That we’ve broken their statues,
that we’ve driven them out of their temples,
doesn’t mean at all that the gods are dead.
– IONIAN, Constantine Cavafy
We continue with Part 2 of our dash through the history of narrative art from where we left off last week – with the Parthenon Sculptures. Then, we will look at some other storytelling masterpieces since the time of Pericles and consider their part in this great rollicking variety show of humanity.
Another puzzling statement from the British Museum
In an interview on January 28, 2019 with The Guardian, British Museum Director Hartwig Fischer expanded on his theory that breaking up the Parthenon Sculptures has “enabled” the Parthenon to tell “different stories” and here proposes that this breaking up was a creative act resulting in a valid and beneficial “new context”:
“When you move a cultural heritage to a museum, you move it outside.
However, this shifting is also a creative act…posing different questions because the objects are placed in a new context.”
Dogs = Cats because…
I suppose Mr. Fischer is trying to equate the partial dismantling of the Parthenon and Erechtheion by Lord Elgin’s workmen, and the removal of their sculptures to England (and thence to the British Museum) – with the removal of the remaining sculptures from these temples by Greek archaeologists and curators to the nearby Acropolis Museum for conservation and display. In other words, he appears to be saying that these two acts of relocation are essentially the same, so why make such a fuss over the fact that half of the sculptures now reside in London? However, the differences between what Elgin did then and what the curators of the Acropolis have done today are numerous and profound.
First of all, breaking the frieze into two halves and placing a continent between them may be “creative” according to the capitalist theory of “creative destruction”, but it leaves a broken story in its wake, crying out for repair and reunification. Elgin’s men badly damaged the temples in order to strip them of their decoration – and left the remaining sculptures isolated, incomplete and dangling in a broken narrative. By contrast, the modern-day curators of the Acropolis have created a world-class museum to protect and display the sculptures that remain, have replaced with exact replicas any elements removed from the temples, and have recreated the original context insofar as they were able so that visitors can actually feel the full flow and “narrative arc” of the frieze. Speaking of context, however, and picking up the ball which Mr. Fischer has thrown to us regarding the creative act of taking half the sculptures to London – visitors to Athens are immersed in the story told by these antiquities from the moment they set foot in the Greek capital – with the Acropolis rarely out of sight. And in the Acropolis Museum, when viewing the remaining original panels of the frieze (next to plaster copies of the panels sitting in London), one simply has to shift one’s gaze a few degrees to see the Parthenon, changing colour according to the time of day.
Instead of stepping out of the British Museum into the damp and chilly greyness of London, one steps out of the Acropolis Museum onto the very walkway where the frieze’s procession took place 2,500 years ago, and in the space of three hundred metres one can reenact that procession in its original setting under the same bright Attic sun. Today, instead of the sacrificial oxen and rams of the frieze, Athenians can be seen walking their dogs along this route, but with a little imagination this works too.
Integrity and Continuity
The continuity of this story, from ancient times until today, is important to Greeks and to visitors alike and is part of a phenomenon that Mr. Fischer has not fully grasped. The physical integrity and continuity of the Parthenon frieze is almost as important to Greeks as the continuity of their language over the past 3,000 years. The visual and the verbal are the vehicles for culture to travel through the ages, binding one generation to the next. That is what the fuss is all about. But let us continue.
Created almost six centuries after the Parthenon, Trajan’s Column is the imperial equivalent to the Parthenon’s hymn to Democracy and also uses a marble frieze to tell its story, of conquest and subjugation. The massive 35-metre Column is a triumphal monument celebrating Emperor Trajan’s military victory over the Dacians and features a 190-metre (620-foot) frieze winding 23 times around its stack of 20 Carrara-marble drums, presenting 2,662 figures in 155 scenes. But while the Column’s frieze is more difficult to view than the Parthenon frieze in Athens, it is at least intact, entire and in its original setting, and anyone with a good pair of binoculars and the patience to walk around the Column 23 times can see it all together. I have done this with a pair of opera glasses and a tired grandmother in tow, after which we sat on a small block of marble nearby and watched a tortoise eating a dandelion.
The Bayeux Tapestry
One of the miracles of medieval storytelling is the Bayeux Tapestry (or Bayeux Embroidery), 70 metres of embroidered linen cloth that recounts the events leading up to the Norman invasion of England and ending with the Battle of Hastings. There are hints that the “Pericles” of this work was Abbott Scolland of St. Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury – who had paid several visits to Trajan’s Column while in Rome and had also led a team of monks illustrating manuscripts at Mont St. Michel in France. At any rate, in the tapestry’s 70 consecutive scenes there is lots of action, political intrigue, bloodshed, boats and many many horses and dogs. As the only surviving example of narrative needlework from this time, the tapestry is considered the ancestor of English comics and graphic novels, and, more generally, one of the principal prototypes – along with the Parthenon frieze – of visual storytelling in Europe. Anyone curious to see how such a narrative unfolds might enjoy scrolling through some of the tapestry’s scenes in the link above and will be happy to note other uses for linen aside from shrouds and wrinkled tropical suits.
Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: Tales within Tales
These two sprawling collections of tales use similar devices to showcase a variety of characters each telling a story and, in so doing, giving us a candid glimpse of human nature and society in a specific time and place. In the Decameron, ten people seek refuge in a secluded villa outside Florence in order to escape the Black Death – and pass their time by telling 100 tales. This 1916 painting by John William Waterhouse is interesting from the perspective of narrative art since it is a painting showing a storyteller regaling an admiring audience with “A Tale from the Decameron”, a tale within a tale within a tale.
In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a group of pilgrims from all walks of life ride from London to the Cathedral at Canterbury to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. To pass the time and add a bit of fun to the journey, the pilgrims join in a story-telling contest, in which their 24 stories, ranging from high-brow to very bawdy, create a lively and ironic portrait of 14th Century Britain. This detail from the (Ellesmere) illustrated manuscript of the Tales is itself a colourful feast of visual storytelling, even apart from the calligraphy and content of the text.
Liberty Leading the People
In the 18th and 19th Centuries, the printing press, newspapers and growing literacy began to change the balance of power around the world, spreading such dangerous ideas as freedom and equality – until three seismic social convulsions blew the lid off the pot: the American and French Revolutions and the Greek War of Independence. Artists, in a fury to catch up to the events of the day, channeled this unprecedented social energy into powerful images that once again focused on the people rather than kings and queens. Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix told a story in 1830 that still resonates today in French society. And if there is any doubt about the artist’s feelings on the subject, this is what Delacroix wrote to his brother later in that fateful year: “And if I haven’t fought for my country at least I will paint for her.”
10 Days That Shook the World: Guernica and Beyond
By the time the great social upheaval of the Russian Revolution of 1917 had run its course, the source of social energy, change and ideas had irrevocably moved from the palace to the street, and the art which best reflected this fact was large, audacious and fueled by the quest for social justice. Democracy was on the move again, and tyrants the world over dug in their heels for a final stand. When fascist dictator Francisco Franco of Spain, in the midst of an uprising that had turned into a full-scale civil war, saw democracy established in the ancient Basque town of Guernica, he called in a squadron of Nazi bombers to make of it an example – bombing it into rubble and killing hundreds of civilians in the process. This mural-sized painting by Pablo Picasso in 1937 told the story of the chaos and cruelty of war as it had never been portrayed before. Originally displayed in a bombed out church in Guernica itself, the canvas moved around the world in an attempt to raise awareness and support for the Republican cause.
Hemingway, Malraux and tens of thousands of others from a dozen other countries answered this call and flocked to Spain to join the International Brigades and take up arms and pen in support of democratic rule. When Guernica had done its job, and democracy was finally restored to Spain in 1981, the painting returned home at last.
Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco led the Mexican Mural Renaissance which continues to this day on the walls and sidewalks of Mexico City, La Paz, Bogotá, Buenos Aires and reverberates across North America from the streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco to Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia and Toronto – telling local and national stories literally from the ground up. Now, the storytelling is not only about the people – but by the people as well:
The unofficial language of society is now street art, telling stories from outside the circles of power and privilege. The hopes and crushed dreams of the Arab Spring call out to us from the walls of Tunisia or Mohammed Mahmud Street in Cairo. And George Floyd has his place in history assured – so that none of us may forget.
Narrative art in our time has come a long way from the serene and dignified democratic procession of the Parthenon frieze. It now has other work to do, other stories to tell.
NEXT WEEK: Don Morgan Nielsen will examine the notorious “floodgates” argument so often deployed by The British Museum in its reaction to repatriation requests.
ABOUT THE PARTHENON REPORT | DON MORGAN NIELSEN:
In this bicentennial year since the birth of the modern Greek State, of both pandemic and celebration, Greek City Times is proud to introduce readers to a weekly column by Don Morgan Nielsen to discuss developments in the context of history, politics and culture concerning the 200-year-old effort to bring the Parthenon Sculptures back to Athens.
Classicist, Olympian and strategic advisor, Don Morgan Nielsen is currently working with a growing international team to support Greece’s efforts to repatriate and reunify the Parthenon Sculptures.
Click here to read ALL EDITIONS of The Parthenon Report by Don Morgan Nielsen
Feature Image : Copyright Nick Bourdaniotis | Bourdo Photography