Saturday, 30 January 2016

'Celts: Art & Identity' at the British Museum

After work I scampered along to the bus stop to jump on the 24 bus up to Tottenham Court Road and the British Museum to see the exhibition about Celtic art that finishes this weekend. I'm a member of the British Museum so why am I waiting until the last weekend to see an exhibition? Answers on a postcard...

As the signs rather insistently tell you, Celts are not a homogenous group unified by a particular DNA trait, rather it's a form of identity that different groups have held at different times. The first use of the word was by the Greeks 2,500 years ago when they referred to the 'keltoi' as the people north and west of their civilisation, so it started as a way of saying 'non-Greek'. Celts lived in what is now Germany and France and up into Scandanavia but increasingly we, on our little island, treated Celts as being west and north of England, the Celtic nations of Ireland, Wales and Scotland. And who, exactly decided this? The Romantics and the Victorians - is there anything those Victorians aren't responsible for?

The exhibition moves chronologically through the years with artefacts and notes to explain what's happening and when. We see all sorts of stuff, from early sculptures, metalwork like helmets and work implements and swords, to things made from animal horns. There's all sorts of stuff and increasingly it turns from plain to incredibly intricate and detailed. We see the influence of the Romans as the Empire spreads across Europe (but never subdued the Celts on the fringes of the Empire) and then the influence of Christianity as time moves on. 

We see display cabinets full of torcs, bracelets and anklets - those Celts loved adornment and complex patterns - all in different styles signifying different tribes and times, but spread across the Celtic nations showing good trade routes and shared cultures. There were some giant standing stones and crosses (some were reproductions from the orgininals) and a lovely series of cloak pins/broaches that I'd happily wear on my jackets today.

I think my favourite piece was the Gundestrup Cauldron from Denmark with its intricate sides, inside and out, and it drew the crowds. Faces of ancient gods whose names we no longer know but can guess their attributes from the images surrounding them. When did these gods awake and when did they go to sleep? Did they go hunting through the ancient dark forests of the north or did they wait to be worshipped? What were their rituals and how did they welcome their worshippers into the after-life? We'll never know since there's nothing written about them but the cauldron is lovely. I want it but I'm not sure I'd want it in my home... who would come with it? The deep and dark past of the Celts is alluring and pulls you into the glamour and magik.

The exhibition moved into more modern times with John Grey's epic poem of 'The Bard', telling the story of the last bard in Wales being hunted down by troops of the English king Edward II, with the words on the wall:

"With joy I see
The different dooms our Fates assign.
Be thine Despair, and sceptred Care;
To triumph, and to die, are mine.
He spoke, and headlong from the mountain's height
Deep in the roaring tide he plunged to endless night"

'To triumph and to die' is such an evocative phrase and inspired paintings and other art works over the years - my favourite is a panoramic scene by John Martin in the Laing Gallery in Newcastle with the bard about to leap to his triumphant end. It would've been fab if that painting was included in this exhibition rather than the lesser paintings on display.

The exhibition wound on to the Victorians and their discovery of the designs for broaches and clothes, images of  heroic Celts like Caractacus and the influences on the arts in general There were a few paintings of imaginery druids in ancient ceremonies we can't imagine and a lovely painting of the Sidhe riding out to war (in a very Pre-Raphaelite style). It closed with a video wall showing peoples from the Celtic nations around Europe in tartans and playing pipes, demonstrating that the Celts are alive and well today since peoples still identify with their heritage.

It's a fascinating exhibition that takes you time travelling through the ages as the Celts evolve and grow but keep their spirit alive. The mystery of the Celts, our lack of real knowledge of the peoples and their ways, made this quite an intriguing exhibition with the selection of exhibits and the story it tries to tell.  It's only on for a couple more days so make your way there quickly otherwise you'll miss it.

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