Celts – Art and Identity
To the British Museum to see the Celts exhibition. I had been meaning to go to it for some time but what with one thing and another and now rarely being up in London, I have only just got round to it. I have been critical of the British Museum experience in the past but this time, so close to the start of the new academic term, at least I wasn’t jostling with crocodiles of schoolkids to get a view of the exhibits. Many (of the exhibits, that is) are small and warrant close inspection to appreciate the intricacy of the designs.
What strikes you as you enter the exhibition is what can only be described as background muzak in a Celtic stylee – wailing uilleann pipes and the like. I was waiting for the thumping bass and drums of the Afro Celt Sound System to kick in but to no avail. I’m not sure why the curators found it necessary to provide a low volume sound track to get us in the mood. The exhibits are strong enough to stand on their own two feet and the music is irksome.
Be that as it may, it is a wonderful exhibition. For someone who has been immersed in the culture of the Ancient Greeks and Romans there is a tendency to be somewhat dismissive of the barbari, those who didn’t share their language and culture. The term Keltoi was used by the Greeks in the sense of “people who are different or strange” and if the self-publicising account of the Gallic campaign produced by Julius Caesar is to be believed, the Gauls called themselves Celts. There was no single Celtic culture but disparate groupings spread out over northern and central Europe who share a number of linguistically related languages.
The exhibition shows that the haughty dismissive attitude of the Greeks and Romans to the Celts was misplaced. They were skilled craftsmen, producing beautifully wrought jewellery in gold and silver, fearsome weaponry and helmets and highly decorative pots, cooking equipment and drinking paraphernalia. What is perhaps surprising is that they were not operating in a cultural vacuum but some of their artworks are suggestive of contact with other cultures, some of which were a considerable distance from where we associate the Celts. A group of painted vases found in France are reminiscent of Cretan pottery whilst the abstract animal forms seem more Eastern, perhaps Russian. Two large bronze jugs dating from the fourth century BCE could easily be mistaken for being Chinese.
For me the most wonderful and intriguing piece was the stunning silver Gundestrup cauldron found in Denmark. I must have spent ten minutes gazing at its exterior and interior. It is formed of beaten and moulded plates with a ring of gods with glowering faces along the exterior and mysterious rituals – some of which look distinctly oriental – on the inside. The carvings are full of vitality and to modern eyes mystery.
The Celts liked their bling and there are more armlets and torcs than you can shake a stick at. A clever touch on the part of the curators is to display them in piles reminiscent of the hoards in which they were found and the way in which their original owners entrusted them to the safe deposit box that is the earth. What is perhaps surprising is the realisation that the concentric designs we associate with Celtic art are a later development. For those who like their exhibits monumental there are the obligatory replicas of stone crosses and an intriguing reconstruction of a pony-drawn chariot.
The exhibition shows the uneasy assimilation of Roman and Christian cultures and finishes with the Romantic movement’s rediscovery of the Celts. The old fraud James Macpherson and his Celtic bard Ossian take centre stage as does a hideous Victorian statue of Caractacus. We leave the exhibition with the invitation to ponder the link between the Celts and the rebirth of nationalism.
For me, though, the glory of the exhibition is in the objects that span across the first millennium or so of Celtic culture.