Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Byzantium at the Royal Academy

Once again, I broke my rule of never going on the last day . . . but forgot about this one until Catriona reminded me and we caught it on the final Saturday.

Byzantium is wonderfully exotic - a heritage we in Western Europe share only though a distant kinship at best; it feels exotic, romantic, rich and strange. I studied the Byzantines in history of art, and we concentrated particularly on architecture, one of the glories of Byzantine culture and the most obvious of their developments away from the Roman tradition. The Byzantine Church developed a total aesthetic which aimed to immerse the worshipper in an all-pervading religious atmosphere, and the RA exhibition did not really go anywhere near getting this across.

Architecture was pretty much ignored; instead we had loads and loads of Byzantine bits and pieces, separated out into categories of object. Much of this was quite spectacular - the quality of the items was superb - but the whole unfortunately was less than the sum of the parts.

Part of this was the unfortunate queueing system imposed by having a series of display cases lined up with tiny objects and tinier and hard-to-read labels. There was a lot of amazing bling, but all small scale. The largest piece was a tiered hanging candelabra from Munich - about 25 feet in diameter and greater in height. This was in the entrance to the show and that was that.

That candelabra would have lit an ambiguously vaulted space crowded with glittering mosaics - mosaics specially angled to catch and refract the light. There would have been incense burners and gorgeous chanting choirs to bathe all the senses. It would have been amazing. The show completely lacked that sort of excitement.

The British Museum’s latest shows have used multimedia to great effect, and I don’t see why the RA couldn’t have done the same here. I think the subject was crying out for it - and a video screen or two surely can’t be so expensive? As it was, a very worthy effort, but it felt slightly dated in its presentation.

1 comment:

Sylvia said...

Went to see this show twice as I have a friend's card. I found it all rather overwhelming and heavy, but the picture at the end, with the ladder to heaven, was really quite magnificent. It was all so dark I couldn't stay in there for very long. Mind you, someone else I knew made a whole day of it!

wv: hamblast