Posts Tagged ‘British Museum’

Tales of Brave Ilissos

December 7, 2014

Late last week, the Greek government took a brief break from its usual pastime (running budget deficits) to launch a bitter tirade against the world’s original bourgeois imperialists:

The British Museum [secretly shipped] one of the world’s most hotly disputed artistic masterpieces to Russia for a loan on Friday, causing an outcry in Greece, which says the priceless 2,500-year-old statue was looted from Athens and must be returned.  It was the first time any of the Elgin marbles had left Britain since arriving two centuries ago.  The decision was not announced until the statue –a headless, reclining nude sculpture of the river god Ilissos— was already safely in Saint Petersburg, where it goes on display as part of an exhibition to mark the Hermitage’s 250th anniversary.

Greek anger has been intensified by the fact that this ain’t just any old Elgin Marble torn from the Parthenon’s western pediment:

The Ilissos is a river in Athens, Greece. The stream drains the western slopes of Mount Hymettus, and originates from multiple converging seasonal creeks. During antiquity, it ran outside the defensive walls of Athens: the river was one of the borders of the ancient walls. Its banks were grassy and shaded by plane trees, and were considered idyllic; they were the favored haunts of Socrates for his walks and teaching.  Ilissos was also a demi-god, the son of Poseidon and Demeter, and was worshiped in a sanctuary on the Ardittos Hill.

In response, the British Museum’s director offered some bland, all-too-predictable platitudes.

“This is the first time ever that the people of Russia have been able to see this great moment of European art and European thought.  A huge new public can engage with the great achievements of ancient Greece. People who will never be able to come to Athens or to London will now here in Russia understand something of the great achievements of Greek civilization.”

“The British Museum [is] the most generous lender [of art] in the world, making a reality of the Enlightenment ideal that the greatest things in the world should be seen and studied, shared and enjoyed by as many people in as many countries as possible.”

Not everyone in Britain agrees:

David Hill, chairman of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, said the loan to Russia was “highly provocative” and a “very rude gesture.”

Right you are, Dave … but not for the reasons you think.  In my view, the nation being rudely provoked is not merely Greece –it’s Russia.  Why?  Because multiple cultural subtexts are silently flowing beneath the rippling surface of Britain’s seemingly magnanimous gesture.  Instead of engaging in open conflict with Comrade Bear, perfidious per-Phidias Albion has chosen to make art, not war.

1. Achieving EU consensus on intensified sanctions against Russia depends upon persuading Germany to act against its own economic interests.  Looted art is a “wedge issue” that Germans understand only too well: as the Nazis did unto Western Europe during WWII, so the Soviets did unto defeated Germany. Thousands of German artworks traveled East at the end of the war, and many are in the collections of the Hermitage Museum.  They’re never coming back.  Britain’s art loan to Russia is intended to remind Berlin of its darkest hours.

2. It’s also an attempt to damage Russia’s relations with Greece and Turkey, two countries that Comrade Bear needs to keep somewhat neutral in the Black Sea/Balkan region as he prepares to ingest Ukraine.  Will the Greeks request that Russia “return” the sculpture to Athens?  Would the Hermitage comply despite its contract with the British Museum? Lawyers are already sharpening their pens.

3. Lastly, the loan of Ilissos to the Hermitage should be understood as a personal insult directed at Comrade Bear himself.  Of all the Parthenon marbles available for loan, the British Museum trick (or bribe) the Russians into accepting a buff –but headless– reclining male nude.  This is a sculpture that, for almost two centuries, has been ogled by successive generations of effete, limp-wristed, tea-sipping British public school aesthetes (if you know what I mean).  The limeys are practically daring Comrade Bear to show up in his own hometown museum for a photo op with Ilissos.  Priceless.

VVP_Ilissos_20141205

Somehow I get the feeling that there’s gonna be a new director of the Hermitage Museum sometime next year.

 

 

 

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