Celts: Art and Identity

I’m not feeling much desire to hang around the house at the moment, but one of the joys of living in London is the ability to take advantage of the many museums and galleries.  The time between Christmas and New Year is perfect for taking in an exhibition or two.

Today, on an impulse, I headed up to the British Museum to see their exhibition Celts: Art and Identity, which runs until the end of January.  It’s the latest blockbuster exhibition from the British Museum, and worth every penny of the ticket price.

The exhibition seeks to place the material culture of the Celtic peoples of the British Isles into the context of European trade, waves of migration and invasion, and cultural influences such as the spread of Christianity.  Although often used to justify separate national identities, the exhibition focuses on the linkages between the peoples of Europe at the time, and the lack of distinctive national identities within the Celtic peoples in order to gently critique current Celtic nationalisms.

Expect to see a lot of metalwork.  And by metalwork I mean a lot of torcs.  In all their regional variations and construction methods.

Section of the Gundestrup Cauldron.  Photo from the National Museum of Denmark
Section of the Gundestrup Cauldron. Photo from the National Museum of Denmark

But apart from the shiny necklaces there are some stunning pieces in the exhibition.  The one I was most excited about seeing was the Gundestrup cauldron.  I’ve only ever seen images of it in books, so to find out that the British Museum had borrowed it from the National Museum of Denmark for the exhibition was amazing.  If anything, it is even more stunning in real life, and the quality of the metalworking and dense detailing is astounding.  It’s hard to believe it was dug up in a bog in Jutland at the end of the 19th Century and has survived in such fantastic condition.

The Stanwick Horse Mask

The exhibition also featured one of my absolute favourite pieces, the Stanwick Horse Mask.  It’s only 10cm high, and was probably made as a decorative mount for a bucket.  What I love about it is the way it depicts a horse’s face with a supreme economy of line.  The face has a slightly doleful, Eeyore-ish quality, which I adore.

There are also some beautiful illuminated manuscripts, including the St Chad Gospels (on loan from Lichfield Cathedral) and The Book of the White Earl (Bodleian Library), one of the earliest collections of writing in Irish and Irish folklore, dating from the mid-15th Century.

The Battersea Shield

The exhibition draws all these threads together by looking at the way this period of history has been reinterpreted and reinvented, primarily through the lens of the Celtic Revival of the 19th and early 20th centuries, with its romanticised view of the past being used to support everything from Irish nationalism to modern druidism.  But it also makes links to modern art and design, including the Arts and Crafts movement.  You can really see echoes of those Art Nouveau lines, organic but simultaneously showing controlled geometry, in pieces such as the Battersea Shield.

If you get the opportunity before the end of January, do try to go and see this exhibition.

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