British Museum Opens Exhibition On Life And Death In Pompeii And Herculaneum

Pompeii
Today the British Museum in London opens what is sure to be the hit exhibition of the year.

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” examines the daily life of the Roman world, as it was preserved in two cities buried under volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Through fine art and mundane objects, we get to see what life was like for ordinary Romans.

Romans like the baker Terentius Neo and his wife, whose likenesses were preserved in a fresco on the wall of their house. “Baker” is a misleadingly humble term for Terentius, who was obviously well-to-do, and who had a literate wife who is shown as his business partner.

The exhibition is laid out like the House of the Tragic Poet, one of the homes excavated at Pompeii. A video reconstruction prepared by Giunta Regionale della Campania shows what it looked like when it was being used. As you wander through the atrium, bedroom, kitchen and garden, you learn about different aspects of Roman culture.

The ash that buried the cities and killed its inhabitants preserved frescoes and graffiti that show us a snapshot from the time. Slogans from an election held a few months before still adorn public walls, including a painting of a candidate distributing free bread. Other graffiti boasted of sexual conquests or lost love.

A large amount of the exhibition space is devoted to brightly colored frescoes that once decorated interior walls. Some show religious or natural scenes. One room that overlooked a garden had walls painted like a garden, giving the illusion of being outside.

%Gallery-183881%While much of the focus is on the upper classes, several displays show how the more common Romans lived. In the kitchen, for example, we see the workplace of the slaves. Here, there’s a simple altar for them to worship their gods, and a worktable covered in carbonized food. One blackened loaf of bread bears the stamp, “Made by Celer, the slave of Quintus Granius Verus.”

The kitchen also revealed an odd fact about Roman homes – it was where the toilet was usually located. One wonders how many Romans died because of this ignorance of microbiology.

Another oddity of Roman life was how sexual the art was. What we may see as crude today was considered funny or magical to the Romans. A young woman wore a pendent in the shape of a penis to ensure luck and fertility. A phallic wind chime was supposed to bring luck to the household. Then there’s the sculpture of the god Pan porking a goat. Nobody is sure what the Romans were thinking when they made that one.

The final part of the exhibition is dedicated to the sobering casts of the dead. When the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried by the eruption, they rotted away, leaving their ghostly shapes in the hardened ash. Archaeologists have poured plaster into many of these cavities to reveal men, woman, and children in their death throes. A particularly poignant scene is of a family of four. One child still sits on the mother’s lap, while another, who could have been no more than four, lies nearby, her face so well preserved as to be recognizable.

These bodies will be one of the main draws to the exhibition, but I have to admit to a certain guilt at my voyeuristic fascination with them. What does our obsession with these casts say about ourselves? Cambridge historian Mary Beard has written a thoughtful essay on this and comes up with no easy answers.

This sort of blockbuster exhibition is something the British Museum does well, and this is one of their best yet. From the high art to crude graffiti, from naughty sculptures to a baby’s cradle, the breadth and richness of Roman life are brought to life in an experience no one with an interest in the ancient world will want to miss.

“Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” runs until September 29.

Victoria & Albert Museum Showcases Treasures From Royal Courts

Victoria & Albert Museum
The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has just opened a new exhibition about the development of trade and official relations between Russia and the United Kingdom.

“Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars” brings together more than 150 objects for a look at the interaction between both courts from the accession of Henry VIII in 1509. He and later Tudor monarchs were eager to expand contacts with Russia to tap into the lucrative fur trade, selling English wool and luxury items in return. The artifacts show how the courts affected one another through the reigns of two English dynasties.

Timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the founding of the dynasty of the Romanovs, the exhibition focuses on gifts and cultural exchanges between the two royal courts instead of the rather humble trade that financed them. Included are Shakespeare’s first folio, a little-seen portrait of Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s suit of processional armor and royal jewelry.

The exhibition also includes objects loaned from Russian institutions, such as this odd silver basin showing a dolphin from 1635. It’s part of a collection of English and French silver given to the Tsars by the British royal family. Examples of this kind of silver are rare in England because most of it was melted down to finance the English Civil War. What’s interesting about this basin is the way the dolphin is portrayed – more like those seen in Greek and Roman art than what dolphins look like in reality. It appears the silversmith had a Classical education but not much contact with the sea!

%Gallery-180975%There’s also quite a bit about the Muscovy Company, an English firm given a monopoly on trading rights with Russia from 1555 until 1698. The company’s captains made a fortune trading with Russia and even tried to open a route to China by sailing north of Siberia. The so-called Northeast Passage was as bad of an idea as it sounds and many sailors froze to death in the attempt.

The Northeast Passage remained a dream until 1878, when the Finnish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld sailed the Vega from Europe to Japan via Siberia. Sadly for him, the Suez Canal had opened nine years before and there already was a shorter route to China.

“Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars” runs until July 14.

[Photo courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

Museum Of Modern Art Opens Bill Brandt Photography Retrospective

Museum Of Modern Art, Bill BrandtThe Museum Of Modern Art in New York City has opened an important retrospective of the work of Bill Brandt, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century.

Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light” covers the photographer’s entire career in more than 150 images. While Brandt was born in Germany in 1904, he made England his home until his death in 1983. He’s best known for his intriguing photos of London during the bombings in World War II. Images of civilians sleeping in Tube stations and a blacked-out London in moonlight quickly became iconic images of Britain in wartime.

Before this, Brandt was already making a name for himself with images of the English poor and working class, and also the English countryside.

After the war, Brandt began to create nudes and, once again, his photos had an ethereal, dreamlike quality to them. He’s also known for intimate portraits of famous people of his day such as Pablo Picasso and Martin Amis.

“Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light” runs until August 12.

[Nude by Bill Brandt taken in London in 1954 courtesy Museum of Modern Art]

Celebrating Chinese New Year In Estonia

Estonia
When you think of Chinese New Year, the snowy capital of Estonia isn’t the first place you think of for celebrating it. Yet Tallinn put on a big show to greet the new year as part of their annual Fire and Ice Festival.

The Chinese community in Tallinn is pretty small, but the Chinese embassy is reaching out to this Baltic state and helped fund a grandiose program of entertainment to welcome in the Year of the Snake. A big stage in Tallinn’s Kadriorg Park had Chinese acrobats, dancers, and musicians doing their stuff.

The Estonians also took part in their own way. A group of Estonian sculptors, plus an Egyptian guest, did a set of five ice sculptures for the theme of the New Year. The artists were Tiiu Kirsipuu, Aime Kuulbusch, Kalle Pruuden and Elo Liiv from Estonia, and Salah Hammad from Egypt. Their works are based on the Eastern Lunar calendar, the central sculpture being the Black Water Snake of this new year. Flanking it were sculptures representing Earth, Air, Fire and Water.

A huge crowd came out to watch the unveiling. The night was a mild one by Estonian standards, dipping down to about 0 Celsius (about 20 degrees Fahrenheit) with a steady snowfall. Last year it was -25 Celsius (-13 Fahrenheit). I’m glad I came this year and not last.

%Gallery-178530%Tiiu Kirsipuu, who sculpted the snake, told me that the ice came all the way from Lapland in northern Finland. Tiiu explained that the ice needs to be at least 40 centimeters thick and that Estonia is too far south to generally get ice freezing to that thickness.

I also talked with Salah Hammad, the visiting Egyptian artist. His usual works are comprised of stone, wood and metal formed into an abstract geometric style. This was Salah’s first time working with ice and he found it a tricky medium to control. Here he is next to his work below.

Once the sculptures were unveiled, the crowd pressed in to see them. Everybody felt the urge to stroke the figures. The festival organizers and artists didn’t seem to mind. I wondered aloud how long the figures would hold up to such treatment. One of the artists simply shrugged and said that impermanence was part of the medium.

As it grew later the mercury began to drop. The Estonians didn’t care. Living where they do they’ve made their peace with winter. Scattered all across the park were hundreds of snowmen, snowbears, snowdwarves and snowdragons. Eager kids were busily adding to the population. Snowball fights broke out everywhere. Parents warmed themselves at stalls selling mulled wine and everybody was wowed by the fireworks show the Chinese put on.

Just as it was really starting to get chilly, I managed to get invited to a reception at the Chinese embassy. Chinese cultural representatives told me how anxious they were to get their nation’s traditions better known in the West. Considering how much money they’d spent on a city of a little more than 300,000 people, I imagine they’re pretty serious. Expect more Chinese shows in your town soon.

Everyone felt the show had come off well and was in a good mood. Estonian artists, Chinese dancers, a Portuguese photographer, and a lone Canadian and Egyptian all mingled and enjoyed Chinese food and Spanish wine. Cultures and languages blended with ease.

I love this new international world!

This is the first in a new series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: Tallinn’s Medieval Old Town!

[All photos by Sean McLachlan]

Estonia

Bryan Adams Opens Photography Exhibition In Düsseldorf

Bryan AdamsFor any child of the ’80s, Bryan Adams is that clean-cut Canadian rock star with a steady string of hits. While he’s not as big as he once was, he’s still making great music and going on tour.

What many people don’t know about him is that he’s also an accomplished photographer. He’s been published in magazines such as Esquire and Interview and has done numerous shows at top venues such as the Saatchi Gallery in London.

Adams takes advantage of his superstar status to get other famous musicians to pose for him. Check out the image of Amy Winehouse below. He’s also photographed Queen Elizabeth II and got that image used on a Canadian postage stamp.

Now his latest show has opened at the NRW-Forum in Düsseldorf, Germany. “Bryan Adams – Exposed” features a cross-section of his best work from the past couple of decades. Some 150 portraits of artists are included as well as numerous new works. Some of his newer images go beyond his circle of superstar friends to portray wounded British servicemen from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, like this image of Private Karl Hinett.”I took my first photos with a small camera that belonged to my parents,” Adams said in a press release issued by the NRW-Forum. “The subjects of my first film, in the mid 1970s, were concert photos of the Beach Boys, parking lot walls, my girlfriend in the bathroom, my Mom, my piano, just everyday things, but exactly the things I could see around me.”

“Bryan Adams – Exposed” runs until May 22.

[Images copyright Bryan Adams]

Bryan Adams, Amy WInehouse