Two exhibitions in London have provided a feast of sights and thoughts. One was at the British Museum: ‘Celts: art and identity’ (till 31 January). The other was at the Islington Business Design Centre: the London Art Fair (now over). Both were crowded, even though I had a timed ticket for the former and was one of the very first visitors in the morning to the latter.
I thought the ‘Celts’ was brilliant, for two main reasons. First, as I hoped and expected, the BM had brought together many of the major pieces of ‘Celtic’ art from Europe between about 500 BC and AD 1000. I was familiar with many of them, partly from having seen them in museums and other exhibitions over the last half century and more, even more so from having seen them in various publications and in illustrations during lectures; but never had I seen so many of the outstanding pieces in one place. It was a pleasure to renew acquaintance, for example, with the extraordinary Gundestrup cauldron from north Jutland, Denmark; it was a pleasure to make acquaintance with new material recently discovered, for example, from Snettisham, Norfolk.
The second reason for so admiring the exhibition was its honesty and directness; it told it as it is. It did not flannel around with academic jargon or abstruse ambiguities on two major issues signposted in its subtitle: ‘art’ and ‘identity’. The material as art has generated a whole library as the product of what is almost a sub-industry of academic study. Much has been written about ‘The Celts’ as a supp osed identifiable homogeneous people, even race, spreading over central and western Europe during the last centuries BC. This exhibition makes it quite clear that there was not such a people or race or even unified culture in pre-Roman times and that the ‘Celtic peoples’ of our modern landscape are an unhistorical fabrication of post-mediaval times. That said, it nevertheless demonstrates equally honestly the strength and attractiveness of the idea of a common ‘Celticness’ among western peoples who are neither English nor French.
Much too has also been written about ‘Celtic art’, sometimes by scholars after a life-time of study of the thousands of artefacts which represent it in several different styles. Again the exhibition is unambiguous: ‘Celtic art’ does not exist as a unity nor as an indicator of a single, identifiable group of people. Rather does the exhibition present the many wonderful objects as representatives of a widely-based artistic tradition modified over some 1,500 years by trade, embassies and other means of exchange on the one hand and by major changes such as Roman conquest and the Christian religion on the other.
The annual London Art Fair could, in many ways, hardly have been more different. It is about commerce, business, collecting, and, the cynic could observe, self-gratification, conspicuous consumption and, yes, identity too. The numerous Galleries try to build up distinctive identities by dealing in certain artists or paintings of a particular period or place; purchasers, whether in buying what they like or what they judge will be a good investment – by no means necessarily the same thing – are also expressing personality, themselves, their identities – and clearly themselves as monied persons. I don’t know whether activity at this Fair was reflecting current uncertainty in the stock markets but people were certainly buying Art of the sort which has several noughts after single and double figures like£8 and £20; nor was it difficult to find works of more than £100,000.
Personally I go every year because the Fair is such an excellent, large exhibition of art just to look at, especially of my favourite period, the mid-late-twentieth century. It was particularly good this year, though trendies would find it old-fashioned in that most of the art was of the sort in frames that you hang on a wall, with very little in the way of sculpture, videos or performance art.
I did in fact take part in one bit of performance art which relates directly to the subject of recent blogs, erosion of the coast at Aldeburgh: more anon when I get the photographs. And, closing the circle, I also enjoyed a long discussion with the gallerist about an anthropomorphic ‘Celtic’ sculpture sitting rather obscurely and obscenely – for it was blatantly phallic – in the corner of a room. More of that anon too.