Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Chimeras and Cats

Etruscan Chimera of Arezzo, in the Archaeological Museum of Florence.
Photo by Eric Parker

One of my favourite history-book opening lines is found in Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s Millenium, where he imagines a future inter-galactic museum, in which the display case labelled ‘Earth’ contains only a piece of medieval chain mail and a Coca Cola can.

I felt a similar, but less nihilistic, frisson at the Royal Academy’s current Bronze exhibition. I was expecting not to like it, because some reviews (in common with reviews for the National Gallery’s blockbuster Leonardo last year) had remarked on the ahistorical style of the curating. Rather than arranging objects by time and place, we were warned, the Royal Academy has anarchically mixed then up by theme, placing works by Anish Kapoor alongside ancient Greek statues dredged up off Sicily.

In the event, I found the exhibition, with its disregard for time and space, to have  a huge dose of historical sensibility, in a mind-broadening, paradoxical and strangely moving way. A life-size Renaissance bronze boar on a bed of flowers did indeed share a room with a Picasso monkey, made from toy cars, and a fine cat from 7th century BC Spain. There were bronzes from societies which I admit to never having heard of, such as the Hallstadt and Nuragic cultures. This radical juxtaposition of objects forces the viewer to read the apparently familiar in new contexts – a 17C Christ statue, for example, looking identical to its neighbour, a bronze Bacchus. By putting medieval Sri Lankan, Renaissance Italian, ancient Greek and 20C American sculpture alongside one another in this egalitarian way, Bronze shows up how Eurocentric and West-focused our history syllabi still are – the exhibition is a very good prospectus for the ever-more trendy discipline of global history. In particular, however, it was humbling to be reminded of the vastness, depth and heterogeneity of the human past. Bronze was like stepping into a glittering, celebratory version of Fernandez-Armesto’s display case at the end of the universe, and a painful reminder of how very little of that past any one individual, or even any given History Faculty, can really hope to master.

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