Monday, 18 January 2016

London and 'Celts: Arts and Identity'

Another busy trip to London on Thursday.  The main reason for my visit was the exhibition 'Celts: Art and Identity' at the British Museum.  And I've been trying to quantify my response to it ever since as this exhibition raised some very interesting questions.  The premise of the exhibition is simple;  modern celtic identity is by and large a construct of Early Modernity based on a limited knowledge of the past and a series of assumptions that fed into, and were in turn fed by, that knowledge.  For the organizers of this exhibition the term 'celtic' is a cultural and not racial category.  The first mention of the 'celts' in written history was by the Greeks, who applied the term 'Keltoi' to people living in central Europe who traded with, and raided, the Classical world.  The Romans referred to the 'Galli'.  'Celt' was not a label that those people used about themselves - but then they left no written record.  And it is certainly not a name used, until the Modern Period, by those we now associate with celtic identities today - Breton, Welsh, Irish and Scots who became literate in Late Antiquity.  Since Thursday I've watched a BBC4 programme 'Meet the Ancestors' presented by Julian Richards and he assiduously avoided the label 'celtic' when he referring to Iron Age burial customs in England.  It was far too loaded a term.
Now to the exhibition itself and the wonderful objects it contains. After a slightly wobbly start we meet 'things'.  Sculptures in the form of enigmatic warriors, or gods from central Europe and later graveslabs and the monumental Cross of St John (a cast) from Iona.  There are great swords and shields, and a spectacular horned helmet - votive offerings that have been recovered from rivers like the Thames and, here in Lincolnshire, the Witham where the ritual deposition of objects continued past the Anglo-Saxon 'takeover' into the Middle Ages.  Objects that because of their antiquity, and their use of a long forgotten visual and symbolic language, are mysterious, evocative things - not fully 'present' to us.  And there is gold - lots of it.  Torcs and penannular brooches and all manner of, well, treasure. The brooches, made in Ireland, are works of immense skill.  They are very small but they are decorated to within an inch of their lives.  Quite stunning.  And oddly, perhaps, it was the small things that remained with me the longest.  Anyway all of these objects are arranged chronological order from the Iron Age to Late/Post Modernity - today; from Paganism to Christianity and secularism.  Simultaneously move across Europe from east to west.  From 'Hallstatt' culture, through the swirls of 'La Tene', through Classical Antiquity to Late Antiquity and what exactly?  Where, perhaps things get tricky, where perhaps that old, and persistent, clear cut notion of a dualism of 'Celt' and 'Anglo-Saxon' perhaps begin to soften.  One of the first objects on display is a gravestone, a 'Pictish' gravestone, and it is decorated with interlace and what are called 'Zoomorphic' animals.  Later on there is a wonderful gold item, a buckle I think, from the Sutton Hoo burial from near Woodbridge in Suffolk and it too is decorated with interlace and most incredible zoomorphic animal.  It is believed to be the work of an Anglo-Saxon goldsmith.  But which is the celtic object and which is the Anglo-Saxon?  They both contain the same motifs.  No wonder than that various other names have been coined to categorize these objects 'Insular', 'Hiberno-Saxon'.  Hanging bowls are another example: originating in late Roman Britain they continued to be made after the end of Roman rule (but in all likelihood outside the boundaries of Empire).  They are decorated with the swirls associated with 'La Tene' culture, and so are markedly 'celtic', but are overwhelmingly found in Anglo-Saxon graves.  In fact both interlace and the zoomorphic figure are believed to originate with the Anglo-Saxons, as did a number of smithing techniques such as chip carving, granular and filigree work, and cloisonne inlays that were taken up by goldsmiths working mainly in Ireland.  At this point in the exhibition it was these objects from Ireland that dominated; there seems to have been nothing comparable made in Wales or Brittany.  There was obviously more of a shared visual culture between the two celt and anglo-saxon than we once believed.
It is at this point historically that in architecture and in the visual arts that the 'celtic' slowly disappears giving way to firstly the Romanesque and then Gothic culture.  It is more, I think, than merely the politics of conquest and colonisation; both Romanesque and Gothic simply presented more compelling visual languages.
And then the long 'Celtic Twillight', which makes up the final quarter of the exhibition.  That cultural 'half-life' that I find so fascinating.  It starts out, oddly enough, with English Antiquarians such as Lincolnshire's very own William Stukely (1687 - 1765), who was happy to accredit anything ancient and not obviously Roman to the 'Celts'.  Even odder was the view Stukeley, a Anglican priest, had of the Druids, who he saw as practitioners of an ideal rational, 'natural' religion.  He inadvertently started a trend that was picked up by the emerging Romantic Movement.  Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams) is a notable example.  Williams, 1747 - 1826, was born in Wales, lived in London, and was a mason by profession and a radical in politics.  In London he was active in a couple of Welsh societies 'The Honorable Society of Cwmrodorion' and the 'Gweneddigion'. Like Stukely he re-invented the Druids as followers of 'Natural' religion.  A kin to Deism, I suspect.  He also re-invented the Early medieval Welsh past as a Golden Era of liberal politics - something that still occurs today; you only have to read 'The Rough Guide to Wales' to see that.  Like James Mcpherson, in Scotland he was not averse to fabricating celtic verse.  In 1794 the first meeting of his Gorsedd was held on Primrose Hill, North London.  The ritual was claimed to be authentic.
The exhibition has a number of items objects associated with the National Eisteddfod, which is a descendant of that first meeting in North London.  I was stuck immediately by their secularized religiosity; they either took there cue from 19th century Anglicanism - for instance the banner at the start of the exhibition, or the stole that makes up 'vestments' one of the officals, or looked as though they were designed by use by some group of ritual magicians like 'The Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn'.  Perhaps there is some link through the radical Williams to Freemasonry.
Opposite are two Scottish paintings, both luscious in colour and heavily Late Romantic in feel - dreamlike one could say: the famous by the Glasgow Colourists George Henry and Edward Atkinson Hornel; and the less well known 'The Riding of the Sidhe' by the Dundee artist John Duncan.  Duncan contributed Patrick Geddes's magazine 'The Evergreen', and 'Celtic' was to have a profound influence on the Arts and Crafts movement as it developed in Edinburgh and Dublin, what was called the 'Celtic Renaissance' in Scotland, but which affected Arts and Crafts design in England.  Both these paintings display as shift in attitude to the 'Celtic' from Stukeley and Williams, who saw in the celtic as a progenitor of Enlightenment Values to one in which the celtic is held up as an alternative to Modernity, a place of dream, of mysticism and other values beyond the 'greasy till' to use W B Yeats's phrase.  This view of the Celtic too has it's origin in Romanticism.  It is there in the works of Sir Walter Scott and later W B Yeats and J R R Tolkien.
I have in my collection of pamphlets and guides a catalogue of a exhibition held in Dundee Art Gallery in 1973 of the work of a contemporary of Duncan's called John 'Dutch' Davidson.  The title is 'The Hills of Dream Revisited'  An apt for this exhibition too, for in the nebulousness of the term, in the mystery of the art - of it's not being entirely 'present' to us - 'celtic' becomes the receptacle of both our wishes and our unhappinesses.  We back project on to it.  And it is that that unites William Stukely, New Agers, New Celtic Christians, Nationalists and Romantics, radicals and conservatives.

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