Wednesday, December 13, 2006

British Museum bites

To the British Museum today for a quick browse while in town: orrery still there? Check. Great Court's roof still like an optical illusion? Check.

Unusually I found myself on the fourth floor, near some of the Asian collections (most of the time I stick myself in the Enlightenment Gallery or near the Classical pieces). Turns out I was near the temp exhibition rooms and I'm glad I was.

One of the exhibs is Avigdor Arikha From Life: Drawings and Prints 1965-2005 (Room 90; 29 June 2006-7 January 2007; free). Arikha, a Jew who was born in Romania, was only rescued from concentration camps in the Ukraine because of his skill at drawing.

The pictures mostly date from after 1965, when he turned his back on the abstraction which had made him famous. He wanted to explore 'the biggest mystery, the world around us' and so decided to work figuratively. However, these pictures are not naturalistic line drawings but brush and ink drawings, which feel free yet very controlled.

Samuel Beckett with a glass of wine (Paris, 7.10.69) is one of the best - Beckett has his head in his heads, a dark whirl of ink reflecting his depression. What is even better is the huge white space to Beckett's right, an unending loneliness and evocative of SB's dramatic concerns. Hollywood Hills (LA 26.4.72) is virtually an Impressionist piece, playing with the light as it hits the hills.

In the next room is Myths of Bengal (14 September 2006–7 January 2007; free). My knowledge of Bengali culture and history is limited (and that's being kind), so I came to this with an open mind.

The Gazi Scroll, one of the BM's masterpieces, is hanging here and includes some of Bengali art's most distinctive characteristics: vivid colours, heavy patterning, stylised figures, no third dimension. The scroll is an adventure narrative, so there is much opportunity for scenes of activity, which transcend their static presentation.

Bengali culture is well-known for its vibrancy and these artefacts are excellent examples of why this is. A scroll of Child Krishna which was probably dashed off for pilgrims in Calcutta shows what a very limited palette can do - against a midnight blue/grey background the red and yellow dart off the page.

On a cross-cultural note, it was interesting to notice the links between Bengali and Classical myths: Krishna as naughty child-thief parallels Hermes (cf. Homeric Hymn to Hermes); as a flute-player he parallels Pan; and in the one who draws bands of women from their cities to dance in ecstatic trances in the woods, you can definitely see Dionysos in Euripides' Bakchai. Indo-European culture may have divided into countless daughter cultures but their common ancestry can't be forgotten.

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