October 27th, 2015 by Boisdale
What are the Celts, who are they are what are their roots? Towards the opening of the fascinating exhibition Celts: Art and Identity at the British Museum, they provide a definition of the Celts that gives us a hint: â€œThose who shared â€˜a distinct, non Mediterranean way of thinking of the world.â€ That is to say, they are outsiders, rebels; groups of people with differing identities and origins, who nonetheless share many characteristics. They are people who are defined as much by what they are not as by what they are.
For the purposes of telling their story (or, rather, stories), this multiplicity allows the curators at the British Museum a great degree of scope â€“ which theyâ€™ve used to the full in this exhibition. Items of astounding beauty, diversity and craft have been collected from all over Europe and the Middle East: from Suttgart, Euffigneix, Dronningund, Norfolk, Dumfries and Galloway, to name but a few.
Immediately on entering the exhibition youâ€™re encouraged to stop and handle a selection of the objects. First, a circular brooch, patterned with enigmatic, abstract interweaving stems. Then the head of a bull â€“ as literal and recognisable an imitation of nature as ever was crafted. Two objects of such differing styles and imaginations give moment for pause: what exactly should one expect of the Celts? Abstract dreamers or concentrated literalists?
Such an opening sets up the theme well. For trying to work out just what those enigmatic Celts were is like trying to pin down a droplet of water. At first seemingly transparent and discrete, soon it becomes clear that it will split, it will refract the light and reflect your vision, it will shoot off in a unexpected direction for a reason unknown. So it is with the Celts, who are at once drunken louts, sophisticated artists, religious worshippers, fierce warriors. The mystery of their identity is perhaps a product of their oral tradition. They have left us no writings. We can rely only on the opinions of others. And, of course, on the mesmerising artworks that fill this exhibition.
There are thick and heavy anklets, robust yet elegant; brooches of careful design; instruments of war of towering size and form. On almost every item lies some hidden motif. A slight relief that at first looks like an imperfection quickly yields a mysterious shape or design. Floral patterns morph from geometric abstraction into the faces of mythical animals; brooches melt into representations of beasts, so that you have to squint and twist your eyes to keep pace with the object before you.
This too is a military exhibition, with shields and swords aplenty. Yet often you feel like the weapons are just a vehicle for intricacy and decoration. On a shield is painted the shape of a boar, tall and confusingly elegant; upon a huge chariot of war, is suspended a delicate and elaborately designed pin; delicate sculptures of warriors are on display, their swords strapped to their backs vertically, like a protruding second spine, an essential extension of their own being.
The exhibition gives special reverence to the dozen of torcs it showcases â€“ stunning necklaces that gleam tantalisingly under the lights. The â€˜Great Torcâ€™ sits proud, 64 wires linked in eight separate coils. It stands out from the rest, dense metal that shines golden, coiling out of itself in a labyrinth of metallurgy.
Towards the end of the exhibition, the curators point to the work of Scottish poet James Macpherson, who in the 1760s published his translations of the Gaelic poetry of Ossian. He transcribed them from word-of-mouth stories passed from generation to generation, and the poems were an instant worldwide hit. Macpherson scored big sales and gained admirers ranging from Voltaire to Napoleon. The only problem? Heâ€™d made it all up, in what was surely one of literary historyâ€™s greatest fabrications.
You can encounter this tale of Macphersonâ€™s literary deceit towards the end of the Celts exhibition currently on at the British Museum, and it feels rather enlightening about what the exhibition has to say as a whole. On the one hand, the Celts feel like a group of people easily understood. Yet they are perhaps as much a creation of our own as a historical reality. In reality, as this exhibition shows, they are as mystifying as the brilliant torcs, jewels, sculptures and icons they left behind.
Why not end your trip to the museum by joining us here at Boisdale? Our fine wines, sumptuous food and fabulous entertainment will certainly make it a day and night to remember!