Living with the Gods

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This exhibition at the British Museum expands in the mind of the visitor and becomes a phantasmagoria of objects produced by cultures from across the world, of stories connected with them, of idols and charms, warding off illness or encouraging devotion, a general mental excitement in which all the human practices which might be called devotional or superstitious, otherworldly or magical seem equally interesting and equally valuable because they are human and rated highly by their practitioners. The exhibition lulls the visitor into a receptive state with faint but compelling background music, a combination of wind noises, human whispering and tinkling bells. The physical layout of the exhibits, grouped in sections separated by sinuous gauze curtains, which makes them feel like something taking place in the mind, seems to encourage the idea that these are in some way all phantoms.

Not that the objects are not real and often extremely vivid, but that they are mixed in ways that break down normal categories. A few of the objects are venerable, like above all the Lion Man from 40,000 years ago, discovered in a Swabian cave a week before the start of World War II. He is made from a mammoth’s tusk and dated by taking radio carbon readings of the soil he was found in. His lion-part is judged to represent an extinct species now called a cave lion, which, going by drawings on cave walls, did not have manes. Thus the uncertainty can arise over whether he is lion or lioness, male or female. He is thought to be an implement in a religious practice, based on the widespread attribution of spiritual powers to human-animal hybrids in other cultures and on traces of wear which have been taken as signs of frequent handling by the group that commissioned or made him.

He is the most numinous object in the exhibition, pieced together in the 70+ years since he was found by adding hundreds of further bits identified in the detritus surrounding him, leaving him in spite of all the careful attention looking extremely ruined. Except that, by the time I saw the Lion Man the ivory original had gone back to Germany, to be replaced by a piece of high quality 3D printing. Thus he had become a deceptive picture of himself, the most up-to-date kind of magic.

It seems appropriate to the ethos of the exhibition that the oldest object displayed has been transfigured into the newest without losing its aura, and is still displayed in a dark space all by itself. There’s a sprinkling throughout the exhibition of extremely fresh objects, made of cheap materials like plastic or commissioned by the Museum from contemporary artists and thus showing for instance that Jahrzeit candles go on being needed because ancient practices survive. In the world of belief time does not need to behave historically. Someone who wants to determine the qibla direction can trade his little compass and sundial with exquisitely small directions in Arabic for a simple mobile phone app, and Tibetan priests fit their prayer wheels with prayers on computer print-outs that squeeze in more pleas than human handwriting ever could.

The idea of art doesn’t apply or is downgraded in many of the territories we visit. A series of household altars is one of the most moving sections, more appealing for being genuinely home-made or at least produced for humble customers, like an Ethiopian reredos crudely inscribed in a language unspoken since 1200 (Ge’ez) and completely covered in familiar stories.

I found myself leaning on the words ‘folk art’ at many points, but this is not the right term, except as it expresses our distance from much of what we see in Living with the Gods. Last week I was dazzled by an interior just around the corner, in a Victorian church I had passed hundreds of times and never thought of entering. This ordinary space was covered from head to foot in Byzantine-style paintings of saints and angels and biblical scenes. Down in the corners at two points were the dates 1993 and 2003. I can’t interpret the weird symmetry of the numbers but I can sort of imagine how the local Greek church got its job-lot of holy scenes and personages. They’re completely ordinary regarded as art, but overpowering as an enclosure for devotion.

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We, meaning visitors from the West, can certainly be fooled by other people’s devotional objects, or imitations of them. Juggernaut’s car, for instance, which I took as a genuinely Indian product, was ordered by a bored Englishman stuck in an out-of-the-way spot in South India in the 18c. It was the biggest of all the exhibits but still a very reduced model of a festival chariot which would carry an avatar of Vishnu on a nine-day holiday in the country, together with his brother and sister each of whom had their own similar transport.

The exhibition comes in another form which I have barely sampled yet. I don’t know which came first, a series of 30 fifteen minute radio talks by Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, or this exhibition. I gather that MacGregor uses many of the objects that appear in the present show, and more besides, re-combining them in different orders, an appealing possibility because they already seem a ferment of metaphors or physical analogues for modes of thought, translations of bodily sensations into something else, like prayer flags which disperse prayers into the atmosphere or bells that incorporate lamps or scarves which clothe cross-shafts and shield Christ’s nakedness.

The radio version of the subject ends with one of the largest and oddest of all religious gatherings, the Kumbh Mela, which takes place in the riverbed of the Ganges in the dry season. The British Museum version does not try to represent this gigantic hubbub, noisily present in the radio form. To attempt devout contemplation in the midst of a crowd numbering millions, to build a great tent city to accommodate all of them on the understanding that it will be taken down a month later, after which the river will rush in and erase all trace that it has ever been—can these ideas of passage and progress make sense of the bewildering variety of appliances and practices we have met, and transform agitated thought into a source of comfort?

Simon Schama Civilisations, episode 1

A disconcerting start, Schama talking about civilisation as collective memory while aerial images flash by of ancient public spaces in desert landscapes. Is it a version of that trick of modern cinema, a bit of the action before the film remembers to introduce itself? There’s a noticeable urgency in Schama’s voice and in a few seconds we see why.

Now come shocking images of a temple blown up with explosives and men taking sledgehammers to statues in a museum. Then the story of the guardian of the site at Palmyra who wouldn’t tell where the antiquities were hidden and details of his gruesome death. In rushed hindsight the disorienting plunge into the material at the beginning seems a brilliant stroke, and Palmyra will cast its shadow over all that follows: civilisation’s survival is precarious, and all civilisations come to an end. The episode at Palmyra can stand as an allegory or emblem of that.

Then we’re off looking for beginnings at the tip of Africa where our species first appeared, finding them in a small lump of iron-rich red ochre, on which is inscribed a repeating pattern from 70 thousand years ago, which Schama insists, against the archaeologists, is the first stirring of the impulse to make new forms that drives all art.

Then a brilliant link via red ochre to the cave at Altamira 7000 miles away in Spain where the same pigment is blown and painted onto walls to represent animals mythical to us but familiar to the first visitors to this place. We’ve been in the cave for a while marveling at more animals and imprints of human hands when we stumble on someone like one of the hired hermits in 18th century English gardens. He’s a scientist from the University of Huddersfield, weirdly illuminated by his computer screen and studying the cave’s echoes because he believes the paintings were originally accompanied by music. Now a brief concert of prehistoric music played on bull-roarers and hollow bird-bones.

Picasso is one of the modern artists who have praised their earliest predecessors, and Schama draws a thrilling parallel between Picasso’s bulls, almost a primitive obsession of his, and the drawings in the caves. This outlandish comparison is sprung on us through the evidence of our eyes—the resemblance between the two bulls is uncanny, and this sudden glimpse of the continuity of art creates something like religious awe.

Now we move to little objects, a lion man from Germany, a tiny woman’s head in bone (birth of the idea of beauty, Schama says, but that was already there among the animals), a scene of combat on almost microscopic scale on a gemstone found recently at a new excavation somewhere in Greece. This object is hard to see, hard to grasp the whole of, and all the more magical for this trick of slipping away.

I think it was at about this point that we begin to jump more promiscuously from culture to culture. The photography at Petra does a marvelous job of putting you there, showing crevasses from just above and deep inside, perfectly keyed to Schama’s words about the improbability of such elaborate culture in this place. He has great fun conjuring up the luxury resort built on the trade in expensive perfumes and attracting the different races of the region.

We also make a stop in China at a recently uncovered site which yields a forest of bronze heads of various sizes, grotesque and strangely compelling with their huge, wedge-shaped eyes. All in all, there is such a flood of impressions, such a trove of marvelous objects never seen before, that it would be impossible to give a coherent account without watching the whole pageant again. The effect is magical, magical and unencompassable, and ought to waken the most jaded palate and worn out eyes.

I was thrilled by my first viewing of this and hesitate to mention what didn’t seem exactly right to me. I was brought up on Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, which I am watching alongside the new Civilisations, a name I thought trendy until I got a taste of how gigantically wide the new vision is; that exhilarating scope justifies the ‘s’, also necessary in a practical way to keep the two series straight. In anticipation I imagined Schama following the new normal for presenters, crowding the objects they talk about, walking breathlessly along while reciting carefully crafted text, whispering when pretending to respect some creature nearby, waving their arms, talking about their excitement or how lucky we are to have gotten into this exclusive location. Worst of all, standing in front of the work we came to see.

It was a great relief to find Simon Schama behaving more like Kenneth Clark than current presenters, as someone in awe of what he is talking about, not in chummy familiarity with it. His gestures weren’t the exaggerated dumb-show you sometimes get and are probably just what he would do if he were lecturing. But in the presence of the things themselves, I don’t need for presenters to supply animated movement, distracting me from the painting or building. Mostly Schama was not getting in the way, except when he stood behind the glass case the lion-man was in, so that you saw the sculpture and the much larger man behind, like a reflection in a mirror. This work is not humanised by measuring it against a visitor; it is momentarily degraded.

The choice of unfamiliar sites instead of old standbys, Altamira instead of Lascaux, Calakmul instead of Palenque, is invigorating and wakes one up. The sense of cultural production as part the rest of life, workers in Chinese fields, old Mayans and present Mayans in the same territory, both anchors and widens our view. Is it fanciful to think that Civilisations has learned from BBC nature programmes?

The first programme bodes extremely well for the series, which can be as inspiring in its different way as its predecessor. And yet… will there continue to be such studied avoidance of the most wonderful sites of all? Lascaux is far richer than the others and one of its marvels, the ‘Chinese pony’ did seem to flit quickly across the screen. In the course of writing that sentence it occurred to me that Lascaux has been so ravaged by visitors’ breath that only a replica is now shown, and that Palenque or Tikal which I would put in place of Chalakmul, are over-visited already. Still, the very best that these cultures have done is what got us interested in them in the first place. Leaving that out runs the risk of removing the soul from the body.

Since then I’ve seen Schama’s second programme, where the sequence of examples is even more eccentric and reaches a nadir of dull Dutch ordinariness with Jan van Goyen, whom Schama apologises for and then dwells on. The episode is redeemed in the end by Ansel Adams, whose luminous photos of Yosemite can support the unexpected weight Schama loads them with, leaving us in his debt again.

Age of Terror: Art since 9/11

What did you expect? An exhibition called Art in the Age of Terror, housed in a building full of over-sized weaponry, planes banking downward toward their targets or accelerating upward, rockets of various types, some, like the V-2, so big they would only fit into the huge space if sitting on the ground. Even with its skin stripped off to show its innards, it’s hard to view this monster as a toy that we can study as if it were just a model of its evil former self.

Of course I know that this display space was designed by an architect, yet it feels as if the building has been hollowed out by a bomb or another kind of explosion. The hollowing has left a weird shrunken plan for the upper floors—they’re essentially corridors ringing the central void, relatively dark and cramped, as if that’s the right sort of space in which to think about war.

To top it off the Imperial War Museum is a space mainly populated by children. Not the Terror exhibition though; at first it is populated by no one. I have the amateur film of the events of 9/11 entirely to myself. It has no words except the screams and chopped off sentences of passers-by. The only connected speech I can remember is an exchange with a man who was meant to be on the 79th floor right now, but had missed his train. He seems crazed by his feeling of misplacement.

All of a sudden it gets much worse and the buildings collapse silently into themselves, producing giant clouds that chase people down the narrow streets, coat them in grey dust and shower them with paper like the unwanted contents of a thousand offices. The film drags, it was not composed, often it is milling in one spot, one spot after another. Yet there is something like fascination….

The exhibition is cleverly or fiendishly laid out. The walls and ceilings are a uniform dark gray, there are plenty of narrow corridors that may lead to another room with a few art works on the walls, or to an emergency exit or a pure dead end. It is a long time before another visitor appears, but after an initial absence guards are more actively present than usual, pacing without looking left or right. I even wonder if this is theatre; it feels like surveillance. I only think this after works which tackle interrogation, torture and surveillance, imaginatively to be sure, yet how do you make art of something like the famous photo of Obama’s National Security Council watching the assassination of Osama bin Laden? In this case you make it by matching a glossy widescreen TV of that photo to a blank white screen, to signify the blackout on any images of the corpse.

Grey corridors turn up again in one of the most interesting works, a film by an Israeli maker which explores the use of drones, a secret territory, by ingenious indirection: following a fictional family on a torturous journey of checkpoints, threats and near misses; interviewing a fictional drone pilot and splicing that with the anguished reminiscences of a real one, his face masked by blurring; and using shots of downtown and suburban Las Vegas to illustrate his talk of choosing his target buildings.

Otherwise, the rooms contain a catalogue of ways to express displacement from home and homeland, feelings that never go away and often seem relieved by forms of defacement, defacement of the map of the lost country for instance, or of a model of the family home. More often than not it seems a cry of pain that will end by being endlessly repeated.

I wasn’t thinking when I let myself drift next into the permanent Holocaust exhibition. This one wasn’t empty but packed with people, who moved at times like those being herded to someone else’s choice of destination. There were children here too, some very small, who were fortunately saved from reading the too-numerous texts.

Now that it’s over, I can’t imagine that my little war-excursion did me much good. When I got home I heard there’d been another mass shooting in an American school, this time in Florida, like another small incident in a worldwide disturbance that continues.

Two exhibitions in Chichester

 

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The distinguishing feature of Chichester cathedral is a collection of modern art, meaning mostly pieces from the period 1957-77 when Walter Hussey was Dean and patronised living artists. These are scattered around the building like the hidden prizes in a children’s game. They make an unorthodox focus for a visit and aren’t picked out on the free guide distributed at the entrance, or known to the friendly volunteers who each recommend their own favourite features to visitors.

Ian Nairn wrote the West Sussex half of the Pevsner for Sussex where he claims that Chichester is the outstanding example of a typically English cathedral. Of course Nairn is famous for finding irreplaceable uniqueness in ordinary buildings, a fruitful kind of delusion that his readers willingly fall in with. Chichester is quintessentially nondescript, but it is his. He describes its steeple looming over the surrounding landscape with the devotion of a native.

But he is wrong: the beauty of this cathedral as a background for twentieth century art is its self-effacing ordinariness. In the neutral setting the works count as they never could in Lincoln or York. Hussey’s favourite artists are still figurative — modernists who straddle an important divide, but remain thrillingly heretical in a Gothic building.

Hans Feibusch is a fascinating figure, a Jewish refugee from Nazism who made his name with large murals on religious subjects in Christian churches bombed in the war, where his weird colours make the familiar subjects into conflagrations. Feibusch’s Baptism of Christ by the font in Chichester is painted on canvas instead of the wall and isn’t big enough to take charge of the space.

I have to do some detective work to see a Graham Sutherland at the end of the aisle ahead of me, too small to catch my eye the first time round. I find a postcard of it in another building, the shop, and retrace my steps, crossing a quad to find it. Because I now know what it looks like, I can see it staring me in the face. It’s a Noli me tangere which Sutherland has twisted into his characteristic brand of grotesque by putting Christ halfway up a stair clinging to a building and Mary Magdalene contorted on the ground but craning upward. Like Feibusch Sutherland brings colour harmonies wonderful in themselves, but improbable in the context, to dislodge expectation.

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The retrochoir at Chichester is the one real architectural inspiration here, a perfect space lurking between the choir and the Lady Chapel and functionless for centuries, until the cult of the local saint was reinstituted with the help of some modern art in the twentieth century. This includes a large German tapestry on the theme of St Richard. There’s a very good label explaining it as full of symbols, all made unrecognisable by representing them as fragments of rock crystal, art hiding its spiritual teaching in ambiguous forms. I thought it mainly a crowd of angels with plant shapes at the sides and exploding flowers, all forms that had to force themselves into being. I didn’t detect the sea or the lotus or the fire until they were pointed out, or the serpent climbing the cross. It took a long time to produce and it mesmerised me.

DSC00479.jpgIn a corner of the space was a little model of a piece of very Baroque sculpture whose swirls of drapery were hard to pick out against the dark background. Improbably high overhead stood the sculpture itself. Can the sculptor have had any idea where his finely wrought work was going to end up? Without the model to point you toward it, would anyone ever notice it?

As time went on your eyes got better at picking out the newer art concealed among the architectural shrubbery. The main goal of the day was an exhibition in a museum, and it just happened that the cathedral lay across the path to the real goal and the true museum. In retrospect the cathedral’s kind of display came to represent nature, or offered something like finding rare minerals washed up on a beach, objects camouflaged just enough by the way they partook of their setting to let you think that you were their discoverer.

The cathedral, framed on one side by its own wilderness, was joined abruptly to the town on the other side, whose West Street ran right along the whole north flank of the building. It was a miniature model of a city left intact by time, which seemed very normal and which only experience taught you to recognise as miraculous.

The museum lay in the heart of a quadrant of the regular town that replicated the form of the whole, scaled down a stage or two. Like the cathedral the gallery was a strange hybrid, the grandest eighteenth-century house in Chichester (i.e., not that grand) yoked to a modern extension by a Scandinavianly-inclined architect (not that modern). It was a discord that grew on you until it seemed a harmony.

It could almost function as a definition of childishness to be unable to wait a decent interval for something you want, or until, say, its time came round naturally in the calendar. I knew that the Bomberg exhibition I had come here to see was going to arrive in London before very long anyway, but after chafing for weeks, I finally decided I couldn’t wait. The only rational excuse, a flimsy one, was a little display of Paula Rego’s drawings which ran alongside Bomberg, certainly not enough by itself to justify the commotion of this trip.

Maybe the imaginary nature of the journey made it almost metaphysically necessary. I started with the Bomberg, which didn’t disappoint, enhanced by the unlikelihood of finding this very urban, Jewish artist in Chichester. The exhibition made sense of some of his least accessible works, like Jujitsu, which was shown as if occurring in stages, first in a geometrical tangle which remained a three-dimensional space, like some labyrinth of Hebrew thought, before it turned right before your eyes into the flat pattern of the later painting, which preserved a clue to its source in the absurd name Jujitsu, pointing you to the gym in Whitechapel where Bomberg had made the first sketches.

I broke the exhibition in the middle, for even a small display can seem big, or too big for devouring all in one go, if you are looking too hard. With hindsight, I see I was lucky to break it where I did (though in a sense I had no choice) because late Bomberg is another universe and ideally requires a starting over.

My holiday from Bomberg was not rushing outside for real air, but more paintings, the permanent collection at Pallant House, all British or even English, all from the twentieth century, beginning with Sickert and carrying on to painters like Kitaj, Michael Andrews and Peter di Francia, anathema to me until almost this very year now. Imagine liking the 1940s 50s and 60s best of all! What has come over me? Something about the local and the inconspicuous, about things that all belong together and would almost prefer to be overlooked so that they could get on with the business of looking. At Pallant House they are often small scale, the Sutherlands for instance, a gnarled crucifixion, or even more wonderful, a Thorn Head like Blake’s magnified cross section of the head of a flea with the biting machinery exposed, like a Christ who has internalised the crown of thorns, inviting his suffering inside, appropriate in Chichester and in Walter Hussey’s own collection.

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The Chichester gallery calls itself a collection of collections. So far for me two of the collectors stand out, Hussey and Colin St John Wilson, architect of the British Library, one of my favourite 20c public buildings. Sandy Wilson (as we learned to call him when he was external examiner at the architectural school where I taught) also designed the bold (for Chichester) extension to Pallant House (no longer big enough, I heard just the other day). I try to imagine how Hussey and Wilson might have got along. Their collections accord wonderfully well, like the two buildings that don’t look as if they are going to at first.

Wilson’s pictures are larger; the biggest room in the extension was purpose-built for them, where they hang like the masterpieces in the big gallery at the Wallace Collection. One of the most interesting pictures here is a big Kitaj of Wilson and his wife (also an architect) called ‘The Architects’. Does one like this intermarriage of the building, the collector and the collection? Does anyone find it claustrophobic, as my wife did Chichester when we brought students here ten years ago? Then I liked the place well enough, but didn’t appreciate it the way I do now, as something that keeps modestly cross-referencing itself to make a perfect little realm of art.

At this point I realised that to catch the last daylight for a walk in the town I needed to escape from the gallery into the streets and onto the walls, scaled down remnants in this human-scaled place. Even so, I was too late for the Octagon Chapel, an architectural curiosity, and for the grounds of the Priory with their own captive section of the town walls. Dusk was a show for my benefit and gave me just time to get back to the Gallery for the last part of Bomberg with its disturbing explosions of colour and form, and for the mildly disturbing apparition of a well-known critic many years my junior, who appeared twice looking pretty senior, and nervous before his lecture. I was the truant whose only responsibility lay with the paintings, so I got on with looking.