Masters and Champions
Moray Art Centre, Findhorn
Moray School of Art Degree Show 2012
Moray School of Art, Elgin
What Fuseli and other excited artists actually saw is recorded in a drawing by Charles Cockerell. The marbles appear to be in a bit of a jumble and this seems to have been largely because they were presented very much as individual art works. There was no attempt to relate them to the buildings from which they came (not all were from the Parthenon). This was perhaps because they were seen by contemporaries like Fuseli, who knew them well by reputation, more as part of a universal mental stock of images than as representative of a real, tangible culture. Ancient Greece had been a kind of disembodied ideal for centuries. Part of the Ottoman empire, modern Greece did not yet exist. Increasingly, travellers like Lord Elgin himself had been able to explore the ancient sites, but it was not easy. You needed to be as rich and well-connected as he was. With Greece so inaccessible and very few actual examples available in the west, in spite of its legendary status, actual Greek sculpture was scarcely known at all. The arrival of the marbles was a dramatic revelation. Hence Fuseli’s excited response.
Cockerell’s drawing is in Masters and Champions at the Moray Art Centre. The masters are the artists of ancient Greece, the champions, those in modern Britain who espoused their cause and eventually secured the purchase of the marbles for the British Museum. The Moray Art Centre, situated at Findhorn, is the creation of its director, Randy Klinger. He came from America with a vision, but also with a strong practical sense. Starting from nothing, he has created a beautiful, small art gallery, built to the exacting standards necessary to secure high-quality loans. More than that, he has gone on to persuade the very best collections to support him. The loans for the present exhibition, for instance, include actual Greek marbles, a beautiful black- figure amphora and a range of drawings, all from the British Museum, as well as a number of important loans from the collection of the present Lord Elgin.
The exhibition is timed to coincide with the Olympics. The subject of the Parthenon frieze, the relief sculpture that went right around the building, was the Panathenaic procession. The men and women of Athens processed to the Parthenon annually for the women to present a newly woven garment to Athena, patron of Athens. What the frieze represents therefore is not the actual Olympics, but it is nevertheless surely close to how their ceremonies must have looked. The largest and most dramatic part of the frieze is taken up by a clattering crowd of horses and their bareback riders, all in brilliant low-relief. These figures and the horses in particular have provided the main visual theme for the exhibition. They appear in a number of drawings from the originals by Benjamin Robert Haydon, John Henning and others. They are also echoed in two marbles from the classical period, a horse’s head from a monument in Greek Sicily and a fragment of a relief with three horses in profile, perhaps from Athens itself. Most striking of all is the amphora. Made in Athens around 540BC, it bears a spectacular image of a quadriga, a four-horse chariot. As it drives towards us, the chariot and its driver are half hidden behind the magnificent horses as they turn, as though to pass on our right. The living brilliance of this image is a reminder that for all the marvels of Greek sculpture, for the Greeks themselves, painting was their supreme achievement.
The Olympic Games are, in principle at least, a reminder of the place that ancient Greece and its ideals still hold in our lives. The arrival of the marbles in London 200 years ago also reflected this remarkable relationship between ancient and modern. The exhibition focusses very much on the moment of their first reception. Haydon was their most passionate champion, but it was the Scottish sculptor John Henning who made the most detailed study of the sculptures. From his drawings, he made a superb miniature reconstruction of the frieze as it might once have looked. A number of his drawings are on view here, together with a complete set of his exquisite miniature reliefs of the frieze. Watercolours by another Scot, James Skene, who travelled to Greece in the 1840s, also record the actual site of the Acropolis.
Part of the inspiration for the exhibition were Klinger’s own reflections on the idea of a Golden Age: how did the golden age of Athens come about and what would be the dynamics needed to create a new golden age? Similar reflections brought the identification of Enlightenment Edinburgh as the Athens of the North, but there was also a longer backstory shaping that idea. After the Revolution of 1688 secured the Protestant Settlement and laid the first beginnings of democratic government, it was the Whig philosopher and father of modern Philhellenism, the Earl of Shaftesbury, who identified ancient, democratic Greece with modern Whig Britain. As he did so, Shaftesbury also drew an explicit and very unfavourable contrast between ancient, democratic Greece and the tyranny of Imperial Rome, and by extension, and equally unfavourably, between Whig Britain and Rome’s Catholic and Tory successors. Imperial Rome had no place in the cultural history of the west, he argued. Liberty was the key. The Romans were just beginning to have some culture, he wrote, when, with the advent of the Roman Empire, “by their unjust attempt upon the liberty of the world, they justly lost their own”. So when the marbles arrived in London and the campaign for their purchase for the British Museum coincided with victory over Napoleon, it was not just an artistic event. It was a democratic epiphany and a confirmation of British destiny as heir to Greek liberty.
So where does that leave us now? This show celebrates the spirit that inspired the Olympics, but as the wheels of history turn, modern Greece is at the epicentre of a crisis which also reflects a wider crisis in the democracy that claims its origins in ancient Greece. It is all very topical and adds a certain piquancy to the present stand-off between the Greeks and the Germans, too, if you reflect that Henry Fuseli, with whom I began, was Swiss- German and when he spoke, he sounded it. You have to imagine him exclaiming “The Greeks were Gods!” in a heavy German accent. Not quite Angela Merkel’s view.
While in Moray I took the opportunity to visit the degree show at the Moray School of Art. Scotland’s newest and smallest art school and part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, it is housed in the old Elgin Academy, a handsome neoclassical building with, appropriately in this context, a hint of Greek Revival about it.
The show is over now, but it deserves mention for it is a remarkable enterprise in difficult times. Among the work from the 14 graduating students, I particularly liked Andrea Dear’s moody photographs of the interior of an abandoned house. A bunch of bright plastic flowers seen against peeling wallpaper on a battered mantlepiece made a memorable image. So, too, did a head, cast in ice, melting as it was washed to and fro by waves on the shore in Joan Reed’s short film. This was supported by an actual deep freeze full of similar heads in polychrome ice, like so many weird ice lollies.
• Masters and Champions, until 12 August. Moray School of Art Degree Show 2012, run ended
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