'Babylon' v 'Byzantium'

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Babylon versus Byzantium: Michael Hodges gives his verdict on two London blockbuster shows, at the British Museum and the Royal Academy exploring ancient civilisations

  • 'Babylon' v 'Byzantium'

    Julee Holcombe, 'Babel Revisited', 2004

  • ‘What do you mean “gone to London”?’ I ask the Greek museum attendant. ‘For the exhibition, sir,’ she replies, slowly and with great politeness. ‘ “Byzantium” at the Royal Academy. We have lent them several pieces.’ So, you fly across Europe to indulge an obscure passion for Byzantine ceramics in the award-winning Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki, only to find that much of the art has taken the opposite journey and is now where you set off from. The discovery that this museum possesses a sensational restaurant and bar softens the blow, but the experience reaffirms the fact that it is hard to escape the power of London’s galleries and museums; they suck in other cultures like the City – once – sucked in other people’s money.

    Which is why, upon my return to London, I find not one but two blockbuster exhibitions about ancient civilisations that began with the letter B. Cities across the world are begging for ‘Byzantium’ and Berlin is next in line after Paris and London to be bowled over by ‘Babylon’. We have the luxury of having both shows here at the same time – one at the Royal Academy, the other at the British Museum. Babylon fell to the Persians in 539BC and Byzantium more recently to the Ottoman Turks in AD1453. Why we should be so interested in these long-dead empires? ‘Byzantium’ would appear to have the most obvious relevance to contemporary Londoners, a 1,000-year empire on the edge of Europe – of us and yet not of us – an empire whose fall is still, to this day, played out in eastern Europe and the Caucasus. But what should be a compelling story fails to develop and, if we judge an exhibition’s success on whether it gives us a clear narrative journey and makes sense to someone who may walk into the building forearmed with no more than a basic knowledge of the culture, it is ‘Babylon’ that wins.

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    Byzantine 'Icon of the Heavenly Ladder' from Sinai

    Perhaps this is because Babylon’s contemporary relevance needs, by nature, to be worked at. Since all that remains of Babylon are complex cuneiform tablets, clay bricks and some (impressive) reliefs of various animals, prisoners and kings, most of the exhibits at the show are other people’s versions of Babylon, be it Rembrandt, Dürer or Blake. But then his exhibition is telling a story – astory of how a culture develops and spreads its influence long after the mothership has sunk.

    At the Royal Academy the display cases are full of objects that were made or used by Byzantines; the place is chock-a-block with crosses, icons and cutlery – much more stuff, it seems, than is on display in the hunched and cramped set of rooms given over by the British Museum to the ‘Babylon’ exhibition. In ‘Byzantium’, there are the expected maps showing the expanding then shrinking boundaries of an empire that by its end stretched little further than Constantinople’s city limits, but no sense of journey unfolds after the maps, just this impressive yet slightly disconcerting clutter.

    ‘Byzantium’ also misses a chance – at a time when Islam and Christianity, East and West, are suspicious of each other – to show just how enmeshed the two faiths and cultures are. Despite the anti-Christian propaganda reproduced on the wall tiles of the sublime Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built after Muslims captured the city from the Byzantines in AD637, it is essentially a Byzantine building, and probably made by Byzantine workmen. I could find no mention of this, but what could be a more interesting theme for Londoners right now?

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    'Icon with Christ', sixth century Constantinople

    But there are good moments at the Royal Academy. In our culture Byzantine stands for complication and intrigue, but it is simplicity and honesty that shine out from some of these works and call across the ages. A wall tile of St Nicholas shows an old man with sunken cheeks. He is ascetic but he is tired as well; gazing at us from the tenth century he looks beaten by the struggle to be holy. In Gentile Bellini’s ‘Cardinal Bessarion and Two Members of the Scuola della Carità in Prayer with the Bessarion Reliquary’ from 1507, the cardinal’s face, soft yet stern, possibly corrupt but utterly self-possessed, forces its way out of thescene of adoration. Bellini wasn’t a Byzantine, but the reliquary is – its presence an admission of the Renaissance’s debt to Byzantium. And, as the ‘Babylon’ show makes clear, it is the spread of a city’s influence even after its dissipation that is truly interesting, which is why the British Museum is able to put a contemporary photomontage by Julee Holcombe alongside a model of the Ishtar Gate and still make more sense than several rooms filled with things from the same culture.

    So, ‘Babylon’: some fantastic art, great show. ‘Byzantium’: lots of fantastic art, poor show. Mind you, the plates are great. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

    ‘Byzantium’ is at the Royal Academy until Mar 22 and ‘Babylon’ continues at the British Museum until Mar 15.

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