Thursday, January 01, 2009

Icons and Relics

The last day of the year, and back to London for some more exhibition-catching-up.

(And passing posters which reminded me that I'll almost certainly miss the V&A show about post-war design completely. Darn. But... Is that a topic I can overly regret missing?)

Anyway - morning was Darwin at the Natural History Museum. Yep, good stuff - starting with "one of the most important samples in the history of science" (not that I can tell the difference between two slightly dissimilar dead mockingbirds, but Darwin could, which is why he's probably the greatest naturalist in history - everything else ultimately came from that). There wasn't a lot here that any acceptably well-read person wouldn't already know, by the definition of "acceptably", but there was a lot to see nonetheless. The fully furnished study from Down House was a nice touch, though there wasn't a lot else to give a feel for the man's life, apart from a lot of letters. Just one warning; low light levels (no doubt for good reasons), and a lot of casing structural bars throwing shadows over the labels.

Byzantium at the Royal Academy was better presented from that point of view, despite having much stuff that requires at least as much gentle care. That's the big thing about this show; it's kind of necessary to visit, because it includes a variety of things that you'd otherwise have to travel several thousand miles across three or more continents (and a war zone or two) to see, sometimes in obscure museums, sometimes to ancient monasteries tucked away up biblical mountains. I gather much of this material may never travel again, and I think one room held about 10% of the world's supply of Byzantine micromosaics. Very once-in-a-lifetime.

So... Right. For a thousand years, there was a rich pocket civilisation in the eastern Mediterranean which drew on classical influences and in turn demonstrably influenced the Renaissance. But, honestly, it still feels as alien to me as medieval Japan or India - maybe more so. The exhibition does its best to show that not all icons are they same, that the classical influence was important, that some Byzantine art was secular; but in the end, there's only some much exquisitely carved ivory and lustrous gold leaf that a person surely needs.

Still, a good end to the year. (And the Royal Academy cafe does a mean cream scone, too.)

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