At The British Museum

I made my first visit to London thirty-five years ago and as soon as I had a moment to myself, I dashed off to the British Museum.  Egyptian mummies, winged bulls from Assyria, the Rosetta Stone all awaited me, all vivid inspirations that had haunted my mind since the age of about five, when I had spent hours, weeks, months lost in V. M Hillyer’s A Child’s History of the World (Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1951, ©1924), the first book I can clearly remember reading.  The second book that made an indelible impression on me was Jane Werner Watson’s  illustrated The Iliad and the Odyssey: The Heroic Story of the Trojan War and the Fabulous Adventures of Odysseus (Simon and Schuster, 1956).  This Golden Book, illustrated in a style derived from Greek vase painting, incited a fascination with ancient Greece that I have yet to outgrow.  And thus the chief attraction of the British Museum would inevitably be the Elgin Marbles.


Given that we we’re staying in Bloomsbury, this was to be our first stop in London.  Before dashing off to the Duveen Gallery to see them again, we did pause to take in the new Great Court from which point the galleries radiate.  The day was brilliant, flooding the court with sunlight and casting intricate shadows everywhere.  The effect was a bit overwhelming: I found it hard to get my bearings, especially with banners everywhere tempting me to sample exhibits whose locations were opaquely hinted at.  In the end, I knew that it was my impatience to see the Parthenaic glories again that was preventing me from absorbing anything else.  The only way to remove a temptation is to give in to it, so we exited to the left and made our way to the grand gallery.


The display of the Elgin Marbles is a fascinating compromise of reconstruction and convenience.  The dimensions of the Duveen Gallery must approximate those of the Parthenon; the Doric columns add to the effect, and the unadorned marble construction of the walls always puts me in mind of the cella, the inner structure of the temple that housed the chryselephantine cult statue of Athena.  On the other hand, the sculptures of the frieze that line the walls, the fragments of the metopes that adorn the partitions at either end of the gallery, and the staggering majesty of the remnants of the pediments, are brought down almost to eye level; the perspective is far different from how it would have been, or can be, seen on the Acropolis itself.

On the whole, I’m more than willing to sacrifice the sense of authenticity for the chance to examine these wonders up close.  The statues from the east pediment, which depicted the birth of Athena, leave me gobsmacked every time I see them, even if it’s only a photograph in a book.  The sculpting of the human form with such vigor that even the reclining figure of the woman below suggests movement and torsion would be amazing enough.  But to combine that with the sway and tracery of the sheerest of garments, waves of marble that have the apparent consistency of sea foam—well, that stops me dead in my tracks every time.


The other bit of magic to these compositions is that way in which the utterly natural arrangement of the figures occurs within the constraints imposed by the triangular shape of the pediment itself.  The long-lost central figures of Athena and Zeus probably stood at the apex of the triangle; every other figure had to be accommodated into the sloping, ever-diminishing area to the left of right of the central figures.  At the extremities are the horses of Helios and Selene: the horse of the moon goddess at the north end of the pediment, sinking, drained, eyes bulging and mouth foaming, into the sea as a new dawn breaks, may be my single favorite piece of sculpture from antiquity, and maybe of all time.  Left to fill the tiniest corner of the pediment, the horse’s jaw and lower lip lapse over the edge of the pediment, violating the space while expressing in the most powerful way I can imagine the utter exhaustion of the animal at the end of its run.


As I’ve said before, Greek depictions of horses and horsemen are marvels that have drawn me into the deepest contemplation of the art of these ancient craftsman.  The manner in which the sculptors compress their energy, power, and vitality, and the struggles of muscle, sinew, and bone fascinates me.  (I should say that I am no horse lover: in real life, proximity to a horse fills me with anxiety if not dread, and perhaps that is why I find these realizations of that power so compelling.)


The two examples from the Parthenon frieze are among my favorites.  In the photograph above, you can see for yourself the veins bulging on the horses’ legs, trace the outline of leg bones, feel the strain as velocity is countered by the rider’s control, almost watch the muscles bunching up as the horses jostle for position.  Here again, the manner in which the artist has taken the constraints of the relatively low relief to mirror the cramped conditions in which the horses are meant to be seen as they pass in procession heightens the intended effect.  Like a poet constrained by the structures of a sonnet or a sestina, the sculptor uses the limits of the medium to transcend them.


Stepping back from a detailed focus on the execution of individual figures to grasp the larger picture of the procession depicted in the frieze was challenging, especially given the frequent gaps that represent lost segments.  But occasionally a few contiguous blocks offer a sense of the drama and energy of the sculpture taken as a whole.


Since my return home, my fascination with the marbles hasn’t abated.  Years ago, after my first visit to the Acropolis itself and a viewing of the marbles in the British Museum, I purchased the large-format book The Parthenon and its Sculptures by John Boardman and David Finn (Texas, 1985).  With 159 plates documenting the pediments, the frieze, and the metopes, introductory essays, and detailed appendices, it was a way for me to get lost again in the majesty of the work.  Returning to it now, I find myself slightly disappointed by the dryness of the text and the black-and-white photography, which is sometimes grainy and despite depicting marble, somehow lacking.  But its comprehensiveness is still dauntingly hard to match.

Less comprehensive but more accessible is The Parthenon Sculptures (Harvard, 2007) by Ian Jenkins.  The introductory chapter provides a good, general overview of the monument and its context.  Individual chapters devoted to the pediments, frieze, and metopes feature full-color photographs and informative if selective captions that point out the kinds of fascinating details that I always overlook when confronted with the physical presence of the objects themselves.  The book has a decidedly Anglocentric and indeed Anglophilic perspective that will certainly offend some readers and probably distorts a few facts—or at least offers a very subjective interpretation of history focused entirely on the holdings of the British Museum.

Finally, since the overwhelming number of sculptures that survive and are on view in the British Museum belong to the frieze, I found Jenifer Neils’ The Parthenon Frieze (Cambridge, 2001) irresistible.  I haven’t finished reading it yet, but the early chapters are detailed and yet readable, assuming not too much in the way of background and vocabulary.  Neils presents solid art history and offers interpretation based on comparison with other examples of near -contemporaneous architectural design combined with close examination of the frieze itself.

As an added bonus, Cambridge University Press maintains an associated website from which one can download an application that provides a comprehensive visual record and reconstruction of the frieze sculptures.  A word of warning, though: the application is Windows-based, and I needed to download WineBottler in order to access the viewer on my Mac.  When it opened, the size of the window was disappointingly small.  However, the app does allow you to scroll continuously through a photographic reconstruction of each of the four sections of the frieze, with line drawings filling in missing parts.  An alternate view foregrounds the drawings rather than the sculptures themselves.

I hope that Neils’ book will provide me with the general footing I need to comprehend the structure of the frieze before I wade into yet another publication that has piqued my curiosity.  The Parthenon Enigma (Knopf, 2014), by Joan Breton Connelly, was published early in this year, promising a radically new interpretation of the frieze and generating the expected amount of controversy for upending the orthodox reading of this monumental narrative.

Part of me wishes that I’d spent all this time preparing for the visit to the British Museum, so that I would arrive there well-versed and up-to-date.  But another part of me knows that no matter how much study I put in ahead of time, being face to face with this extraordinary statuary will turn my mind blank again as I can only marvel at the detail I still never noticed before and the overall grandeur of the marbles’ beauty.

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1 Response to At The British Museum

  1. Pingback: A Religious Experience of the Parthenon | A Lifetime Is Required

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