Jun 2014 Journal

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Art Notes

Gloria TesslerGloria TesslerMy idea of a Viking is Richard Branson in a horned helmet! But neither he nor any self-respecting Viking ever wore one. That’s clear from Vikings: Life and Legend at the British Museum (until 22 June 2014) - even though the BBC reporter sported one at the press view. The only helmets Vikings wore back in the day were plain conical ones and the only horns were walrus tusks which (like jet, fur, dried fish, hunting falcons and slaves) were exchanged for precious metals, armour, glass and wine.
Between the 8th and 11th centuries, these Norsemen’s escapades in their longboats reached Europe and beyond and, although their military adventures were as terrifying as anyone’s, they were not always successful.
You can see the 37-metre-long stainless steel reconstructed skeleton of a royal warship, Roskilde 6, excavated from Denmark’s Roskilde Fjord in 1997, the longest ever found. Some 20 per cent of its surviving timbers, still daubed in black and yellow, have been re-assembled. It was built around AD 1025, when England, Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden were ruled by Cnut the Great. In Old Norse, Vikingr meant pirate or raider.
But the Vikings’ cultural and artistic networks equally expanded as maritime adventures took these early Scandinavians from the Caspian Sea to the North Atlantic and from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean. They were violent and barbarous, but also artistic. Their gold and silver jewellery, amulets and charms, elaborate Celtic style necklaces, and massive cloak pins would not disgrace the shoulder of some 18th-century aristocrat. The cull could be whalebone, walnut, ivory, silk, rock crystal, and precious stones from the east. But the key was the Viking flair for shipbuilding and sailing. Warrior identity was crucial. Face paint would scare off enemies and, whether trading or raiding, the Vikings changed and absorbed the places to which they travelled. The British Museum exhibition, supported by BP, is partnered by the national museums of Denmark and Berlin.
The work of 16th-century artist Paulo Veronese – on show at the exhibition Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice at the National Gallery until 15 June 2014 - is magisterial. His religious or allegorical compositions contain minor details - children and small animals - which attract without distracting. His subjects are natural rather than idealised. My personal favourite, La Bella Nani, indulges his loving attention to detail: her gentle hands, quiet face, the gleam of her pearls, her diaphanous muslin and velvet gown – are more eloquent than all the lavish majesty of virgins, martyrdoms and saints. Veronese moves shape and colour, using every element - earth, sky, light and darkness - and every texture - brocade, fur and silk - in luminous hues. A typical example of his use of density of space is The Martyrdom of St George, in which the saint’s earthly torments are compensated by the angelic hosts above.
Artist and architect Roman Halter’s stained glass windows are celebrated at the Ben Uri Gallery: ‘Roman Halter: Life and Art through Stained Glass’ (until 8 June 2014). The late Holocaust survivor dedicated his work to helping young people understand past genocides and their dangerous potential. The exhibition features over 70 works whose designs capture colour and light. The London Jewish Cultural Centre held an accompanying discussion in early April on Halter’s work with panellists Colin Wiggins, Head of Special Projects at the National Gallery, Fergal Keane, journalist and film-maker, and Roman’s artist son Ardyn Halter. The discussion was chaired by the Ben Uri’s David Glasser.

Gloria Tessler

previous article:Otto Schiff: In defence
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