British Museum Looks at Vikings’ Place in History

The Vikings are returning. Right now in Britain all things Scandinavian are fashionable, from television drama to political theories. So “Vikings: Life and Legend” (through June 22) at the British Museum catches the zeitgeist.

However, it must be admitted that it lacks the dark excitement of Nordic TV mysteries such as “The Killing.” The show — the first in the BM’s new temporary exhibition galleries — corresponds more to another set of clichés about Scandinavia: efficient, thorough, just a little dull. On the other hand, it contains some spectacular exhibits — including the remains of the largest Viking boat ever discovered.

This, known as Roskilde 6, was found in Denmark in 1996, and dates from around 1025. At over 37 meters long, it is the biggest vessel to survive from the Viking age. Its beautiful lines contain a clue to the Vikings’ success. Like many booms throughout history, the Viking age — the period covered by the BM show runs from 800 to 1050 AD — was built on technology: in this case, a better boat, lighter, shallow enough to navigate rivers yet sufficiently seaworthy — in the case of bigger craft — to cross oceans. This was what enabled the Vikings to cross the Atlantic, sail up the Seine to plunder Dark Age Paris, and down the rivers of Russia to settle — topically — in Kiev.

Only a fifth of the original timber of Roskilde 6 survives, so most of what you see is an elegant modern reconstruction: the ghost of a ship. The Vikings are like that — not too much survives to look at. True, there is plenty of jewellery on show, precious metals lasting better than most materials in the damp northern climate. The most eye-catching of these items is a neck-ring of plaited gold that originally weighed some two kilograms, suggesting the wearer was prepared to suffer to look rich. There are also quantities of weapons, some decorated. But personally I find that after a while I’ve seen enough brooches, necklaces, and rusted swords. As art, the most powerful things on show are carved chess pieces found on the island of Lewis in Western Scotland. These tiny, fierce figures stare angrily ahead, biting their shields in the manner of the “berserkers,” warriors who fought in a frenzied trance.

Most Viking objects, made of perishable materials such as cloth, must have rotted long ago. The display includes some battered relics of wood, and — most grippingly  — bone. The single exhibit that most bears out the Vikings’ grim reputation — as Dark Age Hell’s Angels with battle-axes — is a jaw bone, its teeth carefully filed so that that they could be decorated with colored stripes.

This fearsome dental ornamentation was probably complemented with tattooing. In the exhibition the grinning and serrated jaw is topped off with a helmet, giving a vivid impression of a person you would very much not want to come knocking on your door in the 9th century. Nearby, a pile of early 11th-century bones excavated in Dorset demonstrates that the Vikings did not have it all their own way. These were apparently the remains of a raiding party, all of whom had been beheaded, the skulls piled neatly to one side (the man with the striped teeth was one of these).

The Vikings had an image problem in the Dark Ages. The histories were written by monks — an easy target for raiders — who regarded them understandably enough as barbaric heathens. But were the Vikings really so ferociously piratical, forever raping and pillaging? Or were they, as revisionist historians have argued, more likely to be peaceful farmers and traders? The book accompanying the exhibition hints the truth may lie in between. Most 9th- and 10th-century Scandinavians stuck to agriculture, but some — as that jaw bone proves — certainly lived up to the sacking and ravaging stereotype.

The British Museum exhibition makes the case that the Vikings hold an important place in history. But not every historical epoch is equally easy to display in visual terms. Although there is plenty of interesting information to absorb here, and some striking things to see, the Vikings do not quite come to life. Perhaps, in the case of the man with the teeth and the berserkers, that’s not such a bad thing.

First published at Blouin Artinfo

The Breadth of Hockney’s Brilliance, in Prints at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Because prints are cheaper than non-multiple media such as painting, there is an art world prejudice about them—it is assumed they are less important. That’s not true. All David Hockney’s brilliance is on display in “Hockney: Printmaker” (through May 11) at Dulwich Picture Gallery: his wit, his energy, his technical mastery, and his questing intelligence.

Few artists in history of have employed as many diverse media as Hockney. Etching, both hard and soft ground, aquatint, lithography, computer-drawing—the list goes on and on, including a few of Hockney’s own invention, like the images made with a color photocopier in the 1980s.

Perhaps only his hero Picasso has been as varied. And this may be because they had the same problem: their own virtuosity. Hockney had already attained extraordinary fluency as a draughtsman by 1954, the date of the first works here. He was 17 when he produced these accomplished color lithographs, such as “Fish and Chip Shop.”

A decade or so later, Hockney could—brilliantly—draw like Picasso (when the latter was reviving Ingres, who in turn was emulating

I once asked Hockney why he switched so restlessly from medium to medium. His answer was that doing so forces you to be inventive. Each medium lends itself to certain effects. Etching, for example, essentially consists of fine lines, so it is admirably cut out to convey the elegant modern classicism of the Cavafy suites, and also the more quirky line of Hockney’s first print masterpiece, “A Rake’s Progress” (1961-3).

Color lithography, on the other hand, invites the artist to build the image out of chromatic blocks. “Rain” from his “Weather Series” (1973) is an image entirely in shades of blue, interrupted by thin diagonals of white paper: a downpour causing ripples on that classic Hockney subject, an L.A. pool.

How to pin down transparency and fluidity by making marks on paper or canvas in two dimensions? This is a problem he has pondered for decades. One of the latest images in the exhibition, “Rain on the Studio Window” (2009) toys marvellously with the same conundrum. Famously, Hockney loves to use the adjective “Bigger,” but some of the finest things he has done, many of these prints included, have been miniatures.

First published at Blouin Artinfo

How Little is Enough?

It is easy neither to get in nor out of Martin Creed’s exhibition “What’s the Point of It?” at the Hayward Gallery here (through April 27). To enter you have to pass under a notice warning that the maximum safe head-height is 6 feet 6 inches. Anyone taller will be clonked on the cranium by the massive revolving beam of Work No. 1092 — all of Creed’s creations being meticulously numbered — which swishes through the air, alarmingly close, bearing the word “Mothers” in large neon capitals. This menace is thus a mixture of the physical and, depending on how you feel about your mother, psychological.

And at the exit comes an assault on the sensibilities of anyone with the least bit of queasiness about bodily functions. The only way out is through a room showing Creed’s Works Nos. 610 and 660, detailed if deadpan films of people vomiting and defecating. The fastidious have to dash through quickly with eyes averted. (This may be a marketing error on the Hayward’s part, by the way. One critic related that she shot out so rapidly that momentum carried her through the gallery shop before she realized what was happening.)

In between, for the most part, Creed gives the visitor an easier ride. A surprisingly large amount of his work takes the form of paintings, sometimes abstract and minimalist, sometimes figurative. There is also sound art, installation, a brick wall, a car that switches its lights and radio on and off, and opens and closes its doors. A black and white film shows a penis rising to erection and descending again. This, projected on an outside terrace of the gallery on a damp, grey winter’s day, was an oddly melancholy sight.

All of Creed’s work tends to pose questions, one big one being the rather bleak query of the exhibition title: “What’s the point of it?” And given that another staple preoccupation for Creed is pushing minimalism to the extreme, he likes to take Mies’s modernist proposition that “less is more” a stage further, and ask, “How little is enough?”

Some Creed pieces teeter on the edge of not being worth paying attention to at all. An example is Work No. 293 “A sheet of paper crumpled into a ball” (2003). This is exactly what the title says, but when the neatly scrunched sphere of A4 is presented in a glass case on an elegantly simple plinth, you are invited to look at it in that special art-gallery way, admiring the way the light plays over the creases of the surface. Is it ridiculous to contemplate such a mundane item as if it were a Brancusi? There is no obvious answer, which is the kind of mental squeeze Creed likes to put you in.

A lot of his art is binary — in/out, up/down: the vomiting, the penis, and also his most celebrated (or notorious) piece, Work No. 227 “The lights going on and off,” with which he won the Turner Prize in 2001. He likes stacks and steps and stripes, too, and many of his paintings and sculptures take those forms. His sound art tends to be of the one-note samba variety, like the loud, deflating raspberry that reverberates through the lower Hayward Galleries at frequent intervals.

I think Creed is clever, witty — and sometimes compellingly thought-provoking, although more because of the questions he poses than the visual excitement of what he does. Even the cheery, colorful paintings seem calculated to make you wonder whether they are too banal to count as art.

But the exhibition runs into a problem. For an artist who is obsessed with how little is enough, Creed is highly prolific. There is no escaping him at the Hayward. Even in the lavatory, a cubic stack of tiles protrudes from the wall — and turns out to be a work. After a while, these one-note sambas get a bit tedious. With Creed, less really may be more.


First published at Blouin Artinfo