Feminine Power

Throughout history, women have been sidelined in favour of men, who were believed to be the stronger, smarter sex. In the last couple of centuries, women have protested these traditional views of feminity and proved they can equal men in many areas of life. The human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique (b. 1971) believes, “We need more feminine energy in the world today. We need more women in positions of power and influence.” Whilst this is the aim of many feminists in the 21st century, ancient history reveals that women once held such power and influence, particularly in religion. Until 25th September 2022, the British Museum aims to show visitors the significant role that goddesses, witches, female spirits and so forth have shaped the world today. With support from Siddique and other high-profile collaborators, the museum’s exhibition Feminine Power links the past with the present to prove that women have never been the weak, powerless individuals they were forced into being.

Pele

In Hawaiian mythology, Pele was the goddess of volcanoes. According to legend, she was one of six daughters born to Haumea, the Earth goddess and Kane Milohai, the creator of the heavens. Usually depicted with flaming red hair, Pele was known for her fiery temper, which resulted in her expulsion from her home island of Tahiti. According to one story, she had also seduced the husband of her sister Namakaokaha‘i, who chased Pele to the Hawaiian island of Kaua‘i. Angry about her fate, Pele made her home in the volcanoes, where her unpredictable and volatile temper continues to cause rivers of lava to devour the island.

Today, Hawaiians believe Pele resides in Mount Kilauea, an active volcano that has been erupting since September 2021. Residents frequently honour the goddess with offerings and dancing in an attempt to appease her and stop the eruptions. Many believe that speaking her name out loud is enough to anger Pele, as is eating the wild berries that grow near the mountain.

Sedna

According to Inuit mythology, Sedna is the goddess of the sea and marine animals. Several versions of the myth exist, recording Sedna as the Mother of the Sea and the ruler of the underworld. In one legend, Sedna grew so hungry that she attacked her father, the creator-god Anguta. Angry with her behaviour, Anguta banished Sedna to the underworld. In another version, Sedna disapproves of her father’s choice of men for her to marry, so marries a dog instead. After angering her father, she suffers the same fate and lives for the rest of eternity in the underworld.

There are several other versions of the Sedna myth, all ending in the same fate. In each story, when Anguta banished his daughter to the underworld, he took her out to sea in his kayak and threw her overboard. Attempting to save her life, Sedna held on to the edge of the boat, but Anguta cut off her fingers, forcing her to sink into the deep waters. Most legends agree that her fingers became the seals, walruses and whales that Inuit hunters regularly sought. If Sedna thought the hunt was unfair, she hid the creatures in her hair, forcing the Inuits to admit defeat and return to shore.

Lakshmi

Lakshmi, the goddess of abundance, money, wisdom and good luck, is one of the most widely worshipped Hindu goddesses. She is usually celebrated by Hindus during Diwali, also known as the Festival of Lights. In art, Lakshmi is usually depicted with four arms covered with jewellery. She is often seated on a lotus flower and surrounded by elephants.

According to myth, Lakshmi’s presence on Earth helped the warrior god Indra protect the world from demons. One day, a sage offered the god a garland of flowers, which he rejected and threw on the floor. This behaviour deeply upset Lakshmi, and she disappeared from the world. In her absence, the world became dark, and the people turned away from the gods. Desperate, Indra asked Lakshmi’s husband, Vishnu, protector of the universe, what he should do to rectify the situation. Vishnu advised Indra and the other gods to churn the Milky Ocean to regain Lakshmi and her blessings. The process took a thousand years, but eventually, Lakshmi rose to the ocean’s surface upon a lotus flower, and peace returned to the land.

Inanna/Ishtar

Inanna, also known as Ishtar, is a Sumerian goddess of love, beauty, desire, war and political power. She was worshipped widely across Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Akkadia and Assyria, who praised her with hymns and artworks. Nicknamed the “Lady of Heaven”, Inanna/Ishtar was respected as both male and female, although men tended to see her as a woman, particularly concerning matters of a sexual nature.

There are many myths about Inanna/Ishtar, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the hero refuses her romantic advances, causing the goddess to let all fire and brimstone loose. In another myth, she chose a young shepherd called Dumuzi as her husband. Shortly after, Dumuzi died, and Inanna travelled to the underworld to arrange for him to return to Earth for half the year. From then on, male rulers (kings) were identified with Dumuzi and underwent a Sacred Marriage ceremony to declare their devotion to Inanna/Ishtar and legitimise their rule.

Sekhmet

In Egyptian mythology, the powerful goddess Sekhmet was sent by her father Ra to destroy humankind. Immediately regretting his actions, Ra dyed a field red with ochre and beer to trick his daughter into believing the people had already slaughtered themselves. The trick worked, and Sekhmet drank the fake blood, becoming too drunk to carry out her original task.

An annual festival in honour of Sekhmet, who the Egyptians depicted in their artwork with the head of a lioness to symbolise her ferocity and destructive power, aimed to appease and soothe the wildness of the goddess. Revellers danced and played music while drinking large quantities of wine to imitate the drunkenness that stopped the wrath of the goddess. Warriors and leaders, such as Pharaoh Amenhotep III (r. 1388-1351 BC), erected statues of Sekhmet in the hopes she would bring them victory and longevity.

Isis

Isis was the most important female goddess and the most worshipped across ancient Egypt. Unlike Sekhmet, who the Egyptians tried to appease, Isis had divine authority over wisdom, healing, and protection, both in life and the afterlife. According to myth, after her husband Osiris was murdered, she resurrected him to conceive their son, Horus. Their son grew up to avenge his father’s murder and became the god whom all pharaohs were believed to personify.

Statues of Isis often depict her with wings, with which she could shield the mummified body of Osiris from harm. Although she brought Osiris back to life, he kept one foot in the afterlife as its ruler. Isis had the power to protect people from death but also protect them after death. When the people of ancient Egypt died, they did not go straight to a place of eternal rest. Instead, the dead went on a journey full of trials and judgements, which they needed to pass before reaching their resting place.

On top of Isis’ roles as a goddess, she had duties as a mother to care for and nurture Horus. Figurines of Isis nursing Horus were popular in ancient Egypt because they symbolised her as a life-giver and protector, which, in essence, every woman with a child also embodies.

Aphrodite/Venus

The Greek goddess Aphrodite, known as Venus in Roman mythology, is a well-known name. Greek myths have become part of contemporary literature and films, and many instantly recognise Aphrodite as the goddess of love. Aphrodite/Venus embodied ancient ideals of beauty, yet she was not revered for her looks alone. People prayed to the goddess about love, but also about social and military success. The Greeks and Romans believed she had the power to bring about reconciliation and conflict depending on her mood.

There are several stories about Aphrodite’s origins, with some claiming she was a daughter of Zeus, the king of the gods. Other myths, such as that recorded by Hesiod in the 8th or 7th century BC, record Aphrodite’s birth from the sea foam at the location the titan Kronos threw his father’s castrated testicles.

Aphrodite’s beauty often caused the demise of many a mortal man. Reports of men making love to statues of the goddess reveal how beautiful the depictions of Aphrodite/Venus were when first created. Others saw past her physical appearance to claim her as their patron, placing her image on their coins to advertise their victories. Such practice was done by Julius Caesar in 44 BC, Lucius Cornelius Sulla around 84 BC and Marcus Aurelius between 161 and 176 AD.

Athena/Minerva

The Greek goddess Athena, or Minerva as the Romans knew her, was the goddess of war and wisdom. The Greeks and Romans saw her as an emblem of strength, intellect and order. They sought her wisdom in all areas of public life, from military and politics to the arts. Athena was both a peaceful and an angry goddess, depending on the circumstances. In many myths, she helped and supported men in battle, but those who upset her lived to regret it.

Athena was allegedly born fully grown and fully armed from the head of her father, Zeus. Learning of a prophecy that he would have a child more powerful than he, Zeus ate the pregnant mother, mistakingly believing this would kill the child. Instead, Zeus developed a terrible headache until Athena erupted from his skull.

In Roman Britain, Minerva, the Roman equivalent of Athena, was associated with the Celtic deity Sulis. Minerva-Sulis had power over justice and health, making her a popular goddess in the city of Bath, where the spring waters are said to have healing properties. People came from far and wide to have their ailments cured but also to ask the goddess to inflict pain and suffering on their enemies. Archaeologists have discovered lead sheets containing names, curses and pleas to Minerva-Sulis at the bottom of the Roman baths.

The human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique believes women should channel their inner Athena. “If you’re angry, harness that. If you’re frustrated, express that. If you’re more of a peacemaker and a quiet, persevering advocate, own that as well. It’s not about having to subscribe to any stereotypically masculine or feminine form.” Athena had both stereotypically masculine and feminine traits, but this did not make her more or less of a woman.

In a similar way to the ancient Greek and Roman rulers who used images of Aphrodite/Venus on their coins, Athena/Minerva appeared on coins and medals in more recent centuries. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa (1717-80) were portrayed on medals alongside images of the goddess. Male military leaders also used Athena/Minerva’s image, including Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) and the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852).

Hekate

In both Greek and Roman mythology, Hekate was the goddess of witchcraft. Some people, such as those participating in Wiccan or other modern pagan activities, believe Hekate was a witch rather than a goddess. Nonetheless, in ancient mythology, Hekate stood between life and death at the entrance to the underworld, also known as Hades. As a result, she was associated with entrance-ways and crossroads and often received prayers during transitions or uncertain journeys. Hekate is also associated with the moon and magic, which play roles in pagan rituals.

Sculptures of Hekate tend to depict a woman with three heads or three conjoined women. With each head facing a different direction, the statues symbolise the goddess’ ability to help people during various transitions in life and death. The journalist Elizabeth Day believes Hekate’s three faces represent that through suffering comes access to strength and wisdom. Some statues of Hekate depict her holding torches, symbolising the goddess as a light in the darkness, guiding people through difficult situations.

Circe

Unlike Hekate, who was the goddess of witchcraft, Circe was a witch or divine sorceress. She famously appears in Homer’s Odyssey (8th century BC), which tells of the troublesome journey of the Greek hero Odysseus on his way home from the war in Troy. On route, Odysseus’ ship lands on the island of Aeaea, where he sends some of his men to scout the area. Here, they discover Circe, who invites them or lures them with her beauty into her house and offers them a meal. Unbeknownst to the men, Circe poisoned the food with various potions and herbs, transforming them into pigs.

When Odysseus searched for his missing men, Circe attempted the same trick, but he had been warned by the gods about her use of magic. Instead, Odysseus convinced Circe to return his men to human form and help him with the next stage of his journey. Whilst this may suggest male dominance of the woman, Odysseus had the help of the gods and did not defeat Circe alone.

Throughout history, people have feared witchcraft. Whilst both men and women were persecuted or killed for allegedly using magic, the majority of the accused witches were women. Societies feared these powerful women, going as far as to burn them at the stake to prevent them from causing any harm.

Lilith

According to Jewish mystical texts, God created Lilith as Adam’s first wife. Like Adam, God created her from the earth, giving Lilith equality with her husband. God intended Adam and Lilith to live as equals, but attempts at sexual intercourse caused problems. Adam tried to dominate Lilith, causing her to flee Eden rather than subordinate herself to him. Lilith was punished for her actions, but in recent years, she has been celebrated as an icon of female independence.

Throughout history, Lilith is portrayed as a figure of defiance or a spirit that wreaks havoc and refuses to obey. In popular culture, she is often referenced as an evil character, such as in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, in which she is the ancestor of the White Witch. Today, this dark side of Lilith is put to one side as feminists begin to view her as the first woman to stand up to male power.

Eve

In Christian tradition, Eve is the first wife of Adam. God created her from one of Adam’s ribs rather than from the Earth. The story of the first two humans created by God is widely known. God gave them the freedom to eat what they pleased, so long as they did not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Book of Genesis in the Bible records a serpent convincing Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, which she did and gave Adam some to eat. This act became known as the Fall and resulted in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Although it is not mentioned in Biblical scripture, people have blamed Eve for her seductive powers for leading Adam into sin. Whilst some argue both Adam and Eve were to blame for their actions, Eve received the brunt of the accusations, resulting in the stereotypical opinion that women were temptresses. Regardless of the truth and various opinions, the story gives Eve, as a woman, enough power for men of the future to fear the actions of women. Unfortunately, this led to the oppression of women and lack of rights, which women have been gradually regaining since the 19th century.

Mary

In Christianity, Mary is perhaps the most important woman, although she is not usually described as powerful. Yet, over a billion Catholics worship her across the world, giving her a sense of power that other Biblical women do not receive. The Virgin Mary was chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus Christ, the Lord and Saviour of the world. The Bible describes Mary as a righteous woman favoured by God, but looking at the bigger picture, she was neither rich, important or famous.

Comedian and feminist Deborah Frances-White notes that the Bible is written through the eyes of men, so Mary’s devotion and protection of the Messiah goes unnoticed. Frances-White also points out that without Mary, there would be no Christian story, and this power must be respected.

Some Christian art depicts Mary as the Queen of Heaven. Although it is not written in the Bible, Roman Catholics believe that at the time of her death, Mary was taken directly to Heaven. This event is known as the Assumption and is celebrated in some Catholic churches. Some Christian denominations believe Mary appears before mortals in times of need to offer guidance and protection. Thousands of sightings are recorded, particularly at pilgrimage sites such as Lourdes in France. These claims elevate Mary to a similar status as ancient goddesses, who also appeared to mortals when necessary.

Maryam

Depending on the point of view, the highly revered Islamic Maryam is the same person as the Virgin Mary. Maryam is described as “the righteous one” and is favoured by God above all women. Her devotion and virtue are a model for all Muslims to follow. A chapter of the Qur’an is named after Maryam, which features stories about her life, including the miraculous virgin birth of her son, the prophet Isa (Jesus).

In the present day, Muslims feel connected to Maryam in various ways. For some, her faith and hope are inspiring, and others appreciate her strength, honesty and spiritual fortitude. In both Islam and Christianity, Maryam/Mary is a timeless model for all women.

These are only a handful of women and deities who feature in the British Museum exhibition Feminine Power. The selection provides different versions of power, both physical and emotional, intentional or not. These examples prove women can be powerful and on equal footing with men. They are not more powerful, nor are they described as being like men. Women have their own power, which is equally as powerful as the power men wield.

The British Museum does not try to claim that women are better than men; that is not the point of this exhibition. What it does do is challenge stereotypes and discuss the meaning of power. For some, power may look like physical strength, rage, anger and determination; for others, it is peaceful, loving and nurturing. Whether women are fighting battles or taking care of others, they are always powerful.

Feminine Power: the Divine to the Demonic is open until 25th September 2022. Tickets are priced from £15 and advanced booking is recommended.


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The Man Who Drew Everything

For the very first time, 103 drawings by the Japanese artist Hokusai are on display. The illustrations, recently acquired by the British Museum, were produced for an illustrated encyclopedia called The Great Picture Book of Everything. Yet, the book was never published. Hokusai specialised in printmaking during the Edo Period (1603-1867), which involved drawing a design on paper to be pasted onto a woodblock and used as a stencil. As a result, the original drawings were destroyed. To see 103 original illustrations is a very rare honour and highlights Hokusai’s skill and style. 

Katsushika Hokusai lived between 1760 and 1849 in the Katsushika district of Edo (Tokyo). Not much is known about his childhood, except his father was an artisan who possibly taught his son to paint from a young age. Throughout his life, Hokusai went by over 30 names and pseudonyms. As a child, he was known as Tokitarō, but whether this was his birth name is uncertain.

At age 12, Hokusai started working in a library where he became familiar with illustrated books made from woodcut blocks. Two years later, he became an apprentice to a woodcarver until the age of 18, after which he joined the studio of Katsukawa Shunshō (1726-93). Renamed Shunrō by his master, he produced his first set of prints.

Between joining the studio and the end of the 18th century, Hokusai (or Shunrō) had two wives, both of whom died young. He fathered two sons and three daughters, the youngest of whom became his assistant. Known as Ōi (1800-66), she became an artist in her own right. Around the time of the birth of his children, Hokusai began exploring European styles, which ultimately resulted in his expulsion from the Katsukawa studio.

Away from the constraints of the Katsukawa studio, which primarily produced prints of courtesans and actors, Hokusai began focusing on landscapes and people of all levels of society. He joined the Tawaraya School of artists, changing his name to Tawaraya Sōri in the process. Hokusai mostly worked for private clients, producing prints for special occasions and book illustrations. He eventually broke away from Tawaraya School and set out as an independent artist under the name Hokusai Tomisa.

In the early 1800s, he changed his name to Katsushika Hokusai, by which he is known today. “Katsushika” refers to his district of birth in Edo, and “Hokusai”, literally meaning “north studio”, honours the North Star, a symbol of a deity in Nichiren Buddhism. As an independent artist, Hokusai took on over 50 pupils but continued focusing on his artwork and self-promotion. He also collaborated with the novelist Takizawa Bakin (1767-1848), producing illustrations for several novels, including Chinsetsu Yumiharizuki (Strange Tales of the Crescent Moon.

At the age of 51, Hokusai changed his name once again. Under the name Taito, he produced “Hokusai Manga” (Hokusai’s Sketches) about various subjects. This should not be confused with the story-telling manga of the 21st-century. Hokusai’s manga featured random drawings, such as his Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing manual (1812). This book was both an easy way to make money and to attract new students.

In 1820, Hokusai changed his name to Iitsu. Under this new name, he published his most famous work, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, which included the picture Great Wave off Kanagawa. The British Museum owns three copies of the Great Wave, which date to around 1831. As the scientific researcher Capucine Korenberg points out, there is no “original” copy of the drawing because between 5,000 and 15,000 were printed in the 1800s. Despite the significant output, only 111 or so survive today.

By studying the copies of the Great Wave, Korenberg identified subtle differences between each print. To create the print, Hokusai drew one copy with pen and ink, which he sent to his publisher, Nishimuraya Yohachi. The original drawing was pasted onto a block of cherry wood and given to a block cutter (hori-shi), who carved out the “white space” between the lines with a chisel. This resulted in the “key-block”, which could be used numerous times to produce prints.

Through her study of the Great Wave prints, Korenberg noted that some were printed using different key-blocks. She assumes new blocks were produced after the old ones wore down. Korenberg also suggests changes were made to the blocks to “improve” the print or make it more appealing to specific customers. In some prints, the outlines are stronger than others, and the colours brighter. To emphasise the differences, a modern reproduction of the print was made in 2017 by the sixth-generation proprietor of Takahashi Studio. They used the same colours, or as close to, as the “original” prints, which have faded over time. Aside from the colours, there are several subtle differences, such as the shape of some of the lines.

Whilst the Great Wave off Kanagawa is Hokusai’s most famous work, it is not the main focus of the exhibition at the British Museum. The original drawing of the Great Wave was destroyed during the printmaking process, as were those of all Hokusai’s other prints. The only surviving sketches are those that never made it to publication. Although some may consider these works “unfinished”, they provide an insight into Hokusai’s drawing ability, which gets lost during the printing process. The small size of the illustrations is also surprising, especially considering the intricate lines and detail in each drawing.

In 1849, Hokusai famously exclaimed from his deathbed, “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years … Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.” Unfortunately, the 90-year-old passed away shortly afterwards, leaving over one hundred drawings intended for The Great Picture Book of Everything unprinted. The illustrations were placed in a purpose-made silk Japanese box and forgotten about for many years. In 1948, the drawings appeared in a Parisian auction, then disappeared from public once more. Finally, they resurfaced in 2019, and the British Museum used a grant from the Theresia Gerda Buch Bequest and Art Fund to purchase them. Nearly two hundred years since their creation, Hokusai’s hand-drawn illustrations are on display for the first time.

As well as demonstrating Hokusai’s illustration skills, the drawings explore ancient history and the natural world, as well as the desire to learn about unfamiliar countries and cultures. The Tokugawa government forbade the Japanese to travel abroad, which fueled their desire to learn about the world. Only those with special permits could leave the country, so Hokusai set out with the determination to sketch and document everything for those stuck back at home.

Despite the strict control over travel between different countries, trade between Japan and China flourished. Silk, ceramics and daily goods often came from China, and along with them, ancient Chinese lores and traditions. Several of Hokusai’s illustrations represent Chinese legends about the creation of the world and the beliefs of Chinese scholars, poets and Daoist philosophers. Hokusai explored the origins of the universe and human beings, including prehistoric deities, such as Kang Hui, who allegedly flooded the world in a rage.

In one illustration, Hokusai drew the mythological general Hou Yi, the greatest Chinese archer of all time. According to legend, he married the moon goddess, Chang’e, and shot down nine of the ten suns. The ten suns were making the temperature on Earth unbearably hot and causing widespread famine and drought. To save the planet, Hou Yi attempted to shoot all ten out of the sky. He hit all but one, which hid in a cave, plunging the Earth into unbearable darkness and cold. After much begging, the sun reemerged and remained the only sun in the sky.

Chinese myths explain the beginning of nearly all aspects of society and culture, including music, medicine, carpentry, and art. Most of these discoveries are associated with mythical emperors who were revered as gods, such as Fuxi, who the myths credit with the invention of music in the form of a transverse harp, hunting, fishing, domestication, and cooking with fire. Confucian scholars believe the origins of Chinese society derived from the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors in around 2,000 BC. Fuxi was the first of the Three Sovereigns, and the first of the Five Emperors was the Yellow Emperor, who reigned for 100 years.

As well as Chinese mythology, Hokusai illustrated other East Asian legends, in particular Buddhist India. Buddha came from India and passed his teachings on to his disciples, who gradually spread Buddhism to neighbouring countries. Travelling storytellers wove sacred Buddhist texts into their tales and took them to China, from whence the myths made their way to Japan. Some narratives became part of popular culture, featuring in stage dramatizations and such-like. Hokusai looked at these well-known stories and explored the original myths.

One illustration depicts the moment the boatman Monk Decheng knocked Jiashan into the sea. According to the story, Decheng left monastic life to become a ferryman. While sailing his passengers across the river, he taught them about self-realisation. On one occasion, a man called Jiashan boarded the boat, and Decheng began his usual spiel. In the middle of the journey, Decheng knocked Jiashan overboard and hit him three times with his oar, upon which Jiashan reached enlightenment. Several versions of the myth exist, and according to one conclusion, Decheng named Jiashan as his successor, then jumped into the river and drowned.

Another illustration shows the fate of Virūdhaka, the king of Kosala who lived during the time of Buddha. Despite his mother coming from the Shaka clan, the same family as Buddha, Virūdhaka did not receive a warm welcome. As it turned out, the king was the son of a slave girl, which he took as a grave insult. Virūdhaka planned to annihilate the Shaka clan, despite warnings from Buddha that he would die in the process. Virūdhaka succeeded in destroying most of the Shaka clan, but during the victory banquet was struck by a bolt of lightning and killed.

Hokusai’s depiction of the lightning bolt striking Virūdhaka is an early version of modern manga, which developed a century later. Contemporary manga artists use lines of varying thickness and length to indicate speed, sound and physical impact. Hokusai surrounded Virūdhaka with a sunburst of lines to demonstrate the strength and direct hit of the lightning bolt.

Not all Hokusai’s illustrations for The Great Picture Book of Everything focused on mythical beings and stories. He demonstrated the typical clothing and costumes of men from different cultures and countries to fuel the Japanese people’s interest in other lands. He focused on East, Southeast and Central Asian countries, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Ryūkyū (a chain of Japanese islands that once belonged to China), India, China and Korea. He also drew a Portuguese man who lived in Asia during the Edo period. At this time, the Japanese called Europeans “Southern barbarians”.

The majority of Hokusai’s illustrations for The Great Picture Book of Everything cover geographical features and nature. Several depict Japanese landscapes, mountains, seas and rivers, home to many animals and plant life. Rather than simply drawing each animal, Hokusai detailed the movement of fur, limbs and tails to create a sense of individual characterization and energy. His sketch of two street cats, for instance, demonstrates a standoff as one reprimands the other for stepping on his territory near the overgrown hibiscus plant.

Other animals Hokusai drew include otters, bears, tigers, leopards, deer, donkeys, porcupines, goats, camels, ostriches, and aquatic birds. As well as these, Hokusai sketched mythical beasts, for instance, kirin, a dragon-shaped like a deer with an ox’s tail, and baku, a nightmare-devouring beast created from the leftover pieces when the gods finished forming all other animals. Hokusai also drew a hairy rhinoceros with a tortoise-like shell on its back. This was probably not a mythical creature but based upon descriptions of the animal.

Hokusai occasionally drew natural animals alongside mythical beasts, for example, his sketch of a phoenix and peacock. In Chinese tradition, and subsequently Japanese, the peacock is a manifestation of the phoenix. The phoenix is one of the Twelve Symbols of Sovereignty, the others being the sun, moon, stars, mountain, dragon, goblets, seaweed, grains, fire, an axe head, and the “fu” symbol (representing the power of the emperor to distinguish evil from good and right from wrong.) According to the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 AD), a peacock represented divinity, rank, power, and beauty. The eyes on its tail are associated with the goddess Guan Yin, whose name means “The One Who Perceives the Sounds of the World.” Buddhists believe when they die, Guan Yin places them in the heart of a lotus and sends them to the Pure Land of Sukhāvatī.

When Tim Clark, the former Head of the Japanese Section and now an Honourary Fellow at the British Museum, recommended the purchase of Hokusai’s drawings for The Great Picture Book of Everything, little did the museum know how popular they would prove with the public. Tickets sell out daily as people flock to see Hokusai’s preliminary drawings up close for the first time. The purchase has allowed the museum to collaborate with scholars across the globe to deepen their understanding of printmaking and Japanese culture and history. Just as the prohibitions on travel made the Japanese people of the late Edo period hungry for knowledge about history, foreign lands and the natural world, people of the 21st-century can discover the same things by studying Hokusai’s drawings. Displaying the drawings now, as the world comes out of lockdown, helps visitors relate to the desire to travel during the Edo period. Whereas the contemporary world resorted to digital technology to survive the pandemic restrictions, the Japanese used books, stories and drawings to learn about the world beyond their shores.

Hokusai’s achievements as an artist have influenced people for over 200 years. During his lifetime, his work inspired up-and-coming printmakers and book illustrators, and before his death, his prints had made their way to Europe. Impressionist artists, such as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, replicated themes of Hokusai’s prints in their paintings, and several European painters developed large collections of Japanese prints, in particular, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Gustav Klimt and Édouard Manet.

In the 1985 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Hokusai is recorded as having “impressed Western artists, critics and art lovers alike, more, possibly, than any other single Asian artist.” This entry proves true today as Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything entices thousands of people to the British Museum. The exhibition runs until 30th January 2022 and tickets, priced at £9, are selling fast. So, book now to avoid disappointment!


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Nero: destroyer or builder?

Until 24th October 2021, visitors to the British Museum have the opportunity to explore the life of one of Rome’s most infamous rulers. Nero: the man behind the myth tells Nero’s story through 200 ancient objects, many of which are lucky to exist today. As well as learning about Nero’s tyrannical rule, the items on display reveal the history and skill of an ancient civilisation. The British Museum allows individuals to admire the craftsmanship of statues, armour, coins and items of luxury. Sticking to the known facts, the museum encourages people to develop their own opinion about the Emperor Nero. Was he a destroyer of Rome or Rome’s finest rebuilder?

The exhibition begins with a marble statue of Nero as a boy, approximately 13 years old. Three years later, Nero would become the fifth Emperor of Rome and the final ruler of Rome’s first dynasty, the Julio-Claudians. Born on 15th December AD 37, Nero’s real name was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. His father died when he was very young and his mother, Agrippina (AD 15/16-59), later married Emperor Claudius (10 BC-AD 54).

Eighty years before Nero became Emperor, his great-great-grandfather, Augustus (63 BC-AD 14), established a new form of government in Rome, known as a principate. Augustus was adopted into the Julian family by his great-uncle, Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), whose death sparked a civil war. When Augustus crowned himself Emperor, he ended the war, which resulted in a long period of peace and prosperity.

In 38 AD, Augustus married Livia (58 BC-AD 29), the mother of Tiberius (42 BC-AD 37), who became the next Emperor of Rome. Before Augustus died, he persuaded Tiberius to adopt his great-nephew Germanicus (15 BC-AD 19). Augustus wished Germanicus to be the heir to the throne after Tiberius. Unfortunately, Germanicus died prematurely, probably from poison, so the throne passed down to Germanicus’ son, Caligula (AD 12-41).

Caligula, to put it bluntly, was a tyrant. He banished his sisters, Agrippina, the mother of Nero and Livilla, for allegedly conspiring against him. To end his destructive rule, the Praetorian Guard assassinated him. Since Caligula had no children, his uncle Claudius, the brother of Germanicus, became the next Emperor. Claudius recalled Agrippina from exile and married her. Although Claudius wanted his son Britannicus to inherit the throne, Agrippina persuaded him to choose Nero as crown prince and heir.

Not everyone approved of Claudius’ decision, particularly the supporters of his previous wife Messalina, the mother of Britannicus. Even before Claudius recalled Agrippina from exile, Messalina feared Nero’s growing popularity. She allegedly sent men to kill Nero, but they were chased away by snakes hiding in the boy’s bedroom. Although Nero denied this story, he began wearing a gold bracelet containing the remains of a snakeskin.

To cement his claim as heir, Nero married Claudius’ daughter, Claudia Octavia in AD 53. According to rumours, Agrippina believed her son was ready to take over as Emperor, so she poisoned Claudius. To begin with, Agrippina acted as her son’s co-ruler and appointed Nero’s former tutor, Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, as his chief advisor.

Seneca, along with the Praetorian Guard, tried to weaken Agrippina’s grip on her son. The Praetorians were established by Augustus as his personal guard, and they continued to support and protect each subsequent emperor. They swore allegiance to Nero the moment his mother crowned him as Emperor, but they disapproved of her constant meddling in empire affairs. Over time, Nero managed to push his mother away, eventually removing her from the palace after Britannicus’ death in AD 55. Agrippina’s waning power is evident when studying Roman coins. The first silver denarius issued after Claudius’ death shows a profile of Agrippina in a prominent position. Later coins contained the heads of both Agrippina and Nero, facing each other. In AD 55, a new design put Nero’s face in front of his mother’s, and the following year, Agrippina disappeared from coins altogether.

As well as the throne, Nero inherited the empire’s many problems, including tensions with rival powers. For years, the Parthians argued over the state of Armenia, but soon Nero directed his attention to Britain, where Boudica, Queen of the Iceni tribe, started a violent rebellion. Claudius captured parts of Britain in AD 43, and by AD 60, Boudica raised an army powerful enough to fight back. As well as the Iceni tribe, Boudica hired soldiers from the Trinovante tribe of Essex, totalling tens of thousands of people. They destroyed many Roman settlements, including Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamium (St. Albans) and Londinium (London). The Roman General, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, finally defeated Boudica in AD 61.

Following the war with Britain, Nero resumed focusing on Rome’s long-standing struggle for control of Armenia. Relations with Parthia grew worse when the Parthian king installed his brother Tiridates on the Armenian throne. After taking military action, Nero agreed to let Tiridates rule over Armenia on the condition that he let Nero crown him as king. With this compromise in place, the two empires finally experienced a period of peace.

When not worrying about the actions of his enemies, Nero concentrated on the people of the Roman Empire. He built many new buildings, including the Imperial Palace, baths and food markets. Nero improved the food system and implemented tax reforms to benefit the population. Unlike previous emperors, Nero also believed providing entertainment for his people was important. He encouraged public performances of plays and became the first emperor to act on stage – something that divided public opinion. Nero was also a keen musician, but his eagerness to perform in public provoked resentment among the senatorial elite who believed the Emperor should not mix with the plebs.

Nonetheless, Nero’s involvement with everyday entertainment made him popular with the people of Rome. Nero enjoyed chariot racing, despite the consensus that Charioteers were of low status. Racers competed in specific teams or factiones, each recognised by a different colour. Written evidence suggests Nero raced for the Green team because he often dyed the sand in the arena that colour. Nero’s passion for horse racing began as a child when he and his friends reportedly played with wooden chariots and toy horses.

According to Nero’s biographer, Suetonius (AD 69-122), Nero performed the roles of the mythical figures Orestes and Oedipus in tragedies on the stage. Based on Greek myths, Orestes killed his mother Clytemnestra to avenge his father, and Oedipus unknowingly committed incest with his mother. There is no physical evidence that Nero played these roles, and some suggest Suetonius deliberately made this claim to hint at crimes Nero committed against his mother Agrippina.

Nero ordered his mother’s death in AD 59 after he suspected her of plotting against him. He also exiled and executed his first wife for similar reasons. Actions such as these were not uncommon in the Roman Empire, and Roman princesses often faced accusations of conspiring against rulers. Nonetheless, Nero’s actions tarnished his reputation, particularly his act of matricide.

During her lifetime, wild tales of Agrippina’s sexual promiscuity spread across the empire, as did her alleged sexual relationship with her son. These may only be rumours made up by those who feared her power. Nero openly admitted to ordering Agrippina’s death but claimed she had planned to assassinate him. Whilst some celebrated Nero’s salvation, others soured towards the Emperor, despite previously disliking Agrippina.

In AD 62, Nero remarried to Poppaea Sabina, who soon faced the wrath of the senate, who distrusted women in power. Nonetheless, the public loved Poppaea, which they demonstrated with poems and writing scratched into walls: NeroPoppaenses.

“Poppaea sent as gifts to most holy Venus a beryl, an ear-drop pearl and a large single pearl. When Caesar came to most holy Venus and when your heavenly feet brought you there, Augustus, there was a countless weight of gold.”

Poppaea gave birth to Nero’s only child, Claudia Augusta, in AD 63. Sadly, the child died three months later. Poppaea passed away in AD 65 after suffering a miscarriage. Although Nero expressed his grief by honouring his wife with a lavish funeral, many believed her death was his fault, suggesting he had violent tendencies.

Both Poppaea and Claudia Augusta were deified, and a marble statue of the latter was produced, depicting what she might have looked like if she had reached childhood. The hairstyle resembles Nero’s at the time of her birth, and in her right hand, she holds a butterfly. This insect is a symbol of the soul, which flutters out of the body after death.

Following Poppaea’s death, Nero married a third time. Not much is know about his third wife, Statilia Messalina, other than she outlived him. The lack of information suggests the public did not warm to her as they had Poppaea, who they saw as the perfect wife for Nero.

It is hard to trust ancient documents, especially those concerning the Roman Empire because they often contain exaggerated facts or outright lies depending on the author’s opinion or feelings. Poppaea’s death is one such example, and another is the great fire of Rome in AD 64. Flames raged for nine days, destroying a large portion of the city. Although Nero helped reconstruct buildings and provided relief for citizens, many accused him of starting the fire. The myth claims Nero stayed in his palace and “fiddled while Rome burned”, yet other evidence suggests Nero was not in the city at the time of the fire.

Three of fourteen Roman districts were reduced to ruins by the fire, including the Imperial Palace. Fires were common in Rome, as they were in most major cities due to flammable building materials and the reliance on flames for light and warmth. Yet many suspected an act of arson and pinned the blame on Nero, who in turn accused a new sect of Jewish origin, later known as Christians. Natural disasters also impacted Nero’s reign, for instance, the earthquake in AD 62, which destroyed most of Pompeii.

Whilst Nero supplied aid for the rebuilding of Rome and Pompeii, he also started building a new palace to replace the one lost in the fire. Only a few traces of the old palace remain, but its opulence is evident from the surviving fragments of ornate columns. Nero wanted his new palace to be bigger and better and named it Domus Aurea, “Golden House”. Nero’s plans were ambitious, and the building remained incomplete by his death in AD 68. He imported yellow marble from North Africa, red and green porphyry from Egypt and Greece, and white and black marble from Turkey to decorate the floors and walls of the palace. Frescoes adorned the ceilings, and the walls featured intricate geometric friezes.

Nero planned to host large banquets in the Domus Aurea as a way of expressing his wealth and power. He owned many expensive items with which he could impress his guests, including an exceptionally rare cup made from the mineral fluorspar. Ancient historians claim Nero paid one million sesterces for this item. He also owned silver dining sets. Nero’s political enemies used the construction of Domus Aurea and Nero’s possessions to paint him as a tyrant, pointing out that his new palace sat on land that once belonged to the public.

During the aftermath of the fire and the death of his second wife, Nero was at the height of his power. This was also the turning point that led to his demise. Nero planned to expand the empire across the Black Sea by invading Ethiopia, but revolts in Judea, Gaul (France) and Spain forced him to abandon these ideals. He also had less support from the senate than he had in previous years.

Nero managed to suppress the rebellions in the outer areas of the empire and marked the end of a lengthy war with Pathia in AD 66 by opening the gates of the temple of Janus in Rome. These gates were symbolically closed during times of conflict and opened during times of peace. The last time the gates were open was during the reign of Augustus. Nero celebrated this victory by issuing coins to mark the occasion.

During a tour of Greece, Nero aimed to participate in all the Greek festivals, but some of his military campaigns prevented him. Nonetheless, he granted Greece freedom from taxation in AD 67 and used the 6,000 prisoners captured during the rebellion in Judea to start building a canal in Corinth. These acts made Nero popular with the people, but those in the elite classes began to despise him.

Many members of the Senate felt threatened by Nero’s love of the common people. They wanted the Emperor and Senate to tower above the rest of the empire, but Nero often stooped down to his people’s level – although his palace suggests this was not always the case. In AD 65, the senator Gaius Calpurnius Piso led a plot against Nero known as the Pisonian Conspiracy. When Nero found out, he ordered Piso and the other conspirators to commit suicide. Although the people of Rome rejoiced that Piso’s plot had failed, other senators started to turn against Nero, and more plots followed. By AD 67, Nero had few allies left in political and military positions. Knowing this, many senators and governors took the opportunity to rebel, including Gaius Iulius Vindex, the governor of Gaul.

As the rebellions gained momentum, the remaining members of the Senate declared Nero an enemy of the state and threatened him with execution. To avoid this degrading death, Nero chose to commit suicide in June AD 68 at the age of 30. His 14-year reign came to an abrupt end, leaving people torn between grief and joy. For some, Nero had been a saviour, and rumours spread that he would return from the dead. For others, Nero had been a tyrant and someone to fear.

The year following Nero’s death became known as the Year of the Four Emperors, where the elite classes fought over the throne. Nero had no children and no heir, so there was no obvious successor. The first man to claim the throne was Lucius Sulpicius Galba, the 70-year-old governor of Spain. He reigned for seven months but failed to gain popularity with the people, resulting in his assassination. Marcus Salvius Otho, the governor of Lusitania (Portugal), took Galba’s place but found it equally difficult to exert his power. After three months, Otho took his life.

Aulus Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior (Lower Germany), took Otho’s place but failed to gain support. Although he tried to abdicate, he was executed by the Praetorian Guard. Finally, Flavius Vespasianus (Vespasian), a man from relatively humble origins, claimed the throne in December AD 69. He had supported Nero and fought on the Emperor’s behalf during the Jewish rebellion of AD 66. The people and Senate were happy with this final competitor, and Vespasian ruled for ten years until his death, after which his son Titus took the throne.

During the Year of the Four Emperors, many of Nero’s statues were destroyed. As a result, very few remain today. Nero’s enemies deliberately decapitated his stone portraits, and others were used to produce new statues of later emperors. A marble portrait of Vespasian, for example, was re-carved from a likeness of Nero. Traces of Nero’s signature hairstyle are evident at the base of the neck.

The Romans attempted to write Nero out of history, which adds weight to the stories about the tyrannical Emperor. The British Museum questions these beliefs by providing evidence to the contrary. The exhibition, whilst trying to stay impartial, leans towards a more positive description of Nero. Many of the negative connotations were written long after Nero’s death. These stories were likely distorted and exaggerated over the years. That is not to say there is no truth in those allegations, but the physical evidence reveals Nero rebuilt Rome after the great fire, achieved peace throughout the empire and had a large public following.

So, was Nero a cruel, ruthless tyrant or was he a young, inexperienced ruler trying his best in a divided society? Was he a megalomaniac, or did Nero try to do what was best for his Empire? Should we believe what historians of the past have written or make judgements based on evidence unearthed by archaeologists? Ultimately, we will never know the truth, but this exhibition reveals we cannot fully rely on anything to give us an accurate account of ancient history.

Nero: the man behind the myth is open until 24th October 2021 in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum. Tickets cost £20 for Adults, but Members and under 16s can visit for free.


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The Making of a Saint

Until 22nd August 2021, the British Museum is finally hosting its Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint exhibition, which celebrates the 850th anniversary of Becket’s brutal murder. Having been postponed due to Covid-19, visitors can now discover the murder that shook the Middle Ages and learn about the life, death and legacy of Thomas Becket. The exhibition features objects from the British Museum’s collection and those on loan from Canterbury Cathedral and other locations around Europe and the United Kingdom. Each object, whether an illuminated manuscript, item of jewellery or a sacred reliquary, helps to tell the story of Becket’s journey from a merchant’s son to an archbishop, to a martyr and a saint.

Pendant with an image of Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, 15th century, England.

Thomas Becket was born in Cheapside, London in December 1120 to Gilbert and Matilda. Both parents were of Norman descent and may have named their son after St Thomas the Apostle, whose feast day falls on 21st December. Gilbert Becket was a small landowner who gained his wealth as a merchant in textiles. At the age of 10, Becket attended Merton Priory in the southwest of London. He later attended a grammar school in the city where he studied grammar, logic, and rhetoric. At around 18 years old, his parents sent Becket to Paris, where his education expanded to include the Liberal Arts, such as arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.

After three years, Becket returned to England, where his father found him a position as clerk for a family friend, Osbert Huitdeniers. Shortly after this, Becket began working for Theobald of Bec (1090-1161), the Archbishop of Canterbury. At this time, Canterbury Cathedral was a place of learning, and Becket received training in diplomacy. Theobald entrusted his clerk to travel on several important missions to Rome. He also sent Becket to Bologna, Italy, and Auxerre, France, to study canon law. Following this, Theobald named Becket the Archdeacon of Canterbury and nominated him for the vacant post of Lord Chancellor.

Thomas Becket was appointed as Lord Chancellor in January 1155. He became a good friend of King Henry II (1133-89), who trusted Becket to issue documents in his name. Becket had access to Henry’s royal seal, which depicted the king sitting on a throne, holding a sword and an orb. For his work as Lord Chancellor, Becket earned 5 shillings a week. The king also sent his son Henry (1155-83) to live in Becket’s household. It was customary to foster out royal children into other noble families, so it was a great honour for Becket.

Following Theobald’s death in 1161, Henry II nominated Becket for the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. This was a strange choice because Becket had no religious education and lived a comparatively secular lifestyle. Nonetheless, a royal council of bishops and noblemen agreed to Becket’s election. On 2nd June 1162, Becket was ordained a priest, and the following day, consecrated as archbishop by Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester (1096-1171).

It soon appeared Henry had an ulterior motive for selecting Becket as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. He wished Becket to continue to hold the position of Lord Chancellor and put the royal government first, rather than the church. This would place the church under Henry’s power, but his plan failed, and Becket renounced the chancellorship, which Henry saw as a form of betrayal. Despite his secular background, Becket transformed into an ascetic and started living a simple life devoted to humility, compassion, meditation, patience and prayer. Becket also started to oppose Henry’s decisions in court, which created significant tension between them.

The rift between Henry and Becket continued to grow throughout the two years following Becket’s archbishopric appointment. Their main arguments focused on the different rights of the secular court and the Church. Henry wished to punish churchmen accused of crimes at court, whereas Becket insisted this infringed upon the rights of the Church. Neither Henry nor Becket gave up their argument, and the issue was never resolved. Becket disagreed with many of Henry’s decisions and refused to endorse and sign documents.

On 8th October 1164, Henry summoned Becket to Northampton Castle to stand trial for allegations of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the Chancellor’s office. Despite Becket’s attempts to defend himself, he was convicted of the exaggerated crimes. Angry and fearing for his life, Becket stormed out of the trial and fled to the continent, where he spent six years in exile under the protection of Louis VII of France (1120-80).

At his coronation banquet, the Young King is served by his father, King Henry II (Becket Leaves, c.1220-1240).

Running away did not fully protect Becket from the king. Henry confiscated Becket’s land and wealth in retaliation for leaving the country without his permission. He also forced members of Becket’s family into exile. The king took the opportunity to go against the ways of the Church, knowing that while in exile, Becket could not prevent anything. On 14th June 1170, Henry II had his son Henry crowned as joint monarch at Westminster Abbey. By ancient rights, only the Archbishop of Canterbury could perform coronations, but the king undermined Becket by asking the Archbishop of York and Bishop of London to conduct the ceremony.

Learning of the “Young King’s” coronation, Becket approached Pope Alexander III (1100-81), who had previously forbidden the Archbishop of York from conducting such ceremonies. The Pope permitted Becket to excommunicate the bishops involved. This was a punishment reserved for serious offences.

Becket initiated a fragile truce with Henry II and returned to Canterbury on 2nd December 1170. At this time, Henry was unaware that Becket had excommunicated the bishops involved with young Henry’s coronation but soon learned about the act while at his Christmas court in Normandy. He reportedly flew into a rage and called Becket a traitor and “low-born clerk”. Four of Henry’s knights witnessed this outburst and hatched a plan to arrest Thomas Becket on behalf of the king.

Alabaster panel showing the murder of Thomas Becket

On 29th December 1170, the four knights: Reginald FitzUrse (1145-73), Hugh de Morville (d.1202), Richard Brito and William de Tracy (1133-89), arrived in Canterbury. They found Becket in the cathedral and informed him he had to go to Winchester to account for his actions. Becket refused and proceeded to the main hall for vespers. Meanwhile, the knights went away and returned with their armour and weapons. Seeing this, the monks tried to bar the doors to the cathedral, but Becket allegedly exclaimed, “It is not right to make a fortress out of the house of prayer!”

According to eye-witness reports, the four knights rushed into the cathedral wielding their weapons and shouting, “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King and country?” Standing near the stairs to the crypt, Becket announced, “I am no traitor, and I am ready to die.” The knights attacked, severing a piece of Becket’s skull. “His crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church.” (Gerald of Wales, Expugnatio Hibernica, 1189)

Thomas Becket’s story does not end at his death. The exhibition at the British Museum uses objects to narrate the events in chronological order. Becket’s death occurs only one-third of the way into the narrative, suggesting the Archbishop’s legend had only just begun.

The spilling of Becket’s blood had defiled the sanctity of the cathedral. The monks needed to act quickly to clean up the mess. They placed his body in a marble tomb in the crypt and cleaned up the blood, which they kept in special containers. Due to the number of eye-witnesses, the news of Becket’s death spread quickly, so the monks closed the cathedral to the public to prevent people from entering out of morbid curiosity.

On hearing of Becket’s murder, Henry II was shocked but initially refused to punish his men. This implicated the king of the crime, and rumours soon spread that Henry had ordered his men to kill the Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket’s popularity grew, and Henry feared his people turning against him. The pope also suspected Henry of foul play, so to appease him, Henry performed penance twice in Normandy in 1172. Afterwards, the king travelled to Canterbury to acknowledged his involvement with the crime and asked the monks to punish him accordingly. Henry underwent public humiliation by walking barefoot through the city.

Cult-like worship of Thomas Becket began throughout the country before spreading to the continent. People travelled from far and wide to visit his tomb, which the monks eventually opened to the public. Soon, rumours spread of miracles that happened to those who visited the location of Becket’s remains, which drew thousands more to the cathedral. On 21st February 1173, the Pope officially made Becket a saint and endorsed the growing cult.

Lead ampulla, c. 1170–1200, England.

Members of the Thomas Becket cult believed the saint’s blood held miracle properties. Becket’s blood-stained clothes were sought by those who believed touching them could cure them of many ailments. The monks also sold Becket’s diluted blood, known as St Thomas Water, to pilgrims in special flasks decorated to reflect the saint’s life. Many unwell people consumed the “water”, who claimed it healed them from their life-threatening illnesses. These flasks have been found as far as the Netherlands, France and Norway, indicating the distance people travelled to visit the saint.

A monk called Benedict, who witnessed Becket’s murder, undertook the task of recording all the miracles that occurred to pilgrims visiting Becket’s tomb. By 1173, he had recorded over 270 stories, and still, people continued to arrive at the cathedral in the hopes of receiving similar treatment. In 1220, Becket’s body was moved to a new shrine in Trinity Chapel, which helped accommodate the influx of visitors. This relocation marked the 50th anniversary of Becket’s death and was celebrated with a ceremony attended by King Henry III (1207-72), the papal legate, the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton (1150-1228), and large numbers of foreign dignitaries.

On loan from Canterbury Cathedral is a “miracle window” that reveals several experiences of pilgrims who visited Becket’s shrine. In 1174, the cathedral suffered a devastating fire, which destroyed most of the east side of the building. Over the next fifty years, stonemasons worked laboriously to repair the damage. During this time, they also built a new shrine for Becket’s body. The new chapel was decorated with stone columns and a marble floor. The stained-glass “miracle windows” completed the shrine.

“In the place where Thomas suffered … and where he was buried at last, the palsied are cured, the blind see, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the lepers are cleansed, the possessed of a devil are freed … I should not have dreamt of writing such words … had not my eyes been witness to the certainty of this.” (John of Salisbury, Becket’s clerk and biographer, 1171)

The six-metre tall windows, twelve in all, only reveal a handful of the miracles following Becket’s death. The window exhibited at the British Museum is the fifth in the series and records people cured of leprosy, dropsy, fevers, paralysis and other illnesses and disabilities. Six panels of the window tell the story of Eilward of Westoning, a peasant accused of theft. He was punished by blinding and castration, but during the night, Becket visited him during a vision. When Eilward awoke, he discovered his eyes and testicles had regrown.

St Thomas’ popularity continued to grow during the next couple of centuries. The pilgrimage to his shrine became as famous as those to Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims arrived from as far north as Iceland and as far south as Italy to visit Becket’s shrine and experience his miracles. The cathedral began selling souvenir badges and other paraphernalia made from lead, resulting in one of the earliest gift shops in the world. The majority of the badges featured images of Becket as the Archbishop of Canterbury or with a sword in his scalp to indicate his murder.

One of these souvenirs is referenced in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340s-1400), one of the world’s earliest pieces of literature. The book tells the story of an imagined group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury. To pass the time on their journey to the shrine, each character competes to tell the best tale, for which the winner would receive a free meal on their return to the Tabard Inn in London. Chaucer’s characters are an eclectic mix of medieval pilgrims, such as a yeoman, a merchant, a shipman, a knight, a miller and a friar.

Pilgrimages to St Thomas’ shrine continued until the reign of Henry VIII (1491-1547). English kings and their families respected the saint, often visiting the cathedral and commissioning spectacular commemorative items. Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), did the same, but the king’s attitude towards Thomas Becket changed when he tried to file for a divorce. Pope Clement VII (1478-1534) refused to comply with Henry’s wishes, so he took it upon himself to reject Catholicism and create a new branch of Christianity, the Church of England. In the years following his self-appointment as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, Henry dissolved Catholic convents and monasteries, destroying buildings and their contents in the process.

On 5th September 1538, Henry VIII arrived in Canterbury, where he and his men set about dismantling the shrine of Thomas Becket. They stole the jewels and gold embedded into the tomb, then removed the saint’s bones. Following this act, Henry stripped Becket of his sainthood. Henry VIII’s allies supported his actions and condemned pilgrimages and denounced Becket as a traitor. They removed his name from books, and anything containing references to Becket was destroyed.

Those who opposed the crown continued to revere Thomas Becket. They also respected the former chancellor Thomas More (1478-1535), who shared a similar fate when he opposed the king. No longer able to collect mementos of Thomas Becket, people began treasuring objects connected with Thomas More. Similar acts occurred after the execution of the chancellor Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) during the reign of Mary I (1516-58).

Devoted Catholics managed to keep Becket’s memory alive by worshipping him in secret during the reigns of Protestant kings and queens. Many items connected to the Archbishop survived due to the number of pilgrims and devotees on the continent. One of the rarest reliquaries to survive is a fragment of Thomas Becket’s skull. The bone rests on a bed of red velvet and is secured in place by a golden thread. It is protected by a silver and glass case upon which is written “Ex cranio St Thomae Cantvariensis”, meaning “from St Thomas of Canterbury’s skull”. It is likely someone smuggled the reliquary out of the country during the Tudor period.

Opinions remain divided as to whether Thomas Becket is a saint and martyr or a traitor and villain. Yet, for the majority of people, Becket is a name confined to school history books. There is no cult following or pilgrimage route, yet kiss marks have been discovered on display cases holding some of the most revered objects. Perhaps Thomas Becket still has a following after all!

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint is open until 22nd August 2021 in The Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery at the British Museum. Tickets cost £17 for Adults, but Members and under 16s can visit for free.


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A Dog’s Purpose

“It seems that nature has given the dog to man for his defense and for his pleasure. Of all the animals it is the most faithful : it is the best friend man can have.”

Voltaire, 1764

Apart from a brief respite in the autumn of 2020, museums and galleries have remained shut for a year. Fortunately, in the digital era, we do not need to travel to places to enjoy exhibitions and admire artworks. Many public establishments have online presences, through which they connect with those who cannot visit in person. Google Arts & Culture assisted these organisations by amalgamating online exhibitions into one place. This allows individuals to take virtual trips to museums and galleries all over the world. Not only this, Google developed some digital displays too, such as Paw-some Paintings, which celebrates canine companions in art.

As Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-86) once said, a dog is a man’s best friend. The creatures have appeared in artworks for thousands of years, including on the walls of caves. Since the 19th century, artists depicted dogs as loving, gentle creatures, symbolising protection, loyalty and faithfulness. Before then, “dogs are rarely depicted as faithful or as man’s best friend, but as vicious, ravening, or watchful.” (Oxford English Dictionary) Until dogs became pets and companions, they were bred for hunting, tracking and guarding. Nonetheless, Google Arts & Culture has found ten artworks spanning several centuries that show humans have always loved these furry creatures. 

Marble statue of a pair of dogs

During an excavation of Civita Lavinia, an ancient city near Rome, Italy, archaeologists discovered two similar marble statues of a pair of dogs. Although it is not possible to determine the date of production, the British Museum estimates it between the 1st and 2nd century AD. Gavin Hamilton (1723-98), a Scottish artist and archaeologist, discovered the dogs where he believed a palace belonging to the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius (AD 86-161) once stood. Recent discoveries have disproved this theory, but Hamilton sold one of the statues to English antiquary Charles Townley (1737-1805) under this impression. After Townley’s death, his family sold the dogs and other items in his collection to the British Museum, where they remain today.

This pair of dogs, thought to be male and female, portray a tender, loving embrace. Compared to other statues found in the vicinity of Civita Lavinia, they represent peace rather than violence. A sphinx with a dog’s body and a statue of Greek hero Actaeon attacked by hounds are two examples of typical canine sculptures from the Roman Empire. The man’s best friend concept came much later, but this marble statue proves sculptors did not only view the animals as predators trained to hunt but as loving, caring creatures.

Portrait of a Noblewoman – Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614)

Lavinia Fontana’s portrait of an unknown Bolognese noblewoman emphasises her ability to depict luxurious clothing and jewellery in exquisite detail. Although the sitter is the main subject of this Mannerist painting, the eye travels to the small dog in the left-hand corner. Presumably a lap dog, due to its size, the animal has significance in this portrait aside from being the lady’s animal companion. During the 16th century, dogs represented marital fidelity. During this era, brides tended to wear red, so the noblewoman’s wealth, clothing and pet are suggestive of a recent marriage.

Portrait of a Noblewoman (c.1580) is not Fontana’s only painting to feature a canine friend. During her career, she produced over 100 paintings, including mythology and genre paintings, but mostly portraits of wealthy men and women. Portrait of a Lady with Lap Dog (1595) suggests smalls dogs represented the wealth of the sitter. For hunting and guarding, men needed large, fast dogs, whereas a tiny dog had little to contribute to the family other than provide comfort and companionship. Portrait of the Gozzadini Family (1584) depicts a senator sitting at a table with his daughters and son-in-laws. On the table sits a dog of similar size and appearance to the dog Fontana painted in other portraits. Portrait of the Maselli Family also features the same dog, this time in the arms of the mother.

The Painter and His Pug – William Hogarth (1697-1764)

The Painter and His Pug is a self-portrait by the English artist William Hogarth. Although not completed until 1745, x-rays reveal the artist began painting during the 1730s. Many alterations took place through the process, including a change of clothes and the addition of books by Shakespeare (1564-1616), Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) and John Milton (1608-74). Critiques suggest these volumes indicate Hogarth’s attitudes towards literature, drama and poetry. One of the last things added to the portrait was Trump, Hogarth’s pet pug whose features resemble those of its owner. Some suggest Hogarth intended the dog to represent his pugnacious character. 

The pug, named Trump, was one of many owned by Hogarth during his lifetime. Records state the artist once named a dog “Pugg”, but the names of any others are unknown. Pugs frequently appear in Hogarth’s paintings, including group portraits of the Fountaine (1735) and Strode (1738) families. It is unlikely the pugs belonged to either family, instead, Hogarth included it as a trademark, thus earning him the nickname the “Painter Pugg”. A pug featured in one of the scenes of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1732-34) plus in a portrait of Lord George Graham (1715-47), a Scottish officer of the Royal Navy. 

So synonymous was Hogarth with pugs, French sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac (1702-62) produced a terracotta model of Trump to accompany a statue of the artist. In 2001, Ian Hislop (b.1960) and David Hockney (b.1937) unveiled a statue of Hogarth in Chiswick. Made by Jim Mathieson (1931-2003), the sculpture features the artist in a similar outfit to his portrait with Trump sat at his feet.

A young lady holding a pug dog – François Boucher (1703-77)

A stark contrast between A young lady holding a pug dog by François Boucher with Hogarth’s painting is the physical features of the dog. Today, the breed is recognised for its distinctive wrinkly, short-muzzled face and curled tail. Trump’s face does not fit this description, suggesting that either Hogarth could not draw pugs or the animal was a cross-breed. Alternatively, until the 18th-century, when it became popular to own a pug, many people referred to ugly canines as pugs. It is for this lack of beauty that Boucher included a pug in his portrait of a young lady.

“The little Pug dog or Dutch mastiff has quitted London for Padua, I perceive. Every carriage I meet here has a Pug in it.” So said Welsh author Hester Piozzi (1741-1821) during a trip to Italy in 1789. Bred as lap dogs, pugs became the most desired companions of wealthy women across Europe. Rococo painter Boucher used the animal to contrast with his sitter’s beauty in A young lady holding a pug dog (c.1740). The lady in question is Boucher’s wife Marie-Jeanne Buseau (1716-96), dressed in the silks and fashions of 18th-century France. The paleness of skin accentuated with rouge, a beauty spot, and powdered hair was the epitome of beauty, but to emphasise this further, Boucher included her ugly pug as a contrast. At this time, dogs also had sexual connotations in paintings, but critics do not believe this to be the case in this portrait. 

Nude Woman with a Dog – Gustave Courbet (1819-77)

An example of a dog representing sexual relationships is Nude Woman with a Dog (1862) by Gustave Courbet. The nude model, Courbet’s mistress Léontine Renaude, leans towards the dog as though to give it an affectionate kiss. At the time of its first exhibition, critics described this painting as highly erotic. 

The woman’s body echoes the works of Titian (1488-1576), but her face is plain and ordinary. Courbet tried to bring the classical nude to the modern-day by removing the goddess-like beauty from the image. In Titian’s day, a small dog symbolised fidelity, but the model’s interaction with the animal breaks this definition. Although the painting does not suggest that she is in love with the dog, the signs of affection erase the innocence from the picture, replacing it with the metaphor of sensual love. Responding to the attention, the dog represents a complicit lover.

Still Life with Three Puppies – Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

Whilst living with experimental painters in Brittany, Paul Gauguin painted Still Life with Three Puppies (1888). The canvas is divided into three parts: a still-life of fruit, a diagonal barrier of wine glasses, and three puppies drinking from a large pan. This artwork marks Gauguin’s transition from Impressionism to the experimental style of his contemporaries, such as Émile Bernard (1868-1941) and Vincent van Gogh (1853-90). 

Whilst still-life paintings tend to depict the scene in front of the artist, the inclusion of the wine glasses and puppies suggest Gauguin painted this particular artwork either from his imagination or from several sources. The wine glasses are disproportionate to the scale and perspective of the image, and the puppies appear to be on the table, suggesting they are doll-size creatures.

Gauguin’s new style is more evident when looking at the puppies rather than the other elements. He painted them with a blue outline, and their fur appears to be the same texture as the table cloth. Gauguin declared art is created “from nature while dreaming before it.” This observation explains the unrealistic qualities of the three animals. Gauguin also drew inspiration from Japanese art, which tended to have a two-dimensional viewpoint.

Howling Dog – Paul Klee (1879-1940)

Paul Klee goes a step further with his unrealistic painting of a Howling Dog (1928). Rather than depicting an accurate appearance of a dog, Klee focused on sound. With meandering lines, Klee drew the shape of a dog howling at a moon. The dog’s howl is also visualised in the same manner and accentuated by swirling colours. 

The howl, rather than the dog, is the dominant feature of the painting. Although painting is a visual medium, Klee tried to combine another of the senses. Life is both a visual and aural experience, and Klee is inviting the audience to try to hear his work as well as see it. A painting of a dog is usually static and posed, but in reality, dogs are full of movement and noise. While looking at Howling Dog, people can imagine the baying sound breaking the silence of the night. It is as though the dog is telling the world he is there, that he exists.

Children with taco – Diego Rivera (1886-1957)

Mexican artist Diego Rivera created many murals for the Secretariat of Public Education. Children with taco (1932) is a lithograph of one section of a mural, which Rivera wished to save in case of any damage to the original. The print shows a young boy eating a taco while a hairless dog sits patiently waiting for a crumb to fall. This dog, a Xoloitzcuintle, receives attention for its hairlessness and wrinkles, and since 2016, it is a cultural heritage and symbol of Mexico City.

Both Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo (1907-54), depicted the Xoloitzcuintle in their artwork. As well as being popular pets, the history of the breed dates back to the Aztecs. The name Xoloitzcuintle comprises Xolotl, the Aztec sun god, and “itzkuintli”, which means both “dog” and “slave”. According to Aztec religion, a Xoloitzcuintle accompanied the deceased along the path to the afterlife. For this reason, the Aztecs kept dogs as pets, which they then slaughtered and buried with their masters.

While their masters lived, Xoloitzcuintles served as guard dogs. Rather than guarding houses against intruders, the dogs protected their owners from evil spirits. The Aztecs also believed Xoloitzcuintles aided healing and often allowed the dogs to sleep in their beds. In some instances, this is true because a dog’s warmth can help relieve pain from arthritis and bring comfort to the distressed. There is also evidence of a dog’s presence normalising blood pressure. The more obscure health properties of a Xoloitzcuintle included curing toothache, headaches, asthma, and gastrointestinal problems.

Dogs – Hashimoto Kansetsu (1883-1945)

The peonies in a painting by Hashimoto Kansetsu are typical of nihonga (20th-century Japanese paintings). The dog, on the other hand, is inspired by western cultures. The artwork belongs to a series called Dogs from Europe, in which the artist combined traditional Japanese art with modern animal themes. In Japanese art, peonies and lions usually featured together, but Hashimoto daringly replaced the wild animals with dogs.

In Japan, peonies are known as the King of Flowers and represent bravery, fortune and honour. In China, where Hashimoto spent some time each year, the flowers represented wealth and were a favourite of past Emperors. Lions symbolise power, protection and strength, but the meaning of dogs is more ambiguous. In Japanese folklore, a racoon dog is a mischievous creature and a master of disguise. By replacing a lion with a dog, Hashimoto not only introduced elements of the western world to his artwork but also moved away from long-standing Japanese traditions.

Hashimoto fell in love with Europe after a trip in 1921, including a love of European animals.Throughout his career, Hashimoto owned up to 50 dogs, which he studied carefully for his paintings. Many breeds came from Europe, which made his artworks unusual to Japanese spectators.

Puppy – Jeff Koons (b.1955)

The final artwork Google Arts & Culture included in their online exhibition is a 40-foot high West Highland terrier made from flowers. Jeff Koons produced Puppy (1992) for the Kaldor Public Art Project in 1995, where it stood outside Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Today, the floral sculpture stands guard outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, where it fills viewers with awe.

Koons intended the public sculpture to instil confidence and security, plus entice and create optimism. Others have derived alternative meanings from the artwork, including references to past and present eras. Koons used a computer to design the giant model, whereas the flowers resemble an 18th-century garden. It is also a combination of high and low brow culture, topiary and dog breeding being high and greeting card images low.

West Highland terriers are not the usual choice for guard dogs, but they are known for their loving heart and loyalty. They are typically small, making them an ironic choice for a large sculpture, but they are also friendly-looking and comforting. Today, most people identify the artwork as a symbol of love and happiness.

As Google Arts & Culture proved, dogs have been part of human culture for centuries. Whether serving as hunters or companions, dogs appear in artworks across the world. Other animals also appear in paintings, but it is typically dogs that sit patiently at the feet of their masters or on the laps of their mistresses, providing protection and love. Admittedly, not everyone is keen on dogs yet, in the United Kingdom, there are over 10.1 million pet dogs, suggesting 24% of the population own one, which is more than any other animal. So, was Frederick the Great of Prussia right when he stated a dog was man’s best friend? Perhaps we should ask a dog. Woof!

To view the Google Arts & Culture exhibition, click here.


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Troy: Myth and Reality

Until 8th March, the British Museum is celebrating the legend of Troy, which has endured for over 3000 years. With ancient artefacts and more recent artworks, the museum tells the story of the Trojan War from its beginning to its end, followed by the fateful journey home of one of the Greek heroes. Whilst this story may be purely mythical, the British Museum also explores the true existence of Troy, which was discovered during the 19th century.

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Bust of Homer

Many people know some of the stories surrounding the Trojan War, which have been told for over 3000 years. Initially spread by word of mouth, it is generally believed the story was put together by the Greek poet Homer as early as the 8th century BC. There are some arguments that Homer never existed and the stories were compiled by several authors, however, the final result had been published under Homer’s name in two volumes, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Written in a dactylic hexameter – a form of poetry – the Iliad spans approximately fifty-one days of the ten-year Trojan War on the coast of Anatolia, now known as northwestern Turkey. The city of Troy was under siege by a coalition of Greek states as revenge for the abduction of Helen of Sparta.

The war began shortly after the wedding of the sea-goddess Thetis and Peleus, the king of Thessaly. All the Greek gods and goddesses were invited to the ceremony except for Eris, the goddess of discord. Angry at being left out, Eris turned up unannounced and threw a golden apple into the crowd of party-goers. The apple bore the inscription “to the most beautiful” and three goddesses: Aphrodite, Athena and Hera, believed it was intended for them.

The goddesses appealed to Zeus, the king of the gods, to decide who was the most beautiful. Reluctant to get involved, Zeus instructed Paris, the visiting Trojan prince, to make the decision. Paris’ judgement was by no means fair because, before he could make a decision, Aphrodite the goddess of love, promised Paris the love of the most beautiful woman on earth if he chose her as the winner of the competition. Naturally, Paris chose Aphrodite.

After the wedding, Paris visited the Greek state of Sparta where he met Helen, the woman Aphrodite promised him. Unfortunately, Helen was already married to King Menelaus, so when Paris returned to Troy with Helen, Menelaus was determined to get his wife back. Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae called together a huge fleet of Greek heroes to sail across the Aegean Sea in support of his brother Menelaus. Thus, the Trojan War began.

The Iliad begins in the middle of the plot after the Greeks have been attempting to breach the strong walls of the city of Troy for nine years. Although they had not managed to enter the main city, the Greeks had raided surrounding towns belonging to Troy and taken many inhabitants as prisoners. Amongst these prisoners was a young woman named Briseis who was given as a prize of honour to the Greek Hero Achilles, son of Thetis.

King Agamemnon’s prisoner was Chryseis, the daughter of a Trojan priest of Apollo. The Trojan’s offered money in return for the girl, however, Agamemnon refused. So, the priest prayed to Apollo who sent a plague over the Greek army until they returned Chryseis to her father. In retaliation, Agamemnon took Briseis from Achilles, causing the Greek hero to, quite simply, have a huge sulk.

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The Death of Patroclus

Furious with Agamemnon, Achilles refused to fight in the war and asked his mother, Thetis, to make the Greeks realise how much they needed Achilles on their side. In the fighting that followed, the Trojans began to get the upper hand. In desperation, Achilles’ friend and potential lover Patroclus entered the battle disguised as Achilles in an attempt to raise the morale of the Greek soldiers. It worked; both the Greeks and the Trojans believed Patroclus was Achilles, however, this put him in mortal danger when he was targetted by the Trojan prince Hector.

When Achilles heard that Hector had killed Patroclus, he fell into a state of grief-stricken rage. Despite knowing the prophecy that stated if Hector died, Achilles would soon follow, the Greek hero returned to the battle site clad in new armour forged by the god Hephaestus. In a blind rage, Achilles killed Hector, tied the corpse to the back of a chariot, and proceeded to desecrate the body by dragging it around the battlefield for several days. Taking pity on Hector’s family, the gods protected Hector’s body from damage until Achilles could be persuaded to hand the corpse over to King Priam for a traditional Trojan funeral.

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Achilles killing the Amazons

This is where the Iliad finished, however, the war was by no means over. Troy called upon its allies for support, but the Amazons and Ethiopians were no match for Achilles’ strength. Whilst Achilles continued to fight, he knew as a result of Hector’s death, he was destined to die soon.

When Achilles was a baby, his mother dipped him into the waters of the River Styx to make him invulnerable to injury. Unfortunately, the ankle from which she dangled him did not enter the water, therefore, Achilles was vulnerable in this area. It was in this precise spot that an arrow shot by Paris hit Achilles, fatally wounding the Greek Hero. Despite their best warrior dead, the Greeks continued to fight.

The Greeks won the war thanks to an ingenious invention by Odysseus, the king of Ithaca. He encouraged the Greek army to build an enormous wooden horse, which they placed outside the walls of Troy as a decoy peace offering. Believing the Greeks had given up the fight, the Trojan’s accepted the gift and brought it into the city, unaware that it housed some of the best Greek fighters. Once through the walls, the Greeks crept out of the horse and attacked the city from within, eventually destroying Troy and killing King Priam and Hector’s son, Astyanax. Only one member of the royal family survived, Aeneas, the son of King Priam’s cousin, whose survival story is told in the Aeneid by Publius Vergilius Maro (Virgil).

Troy fell, the war ended and Helen was reunited with her husband, however, this was not the end of the story for the Greeks. The gods were angry at the sacrilegious atrocities committed by the Greeks during the war and decided to teach them a lesson by making their journey home rather difficult. No one’s journey was as bad as Odysseus whose ten-year attempt to return home is recorded in Homer’s Odyssey.

“Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me about how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy …”
Odyssey, Homer, 700 AD

Initially, twelve ships, including one belonging to Odysseus, were driven off course by the storms caused by the angry gods. As a result, Odysseus and his men sheltered in the land of the Lotus-Eaters. These were a race of people whose primary food source was the lotus fruits, which had a narcotic effect on foreigners. Naturally, Odysseus’ men accepted food and hospitality from the peaceful natives and forgot that they were on their way home from Troy. It was only through physical force that Odysseus managed to get his men back onto the ships.

Since it was impossible to bring an endless supply of food on a ship, Odysseus soon had to make another stop. On an uninhabited island – or so they thought, Odysseus and his men discovered a cave full of meat and cheese. Before they could return to the ship, the cave’s owner, a cyclops named Polyphemus, arrived and sealed the entrance to the cave. Trapped inside, Odysseus had to think quickly and introduced himself to the cyclops as Nobody. Odysseus persuaded Polyphemus to drink excessive amounts of wine until the cyclops fell asleep. Taking the opportunity, Odysseus used a wooden stake to blind the one-eyed creature, who woke up with a shout. Other cyclopes arrived on the scene to find out what the fuss was about but soon went away when Polyphemus told them “Nobody attacked me.”

Hiding under the underbellies of Polyphemus’ sheep, Odysseus and his men escaped the cave when the cyclops unsealed the entrance in the morning. They could easily have sailed away and gone straight home, however, Odysseus foolishly boasted about defeating the cyclops, revealing his name in the process. Polyphemus prayed to his father, Poseidon the god of the sea, to curse Odysseus to wander the seas for ten years, losing all his men in the process.

Odysseus’ next stop was the island of Aeolia where Aeolus, the keeper of the winds resided. He gave Odysseus a leather bag containing all the winds except for the one that would blow their boat home. With instructions not to open the bag, Odysseus and his men set off towards Ithaca, however, whilst Odysseus was asleep, his men fell to temptation and opened the bag, releasing all the winds. As a result, the boat was blown off course, taking them even further away from home.

Following this, Odysseus and his men met with several disasters. The first occurred on the Laestrygonians’ Island where cannibalistic giants feasted on the majority of the men. The survivors sailed on to the island of Aeaea, where a witch-goddess Circe, daughter of the sun-god Helios turned all but Odysseus into pigs. Although Odysseus forced Circe to return his men to human form, her charm caused him to remain on the island for an entire year.

Odysseus managed to avoid disaster as they passed the land of the Sirens. The Sirens were dangerous creatures who lured sailors to their deaths with their beautiful songs. Odysseus instructed his men to plug their ears, however, he wished to hear the music. Odysseus tied himself to a post so that he could not be tempted to follow the sounds of the Sirens’ voices. Whilst no incident occurred with the Sirens, there was danger just around the corner. The ship had to pass between two creatures: Scylla, a six-headed monster, and Charybdis, a whirlpool. Although they successfully avoided Charybdis, Scylla managed to snatch up six men.

The next island Odysseus and his remaining men visited was Thrinacia. Due to a storm, they were unable to leave the island for several days, causing them to use up all their provisions. Hungry, Odysseus prayed to the gods, however, his desperate starving men hunted down some cattle to feast upon. These cattle, however, turned out to be the sacred cattle of Helios, the god of the sun. As a punishment, the next time Odysseus and his men took to the sea, the gods caused a shipwreck, which only Odysseus survived.

With no means of getting home, Odysseus found himself washed up on the island of Ogygia, where he was kept captive by the nymph Calypso. After seven years of homesickness, Zeus compelled Calypso to release Odysseus so he could eventually return home.

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Penelope mournfully waiting for her long-absent husband

For ten years, Odysseus’ wife Penelope waited patiently for her husband’s return. Believing him to be dead, many suitors tried to worm their way into the household. Penelope fended them off by saying she would only marry one of them after she had finished her weaving. Each day, she sat weaving and every night she undid the progress she had made, thus the work would never be finished.

On returning home, Odysseus found his home had been taken over by 108 young men. Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus killed the leader of the suitors and revealed himself to his wife. Finally, the Trojan War got its happy ending.

It is not certain whether there ever was a Trojan War and Odysseus’ journey home seems even less probable. For hundreds of years, people assumed it was a myth, a story for entertainment purposes. Nonetheless, this did not stop people from trying to locate the city of Troy. Believed to be situated in Anatolia – northwest modern-day Turkey – pilgrims visited the area, believing they were travelling the paths of their ancient heroes.

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Heinrich Schliemann by Sidney Hodges

An English expatriate, Frank Calvert (1828-1908) believed he had located the site of Troy on a mound at Hisarlik, the remains of an ancient city near Çanakkale in Turkey. Seven years later, when Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), a German pioneer of archaeology, arrived, Calvert quickly persuaded him to investigate the area. What they discovered was the remains of the mythical city of Troy. Although Calvert helped with the excavation, it was Schliemann who took the accolades.

Between 1870 and 1890, Schliemann’s excavations revealed more and more about the real city of Troy. It is estimated people first settled in the area around 3000 BC during the Early Bronze Age. For around four thousand years, people lived in Troy until it was abandoned in 600 AD. Schliemann’s findings and those of archaeology teams that followed him record how people lived during this lengthy period.

Life in Troy has been categorised into nine phases with Troy I being the earliest and Troy IX the last. Troy I was only a small village but by the time Troy II was established between 2500 and 2300 BC, the city had strong walls encircling a citadel, although still rather small. Being on the Dardanelles strait, Troy would have been in prime position for trading, which may explain its gradually increasing size.

By the Late Bronze Age (1750–1180 BC) Troy had a larger citadel with stronger, sloping walls, some of which can still be seen today. As well as access to the trade route, surrounding Troy was agricultural land, which was used to keep animals, particularly sheep and grow crops. Evidence of horses in the area have also been unearthed, which links to the Trojan prince Hector in the Iliad, who was described as a horse-tamer.

Troy was destroyed at the end of the Bronze Age (1180 BC), which some have attributed to the Trojan War. Other cities in the Mediterranean, however, were also destroyed for reasons unknown, which puts the specific Trojan War into question. Homer did not live, if he ever existed, until the 8th or 7th century BC, by which time Troy had been rebuilt and renamed Ilion, which is the name Homer uses in the Iliad.

Troy, or Ilion, flourished once more. Although it was not as important as other cities in the ancient world, it was a populous city for hundreds of years. It seems strange that a large city could ever be “lost”, however, by the 6th century AD, the population had dwindled and unused buildings crumbled away. Any evidence of Troy’s existence was eventually covered by debris until all that remained was the hill-shaped mound now known as Hisarlik.

Schliemann was convinced Troy II was the ancient Troy or Ilion mentioned by Homer and, therefore, the site of the Trojan War. Archaeologists today, who are still excavating the area, date Troy II to the Early Bronze Age, which is too early for the war, nor does it contain any physical evidence of combat.

Although the mythical Troy has yet to be proven or disproven, life in the city has been discovered and documented, beginning with the 100 or so items Schliemann brought to England for an exhibition at London’s South Kensington Museum (V&A) in 1877. Amongst the items were “face pots” that appeared to have eyes and may have, as Schliemann believed, been idols of the goddess Athena. Many other pots were also in the collection, some with three “legs” and one big enough to store enough grain to feed a small family for a year.

Rather than ending the exhibition here with the half-successful search for the site of the Trojan War, the British Museum returned to the myths with a selection of artworks that explore how artists have interpreted the stories over the past millennium. Authors have also used the Trojan myths as the basis of their stories, for instance, William Shakespeare‘s Troilus and Cressida and Edward Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590): “For noble Britons sprang/from Trojans bold,/And Troynovant was built/of old Troy’s ashes cold.”

Even though artists have chosen to depict the same scenes, for instance, the sirens, their outcomes are very different. Take, for example, African-American artist Romare Bearden’s (1911-88) The Siren’s Song, which shows Odysseus tied to the mast of his ship in the background. In the foreground, the sirens are dancing in human form, attempting to lure Odysseus to his death. In Greek mythology, sirens were represented as part human and part bird, however, Bearden portrayed them as fully human.

Herbert Draper (1863-1920) is another artist who altered the appearance of the sirens. In Ulysses and the Sirens – Ulysses being the Roman name for Odysseus – Odysseus is once again tied to the mast, however, sirens in the form of mermaids are attempting to climb onto the ship. Mermaids are half-human, half-fish and may have been inspired by the Greek sirens. In folklore, mermaids also lure sailors to their deaths.

Whilst heroes tend to be portrayed during their prime, a few artworks at the British Museum reveal the vulnerable side of the great men. Hector was one of Troy’s best fighters and it was a great loss when he was killed in battle by Achilles. British artist of Huguenot descent Briton Rivière (1840-1920) painted Hector lying dead, face-down in the sand. As the Iliad tells us, Achilles dragged Hector’s body around the battlefield for several days, however, the gods protected the corpse from damage. In Rivière’s painting, Hector’s muscular body looks as pure as it would had he been alive.

Achilles heel is usually regarded as his only vulnerability, however, his emotions also get the better of him. Firstly, his anger causes him to stubbornly refuse to fight but when Patroclus is killed, his anger turns to grief followed by rage, which causes him to join the battle and go after Hector. The Swiss painter Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) produced a quick sketch of Achilles lamenting the death of his best friend. Achilles collapses over the body of Patroclus, which is an action that many would deem unmanly. Fuseli, on the other hand, admired Achilles and the other Greek heroes for their authentic emotions.

Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world, was a popular topic for artists. Since no one knows what Helen looked like, artists have portrayed their own perceptions of beauty. William Morris (1834-96) drew Helen as the Flamma Troiae (Flame of Troy) with long, flowing blonde hair. Although she supposedly ignites passion in men, she demurely looks down as though innocent of the effects of her beauty.

Evelyn De Morgan’s (1855-1919) version of Helen, however, is much more enticing. Aware of her beauty, golden-haired Helen looks into a hand mirror, absorbed with her own appearance. The contours of her dress reveal her slender legs and her bare arms are something women of the past would not have dreamed of showing in public.

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Helen’s Tears – Edward Burne-Jones

Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98), on the other hand, took a different approach to Helen. Rather than focus on her beauty, Burne-Jones thought about how the war would have affected her. In his tiny watercolour, Burne-Jones shows Helen consumed by guilt about the destruction of Troy. Wearing dark clothing, she holds her hands to her face whilst Troy burns around her. Although the war was not her fault, she is taking the blame for the outcome, for it is for her that the Greeks came to destroy the city. The crown atop her head indicates Helen’s importance in the story. She is not just a beautiful woman, she is a queen. Paris may have taken Helen because she was the most beautiful woman in the world but the Greeks want her back because she belongs to them as the wife of Menelaus.

Contemporary artist Eleanor Antin (b.1935) recreated the Judgement of Paris in a humorous, modern, photographic manner. The male models represent Zeus and Paris who are looking at the three goddesses whilst trying to decide which of them is the most beautiful. Athena, the goddess of warfare amongst other things, holds her rifle aloft, whilst Aphrodite in magenta and purple strikes a tempting pose. Presumably, the winged child hugging Aphrodite is Eros, known as Cupid in Roman mythology. The most humorous depiction of a goddess is Hera, goddess of the home, who dressed as a 1950s housewife, holds a vacuum cleaner in one hand. Helen, who is dark-haired in this version, sits to the side, thoroughly annoyed that she is being treated as a possession rather than a human being.

William Blake’s (1757-1827) The Judgement of Paris is more in keeping with other artists’ version of the scene. The three goddesses, all of them naked, stand in front of Paris as he hands the apple to Aphrodite. In the sky above, a demonic figure, possibly Eris the goddess of discord, indicates the destruction that is yet to come.

The exhibition ends with two shields. Since Roman times, people have attempted to recreate Achilles’ shield, which as no one knows what it looked like, has been a virtually impossible task. According to Homer, the shield was forged by the god Hephaestus and, therefore, was better than any man-made shield. In 1822, John Flaxman (1755-1826) designed a shield that took inspiration from ancient works of art. Using clay to make a model, Flaxman included scenes from the Trojan War on the shield, which was eventually gilded in silver.

The other shield is a contemporary installation by Spencer Finch (b.1962). Made from fluorescent lamps positioned in a radiating circle, Finch created this shield after visiting Troy and feeling moved by the mythical stories. Whilst this particular shield would be useless in battle, it shows the story of the Trojan War is still fresh and popular in the 21st century. Whether myth or reality, the story continues to live on.

Troy: Myth and Reality is on display at the British Museum until 8th March 2020. Tickets are £20, however, under 16s can attend for free when accompanied by a paying adult.


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Inspired by the East

The Islamic world or the Middle East has inspired western artists for hundreds of years. The various styles, objects, fashion and so forth of these exotic lands led to the artistic movement known as Orientalism, which introduced Middle Eastern and North African designs to Europe and North America. Until 26th January, the British Museum is studying these outcomes and comparing them with what we know about the Islamic world today.

Orientalism has come to mean the ways in which the “Orient” has been misrepresented in western culture. The eastern world was represented as a land of beauty and fascination, causing the lines between fantasy and reality to be blurred. The exhibition Inspired by the East: how the Islamic world influenced western art provides a more complex look at the history of the influence and inspiration of the “Orient”. Featuring a range of ceramics, drawings and paintings, music from Piano Concerto No.5, Op.103, “Egyptian” by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) helps to set the scene as visitors make their way around the exhibition.

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The Prayer – Frederick Arthur Bridgman

The exhibition opens with a painting of The Prayer by Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928). The artist has imagined a moment of prayer inside a mosque between an elderly but wealthy man and a poorer Muslim mystic. Both figures wear typical eastern garments and the mosque is decorated with a Persian rug. The artist, however, was American and spent most of his life in France. With that in mind, how far can we trust these paintings of the Orient by western artists?

Frederick Arthur Bridgman was born in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1847 and became a draughtsman in his early twenties. In 1886, Bridgman moved to Paris where he joined the studio of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) who was a great inspiration for the oriental themes for which Bridgman became famous. His first trip to North Africa took place between 1872 and 1874 where he produced around 300 sketches in Egypt and Algeria, which became source material for later oil paintings. In the 1870s and 1880s, Bridgman returned to the East, collecting examples of costumes and objets d’art, which he often painted in his artworks. Having such an extensive collection of eastern objects makes Bridgman appear to be a knowledgable man on the subject, however, as the British Museum goes on to prove, this was not necessarily the case.

The western fascination with the Middle East coincided with the growing power of the Ottoman Empire (1300-1924). From around 1500, Europeans became increasingly interested in the Empire, which at its height comprised most of south-eastern Europe, modern-day Turkey and Arabic-speaking countries. At one point, the Ottoman Empire stretched as far west as Vienna, Austria.

Europe began to trade with the Ottoman Empire and their neighbours, the Safavid Empire (1501-1722), bringing fascinating goods to the continent. Interest had originally focused on religious pilgrimages to the Holy Land, for example, the places in Palestine that corresponded with the Bible. Palestine was considered the birthplace of Christianity, and Christian pilgrims and envoys frequently travelled to the East, often bringing foreign gifts home with them. As a result, eastern goods became widely available in Europe, particularly when artisans began replicating the Oriental designs.

The British Museum provides examples of ceramics from the Orient and versions that were made in Europe. During the 19th-century, eastern traditions were a popular source of inspiration for artists. Craftsman used the examples purchased in the East as models for their designs or attempts to make exact copies. Of particular interest were the glassworks made in Persia in the 1300s and the Persian ceramics from 1600. By appropriating forgotten techniques, such as glass enamel and lustre-painting, the replicants even surpassed the originals in terms of quality.

In some cases, it could not be certain that the original was indeed the original. On display is a glazed and painted lidded bowl that was produced in Persia during the 19th-century. The unknown artist, however, got their inspiration from Austrian, French and German ceramics, which in turn had been based on Middle Eastern originals.

As well as ceramics, Europe was fascinated by the exotic fashions of the eastern world. The bright colours and materials were a vast contrast to the style of clothing back home and visitors to the Middle East also noted costume dictated the status of the wearer. Due to this interest, costume books became a popular source of exotic portraits, which in turn allowed western artists to create oriental-style portraits of European sitters.

The Kaempfer Album is an example of a costume book by a Persian artist known as Jani. The album contained 44 drawings of characters from Persian literature and life, including a Qizilbash, a woman and two storytellers. Qizilbash was a label given to a variety of militant groups, particularly those living in Anatolia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Kurdistan during the latter 15th century onwards. The term also became associated with the foundation of the Safavid Empire.

Although Jani was Persian, his illustrations cannot be used as an example of Persian art. His nickname Farangi Saz, which means “Painter in the European Style”, suggests he had been heavily influenced by European visitors. It also reveals that the western world was as much an inspiration to the east as it was the other way around.

In Europe, drawings of eastern costumes began as early as the 16th-century, evidenced by Peter Paul Rubens‘ (1577-1640) sketches of eight women from Turkey. Since the drawings were produced in Rubens’ studio in Belgium, it is uncertain whether he ever met a Turkish woman. It is thought his inspiration came from an Ottoman costume book rather than real life.

Some Europeans experienced eastern costume and culture first-hand, often dressing in the appropriate fashion as part of the European diplomatic corps in Constantinople. Diplomats were invited to attend ceremonies and gain a privileged insight into the political sphere of the East. Dragomans (interpreters and translators) were employed to act as intermediaries between Turkish, Arabic and Persian-speaking countries and Europe.

The Flemish-French painter Jean Baptiste Vanmour (1671-1737) accompanied the French Ambassador to Constantinople in 1699 where he was commissioned to produce 100 oil paintings of the local people. Some of these, such as Dinner Given by the Grand Vizier, revealed the lives of the elite during the Tulip Era (1718-30) of the Ottoman Empire. The Grand Vizier was the equivalent of a prime minister and the French Ambassador was invited to attend the meal along with two dragomans. The main purpose for these grand dinners was for the Vizier to demonstrate his wealth and power.

Dragomans featured in costume books, such as the example on display that belonged to the Prussian ambassador to Constantinople. The reports from the dragomans were one of the key methods of spreading Islamic culture throughout the west during the 17th and 18th centuries. Due to their influence, the Quran was available in French by 1647, having been translated by the diplomatic envoy André du Ryer (c.1580-c.1660). This was shortly followed by the French translation of One Thousand And One Nights by Antoine Galland (1646-1715), who was attached to the French embassy. This is a collection of stories by various authors, translators, and scholars across West, Central, and South Asia and North Africa, and come from a variety of roots: Persian, Arabic, Indian, Greek, Jewish and Turkish.

One Thousand and One Nights, also known as Arabian Nights, has been extremely influential since its translation into a European language and in 1926 it became the earliest full-length stop-motion film under the title The Adventures of Prince Achmed. The original stories have inspired numerous projects, most famously Disney’s Aladdin, and has been a great stimulus for authors such as Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), W.B. Yeats (1865-1939), James Joyce (1882-1941) and Marcel Proust (1871-1922).

Based on the “tyrannical world of the ‘Orient'” is Irish poet Thomas Moore’s (1779-1852) Lalla Rookh (1817). Lalla Rookh, which means “tulip cheeked” is a set of four narrative poems about an Indian princess of the Mughal Empire. Engaged to the king of Bukhara in Central Asia, Lalla Rookh sets off to meet her future husband, however, along the way, falls in love with the poet Feramorz. The poems have inspired operas and music hall performances, such as Their Customs are Very Peculiar and Feramors by Anton Rubinstein (1829-94).

Other aspects of Middle Eastern culture have influenced operatic works, for instance, Aida by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). Told through four Acts, Aida is an Ethiopian princess who has been captured by the Egyptians. Radamés, an Egyptian military commander falls in love with the princess and is torn between his feelings towards Aida and his loyalty to the king of Egypt. To make things more complicated, the king’s daughter Amneris is in love with Radamés. As with most operas, Aida does not end happily and they sing their final duet O terra addio whilst suffocating from being buried alive.

One of the reasons for the sudden burst of “oriental” themed operas, plays and books was the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt. The canal, which stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, allowed watercraft an easier route from the North Atlantic to the Indian ocean. As a result, a great number of tourists were able to visit the East. The increasing developments of steamships and railways made it far easier to reach places such as Constantinople, Cairo and Marrakesh than ever before, thus opening up the world to anyone who wished to explore.

Amongst those who travelled to the East were artists and photographers who wanted to capture the visual culture of the Orient. Whilst some were successful, others discovered that reality did not fit with their imagination and stretched the truth in their artwork to complement European ideas. Many paintings of the Middle East were produced by artists who had never left Europe, relying on photographs and drawings by those who had visited the region.

Islam was a foreign religion in Europe and Muslim life became something exotic and intriguing to the western world. Paintings were produced of people at prayer or at religious schools to highlight the differences between the Middle East and the Christian faith of Europe and America. It is not certain how accurate these artworks were since the main purpose was to maintain the “oriental vision”.

Alfred Dehodencq (1822-82) was a French Orientalist painter known for his vivid oil paintings of North African scenes. He travelled to Morocco in 1835 where he lived for at least ten years, completing some of his most famous works. One of these works is called The Hajj, which depicts an annual pilgrimage to Mecca in modern Saudi Arabia. Whilst Dohodencq had plenty of experience of Islamic life in Morocco, the scene is entirely fictionalised because he had never seen the Arabian Peninsula he depicted in his painting.

In the Madrasa by the Austrian painter Ludwig Deutsch (1855-1935) shows a group of young boys partaking in religious learning in a school (Madrasa). Whether Deutsch was privy to this scene is unknown, however, he made journeys to the Middle East in 1885, 1890 and 1898 during which time he visited Egypt three times. Deutsch is mostly remembered for his depiction of life in Cairo, particularly the colours, scenery and customs.

Swiss painter Otto Pilny (1866-1936) travelled the caravan route from Cairo to Tripoli when he was only 19 years old. Later, he became a court painter for the Ottoman Empire, suggesting that his work was accurate enough to please the Ottoman authorities. Pilny was particularly captivated by the Bedouins, a nomadic Arab group, and often travelled with them into the desert where he sketched their activities. One example of this is Evening Prayers in the Desert, which Pilny completed in 1918.

With new technologies available, artists and photographers were able to produce more up-to-date versions of the earlier costume books. The initial sketches of these artists have proved to be more accurate than their final outcomes, which tended to be enhanced with exotic colours and aspects of their imagination. Jean-Léon Gérôme was one such artist whose finished paintings were often highly imaginative. His sketch of a girl playing a stringed instrument, however, captured the true appearance of the model and showed how close an observation Gérôme conducted of the Middle East and North African cultures.

Eugène Delacroix’s (1798-1863) sketch of a seated Arab was produced on the spot during his second trip to Morocco. His first trip was with the first French ambassador to Morocco, Charles-Edgar de Mornay (1803-78) during which time he was profoundly affected by what he saw, likening the Arabs to the people of Classical Greece and Rome. Whilst it was easy to find Arab men to pose for him, Delacroix resorted to painting Jewish women instead of Muslim because of Muslim rules requiring that women be covered.

Women of Algiers in the Apartment is an example of a painting Delacroix painted using Jewish women instead of Muslim. A merchant in Algiers had allowed Delacroix to look into his harem to get an idea of the interior, including textiles, ornaments and other props. Whilst the setting is authentic, the women in the picture are ambiguous and their activities unknown.

European men were fascinated with the goings-on in a harem. A harem was merely a private domestic space that unfamiliar men were not allowed to enter, however, due to this secrecy, the minds of the artists went wild. Using their imagination, many artists used the backdrop of a harem to paint naked women, however, this was not always the case. The Italian painter Cesare dell’ Acqua (1821-1905), who never visited the Middle East, used his imagination to paint a sensual portrait of an Ottoman woman burning incense. The model is fully clothed but wears the decorative textiles that Dell’ Acqua probably saw in costume books or other artists’ paintings.

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Women Amongst Themselves with Sculpted Voyeur – Picasso 1934

Although many artists attempted to portray the Muslim woman, it is impossible to tell how accurate they were or whether they were far off the mark. Those who copied ideas from other paintings added extra elements, making the result even further from the truth. None took this as far as Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), however, who used his surrealist style to produce Women Amongst Themselves with Sculpted Voyeur, which was loosely based on The Turkish Bath by Jean-August-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867).

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Les Femmes du Maroc – Lalla Essaydi 2005

The theme of women in the Middle East and North Africa continues to the very end of the exhibition. Today, the term “Orientalism” is contested by many, some arguing that the ideals of the Orient were entirely inaccurate – more like “Disorientalism”. To close the exhibition, the British Museum displays contemporary artwork by four female artists from Iran, Turkey, Morocco and Palestine that comment on female identity and undermine the way women were portrayed by Orientalist artists.

One artwork that particularly stands out is the photographic triptych Les Femmes du Maroc by Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi. Her portrayal of Muslim women is in stark contrast to the brightly coloured paintings of the 19th century. Fully clothed in white with only their eyes and hands showing, the three photographs are covered with strings of Arabic letters, emphasising that they are human beings and not the passive objects in the voyeuristic imaginings of European painters. Nonetheless, Muslim women still have a long way to go before they fully shake off their identities as possessions rather than independent women.

“There is a great deal of self-contradiction in strong and proud women, participating in the revolutionary process, willing to go to war with rifles across their back, and yet still [they] endure the laws of the harem.” – Shirin Neshat

The British Museum has curated a fascinating exhibition about the way the “Orient” became popular throughout Europe. It also highlights the inaccuracies that developed as a result, however, it shines little light on the truth. Then again, with so many paintings, ceramics and objects in existence it is difficult, if not impossible, to subtract the false from the truth.

Inspired by the East: how the Islamic world influenced western art is open until 26th January 2020. Tickets cost £14, however, members and under 16s can visit for free.


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Manga マンガ

“What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865

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The kanji for “manga”

Manga are comics or graphic novels that originated in Japan during the 19th century. They combine images and words to tell stories of a whole range of genres, including action, adventure, comedy, history, horror, mystery, romance, science fiction and fantasy. In Japanese, the characters that make up the word “manga” translate literally as “pictures run riot”. Whilst people would be correct in arguing manga is no different from any form of cartoon or comic, the term “manga” refers to comics originally published in Japan.

Recently, the largest exhibition of Manga outside of Japan took place at the British Museum. Attracting people of all ages and backgrounds, the museum introduced newbies to the global phenomenon and excited avid fans. Manga’s popularity in the western world grew through its expansion into anime (animation) and gaming, becoming a multi-billion-dollar industry. Today, manga are celebrated throughout the world at Comic Cons and other conventions. The Museum, however, took visitors on a journey from the distant past to the present day through original drawings and interviews with various artists who brought the art of manga to life.

 

The roots of manga can be traced back to the 12th or 13th century. A set of handscrolls known as the Handscrolls of Frolicking Animals (Chōjū giga) are thought to be the foundation of modern manga. Attributed to Tosa Mitsunobu (1434-1525), a Japanese artist and founder of the Tosa school of Japanese painting, these painted handscrolls show simple illustrations of anthropomorphic rabbits and frogs wrestling and participating in other human-like activities. These scrolls were discovered in Kōsan-ji, a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan. Today, there are many copies and graphic reproductions.

In the 1500s, an anonymous set of comical illustrations showing monkeys acting out human situations were produced, most likely in response to the older handscrolls. Unlike the earlier form, these drawings included the first examples of fukidashi or speech bubbles. These were not written or drawn out in the way we perceive speech bubbles today, however, they aided the narrative of the visual story. Whilst at first glance it appears there are dozens of monkeys on the scroll, there are actually only a few characters, appearing multiple times across the page, showing a visual progression and storyline.

By the 18th century, Japanese artists were combining pictures and words in illustrated novel formats (kibyōshi). These were usually produced for the rich, elite Japanese citizens and often satirised society and politics. An example of work from this era is the poet Santō Kyōden’s (1761-1816) publication Small Change from a Gem-grinding Wheel.

 

Those who went to the British Museum’s Manga exhibition were guided from display to display by a white rabbit named Mimi-chan. The young rabbit looks very similar to the creatures in the Handscrolls of Frolicking Animals, which is where the manga artist Fumiyo Kōno (b.1968) borrowed her ideas. She has recently written and illustrated the book Giga Town: album of manga symbols (2018), which helps the reader understand how to read manga. There are many signs and symbols known as manpu that convey movement and emotion, however, there has never been an instruction manual to help people understand them. Kōno’s book is the first dictionary of manpu.

On one page of Giga Town, the heroine Mimi-chan is racing a tortoise in a retelling of Aesop’s (620 – 564 BCE) The Tortoise and the Hare. Kōno uses lots of manpu, such as spirals to express speed, dizziness or the movement of an object or character. In other frames, readers are introduced to manpu that indicate surprise, deep thinking, fear, movement, anger, sadness, tiredness and sleep. The latter two are usually shown through the use of the letter Z. This is a symbol that is also used in western comics, for example, Charles M. Schulz’s (1922-2000) Peanuts comic strip.

As well as manpu, Kōno provides other instructions on how to read manga. The most important is perhaps the reading direction. Unlike the majority of the western world who read from left to right, the Japanese read from right to left, top to bottom. Manga are divided into frames (koma), which begin in the upper right-hand corner and finish in the lower-left koma. When compiled in a book, the story begins on the back page and finishes on what we would consider the first page.

As mentioned already, speech bubbles or fukidashi are used to contain spoken words and thoughts. Whilst usually round, these change shape depending on the tone, mood and context. A daydream may be indicated by a cloud-shaped bubble, whereas an exclamation of surprise may have several jagged edges.

As well as speech, there are symbols and markings to represent other sound effects. These are called either gitaigo or giseigo and are usually embedded into the illustrations. They help the reader to comprehend the drama, mood and tone (tōn) of the scene.

 

Despite evidence that the idea of manga is over 800 years old, the father of manga, or at least modern manga, is often said to be Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), the designer of the famous print, The Great Wave. A series of picture books titled Hokusai manga was published in 1814. The title was chosen by the artist himself in reference to the original meaning “pictures run riot” or “brush running away with itself”.

Although Hokusai’s “manga” is amusing, for instance, Buddhist’s monks partaking in all sorts of activities, there is no narrative. Nor is there any text or dialogue; the illustrations appear to be completely random, light-hearted images. Nonetheless, the manpu that Fumiyo Kōno described in her book published last year, is evident in Hokusai’s drawings. There is an atmosphere in Hokusai manga that is similar to modern manga. His characters are caught in a “freeze-frame”, mid-movement, which is a technique used by nearly all manga and comic strip artists today.

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Japan Punch

Manga first became known in the western world when Japan opened its doors to international trade in 1858. A foreign settlement began to grow in Yokohama, now the second-largest city in Japan, and it was here that Japan’s first newspaper was published. One of the first newspapers was called Japan Punch by Charles Wirgman (1832-91), which was published between 1862 and 1887. This was a satirical comic magazine based on the British weekly periodical Punch or The London Charivari established in 1841. Japan Punch included illustrations that mocked local westerners and the struggles they had in building relations with the Japanese. As the magazine’s popularity grew, the journal began to target Japanese government policies and concerns about Japan’s rapid modernisation.

 

Taking up seventeen metres of wall space at the British Museum’s exhibition was a curtain produced for Tokyo’s Shintomi theatre showing kabuki actors as monsters and ghosts. Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831–1889) produced this stage curtain within four hours on 30th June 1880, albeit after consuming several bottles of rice wine. The illustrations depict the Japanese folklore tale Hyakki Yagyō (Night Parade of One Hundred Demons). Despite the spontaneous (drunken) style, the Japanese population would have recognised the individual characters from books and paintings. Modern manga was yet to develop but it is thought this curtain provided roots and inspiration for contemporary artists.

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Jiji Manga

Modern manga can be dated to around the 1880s. Modelled on the comics sections of American newspapers, Kitazawa Rakuten (1876–1955) launched the humorous newspaper Jiji manga (Topical Manga) as a supplement to the pre-existing Jiji shinpō (News of Current Affairs). After proving popular, artists began producing manga magazines for a younger audience. Shōnen manga was developed for young men, which focused on action and adventure. For young women, shōjo manga focused more on relationships and romance. Later, shōjo manga expanded to include material for homosexual males.

During the 1910s, manga magazines suitable for children became widely available. Publications such as Shōnen kurabu (Boy’s Club) and Shōjo kurabu (Girl’s Club) featured various novels and poetry. After the Second World War, there was an influx of American comics, including Disney, which had a significant impact on manga artists. Soon, Japanese children’s characters began to emerge.

 

Tezuka Osamu (1928-89) was one of many artists influenced by Disney and earlier Japanese manga. His first manga book, which shaped the future of manga, was titled Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island) based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s (1850-94) Treasure Island. This was the first manga to be produced in book (tankōbon) format. Produced in 1947 when Tezuka was only eighteen years old, it quickly sold 400,000 copies. Based on this success, he produced more books for both boys, such as The Mighty Atom (1952), and for girls, Princess Knight (1953).

Princess Knight was a unique concept at the time it was published. The main character Sapphire was born with both a male and female soul. Since Japanese princesses had no right to the throne, Sapphire was raised as a boy. The story was also unique because it was written for girls at a time when manga was predominantly a male scene.

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Astro Boy

Astro Boy, known as in Japan as Mighty Atom was one of the first mangas to be commercialised. Figurines and other merchandise were produced and continue to be produced of the main character Atom (Astro Boy). Atom is a robot boy who was created to replace the son of a scientist who had died in a car crash. The robot boy disappoints the scientist because he is not fully human and cannot grow and develop like a human child. As a result, Atom is sold to a robot circus where he is saved by Professor Ochanomizu who helps him learn how to live like a human. By striving to learn how to understand human emotion, Astro Boy became a hero amongst manga readers and has influenced the genre to this very day.

 

With a similar appearance to Astro Boy is the protagonist of Dragon Ball (1984-95) Son Goku. Created by Akira Toriyama (b.1955) and later turned into a Japanese anime television series produced by Toei Animation, Son Goku is on a quest to locate seven dragon balls that will summon Shenron the wish-granting dragon. Later in the series, the storyline turns to martial arts and discovering the strongest fighter in the universe. By the end of the 519 chapters, the characters are focused on protecting Earth from extraterrestrial enemies.

Another recognisable character is from Fujio Akatsuka’s (1935-2008) The End of Unagi-inu (or Eel-dog). Eel-dog is a cross between a dog and an eel. He has a canine-like head and legs but an elongated body and fishtail. The story relates the fate of this poor animal who goes into fits of hysterics after hearing something from a police officer, which ultimately leads to a heart attack and death. With minimal words, Akatsuka uses readable images and playful characters to invite the reader to wonder what the police officer could have said to Eel-dog to cause such a reaction.

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Chi’s Sweet Home

Animals are popular characters in manga, particularly cats. The recent children’s manga Chi’s Sweet Home by Konami Kanata (b.1958) follows the adventures of a lost kitten adopted by the Yamada family. The story is told from the kitten Chi’s perspective, who expresses her frustration when humans do not hear her but eventually finds the love and attention she seeks.

“Kittens give me a great deal of pleasure every day. I began drawing them in a way that would be fun for readers to experience the energy I receive from them, in manga.” – Konami Kanata

Chi’s Sweet Home was originally drawn and printed in black and white. After it was translated into other languages, including English and French, its popularity grew and Kanata began adding colour to her illustrations. It has recently been adapted into a three-dimensional anime series and has a large following of English speaking fans on Amazon Prime.

There are many genre’s of manga in production today. Each artist has a different style of illustration and tackles different subjects, themes, ages and identities. Remaining popular in Japan, manga has rapidly spread across the world and is being enjoyed by people of all nationalities. In essence, there is a manga for everyone.

 

For sports fans, there are a number of different manga available. Often, sport is used as a metaphor for life; there are themes of persistence struggles, failure, defeat, triumph, strong friendships and rivalry. By including sports that are popular in western countries, there has been a rising interest in particular sports in Japan, such as football.

One of Japan’s most iconic sports manga is Tomorrow’s Joe, which was serialised in the Weekly Shônen Magazine from 1968. Produced by Tetsuya Chiba (b.1939) and Ikki Kajiwara (1936-87) under the pseudonym Asao Takamori, Tomorrow’s Joe tells the story of the orphaned ex-convict Yabuki Joe’s fight to become a champion boxer. This was a metaphorical tale of Japan’s status in the world. The nation was fighting to hold some power in a predominately western world.

“Sport” is a very loose term in Japan, whilst it includes baseball, basketball, tennis, golf and football, it also embraces ballet and karuta or traditional card playing. The latter is explored in the current best-selling manga Chihayafuru by Yuki Suetsugu (b.1975). It is about a school girl, Chihaya Ayase, who is encouraged by a new classmate to take up competitive karuta. The manga has been adapted into an anime television series, which began airing in 2011. Between 2016 and 2018, there have also been three live-action films.

 

Love is another broad topic that manga covers. Whilst it covers desire and sex, a lot of which is erotic, it also explores social attitudes to same-sex relationships, freedom of expression and the less explored maternal love. Moto Hagio (b.1949) is a manga artist who chose to focus on the latter. Her short story The Willow Tree (2007) tells the story of a woman standing under a willow tree, watching a young boy pass by. In each frame, the seasons change, the boy gets older and eventually becomes a man. The woman, however, remains the same. On the final page, the man approaches the woman under the tree and the reader learns that she is his mother who passed away when he was a child. She has been watching over him all this time. When her son reassures her that he is fine, the woman finally disappears.

Moto Hagio used the willow tree as a metaphor for maternal love. Although the seasons changed and the years sped by, the tree stood steadfast, sheltering the woman lovingly watching her son evolve through the passage of time.

 

In Japan, the main two belief systems are Buddhism and Shinto. Manga artists have explored the influence of religion in contemporary Japan, making religious figures accessible in new ways. Some artists have even explored foreign religions, such as Christianity. Imagine what would happen if Jesus and Buddha were flatmates.

Hikaru Nakamura (b.1984) began publishing her Saint Young Men gag series in the magazine Morning 2 in 2006. It explores the lives of Gautama Buddha and Jesus Christ living together as flatmates in Japan. The pair are visiting Earth on vacation but are determined to keep their identities secret so that they can discover and learn to understand modern Japanese society. They try out all sorts of everyday activities, such as sightseeing, drinking beer, blogging, playing video games and even drawing manga.

Although it is meant to be a comedy, Saint Young Men contains religious facts and is not deliberately harmful to either belief. Jesus is portrayed as a passionate person, living out his Great Commandment through his love for all – a love which includes shopping. Buddha, on the other hand, has a calm and frugal persona but also visibly shines when he is excited. This is a reference to bodhi or enlightenment, which is the knowledge or wisdom of Buddha. In one comical scene, Jesus turns the water of a public bath into wine.

Other manga genres include Science-Fiction, which explores other worlds in the past present and future, Horror, including traditional Japanese ghost stories, Adventure, and Transformation. In manga, the impossible can become possible, for instance, ordinary people can transform into super-humans. Lines between good and evil can become blurred when superpowers provide people with the opportunity to save the world or become weapons of misery and destruction.

 

One of the most expressive examples of manga shown in the British Museum’s exhibition was Blue Giant Supreme by Shin’ichi Ishizuka (b.1971). The story follows Miyamoto Dai as he travels to Germany in the hopes of becoming one of the world’s best jazz saxophone players. On his journey, he forms a band with international musicians and the art frames reveal their experiences on tour buses, in run-down hotels and performing in clubs. As well as telling a story, the music scenes show manga at its best. Through the use of lines and symbols, we can almost hear and feel the sounds of the instruments.

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Today, publishing manga is a big business and three years ago, in 2016, the estimated income of the Japanese manga industry was three billion dollars. Four of the top publishers – Hakusensha, Kodansha, Shogakukan and Shueisha – control a large share of the market, however, they are in constant competition with other publishing companies, magazines, artists and editors. Manga has also superseded the paper format with characters becoming figurines, toys, computer games, anime, films and fancy dress costumes.

Twice a year, manga fans travel from far and wide to attend a three-day comic market in Japan. Known as Comiket, artists and publishers congregate to sell books, merchandise, fanzines and so forth. Over half-a-million people attend each event, often dressed in the outfits of their favourite characters. Comiket began in 1975 and the idea has spread across the world. In the United Kingdom and the United States, there are similar events known as Comic-Con, however, these tend to celebrate western comics rather than manga.

In 2006, the Kyoto International Manga Museum opened in Japan to preserve, display and research manga culture. The British Museum began collecting manga over a decade ago, which lead to the recent Manga exhibition. Displaying original manga drawings is a challenge because the paper is thin and the ink quickly fades when left in certain light. Often it is safer to display reproductions, therefore, it is a unique opportunity to view the originals at one-off exhibitions.

 

Museums have also become the subject of manga, for instance, Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure (2011) by Yukinobu Hoshino (b.1954). Professor Munakata is a fictional ethnologist who is determined to unravel the mysteries of Japan’s past. Whilst conducting his research, the professor becomes entangled in a criminal plot at the British Museum. The drawings show recognisable rooms and artefacts at the museum.

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Today, characters that originated in manga exist across multiple platforms. One of the greatest success stories is the Pokémon franchise. Originating in 1996, the series began as a video game for Game Boy, which involved catching and training “pocket monsters”. This was closely followed by Pokémon manga and anime. Today, the franchise covers video games, trading cards, toys, television and film series, books and comics. This year, the first live-action film premiered and in the past few years, the mobile phone game Pokémon Go took the world by storm.

The majority of the UK and Europe get their “manga-fix” through films. Japan’s Studio Ghibli has produced some of the most influential animation films, including Spirited Away (2001), which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. Although people are missing out on the original manga, the Japanese publishers have benefitted greatly from multi-media.

Whether you are a manga fan or not, it is easy to appreciate the dedication the Japanese artists and publishers have for their native form of visual narrative art. The influential art form has crossed over cultures with stories covering everything from gender to adventure in both real and imagined worlds. Whatever format you are familiar with, it is both important and interesting to learn about where the roots of manga began and how it became such a global phenomenon.

The British Museum put on a wonderful exhibition. Sadly, it has now closed, so keep an eye out for future displays and events involving Japanese manga. For now, sayonara (bye-bye). 

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Love and Angst

“We want to create, or at least lay the foundations of, an art that gives something to humanity. An art that arrests and engages. An art created by one’s innermost heart.”
– Edvard Munch, 1889

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Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm, 1895

When Edvard Munch (1863-1944) produced The Scream in 1893, little did he know it would retain the international appeal it garnered, encapsulating a mood to which nearly everyone can relate. Dying a recluse at his estate in the suburbs of Oslo, Munch bequeathed the works in his studio to the city, which included 18,000 prints. The British Museum in London managed to acquire a mere 21 of Munch’s prints, however, the opportunity recently arose to borrow works from abroad to hold their first-ever exhibition about the Norwegian artist – the first exhibition solely about Munch since 1974.

Although Munch was also a painter, the British Museum’s exhibition Edvard Munch: Love and Angst focused almost entirely on his print work, including lithographs and woodcuts. Having been born to a close-knit family on 12th December 1863 in Kristiania (renamed Oslo in 1925), Munch’s childhood was shattered after the death of his mother Laura Catherine Bjølstad from tuberculosis when he was only five years old. This left Munch, his older sister Johanne Sophie, and younger siblings Peter Andreas, Laura Catherine, and Inger Marie to be brought up by their father Doctor Christian Munch, the son of a priest.

The first print displayed in the exhibition is Munch’s Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm (1895), which he produced as a memento mori of his own mortality. Not only did Munch suffer through the death of his mother, but his sister (Johanne) Sophie also died from tuberculosis when he was thirteen years old. It is primarily due to these two tragic instances that Munch began to produce artwork with the intention of expressing his deep, painful emotions.

Whilst Munch’s father was a loving, kind man, he was deeply pious and the conservative teachings of the Lutheran church dominated much of his life. “My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious—to the point of psychoneurosis. From him, I inherited the seeds of madness.” As a result, Munch wanted to escape from this type of lifestyle. Firstly, in 1879, Munch enrolled in a technical college to study engineering. Whilst he excelled at maths, chemistry and physics, Munch left the college after a year with the determination to become a painter. In 1881, Munch enrolled at the Royal School of Art and Design of Kristiania, one of whose founders was his distant relative Jacob Munch; nonetheless, his father disapproved.

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Hans Jaeger, 1896

One thing that particularly upset Munch’s father was his relationship with the local nihilist Hans Jaeger (1854-1910). As a writer, philosopher and political activist, Jaeger was the central figure of the Kristiania bohemians with whom Munch became affiliated. Despite being jailed for blasphemy in 1885, Jaeger wrote the book From the Kristiania Bohemians, which greatly influenced the young Munch, helping him to develop a highly subjective expressionistic art style.

Munch briefly studied in Paris in 1885 and again in 1889, where he was influenced by several contemporary French artists. These included Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). Unfortunately, Munch’s father died in December 1889 and Munch, destitute, was forced to temporarily move back home.

The British Museum used Munch’s prints of Kristiania Bohemians II (1895) as examples of the etching and drypoint technique Munch used during the 1880s. The image reveals the smoky interior of the Grand Café in Kristiania where Munch used to meet various writers and artists, including Hans Jaeger, who can be seen at the far end of the table. Etchings are usually created by drawing on a metal plate covered in acid-resistant wax with a needlepoint. The plate is then immersed in acid, which “bites” into the metal along the exposed scratched lines. Alternatively, Munch scratched directly onto the metal plate, a technique that is known as “drypoint”. Either way, the plate can then be inked, covered with dampened paper and passed through a printing press to produce a print of the design etched onto the metal. This can be used again and again to create several copies of the same image.

Another technique Munch utilised was woodcut. An example of this style is Munch’s Head by Head (1905), which he initially printed in black and white. To produce a woodcut, the artist has to cut into a block of wood with a chisel so that the raised surfaces can be inked to create a print – similar to how a rubber stamp works today. As shown at the British Museum, Munch often used different coloured inks on his woodcuts. This can be done by carefully applying various shades of ink to particular sections of the block. Munch also took a more unconventional approach and sawed up the woodblock so that the various sections could be inked separately before being reassembled like a jigsaw to create the final print.

In 1892, Munch was invited to put on an exhibition of his paintings in Berlin. His work, however, horrified the traditional art world and the exhibition was closed after a week. Fortunately, the younger, avant-garde artists were impressed with his style and the scandal, instead of ruining him, helped to launch Munch’s international career. As a result, Munch opted to stay in Berlin where he made use of their many traditional printing establishments.

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August Strindberg, 1896

Whilst in Berlin, Munch met intellectuals from all over Europe, the majority of whom met in the Black Piglet bar to debate about art, love, science and philosophy. They also discussed the concept of the death of God, an idea that was radical and shocking at the time. Amongst these thinkers was August Strindberg, a Swedish playwright (1849-1912) who Munch painted in 1892. Unfortunately, their friendship began to drift after Strindberg wrote a satirical review of an exhibition of Munch’s work in Paris. To get his own back, when Munch produced a print of his painting in 1896, he added the deliberately misspelt name “A. Stindberg”, which is a play on words meaning “mountain of hot air.” The naked woman in the border of the print alludes to Strindberg’s growing paranoia and bouts of hallucinations.

The works that unsettled the mainstream art world belonged to a cycle Munch titled Frieze of Life. These artworks were produced over several years and encompassed themes such as love, jealousy, anxiety and death.

“The Frieze is intended as a poem about life, about love and about death.”
– Edvard Munch, 1918

Some of Munch’s Frieze of Life recalls his first love affair with a married woman, Milly Thaulow. The affair took place during summer visits to the Norwegian coastal town of Åsgårdstrand. As a result, many of Munch’s romantic or angst-ridden artworks feature the shoreline in the background. “I get so inspired to paint when I am here”.

When talking about his print Separation II (1896), Munch stated that he “symbolised the connection between the separated couple with the help of long wavy hair.” This represents a “kind of telephone wire.” Perhaps this metaphor relates to Munch and Thaulow who could only meet in the summer and were, therefore, separated throughout the rest of the year.

During his career, Munch was obsessed with and afraid of female power, resulting in numerous affairs but no marriage. In 1898, Munch entered a relationship with Tulla Larsen, an upper-class woman, who was eager for marriage, however, Munch deliberately dodged the proposals. At the same time, Munch was struggling with alcoholism and poor health, which enhanced his fears about commitment. In 1900, he fled from Tulla to Berlin, however, the couple briefly reconciled a little later. The end of their relationship came about after Munch’s self-destructive and unpredictable behaviour involved him in a violent quarrel with another artist, followed by an accidental shooting in the presence of Tulla, which damaged two of Munch’s fingers.

In Man’s Head in Woman’s Hair (1896), Munch used the woman’s hair to represent his fears of female entrapment. The woman’s hair, which in this print is coloured red, surrounds the head of the man, symbolising that he has been ensnared in his love with the woman. Perhaps his thoughts have been clouded due to emotion, thus preventing him from avoiding a relationship or marriage.

“Ever since he was a child he had hated marriage. His sick and nervous home had given him the feeling that he had no right to get married.”
– Edvard Munch, speaking about himself

Two Human Beings, the Lonely Ones (1899) is a woodcut that Munch produced using his jigsaw technique so that he could ink each section separately. As a result, each element of the print – the woman, the man and the sea – has a white border, highlighting Munch’s solitary mood. Although he may be with a woman, Munch deliberately distances himself from commitment and a steady relationship.

For Munch, his constant state of separation and isolation led to an increasing feeling of anguish. It was this strong emotion that led Munch to produce his legendary painting The Scream in 1893. The artwork first appeared in an exhibition in Berlin titled Life Anxiety. Two years later, Munch produced a print of the painting, adding the title “Geschrei” (Scream) followed by the German words “Ich fühlte das grosse Geschrei durch die Natur” (I felt the large scream pass through nature).

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The Scream became the centre of Munch’s Frieze of Life series and quickly became his most well-known work. Munch produced two paintings of the artwork, two pastel versions and several prints, all of which have been widely coveted. In 2012, one of the pastels became one of the most expensive pieces of art ever sold when it went for £74 million during an auction at Sotheby’s.

To make the prints, Munch used a technique called lithography, which relies on the fact that grease and water do not mix. The image is drawn on a flat stone with a wax crayon, which is then dampened by water. The waxy area repels the water and when ink is applied, it adheres to the drawn image and avoids the damp areas. A piece of paper is then placed upon the stone and passed through a press to transfer the image.

Much to Munch’s annoyance, The Scream has been misinterpreted by the majority of viewers who automatically assume the open-mouthed figure is screaming. Munch originally intended to title the painting The Scream of Nature before settling for the shorter name. Munch claims the titular scream comes from the surroundings and not the person. The person is attempting to block out the shriek they can hear (the Norwegian title is Shrik).

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Although generally believed to be a man, the figure in The Scream is featureless and genderless, thus de-individualised, which has helped it to become a universal symbol of anxiety in the 21st century. The Scream has recently been turned into an emoji for use on social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and so forth. It has also found itself in Pop Art and popular culture, for instance, works by Andy Warhol (1928-87) and Peter Brooks (b. 1943) and has recently been replicated on new Pokémon trading cards.

“The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.”
– Edvard Munch

One of the strongest themes in Munch’s work is sickness and death. Munch’s life began with the death of his mother but it was the death of his sister Sophie when he was only 13 that haunted him for the rest of his life. He directed the emotions tied up with this experience into his large painting The Sick Child, which was on loan to the British Museum from the Tate Modern. Tuberculosis was a common illness during Munch’s life, however, the rapidly industrialised cities had no means to tackle it. Munch witnessed people like his father resorting to prayer in an effort to save lives, which in the case of Sophie was futile.

Munch also suffered from ill health as a child and grew up to believe that tuberculosis and mental illness was a fact of life. His sister Laura was institutionalised in 1894 with schizophrenia and, later, Munch suffered a number of mental breakdowns. Nonetheless, Munch wrote that he would not wish himself free of mental illness “because there’s so much in my art that I owe to it.”

“In The Sick Child I paved new roads for myself – it was a breakthrough in my art. – Most of what I have done since had its genesis in this picture. No painting in Norway has elicited such a scandal.”
– Edvard Munch, Origins of the Frieze of Life, 1928

It took Munch a year to complete the oil painting The Sick Child, which recalls the death of his sister Sophie. The woman seated beside Sophie’s bed is Munch’s aunt, Karen Bjølstad who had looked after the Munch siblings since the death of their mother in 1868. Unfortunately, when the painting was displayed at the Berlin Artists’ Association in November 1892, it was criticised for its rough appearance, however, once again the negative press gave Munch the much-needed publicity.

Munch believed that he had experienced more than his fair share of grief and produced several works on the same subject. In fact, his oil painting of The Sick Child was the fourth of six images in a series of the same name. Munch created a dry point of The Sick Child from which he produced ten signed prints. Despite being black and white, the child’s face still appears drained of colour as the life ebbs away.

The Sick Child I is a lithograph based upon the head and shoulders of the child in the previous print. Munch produced several stones of the same image and had them printed in different colours, for instance, yellow, pink and red.

“All art, like music, must be created with one’s lifeblood – Art is one’s lifeblood.”
– Edvard Munch

At the beginning of the 20th century, Paris was beginning to assert itself with modernity, hosting The World Fairs of 1889 and 1900 and inaugurating the newly built Eiffel Tower. It was a time when Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was changing the way mental disorders were treated, Marie Curie (1867-1934) was discovering radioactivity and new experiments were occurring in film, art, dance and theatre. Munch was swept up by the hype of Parisian artists who were embracing coloured printmaking and working alongside the groundbreaking experimental theatre.

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Eva Mudocci/The Brooch, 1903

“Fraulein Mudocci is wonderfully beautiful and I almost fear I am falling in love …” Eva Mudocci was both a friend, muse and short term lover of Munch. She was a famous violinist at the time Munch was in Paris and he produced a print titled The Brooch based on her appearance.

Mudocci was not the only well-known name with whom Munch associated. Munch had already befriended and unfriended Strindberg but was also in contact with other contemporary playwrights. Scandinavian dramatists were beginning to take precedence in the experimental theatre world and they relied upon avant-garde artists to design stage sets, posters and programme covers. Artists included Toulouse-Lautrec, Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) and, of course, Munch himself.

Munch felt an affinity with the Norweigan playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) whose plays, like his own work, shocked bourgeois society. They challenged social and moral conventions with themes of adultery, hypocrisy, mental illness and diseases, such as syphilis. Munch said of the audiences’ reaction, “Ibsen threw a huge log into the anthill.”

Munch initially met Ibsen whilst back home in Kristiania where the elderly playwright lived in a self-imposed exile. Whilst Munch admired the older gentleman, Ibsen saw a bit of himself in the artist. He warned Munch, “Believe you me – you will have the same fate as I – the more enemies, the more friends.”

Munch designed programme covers for at least two of Ibsen’s plays, John Gabriel Borkman and Peer Gynt. He also designed the set for Ibsen’s Ghosts in 1906. Ibsen had passed away earlier that year and in his honour, Munch was asked to design the sets for a performance at the Kammerspiele, which had recently opened in Berlin. In some ways, Munch associated Ghosts with events of his only family life, particularly the deaths of his mother and sister, and he used these personal memories as visual aids when creating the stage set.

Despite living to the age of 80, Munch remained emotionally attached to his family and homeland all his life. Although he had tried to escape from his life as a young adult, he was constantly drawn back to Kristiania, especially the village of Åsgårdstrand, which, as already mentioned, features as a backdrop in many of his works. “To walk around here is like walking among my pictures.”

In 1908, Munch was admitted to a clinic in Copenhagen due to acute alcoholism and an anxiety-driven nervous breakdown. He eventually returned to Norway in 1909 but his style of art had undergone a radical change. Rather than concentrating on past events, love and angst, Munch focused more on Norwegian landscapes and daily life. In 1916, Munch settled in Ekely on the outskirts of the capital where he remained until his death in 1944.

Although the exhibition only focused on prints, Edvard Munch: Love and Angst managed to explore the artistic development and powerful intensity of Munch’s work. Throughout his career, Munch received mixed reactions. Whilst the traditional art world rejected him, there were plenty of bohemian artists to encourage and support his more outspoken work.

“We want more than a mere photograph of nature. We do not want pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want to create, or at least lay the foundations of, an art that gives something to humanity. An art that arrests and engages. An art of one’s innermost heart.”
– Edvard Munch

Until the end of the 19th century, Munch had little financial success. Ironically, it was the outraged reaction of art critics that gave Munch the recognition he needed to become successful in the contemporary art world. A report in the Frankfurter Zeitung about his 1892 exhibition in Berlin exclaimed, “Art is endangered! All true believers raise a great lament! … An Impressionist, and a mad one at that, has broken into the herd of our fine solidly bourgeois artists. An absolutely furious character.”

It is difficult to judge the quality of Munch’s work, particularly as it is impossible to determine what is good and what is not in modern art. Most of the time it is a matter of personal taste. The fact that prints can be replicated several times makes each one feel less personal in comparison to a unique painting, however, Munch’s life story reveals the underlying emotion in each artwork. Just because it was possible to make several copies does not make the image any less meaningful. Seeing a print of The Scream is just as emotionally intense as seeing one of the painted versions.

The British Museum’s exhibition was scheduled to finish at the end of June but has been extended until 21st July. It has hopefully awakened a new interest in the work and life of Edvard Munch. Most people are familiar with The Scream but knowing the artist’s history makes it all the more powerful.

Edvard Munch: Love and Angst has been developed in collaboration with the Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway. Ticket prices are £17 but under-16s can visit for free.


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I am Ashurbanipal

“I am Ashurbanipal, great king, mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria.”

With over 200 extraordinary objects, the British Museum is exploring the life of King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (r.668-627 BC). In his own words, Ashurbanipal was “king of the world”, but if he was so great, why is he not well-known today? Those familiar with the Assyrians have likely come across references in classical sources or the Bible. Assyria and its capital city, Nineveh, feature in Biblical stories such as Jonah when the Lord commands the prophet to “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” (Jonah 3:2 NIV) The eventual fall of Nineveh is written about in the book of Nahum but the supposedly most powerful individual on the planet never earned a mention.

The British Museum begins the exhibition I am Ashurbanipal with a brief history of the empire up to the reign of the great and mighty king. At the time of his reign (668 BC), the Iron Age Mesopotamian empire Neo-Assyria was the largest empire in the world. Assyria was originally an Akkadian kingdom which had begun to evolve as early as the 25th century BC, however, its most important period began in 911 BC with the ascension of Adad-Nirari II.

By the time Ashurbanipal became king, Assyria stretched from Cyprus in the west to Iran in the east, its capital city – the biggest city in the world – falling where Iraq is today. With an empire covering such a considerable amount of land, Ashurbanipal was not far off with his boast about being king of the world. Yet, being the youngest son of the previous king, he was never destined for the throne.

When King Esarhaddon’s (r.680-668 BC) eldest son died, he ignored his next eldest son, Shamash-shumu-ukin, making Ashurbanipal the crown prince instead. In order to attempt to keep the peace between the brothers, Esarhaddon gave Shamash-shumu-ukin the kingdom of Babylon, which he had rebuilt during his reign. This, however, as the exhibition proves, only stirred up more antagonism. Despite being a kingdom, Babylon was part of the Assyrian empire, thus the king of Babylon was subject to his baby brother.

Ashurbanipal reigned from the city of Nineveh in Upper Mesopotamia, on the outskirts of what is now the major city of Mosul in Iraq. During the time of the Neo-Assyrian empire, there was a significant architectural expansion of the city, eventually making it the largest in the world. The man mostly responsible for this endeavour was Ashurbanipal’s grandfather, King Sennacherib (r.704-681 BC).

Sennacherib laid out new streets and squares to help the old provincial town grow into a magnificent city. Towards the south-west of the city, Sennacherib built a palace, which he boasted to be a “palace without a rival”. It is thought to have contained over 80 rooms and had the approximate dimensions of 503 by 242 metres.

“I enlarged the site of Nineveh, my capital city. I broadend its squares, making them as bright as day. I had an inner and an out wall built and I raised them as high as mountains.”
– King Sennacherib

The British Museum displays the remains of wall panels and carvings that have been recovered from the remains of the palace’s site as well as the North Palace that Ashurbanipal built in about 645 BC on the citadel mound of Nineveh. The outer walls were most likely constructed of mud brick and plaster, while cedar wood beams were used to hold up the roof. The grander rooms of the palaces contained narrative scenes and protective figures carved into gypsum panels.

The main doorways were probably flanked by colossal stone lamassu figures. These were protective deities, often depicted with a human head but the body of a lion or bull. Whilst these have not survived to the present day, the museum has a couple of examples of protective spirits on wall panels, which, along with the stone figures, were revered as magical guardians who would protect the palace from malevolent supernatural forces, particularly those that could harm the king.

There are three spirits on the wall panels in the exhibition, each with different physical characteristics. One is called Lahmu or “the hairy one”, recognised by his elaborate ringlets, which also denote his divine status. Another is considered to be a “House God”, whose divinity can be determined by his headdress. These deities both have human heads, however, the one positioned between them has the head of a lion. Known as Ugallu, “Great Lion”, or “Big Weather-Beast”, this monstrous-looking deity or demon was believed to ward off evil and disease using threatening gestures with his dagger and mace.

Other carvings and statues of magical creatures were also found in the ruins of the ancient palaces, for example, the stone face of a sphinx that may once have formed part of a column base. A sphinx was believed to have similar powers to the human-headed lamassu figures, however, the sphinx usually looked more animalistic. With the haunches of a lion, a human head and often bird-like wings, the Sphinx was usually carved from one piece of limestone, however, Sennacherib also used other materials.

“Sphinxes of alabaster, as well as sphinxes of cast copper overlaid with silver … I erected over them columns of ebony, cypress, cedar, juniper and Indian wood, with gold and silver inlays.”
– King Sennacherib

The British Museum has examples of Assyrian wall reliefs in abundance and it is easy to be overwhelmed with the number of scenes they depict. These are some of the finest examples of Assyrian art, however, after continuously seeing one after another, they begin to all look the same. Nonetheless, these reliefs show some of the most important parts of Ashurbanipal’s reign and emphasise his importance and power throughout Assyria.

After being appointed crown prince by his father, Ashurbanipal began training to be king. Whilst living in a palace known as the “House of Succession”, the prince was taught royal etiquette, important military and leadership skills and was instructed in Mesopotamian scholarship. He also shadowed his father in court and was given the position of spymaster general, tasked with gathering information about Assyria’s allies and enemies throughout the empire.

“I cantered on thoroughbeds, rode stallions that were rearing to go; I held a bow and made arrows fly as befits a warrior …”
– King Ashurbanipal

As many of the wall reliefs show, Assyrian kings and warriors were famed for hunting lions, the most dangerous creature in the empire. This was considered a royal sport and represented the king’s ability to protect his nation against the dangers of the world. Assyrian kings were also believed to be the human representative of the gods, so these lion hunts were also a way of proving that they had divine protection from harm.

Ashurbanipal recorded his experience of lion slaying, describing how he seized a wild lion by the tail and “through the command of the gods” killed it by shattering its skull with his mace. Whilst this seems cruel and inhumane, these triumphs were celebrated at the time of the Neo-Assyrian empire, hence the number of reliefs depicting the feat.

When Ashurbanipal was not killing lions, he enjoyed reading and writing, which was rather an unusual hobby for a king. As well as being a good commander, Ashurbanipal believed that to have control over an empire, he needed to have knowledge too. He loved to boast about the extent of his scholarship and was proud of his education, especially after having studied with one of the top scribes of the time. As a result, many surviving images of the king depict him with a stylus for writing tucked into his belt.

“I have read cunningly written texts in obscure Sumerian and Akkadian that are difficult to interpret.”
– King Ashurbanipal

When he became king, Ashurbanipal inherited an enormous collection of specialist writings, which eventually became the foundation of the largest and most extensive library the world has seen. In total, it is believed Ashurbanipal owned at least 10,000 works.

The works in Ashurbanipal’s library were written on freshly made clay tablets and the British Museum has assembled a huge sample of the remaining fragments. Assyrian books were written in a script called cuneiform, which had first been developed by the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia around 3000 BCE. The system of writing was read left to right and looked like a series of wedge-shaped marks. In fact, cuneiform simply translates as “wedge-shaped”.

Ashurbanipal’s library provided him access to texts and references of all types of knowledge, including rituals, calendars, prayers, magic and medicine. Mostly, Ashurbanipal used the books to help him communicate with the gods and determine what the future held.

“I, Ashurbanipal, learned the wisdom of Nabu [the god of writing], laid hold of scribal practices of all the experts, as many as there are, I examined their instructions.”

Fortunately for scholars all over the world, when Ashurbanipal’s palace was eventually destroyed, the library was buried underneath the rubble where it stayed hidden for 2000 years. As a result, excavators were able to find examples of many of the significant works in Ashurbanipal’s collection. One of these works, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is the most famous of Mesopotamian literature.

As well as being the most famous Mesopotamian work, The Epic of Gilgamesh is also considered to be the earliest surviving piece of literature. Written in the form of an epic poem, it tells the adventures of Sumerian Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, which include killing the monster Humbaba and searching for immortality.

A large part of the exhibition concentrates on the areas that were owned by the Assyrian empire. By the time Ashurbanipal came to power, Assyria controlled a huge territory, which was divided into several provinces. Each province was supervised by a governor who had been appointed by the king, for example, his brother who ruled Babylon. Other provinces included the Levantine kingdoms, Cyprus, Urartu, Western Iran, and Aramaean kingdoms, such as Syria and Turkey. The British Museum documents each place with examples of ancient relics, many of which may have been spoils of war.

Ashurbanipal was involved in many wars during his reign, particularly ones that helped to expand the empire’s borders or stamp out usurpers. The Assyrians were not deterred by violence, believing it was a just punishment against those who had slighted the king or the gods.

During the first half of his reign, Ashurbanipal sent his armies to the west to conquer Egypt and its neighbouring regions. His success came about by defeating his enemies and capturing the city of Thebes, however, in the East, other problems were brewing.

Whilst Ashurbanipal was busy dealing with Egypt, the kingdom of Elam tried to rise up against Assyria. The king’s armies quickly quashed the revolt and the threat abated until the Elamite king died later in the year. Rather than the rightful heir, Ummanigash, take the throne, his uncle Teumman seized the position. Fearing for his life, Ummanigash fled with his family to the safety of Assyria. Naturally, Teumman was displeased with this turn of event and demanded that Ashurbanipal force his nephew to return. Instead, the Assyrian’s retaliated by attacking the Elamite usurper. After Teumman’s defeat, his head was paraded through the streets of Nineveh.

“I cut off the head of Teumman, their presumptuous king who had plotted evil. I slew his warriors without number. I captured the fighting men alive.”
– King Ashurbanipal

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Teumman’s decapitated head hanging from a tree

Ashurbanipal took the credit for the defeat of Teumman claiming that he personally killed the Elamite king and his son with his own sword. In reality, Ashurbanipal never entered the battle in Elam, remaining in safety back at his palace in Nineveh. Nonetheless, the death of the usurper was permanently recorded on wall friezes depicting the king of Assyria relaxing in his garden. On a tree nearby, hangs the head of the ex-Elamite king.

For Ashurbanipal, the empire was the most important thing in his life, more important than family, including his brother. Shamash-shumu-ukin never got over his father’s choice to make his younger brother the crown prince of Assyria. Whilst he was given the kingdom of Babylon to rule over, Shamash-shumu-ukin was extremely displeased to be under the thumb of Ashurbanipal. In secret, he began to conspire against his younger brother, creating a coalition with other areas of the empire. Unfortunately for Shamash-shumu-ukin, Ashurbanipal caught wind of his vicious plot.

Initially, Ashurbanipal attempted to maintain peace with Babylon but his brother’s persistent rebellion sparked a war in 652 BC, lasting for four years. Although Shamash-shumu-ukin had the support of foreign rulers, the king soon had the upper hand. The Assyrians eventually laid siege to the city of Babylon for two years during which time the Babylonian’s suffered from lack of food and disease. The siege ended after Shamash-shumu-ukin perished after setting his palace on fire to avoid capture.

By the end of Ashurbanipal’s reign, he had ruthlessly crushed Assyria’s enemies, thus fulfilling his kingly duty to restore order in the world. Despite having a well-documented life, the final years of Ashurbanipal’s long reign have not been recorded or, at least, not been discovered. As a result, it is impossible to determine how or when he died; some scholars believe his reign ended as early as 631 BC, whereas others report that it was as late as 627 BC. What can be proved, however, is that after his death, all Ashurbanispal’s hard work began to unravel.

Just as Nahum prophesied in the Bible, the city of Nineveh was destined to fall: “he [God] will make an end of Nineveh; he will pursue his foes into the realm of darkness.” (Nahum 1:8 NIV)

Ashurbanipal was shortly succeeded by his son Ashur-etil-ilani until 624 BC and possibly another son, Sin-shar-ishkun until 612 BC. It was during this time that things began to fall apart, beginning with a general called Nabopolassar seizing the throne of Babylon in 626 BC. This caused a civil war that left the Assyrian empire fighting for survival.

The Iranian Medes joined the war, sacking cities and desecrating the tombs of past Assyrian kings. By 612 BC, Assyria’s enemies had fought their way to the capital city Nineveh which they razed to the ground, causing the death of King Sin-shar-ishkun, the last ever King of Assyria.

The British Museum ends the exhibition with an insight into the work taking place in Iraq, including the ancient site of Nineveh. Archaeological discoveries relating to the Assyrians were first made in the 1840s, however, recent events have destroyed a lot of remaining cultural heritage. The Gulf War (1990-91) and invasions between 2003 and 2011 resulted in the loss and vandalism of many ancient relics. Further irreparable damage was made during Daesh from 2014 to 2017. The British Museum is currently one of a number of organisations working with the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage to salvage what they can plus rebuild and preserve Iraq’s cultural heritage.

I am Ashurbanipal is on view in Room 30 of the British Museum until 24th February 2019. Ticket prices are £17, however, under-16s may visit for free when accompanied by a paying adult.