Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Yes, Mr Ganndhi, it turns out to be a very good idea indeed, thank you.

Taking the Christmas break as an opportunity to do a bit of cultural catching-up, we hit London yesterday for a couple of exhibitions.

Morning was Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian at the National Gallery. This was... Well, how often do you get to see the Arnolfini Wedding and Holbein's Ambassadors within a couple of rooms of each other, and still get distracted by other stuff? The thing that maybe jumped out most of all for us was Bellini's Doge Leonardo Loredan, but... Oh heck, I'm not qualified to pontificate on this art history stuff. It was a good show, okay?

Afternoon was Babylon: Myth and Reality at the British Museum. This was interesting, but a bit unsure what it was really about. It started with some archaeological bits and bobs - I think that they'd borrowed some Babylonian tilework from the Louvre - which was pertinent, but some of us have been spoiled by seeing the full (reconstructed, and technically partial, but still) Ishtar Gate at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. After that, though, the Myth bit tended to take over; Blake prints, Athanasius Kircher engravings, '50s film concept art, Victorian paintings of Bible scenes, videos about Rastafarianism, snippets of silent movies... British Museum-style things that would have grabbed me, like what seems to be the first-ever known map of the world, got a bit lost. Equally, the looping voice recordings associated with some display cases - some of them offering readings of some of these ancient texts in the original languages - were thoroughly drowned out in the noise of all the visiting families. (They might work better on a less busy day, but the place would have to be very quiet indeed to make it feasible to linger by each case while listening to several minutes of speech comfortably.) Still, there was a lot to provoke thought (not least the last video, basically a polite rant about the bright sparks who arrived in Iraq to find that Saddam Hussein had damaged the site by parking some grotty "reconstructions" on top of it, and responded by adding one of their own military bases to the mess), and some interesting modern artworks (mostly borrowing the imagery of all those wonderful Renaissance "Tower of Babel" paintings). So a Bronze Age city got intermittently lucky in its empire-building efforts, and picked some enemies whose propaganda-historical writings gained religion-driven staying power - and now it's part of our cultural vocabulary, albeit in shapes that have little relationship to the original. (All those Towers of Babel are basically the Colosseum, reiterated and stacked.) Weird and curious, if hard to convery without looking bitty.

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