Saturday, 27 April 2013

Business of a blog writer

There are weeks when it is easy to find a topic to write and a time slot to do the writing. However, there are weeks when almost every moment is accounted for for more important basic duties. Yes, I am dealing with landscapes, but the matters relate to the teaching to be prepared or to the future articles or talks to be prepared in the future. The coming two weeks look daunting, even if it is unclear if everything in the books is going to be realised. In any case, I have to finish with my online course that is going to happen in early June. If you want to learn more about the landscape and how to use Internet to collect information and map sites, consider the Gooling the Earth course at the Institute of Continuing Education.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Greek ruins and the Turkish reign

Apart from the sublime Life and death in Herculaneum and Pompeii and Ice Age Art exhibitions the British Museum had a special exhibition on watercolour paintings painted in 1805 – 1806 during the travels of Edward Dodwell and Simone Pomardi. Many of these were interesting, but even an archaeologist has to admit that one art work depicting the Sounion temple looks unmistakably like another painting of the Sounion Temple. The most interesting pieces depict landscapes with a visible change.

Edward Dodwell, Simone Pomardi, Panorama from the top of the Mousaion Hill, Athens. Watercolour, 1805

The painting from Acrocorinth definitely presented a landscape more rural than today, whereas the standing remains of the temple of Aegina were covered by bushes. The temple at least used to be a clean cut heritage site for the visitors to admire. The exhibition also presented panoramic watercolours of Athens and what the difference. Athens today – even if with the continuous recession due to the economic collapse – is a buzzing city that climbs up the hills around the low land along the coast. The Athens of Dodwell and Pomardi was a small village with some Balkan type houses around the area were the Agora once was. It was small and pitiful and nothing like the mighty city-state of the yesteryear. Pericles would only have recognized the ruins on the Acropolis.

So why did the artists and aristocrats suddenly turn their sights to Greece in the early 19th century? The obvious answer is the Napoleonic wars. The normal routes of the Grand Tour in France and Italy were blocked and the British turned to the area of the Ottoman Empire in order to visit the places mentioned by the ancient authors. The history of the Ottoman Empire is not very well known or recognized in the west, but it might be a good idea for many people to revisit the recent history of the eastern Mediterranean. The struggles between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans explain quite a lot of the recent bloody history of the Balkans. The history of archaeology also looks richer, when the activities of Osman Hamdi Bey, the founder of the Academy of Fine Arts and the first director of the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. His excavations in Sidon, modern Lebanon, were probably as imperialist and colonial than any of the period, but they still count among the important late 19th century excavations in the eastern Mediterranean.

Selfpotrait by Osman Hamdi Bey

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Long-term traditions through the Ice Age

As promised, I am this week reviewing the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum. This exhibition will be there until the end of May, so the first May bank holiday allows seeing both the Pompeii exhibition and this show on portable art during the Ice Age.

It is lacking the Venus of Willendorf, but otherwise a person in the know can spot many of the famous pieces from the widely-known caves and settlements across Eurasia. One could name check the Lady of Lespugue, the oldest known baked clay object, i.e. a female statuette from Dolni Vĕstonice, and the many finds from Kostienki. The wide distribution of the tiny female presentations with visible features suggesting plumpness, pregnancy and mature femininity from French caves to the sites in Siberia suggests shared ideas and exchange of ideas over large areas bordering the melting ice.

Apart from the female figurines the exhibition has an extensive collection of carved and engraved presentations of animals. The Ice Age hunters depicted the animals they were hunting, the mammoths, deer and bisons. The theme of the exhibition is the arrival of the modern mind. The cognitive capabilities and the first expressions of these is a worthy topic, but any presentation of the Neanderthals is lacking from the displays. The New Scientist blog suggests that the curator Jill Cook did want to spare the visitors from an avalanche of information on archaeological sites, chronology, modern humans and other lengthy topics, but perhaps some expansion of the subject matter behind the arguments presented in the exhibition about the emergence of our kind of mind could have been considered. The Neanderthals apparently did not create art as such, but it is known that they buried their dead with some offerings and ochre and this shows certain capability of grasping cognitive ideas. Most of the commentary on the modern mind also had certain tentativeness or uncertainty in it and different possibilities of interpretation were presented at length. There were also a few references of the importance of figurines as an inspiration of modern art. The Henry Moore Foundation had duly sponsored the exhibition and Picasso, Moore and Brassaï werer mentioned as some of the creators of minimalist female figures that emphasized a few key characteristics of a female body.

The female body and figurines did not only have a wide geographical distribution but the same themes, female body and animals, kept returning 25,000 years apart. Fertility and subsistence are key parts of human existence, so it is clear that the the humans have continued to represent the things that were the most important to them. The animal herds line different utilitarian objects from 20,000 years ago. The oldest presentation of an imaginary figure, the so-called lion man, has a considerable age, being dated to a period 40,000 years ago. This conceptual presentation predates the famous cave paintings with about 10,000 – 20,000 years, depending whose datings one is to believe.

Picasso's inspiration (photo by Jennings)

The exhibition design is minimalistic. A rare glimpse of colour faces the visitor in the art installation that tries to make tangible the confined spaces the cave paintings had been created in. There were hardly any seats and the shape of the area where the compilation of scenes from a selected number of caves was projected was awkward. This made it clear that the past art engraved or carved mainly onto or from bone, antler or mammoth ivory was the prime actor and the surroundings were not meant to outdo it.

Surprisingly, there was no paperback catalogue. The hardback volume was heavy, but the images were lovely. With a heavy heart I decided not to buy it. I wanted to visit other parts of the permanent exhibition plus visit the free In Search of Classical Greece exhibition, so I did not feel like carrying the substantial volume from one floor to another. In addition, one visitor was enquiring the possibility to buy a reproduction of the exhibition poster, but there were none. Another surprising miss of clear merchandising opportunity.

Interested in this and living near Leicester?

The earliest paintings
Tutor: Ulla Rajala

‘From Palaeolithic Altamira in Spain to Neolithic Çatalhöyük in Turkey and to prehistoric Scandinavia we will cover 20,000 years of monumental art. Learn the themes and settings of the earliest art work and discuss their meaning.’

6 meetings from Tuesday 16 April 2013, 1.30-3pm at Vaughan College, St Nicholas Circle, Leicester LE1 4LB. Full fee: £31.50. Free for those on means tested benefit (terms and conditions).

Easiest booking online or or call 0116 251 9740 (Thu, Fri, Mon, Tue mornings).

Thursday, 4 April 2013

In a Pompeian house

This week I had a turbo boosted visit to the British Museum in order to prepare for two courses that may or may not become reality, since there are the minimum enrolment levels in place. Nevertheless, I decided – like every time – that preparing is better than being ‘thrown to the lions’ at the last minute. In this case the preparation was educational anyway, since the exhibitions on show – Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum and Ice Age Art – are both top quality and presenting material you rarely see in one place. This week I discuss the Pompeii exhibition and return to the Ice Age next week.

Naturally, with Pompeii and Herculaneum you could see most of this material or similar finds together with the standing remains, if you visit the Bay of Napoli area. One could also travel to see some of the other places mentioned in the map presenting the areas and sites affected by the eruption, namely Misenum, Oplontis, Boscoreale and Stabiae. However, even if the British Museum has some painting fragments from the area in its collections, you do not normally get this kind of measured presentation anywhere outside the major exhibitions.

The exhibition makes quite a lot out of the difference in destruction between the two cities, the topic of the Margaret Mountford documentary the other week. Although the documentary started on the wrong foot with me – I just cannot take these ‘endlessly prompted mystery tours’ presented as serious documentaries any more – the actual facts are fascinating. The end result in the Bay of Naples was the same; the towns and their remaining inhabitants were destroyed and wiped from the face of the Earth, but the events took different turns.

After the superheated column of gasses and debris shot up in the sky 20 miles high, the people of Pompeii had a reasonable change of taking the quick exit along the routes to the south or north. They were luckier, if they avoided the coast and headed to the north, since the winds blew to the south. While a 400-degree-hot pyroclastic surge evaporated the inhabitants of Herculaneum, the Pompeians first got only ash and stones raining on them. The final hot surge there came only after the night of terrors. This was the reason why the bodies in Pompeii rotted under the volcanic layers, whereas in Herculaneum the whole population was wiped out and all organic matter was carbonated. Herculaneum is also covered by a 20-metre bed of debris, whereas in Pompeii the cover is only 4 metres. The lure of sculpture after the tunnelling at Herculaneum reached the remains was a huge draw for different parties. After all, the sites belonged to the king of Naples who used the material as diplomatic gifts alongside collecting.

The garden room (Photograph: Piero Cruciatti/Barcroft Media/The Guardian)

The exhibition was arranged like a Roman house. We first approached the street front of the house after seeing an introductory movie and were presented with the information of different trades and shops along the roads. Then we stepped into the atrium, where we were face to face to one of the busts of the Pompeians, the head of one Lucius Caecilius Iucundus. Material from his house popped up here and there in the exhibition and gave a kind of continuum to the presentations as did the domus shape of the rooms. The centre piece of the exhibition was the bird frescos from the garden room of the House of the Golden Bracelet. I did think about Antero Tammisto and his PhD on the bird species in Pompeii when checking the information boards with the bird and plant species. Apart from these the real draw were the beautifully preserved carbonated pieces of furniture that were the unusual sight in a Roman exhibition. The huge chests, the delicate cot that reminded of the whole populations disappearing, and food items all preserved with their details, showed how similar some of the everyday was during the Roman times.

There were small items that were surprisingly modern. We were presented a whole window glass and different plumbing fittings that looked very modern indeed. The sun dial could have decorated any garden in Britain – or one of the gardens of continental 17th-century castles. The erotic aspect was presented with proper taste. The emphasis was on the way these figures and sculptures shocked the 19th-century sensibilities and were quickly locked away only to re-emerge in 2000 from the Gabinetto degli oggetti riservati.

I did not buy the audio or multimedia guide, since I wanted to concentrate on the exhibition and what it was telling me. However, I saw plenty of youngsters confidently swiping their mobile phone like aids in order to hear and see the information on the correct object with its number shown on the wall. The audio guide had also interviews from Mary Beard, Amanda Claridge and Andrew Wallice-Hadrill as an added bonus.

The boxer position (photo: AP/Lefteris Pitarakis)

The exhibition finished with the famous casts and the hour by hour countdown of the events in the Bay of Naples. The casts, especially the one of the whole family, were a powerful reminder of the horrors of being suffocated when potentially blocked into your own house. The warped forms and the physical changes together with the ‘boxer’ position resulted from the heat contracting the tendons of the body. When you see one cast, you may not wonder why they had taken this position, since the coming ‘avalance’ would be enough to make you raise your hands. Now when you saw a family together and the whole thing explained, you could see what the document on the television was all about.

Powerful, beautiful and educational. Definitely worth the entrance fee.