Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The British Museum, Medals of Dishonour

Ads for the exhibition of Indian paintings from Jodhpur (Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur) made it sound very attractive – unusually large paintings, never before seen outside India - of courts and gardens and religious figures. The exhibition was lovely and I enjoyed looking at the portraits of various leaders and their consorts, as well as the elaborate palaces and gardens, but the later section dealt with a sort of cult of Nath that engulfed the Jodhpur court during the first half of the 19th century and the indecipherable religious subjects ultimately seemed repetitive. Nonetheless these 18th and 19th century maharajas’ court scenes were often charming and extensive compositions. The British Museum shows details of several of the paintings on its website, but they really do not give an adequate image of what is in the exhibition.

At the entrance to the British Museum, we stopped by a small room where the Museum mounts focus exhibitions of works from the permanent collection. At this time the show was of an elaborate gong from what is called the Raffles gamelan, brought back to England from Java by Sir Stamford Raffles in the early 19th century. Raffles probably commissioned this very elaborate instrument, which is covered with carved and painted red, black, and gold decorations of animals and birds. In the display there were images of gamelan orchestras and you could hear gamelan music, read about the instrument and its use, and see explications of details of the elaborate gong that was on view, all in all a very instructive and engaging way to focus on one splendid object from the permanent collection that is not usually on exhibit.

We also decided to detour to the exhibition Medals of Dishonour, and it grabbed us. I’ve done a lot of work with commemorative medals from the 15th through the 19th centuries and very much enjoy both the subjects and the “feel” of medals. Of course, in an exhibition there is no way you can hold one, which is unfortunate since their size and tactile character contribute hugely to their appreciation. But these medals were negatively commemorative and I had never seen most of them. They made fun of leaders, attacked governments for fiscal mismanagement, challenged taxation, protested wars, addressed the full range of political discourse, often with wicked humor. While the objects themselves are small and somewhat difficult to see, labels clearly articulated their issues and magnifications made it easy to understand the issues. In many cases preparatory drawings were exhibited next to the medals. Moving through the exhibition was a history of Europe seen through its protestors.

The exhibition seems to have been inspired by a series of relatively unknown medals that David Smith produced between 1937 and 1940. These are 15 very large and complex medals protesting war, bigotry, ignorance, poverty, the church, fascism and capitalism. Not exactly like traditional medals, they are one-sided and measure about 9 x 12 or 8 x 10 inches, more like plaquettes, except for their commemorative designation. Smith’s Medals for Dishonor plus studies for them were the centerpiece of this exhibition. They are fierce and very complicated.

The first medal on display was the only one I had seen before, the 15th century medal by the Florentine sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni documenting the Pazzi Conspiracy of 1478, when members of the Pazzi family attempted to assassinate Lorenzo de’ Medici, the de facto ruler of Florence, and his brother Giuliano, during Mass in Florence Cathedral. Giuliano was killed, but Lorenzo survived and continued to rule Florence till his death in 1492. Making a medal of the event did not seem to me to dishonor the Pazzi family as much as to celebrate the survival of Lorenzo and commemorate the lost Giuliano. Unlike most of the later medals on display, I could not imagine the artist or the commissioner of this medal getting into trouble.

Probably because of the financial situation in the world, I was particularly amazed at the medals dealing with money. Christian Wermuth in 1701 made a medal criticizing financial speculation. On the obverse (front) is a dead man, holding briefcase marked ‘bills of exchange’ and a caduceus of Mercury, symbol of commerce. The German inscription says “Credit is as dead as a rat.” On the reverse is a man, identified as a financier, seen from the back, with “bankruptcy is the fashion” and “Now you see him, now you don’t” inscribed around him.

Most of the medals are too complex to explain in a short paragraph, but the labels in the exhibition made their subjects very clear, even to viewers without detailed understanding of European and British history. An unidentified French anti-Bonaparte medal, for example, depicts Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the Emperor Napoleon, as a cockchafer, a beetle that attacked crops, with a reverse inscription “So stop this cockchafer!”

While the most complex and amusing and damning medals were pre-20th century, the exhibition includes a Marcel Duchamp Sink Stopper of 1967 and a medal expressing disillusionment with the unification of Germany, “Happiness from the West” by Carsten Theumer, depicting the Michelangelo’s Hand of God handing Adam a banana.

The organizers also commissioned medals from a small number of contemporary artists, most of whom were new to the medium. While Felicity Powell’s “Hot Air” was a bit heavy handed, the wax studies she had made for it were lovely and educational as to how cast medals are constructed. Grayson Perry (b.1960) made a commemoration of shoppers, “For Faith in Shopping” (which immediately called to mind the Banksy of Venus with shopping bags I had seen the day before in Bristol. And Cornelia Parker (b. 1956) recalled the Christian Wermuth 1701 medal in “We know who you are/ We know what you have done” with front and back depicting the backs of two men’s heads, identified as George W. Bush and Tony Blair. Jake and Dinos Chapman made “Meddling with Dishonor,” depicting dismembered bodies, skulls, and heads on posts as a horror of war.

The British Museum website offers images of about 18 of the medals, primarily the recent commissions. There is a catalogue with essays and entries on only 36 of those in the exhibition. I wish it had been more complete, since the exhibition was much larger.

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