The Flat Earth

When visiting Cambridge it’s difficult not to see it as an alternate Oxford; rather smaller and greener, damp waters that resemble Venetian canals more than the Isis, a library with a tower rather than an underground railway, more redbrick than stone compensated for with more ornate college decorations, gothic rather than baroque; above all, even more lacking in the sense of being a ‘real’ place. I begin by visiting the round church. Rather smaller and homelier than its London counterpart, the combination of Minton tiles and Victorian stained glass with Romanesque arches rather leaves me rather more reminded, inevitably, of Iffley. The Saxon church of St Benet’s is Saxon on the exterior with a mostly Victorian interior (save one round arch with beasts on either pillar). As in Oxford, many of the city churches were subject to the attentions of George Gilbert Scott, like Great St Mary’s with its beautiful tracery. One thing that is rather different is the Corpus Christi clock; the Chronophage.

The principal object of my interest is the Fitzwilliam Museum. I begin by heading downstairs, past Assyrian wall reliefs, into the antiquities section; an excellent set of Fayum masks, Mummy caskets, an enormous statue of Ramses the Third, marble sarcophagi, a Romano-Egyptian zodiac (Roman mythology decorated with Horus figures), Palmyran statuary and Roman mosaics. From there I walk on to a gallery filled with pottery; Cizhou, Korean, Kakiemon, Imari, Delft, Mina’i, Maiolica, Meissen, Wedgewood all present concurrently, showing Iznik next to Victorian and Spanish lustreware. Upstairs, I’m able to see the final day of an exhibition of Vani funerary, from the golden graves of Colchis. Much of this is jewellery and decoration, but I’m most struck by a small copper statue of a satyr. Inevitably, I find the paintings most gripping; the Dutch and Flemish section boasts a Brueghel village scene, Ruisdael and Goyen landscapes, de Heem still lifes and an especially odd seascape of a ship broken in Arctic ice. I like Canaletto and Panini’s architectural capriccios for much the same reasons I like the Berckheyde cityscapes or Neeff’s church interiors, but I still seem immune to Italian renaissance art, a lurid Salvator Rosa Memento Mori, Titian’s Tarquin and Lucrecia. In spite of the religious subject matter, it’s difficult not to prefer the medieval paintings. The later sections are often rather mediocre until I come across a set of sunsets by Vernet; they almost seem like a combination of Dahl and Claude. In the twentieth century this is followed by a number of Renoir, Cezanne, Sisley, Pissarro and Monet landscapes and then by Lautrec and Degas portraits. I’m especially happy to come across The Bridesmaid by Millais, a painting that has always struck me as prefiguring the likes of Klimt. The British twentieth century is represented mostly by Singer Sergeant and Sickert. There’s also an exhibition of Whistlet etchings, showing drawings of East London by the Thames, Venice and a rather more land locked Brussels.

The Byzantine exhibition at the Royal Academy left me rather underwhelmed; it seemed to reflect a theocratic civilisation, as much by omission (marble statues of Justinian or the other emperors, for example) as by the inclusion of countless icons. It seems odd that Byzantine art was disdained by the christian world in favour of the pagan art of Greece and Rome, whose comparative asceticism was presumably more appealing. Byzantine art was dismissed to the same barbarous past as gothic. Much of the exhibition is heavily weighted towards metalwork; silver censors, gold necklaces, chalices and so on. I find myself most impressed by an icon of Sergius and Bacchus, marble friezes from church interiors with peacock designs.
The British Museum’s exhibition on Babylon features many of the things I recall seeing years ago in Berlin, especially the wonderful blue glazed bricks and rliefs of lions and dragons from the Ishtar gate. Nonetheless, it quickly makes the point that we know more about the earlier Assyrian civilisation than we do of Baylon, with much of our knowledge of the latter coming from foreign sources; Herodotus, Strabo or the Bible. In many cases, these sources are hardly accurate; there is no evidence of any Hanging Gardens, the Tower of Babel was simply a large ziggurat, Bablyon did not fall during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar and continued as a major city until Alexander the Great. Nonetheless, the exhibition is rather good at tracing the reception of Babylon into Western culture; Rembrandt and John Martin’s paintings of its fall, Blake and Durer’s etching of Nebuchadnezzar, Brueghel and Kircher’s drawings of the Tower of Babel, Evelyn de Morgan’s pictures of the expelled Jews. Afterwards, I walk through the Asian galleries and particularly the wall reliefs of the Amaravati stupa. I’m struck especially the rather gruesome character of the Tibetan images; Chitipati skeletons or goddesses bearing skulls filled with blood. Some of the Chinese exhibits prove equally odd; Chu funerary busts of figures with antlers and snake like tongues.

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