Review of Troy: Myth and Reality exhibition at the British Museum
published in Country Life
This exhibition about Troy is a joy from start to finish. Four curators have gathered together a bewitching gallery of art tracing a three-thousand-year-old obsession. We follow generation upon generation of artists, writers, playwrights, sculptors and historians who have been inspired by the story of Troy.
Nor has this artistic dialogue fallen away in recent years. There has been the balletic violence of Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Achilles and poet Alice Oswald reciting her Iliad-derived Memorial with the wide-eyes of a modern Cassandra, the life-long labours of Christopher Logue reworking The Iliad into street English and the novels of Madeleine Miller and Pat Barker. As story, palimpsest and archetype Troy remains very alive.
The entrance hall to the exhibition is a deliberate salute to modernism, dominated by the brutalist sculptures of Anthony Caro that merge Troy’s Scaean Gate with a contemporary bomb shelter. It is not beautiful, which is a useful corrective to the hundreds of other treasures on display which are. To give an indication of the richness and diversity I have picked out ten visual treats.
There is an exquisite pair of Roman silver drinking bowls (found in the tomb of a Danish chieftain) which allow us to observe King Priam, in his Phrygian cap kissing the hands that have killed his son, so that he might ransom Hector’s body and spare it any further abuse by Achilles.
The surface carvings of a vast Roman sarcophagus from Ephesus (on loan from Woburn Abbey) show us Hector both lithe and alive, and then his broken body. From roughly the same period, but much smaller and more delicate, is a relief carving from Naples, which presents us with a sympathetic view of Helen. She is being embraced and persuaded by Aphrodite who has her arm on her shoulder while winged Eros confronts the handsome Paris, the shepherd-prince, in his prime. This is the man she will leave her royal husband for and seek refuge in his homeland of Troy.
From the 18th century comes a sculpture showing us the infant Achilles being dipped into the waters of the Sytx, with his divine mother Thetis holding him by the ankle. We see this Achilles heel pierced by a golden arrow in the monumental sculptural centre piece of the show, The Dying Achilles, carved for the bachelor Duke of Devonshire in 1825.
I will not easily forget John Collier’s late-19th-century portrait of Queen Clytemnestra, charged with historical detail. He has imagined her just after the murder of her royal husband in his bath, still holding the double-headed axe with which she struck her blow of vengeance for her daughter Iphigenia. A more playful mood is cast by Eleanor Antis’s staged contemporary photograph of the judgement of Paris. The artist is parodying feminine archetypes as well as conversing with Reubens, who is also in this exhibition with an intensely imagined scene of the conflict between generations, between enthroned King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles.
Two images (painted 1500 years apart) evoke a more intimate vision of troubled humanity. A Roman wall painting from Pompeii depicts the beautiful Queen Helen as she steps towards the boat leaving Sparta for Troy, in a trance at what she has chosen to do. Angelica Kaufman chooses to depict Hector taking leave of his wife Andromache and his young child, as he sets off to lead the defence of his city and his people. It is a subtle study of quiet dignity in the face of supreme sacrifice – a last snap-shot of family happiness before a deepening tragedy consumes all three of them.
This ancient and modern art gallery echoes with the power and reach of Troy. Even our dark age kings (and their Viking enemies) tried to weave themselves into the plot. Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us of Brutus, the mythical founder of “Troy-Novant” (British London) who is the grandson of Aeneas. It was also mightily intriguing to discover that Caxton’s very first printed book in English was about Troy, while the celebrated English translations of Homer achieved by Chapman, Pope and Dryden were praised to the skies by poets and inspire other writers “with little Latin and less Greek” such as Shakespeare. This show will inspire new generations to look back in wonder at the works of blind Homer.
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