gods.
Two outsiders, Athens, about 470-450 BC / African boy, Camrius Rhodes, about 460-450 BC
The museum’s label entitles the jug headed women as ‘two outsiders’ as they explain that in Athens during the 5th century BC it was mostly male Athenians so being a foreigner and a women made this figure doubly outside. It was surprising and fascinating to see this jug and also this small sculpture of the boy as race and the relations in contexts of history is deep and long and we shouldn’t forget that there are pasts that have created our present that we may not even know the import of.
(Jar far left) Pottery jar with splash and trickle decoration, Minoan, 1700-1550 BC
Ab-Ex, eat your heart out! But seriously, how fab it is to see this moment of pure instantaneousness. Seeing things like this make you really question all the authority that is staked and reaffirmed in recent art history.
Good-luck rings, Roman, 1st-3rd century AD / Gold tablet with an Orphic inscription and case, Roman, 2nd -3rd century AD
Jewelry is just not how it used to be. I myself only tend to wear jewelry that has some sort of story and acts as an amulet of sorts. This being said, I was delighted to see these Roman examples of jewelry fabulousness.
The good-luck rings have phalluses on them and the information card reads: The phallus was regarded as a protection against the evil eye and a symbol of good luck. The smaller rings were probably worn by children, who were particularly vulnerable to the forces of evil.
Oh, my, god. How far we have come and how prudish we still seem to be.
The tablet and inscription has this on its card:
Orpheus, personified as a musician, founded a cult that promised a happy afterlife to the initiated. The inscription warns the soul not to drink from a particular spring in Hades, but to seek one by the Lake of Memory.
Planning ahead for eternity is so chill.
Death flask, Egypt, Early Predynastic / Terracotta models of body parts, Roman 3rd-1st century BC
The breast is everywhere in ancient art and it always has meaning unlike the phallus which is at times just about anatomy. In the case of the death flask from an Egyptian tomb excavation this is the nourishing vessel in which the reborn can drink from in their afterlife. Death to the Egyptians was believed to be a return to the womb in order to be reborn so this vessel is literally the containers of nourishment after emergence from rebirth.
The models of the body parts are wonderful objects in themselves but these are said to be made for dedication of healing, hope and thanks offering to the gods at shrines. It is odd to see a disembodied breast in this way but it is strange and abstract to see with all of the inheritance of the contemporary concept and use/unused of the breast in contemporary art.