London is currently hosting two excellent exhibitions on ancient art and its reception in the modern world.
The Great Belzoni
Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Field is displaying a small exhibition on the Eighteenth/Nineteenth Century strongman turned adventurer Johnny Belzoni (Giovanni Battista Belzoni) who turned Egyptologist during the Napoleonic Wars.
The Sir John Soane Museum is one of London’s best museums. It is the former family house of the eclectic collector (and architect) Sir John Soane who left his house to the public because he did not trust his profligate son with all his bits. It is full of objects from the classical and medieval world, tastefully and artistically placed to evoke moods. One of the gems of the collection is an Ancient Egyptian Sarcophagus which was bought by Soane in 1824 for the Lordy sum of £2,000 from Belzoni. Soane would scatter fragments from the lid of the sarcophagus around it for dramatic effect.
Like many eminent archeologists, Belzoni was a showman and understood how to garner public interest. He was very much a composite of Sir Tony Robinson or Zahi Hawass. Soane followed his exploits closely in the English press, especially his discovery of the tomb of Seti I (complete with sarcophagus). Soane clamoured to get his hands on the Sarcophagus as soon as it went on the public market.
In this sense it is hard not to consider Belzoni, almost as a looter. Belzoni’s actions did contribute to scholarship. He worked with Champollion, getting him materials, but we should not mistake him for a scholar. The sarcophagus has been the subject of study. In the Victorian period, the museum’s curator gained the ire of the trustees for showing more of an interest in Egyptology than architecture.
The exhibition displays several watercolours from the digs. Watercolours were used to depict the findings. These are very beautiful works in their own right. Seti I was a major pharaoh and although his tomb had been raided before Belzoni, it was was gorgeously replete with tomb painting.
It is a shame that the exhibition does no foreground aspects of colonialism and the acquisition of Egyptian antiquity. This makes it very much a one sided show that explores how Belzoni’s discoveries inspired very rich, very white men in one of the imperial centres of nineteenth century globalisation. Perhaps this is unfair to the Sir John Soane Museum, but it remains a fascinating exhibition and is well worth a visit.
If you have never been to the Sir John Soane’s Museum, I really recommend a visit.
The Classical Now
King’s College London on the Strand is currently holding an exhibition exploring how classical art inspired modern art.
The exhibition is split in two and contains some well known pieces. The objects in Bush House are visible from the street. This section contains Damien Hurst’s Medusa, Edward Allington’s Victory Boxed, Marc Quinn’s All About Love and Sacha Sinai’s Good Watchman. All big pieces and all well know responses to classical art.
It is the Inigo Rooms in Somerset House that the show gets interesting. Split into three thematic sections (myth, place and pose), the exhibition offers a complex analysis of how the classical has impacted on the modern. Stars of this section include Pablo Bronstein’s simply wonderful Canary Wharf Island Museum design and, of course, Pablo Picasso.
The exhibition examines conflict as well as influence. A section on Ian Hamilton Finlay focuses on his spat with Waldemar Januszczak whose breathless attack on his artistic gardening cut Ian to the core, like an overpruned shrub. Their dislike of each other seemed to originate with the conflict between the ancient and the modern. A conflict that traces its roots to antiquity itself and was satirised by Jonathan Swift in The Battle of the Books.
The exhibition is good but I can’t help but pick faults with a few of the concepts here. For example, the curators seem to define the modern as Late Twentieth Century and Western (largely white and male) and the classical as Greek and Roman. This means the exhibition fails to examine the rich cultural forms that developed across the ancient world from interactions between cultures such as, for example, the art from Alexandria which grew from a engagement between Egyptian and Greek and Roman cultures. A small Isis-Thermouthis terracotta would be more valuable than Damien Hurst’s ironically vulgar Medusa. The exhibition also fails to examine the vexed engagement with the classical from non-elite groups, such as Kemetism.
Another issue is that the show fails to really unpick or examine in depth key concepts. For example in the Pose section, the captions argue that pose was the major legacy of classical art. It leaves unanswered to whom was this legacy left. It only obliquely discusses issues of bodily perfection and exclusion or agency. Contrapposto is an important artistic concept, but the issues examined here demand a deeper engagement.
It is still a very good show. You would be hard pressed to see this amount of great art in a single space even in London. I recommend a visit.