It’s been a good week to be Welsh thanks to the rugby, so it seemed the right time to take a weekend cultural outing to the Celts: art and identity exhibition at the British Museum.
It turns out that the ancient Greeks coined the label Keltoi to categorise non-Mediterranean Europeans. Plato and his intellectual mates regarded the Keltoi as war-mad alcoholics with a penchant for fancy jewellery. But as the British Museum’s exhibition shows, the Celts were far from shallow. The Greeks might have corneed the early market in naturalistic art, but the Celts were already well into abstractionism 2,500 years ago.
The allegation of an addiction to bling, however, does ring true. Your average Celt must barely have been able to walk for the weight of twisted metallic torcs (neck bands), bangles and, for the warriors, chunky bicep bracelets. Art and war also clearly enjoyed synergy, with some beautiful shields and scabbards on display, although I most enjoyed the four-feet long Carnyx, or hunting horn, which must have produced quite a blast from its crowning boar’s head.
There’s also a nod to the drinking, with two stunning bronze wine flagons from France, atop of which three fierce-looking hounds chase a tiny, and rather complacent, duck. Their beauty is only surpassed by the extraordinary Gundestrup silver cauldron, featuring striking gods and godesses staring fixedly from the outer panels, while inside fantastical animals cavort. It seems that only those about to be sacrificed, or doing the sacrificing, would have seen the latter, so visitors to the British Museum peered in rather carefully from the specially erected viewing steps.
Having enjoyed Gruff Rhys’ American Interior last year, I had already learned that the Celtic identity we now ascribe to generations of people from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Brittanny, is a relatively recent construct. Celts: art and identity reaffrims this, noting that the process started in the fifteenth century, but really took off in the 1800s, as the minority sections of the British Isles sought to differentiate themselves from their English masters. The tendency was reinforced by the steady creation of a global Celtic diaspora, as the Irish and Socts in particular engaged in colonial emigration.
Thomas Gray’s 1757 poem, The Bard, we learn, turned Edward I conquering Wales into an act of heroism, inspiring the bardic tradition that persists in the modern day Eisteddfod movement. Further illustrating the merging of fact and fiction in Celtic history, there are some wonderful late nineteenth century paintings displayed, especially Druids Bringing Home the Mistletoe, in which the eponymous heroes combine garb from across the centuries, while having their visages modelled from photos of American Indians. Riders of the Sidhe by John Duncan goes one stage further into the fantastical, and this lover of Lord of the Rings saw in it the Elves leaving Middle Earth.
All in all another big tick for the British Museum. Celts: Arts and Identity runs at the British Museum until 31 January 2016, so there will be plenty of time to enjoy the exhibition after Sam Warburton has lifted the World Cup!