I recently snatched a couple of hours to visit the British Museum, including the hall containing the Parthenon Marbles. Beyond the campaign to return them to Greece where they belong I want to record some thoughts on the sculptures as art – especially as their artistic value as “world culture” is given as part of the reason for retaining them at the British Museum.
Classical art is not my specialism, but it is clear that the ability of the sculptors to capture natural anatomy is astounding. Individual pieces such as a horses head show a careful observation of physical form and highly skilled craftsmanship to replicate it in stone. The draped clothing of the individual human figures is delicate and highly realistic. The longer friezes around the walls of the hall show processions of people and animals viewed as if we are stood next to the cavalcade as it moves past us. Horses and people further from the observer are obscured by those in front.
In other words, this is art which strives – and demonstrates virtuoso craftsmanship in achieving – a realistic depiction of what an observer might actually have seen if they had witnessed the events portrayed.
But as the longer frieze scenes very clearly show this striving for naturalistic realism means that it isn’t always easy as an observer to understand what it is you’re looking at. We can see it is a procession, but any meaning beyond that is not so evident.
Almost 2,000 years later, later Byzantine art has often in the past been derided for it’s lack of realism. Tucked away almost unregarded in a corner elsewhere in the museum a good example – the well known 14th century Byzantine icon depicting the Triumph of Orthodoxy.
This couldn’t be more different to the marble sculpture from the Parthenon. The scene is flat and the two rows of people are depicted on top of each other. Clothing does not give a sense of being draped across a real human body underneath. The background is a simple field of gold.
And yet we can see what is going on. The empress and her son are surrounded by patriarch and bishops venerating an icon in to celebrate the end of the destruction of icons.
Similarly in the Assyrian friezes currently on display on the ground floor of the museum, flatter and less superficially ‘realistic’ depiction in fact does a much better job of portraying a particular subject.
There are many other examples in Byzantine art. This is art with meaning, where understanding what we are observing is an important part of viewing it. This is a very different approach to art from the one we see in the Parthenon marbles – but I’m not at all convinced it is any worse.
(And please support the campaign to return the marbles to Greece).