Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Burden of Nineveh

As I had to ferry some more objects to Oxford on Sunday afternoon*, I thought it was high time I dropped in on the refurbished Ashmolean Museum. I must admit, despite all the plaudits, I was a little nervous about it. It has always been one of my favourite places, an inexhaustible treasure-house, a gigantic Wunderkammer crammed to the rafters with the most amazing stuff. Might they have spoiled it by radically thinning out the collection on display, or by "interpreting" it to death for the benefit of ten-year-old visitors?

When I was feeling fragile on a Sunday afternoon as a student, I used to stumble across St. Giles and lose myself in the place. Actually, you could very easily get lost, as the layout of the original building was quite strange, like one of those hotels knocked together out of several adjoining buildings, linked with dim passages and irrational staircases. But I had my touchstones to navigate by: the Anglo-Saxon Alfred Jewel, the enormous Uccello painting "The Hunt", the Cycladic figurines, like maquettes for a children's stop-motion animated series, and above all the little row of Samuel Palmer's visionary landscapes done in sepia and gum.

Meet the Cyclads

I even got to see behind the scenes. It had become obvious to my tutors that I was slightly adrift with regard to employability, but when it emerged that I had an interest in museums an appointment was arranged with the director of the Ashmolean, who happened to be a fellow of the college. When he discovered I was a Pre-Raphaelite fan, we had a lovely afternoon in the basement stores, pulling out the sliding racks to admire -- and, indeed, laugh at -- the lesser Pre-Raphaelite paintings not on display upstairs. It was like an upscale version of the wire-cage lockups for residents' junk at home in our block of flats.

It seemed like a good job to me. But in the end I decided to stay on and do some research -- on the poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet, as it happens. It was all sorted -- I had a full three-year grant and everything -- but then I had a crisis of faith in the whole literary-critical enterprise, and went off to study literary theory at the University of East Anglia instead. People thought I had flipped. The jury is still out on that one.

Head of Laocoön

Anyway, there I was, going up the steps to the Ashmolean on Sunday, having first dropped by to see my son. I remembered taking him up those very same steps, aged six months, one drizzly day in 1991 when the Prof was giving a seminar at Ruskin College. The first sign of the renovations was a rather inadequate revolving door, allowing only one person at a time to shuffle through. I stood impatiently while a pair of Japanese idiots attempted to pass through together, causing the emergency stop to halt the door every other step. Once inside, I was asked to carry my backpack, not wear it: "We've had some breakages." Uh oh.

But it was fine. Having once been reminiscent of the world's best bric-a-brac shop, it is now like the world's best gift shop. Wonderful things, wonderful things, all in subdued and subtly lit vitrines or on gallery-style plinths. I took some photographs, but mainly took pleasure in just looking and wondering. A couple of hours later, it was time to go.

A fist-bump with antiquity

As I pushed back out through the revolving door, I had one of those epiphanic moments (I did tell you the jury is still out) as it all came together in a rush of recognition: I remembered the poem by Rossetti, "The Burden of Nineveh", describing a visit to the British Museum that had sparked my interest all those years ago:

In our Museum galleries
To-day I lingered o'er the prize
Dead Greece vouchsafes to living eyes, —
Her Art for ever in fresh wise
From hour to hour rejoicing me.
Sighing I turned at last to win
Once more the London dirt and din;
And as I made the swing-door spin
And issued, they were hoisting in
A wingèd beast from Nineveh
Reading it now I realise that, if only he'd left it there, it could stand alongside Shelley's "Ozymandias" as a good poem in the ironic archaeological sublime mode. But it plods on for another tumpty-tum nineteen stanzas, to no great purpose. Ah, well. Those could have been a rather wasted three years, after all. Amusingly, I discovered this early draft on the Rossetti Archive (what a magnificent resource):

I have no taste for polyglot:
At the Museum 'twas my lot,
Just once, to jot and blot and rot
In Babel for I know not what.
I went at two, I left at three.
Round those still floors I tramp'd, to win
By the great porch the dirt and din;
And as I made the last door spin
And issued, they were hoisting in
A wingèd beast from Nineveh.

A useful lesson, that even second rate poems can be third rate to start with. But I do love the way the poem has mutated from a grumpy, wasted hour in Bloomsbury to a redemptive encounter in a busy city centre with the sublime. But that's what museums are for, isn't it?

* including an IKEA table -- do those product names sound less ludicrous in Sweden, I wonder?


Poetry24 said...

I've never been to the Ashmolean. I should put that right. The last time I was in Oxford, I attended a seminar there. Later, I got my knuckles wrapped for not using the Park and Ride. £15 for a few hours parking! You see, Oxford has already played a small part in my education.

That last photograph is my pick of the crop, by the way.

Struan said...

Ikea products are usually actual nouns or proper names, and they don't sound odd as words to me. I've never asked a native speaker though.

They do have a percussive, eddic quality though, so perhaps the viking spirit lives on. They also remind me the telegraph codes you get in old lens catalogues: Ross f6.3 Homocentrics were "Heath, Hebra, Hector, Hecat, Hedon, Heeg, Hefra, Hegron and Hehlor", which sets off a wild confusion of associations. Mostly I find myself thinking of a line of frigates at a fleet review.

I think I've said that I used to escape family shopping trips to Southampton, either by holing up in Gilberts bookshop, or by loitering in the city gallery. For me too, a formative experience was being invited down into the store to look at all the paintings crammed like a C18th wall-of-paintings onto wire mesh panels.

I too like the last photo best. The caustics formed by reflections from large windows or refraction through old glass are one of my perennial never-quite-made-it photographic subjects.

Mike C. said...

I like the idea of a meal on Arv plates brought in on a Groggy tray, with coffee in a Ödmjuk cup. I wonder if IKEA staff get a crash course in Swedish pronunciation?

Yes, a wall of paintings on wire mesh is exactly it -- must be standard museum issue. Reminds me of those guys selling paintings wired to the fence round Regents Park.

Yes, that last one is a good contrast -- shame it wasn't a nicer statue. It was so dim inside I was shooting at ISO 800 and 1600, so converting to b&w was the quickest way to lose the noise. The Laocoon is so crisp and finely toned you'd think I'd used a tripod and lights. The GF1 with the 14-45 lens really is a little marvel.


Struan said...

The names are not as good, but I like this site more than the Ikea catalogue:


The art storage areas really brought home how even paintings are objects, with a physicality different from their status as an image. In all the guff about the age of digital photography, the way a photograph has stopped being a thing is one of the few things that rings true.

Mike C. said...

Wow, that Hema animated catalogue is quite something -- all to sell stuff at the bottom end of the market, too!

The thing I have always found disconcerting about many paintings as objects, esp. 20th century work, is the distinct disregard for the quality of the finish. Works that look great in reproduction look like careless forgeries in the gallery!

On the subject of "guff v. truth", if you're still following Wood s lot, Struan, it's worth reading that essay "Save Benjamin from his fans!" in the latest. Actually, the originating site signandsight is a discovery in itself.


Struan said...

Works that look great in reproduction look like careless forgeries in the gallery!

Partly, I suspect, that's because artists make art for the art world, not just gallery display. 'Live' art is popular, but in the same way that live music is dominated by recordings, most people experience most art in reproduction. Scale (very big, or very small) seems to be the most popular schtick for waking people up when in front of the real thing. Surface polish got a bad name from C19th academic painting. It does live on in the applied arts though.

I wish I could frame all my prints with six inch baulks of Philippine Blackwood. But you can't get the trees nowadays.

Benjamin: he has tipped over into iconic soundbite status. I was surprised, given how often the title is quoted in photographic discussions, how little photography was mentioned in TWoAitAoMR - it's really about film. Perhaps there is in fact more contemporary relevance in the soundbites.

I'm trying not to spend too much time at signandsight. It has a lot of what I think of as Sunday Supplement writing, except that of course UK Sunday Supplements stopped publishing anything as serious-minded a long while back. Praise be for German newspapers.

I love the confirmations words blogger throws up. Today it's "foltsel", a little folt. Sounds to me like food for trolls in dark woods, or, perhaps, an Ikea napkin ring.

Mike C. said...

"I love the confirmations words blogger throws up."

I know, I'm beginning to wonder whether a form of divination could be based on these. They can be very uncanny. I was toying with the idea of setting up a blog with the sole purpose of sharing the verification words it threw up.

On bite-sized theory: A friend of ours from our Bristol days, Liz Wells, has made a career for herself compiling readers of chunks of theory for photography students. I suspect a lot of what is wrong with contemporary photography can be laid directly at her door...


Martyn Cornell said...

I used to pop into Brighton Museum while at Sussex, where they had a mass of great Surrealist stuff, courtsey mostly of Edward James, including some wonderful Magrittes. Once, while no one else was looking, I sat on the edge of Salvador Dali's Mae West's Lips sofa …

Mike C. said...

Hi, Martyn -- did you ever go in the Pavilion? It's somewhere I've always meant to visit. In the right mood, I have a taste for the preposterous.