Homer’s Iliad begins with a pandemic.
At an early stage of the war, Agamemnon took Chryseis prisoner. She was the daughter of Chryses, a Trojan priest of Apollo. Chryses tries to buy her freedom. He takes gold to Agamennon, but the leader of the Greek forces refuses to return the daughter. So Chryses begs Apollo for help. In Pope’s translation:
Latona’s son a dire contagion spread,
And heap’d the camp with mountains of the dead;
There is something both scary and prosaic about illness. War, even mythic war, comes with dangers beyond the battle field. Without an understanding of the causes of disease, plague could be deadly.
Homer’s Iliad is not just about war, but about the human condition in all its ugly, and beautiful, truth.
I visited the exhibition Troy: myth and reality at the British Museum, in its last week just as Britain felt itself on the onset of its own “dire contagion”. Apollo’s plague is not mentioned in the exhibition notes, but almost every other aspect of this long ago war is in a sweeping and encyclopaedic exhibition.
Troy in the modern imagination
To enter the exhibition you must creep through large letters spelling out Troy, almost like the Hollywood Sign but blood red. Then you turn a corner. The first sight is a Cy Twomby. An angry scrawl sharpened to a point dripping in life fluid.
Starting any exhibition with a Twomby is a brave move. He is one of the finest artists of the Twentieth Century. Where are we going with this? You turn another corner and you enter a long corridor of Greek vases. This is history, but not as we know it.
The exhibition is not really about the historic city of Troy first discovered by Heninrich Schliemann or even a possible ten year siege over 3,000 years ago. Rather it is an exploration of how the stories and myths associated with Troy have reverberated over the centuries.
The one thing that is never mentioned is that Troy reverberates so strongly because it was the cornerstone of Greek and Roman education and long considered the beginnings of literature. For the best part of 2,500 years it has been a central text of the cannon. Papyrus from Roman Egypt attests to this, but so could textbooks from medieval Constantinople (Istanbul) or Victorian London. This exhibition grapples not with Troy, but with Western civilisation as a whole.
Victorian Art, Roman Art
The exhibition follows closely last year’s Inspired by the East. Nineteenth Century art seems to be enjoying a vogue on Great Russell Street. It is a true embarrassment or riches [sic]. The art of this period is sententious, overwrought, a little naff but in a nice way. (Except for Filippo Albacini’s Wounded Achilles, which is just overripe. Why the British Museum marketing team chose this for their poster and not Eleanor Antin’s Judgement of Paris, I do not know.)
Herbet James Draper’s Ulyesses and the Sirens is a good example of Victorian art. A large painting, it shows the scene where Ulysses tied himself to a mast so that he could hear the siren’s song. His body is taut and his eyes have a distant look as if blinded. His men continue to row. The man nearest the front looks at one siren with a look of undisguised contempt. Those who cannot hear the song, are not fooled from the beastly nature of the sirens. But there is something more going on here. We see the sirens turn from fishlike creatures into women as they climb up the ship. This rower can see what Ulysses sees, but he is not taken in. It is a stoic image of (white) masculinity prevailing over the lures of dangerous females. It champions Ulyesses as an exemplar to be copied in the colonies. The sea setting and stirring portrayal was a suitable fit for the maritine city of Hull, where the painting is housed.
It is noticable that Draper uses the Latin version Ulysess (as oppossed to the Greek Odysseus). Some Victorian Englishmen saw themselves as the perpetuators of the Roman tradition of Imperium. The Lays of Rome by Macaulay are a good example of this. A favourite line “Haul down the bridge, Sir Consul” seems to conflate Roman and Victorian terms of deferment. Macaulay was both a progressive political figure (in the context of early Victorian politics) and an ardent colonialist.
Ulysses was also the name of a poem by Tennyson, whose stirring lines evoke more the values of a General Gordon than a wily ancient trickster figure. Draper’s painting draws as much from Tennyson as it does Homer:
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—That ever with a frolic welcome tookThe thunder and the sunshine, and opposedFree hearts, free foreheads
It is too simple to say the Victorians valued Roman values or saw themselves as modern Romans, but something was going on. I would have welcomed an exhibition more narrowly focused. An exhibition of nineteenth century responses to Troy might have made a fascinating show.
The deep moans round with many voices
As it was, the exhibition felt a little untidy as art works from various periods jostled together like a bazaar on the Lots Road.
The real strength however was sharing how different voices engaged with the tradition.
Romare Bearden, an African American artist, created The Siren’s Song in 1979. It is a fine image that subtly draws a link between the Odyssey and European colonialism and slave trading. Slavery, of course gave Hans Sloan the financial means to develop his collection which became one of the main sources of the nascent Museum. The Siren’s Song’s use of colour and pose plays across multiple traditions. A genuine revelation.
This use of new voice also extended to the museum UX. The Curators collaborated with Waterloo Uncovered, a charity who work with veterans to create captions drawing on their experience of trauma and recovery. These are deeply moving and profound and bring a new depth to the items on display.
There is something of the first world war in the Siege of Troy- an interminable war of attrition in which men die for little strategic gain. Patrick Shaw-Stewart’s copy of A Shropshire Lad with the first draft of “I saw a man this morning” is a powerful reminder of the connections over the centuries:
Was it so hard, Achilles,
So very hard to die?
Thou knewest and I know not—
So much the happier I.
Stewart Shaw died in 1915 not far from Troy in the Gallipoli offensive.
The captions by veterans brought something at once both more visceral and fragile to images, which can appear elegiac or bombastic.
From the flames of Troy upon his shoulder
For all the arguments in favour of its origins within oral culture and the focus on visual responses, Homer’s work is textual. Its true cultural value is in the literary motifs it has spawned. Even within antiquity, its influence was felt. Authors played with the characters and themes of Homer in serious or playful ways. The Battle of the Frogs and Mice is one example of satirising The Iliad, whilst Vergil’s Aeniad is an example of a serious continuation.
During the medieval period in Europe, writers continued to draw on the traditions of Troy. Geoffrey of Monmouth, for example, traced the origins of Britain back to Brutus a refugee from Troy. Hartmann Schedel, writing on the cusp of the Renaissance, even identified a Franco and Turco amongst the flotsam of war.
People have drawn from Homer and the Trojan war what they wanted. In this act of borrowing was born cultural tradition, something David Jones describes in The Anathemata:
least of acclivities
high as Hector the Wall
high as Helen the Moon
who, being lifted up
draw the West to them.
Jones is relatively unique as a visual and literary artist. It is a shame, his work is not displayed especially as it sits in an uncomfortable crux between colonial texts.
Today the idea of a canon is challenged. It is seen as supporting hegemony and assumptions (i.e. the superiority of Western art and practitioners). This exhibition tackled this idea but was not clear enough about this.
The Plague that started the Iliad results in Achilles being forced by Agamennon to return his own human spoils of war, Briseis. The Iliad is an unsettling book, never completely focused on the battle field. It’s heroes are conflicted and ambivalent. The exhibition misses this.
A fine exhibition which needed a little more structure. It deserves five stars for its innovative use of co-produced captions.
Ulysses and the Sirens by H.J. Draper Public Domain