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‘Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience’

A guest blog by John-Paul Stonard

Last week the great literary critic James Wood gave a lecture at the British Museum, titled ‘On Not Going Home’. He spoke about the condition of exile, of living one’s life away from home, and of the strange unreality of this experience.

His own compelling account is based on the experience of having lived for the last two decades in America (he was born and raised in Durham) – a sort of voluntary ‘homelessness’ that he is at pains to distinguish from the wrenching experience of exile. ‘Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience’, he cites Edward Said, one of the great thinkers on the subject.

Wood’s brilliant lecture raised many questions that illuminate the works of art included in the book and exhibition Germany Divided: Baselitz and his Generation. The title might make you think of the Berlin Wall, and the political division that ended in 1989; but the sense of division is of something much deeper, much more personal and psychological.

All of the six artists included in the exhibition were born in eastern Germany, but sooner or later moved to make their lives in the West. Markus Lüpertz and Sigmar Polke were born in the eastern territories, lost to Germany in 1945, and were forced with their families west. Blinky Palermo moved with his foster family at the age of nine. Georg Baselitz transferred from East to West Berlin during his training (before the borders closed in 1961), just as Gerhard Richter completed his training as a Socialist Realist in Dresden, before moving to Düsseldorf and starting over again, working, as he (ironically) termed it, as a ‘Capitalist Realist’.

The most dramatic case was that of A.R. Penck, who crossed the East-West German border on foot in 1980, after years of working underground in opposition to the East German State. He had already made a career in the West, thanks to the dealer Michael Werner, who would smuggle his paintings out (by car), and showed them in his Cologne gallery. It seemed inevitable that one day Penck himself would follow.

The lives and works of all these artists were inflected in different ways by this experience of migration, and by the political division of Germany. I think of James Wood’s comment on his own experience of living in America, and the ‘light veil of alienation thrown over everything’. I wonder if this ‘veil of alienation’ might explain the way in which those such as Baselitz and Richter saw West Germany, somewhere apart from their ‘heimat’ – that untranslatable German word which suggests the intimate connection with the landscape in which one was born and raised.

For the philosopher and critic György Lúkacs (cited by Wood), the modern novel was an expression of the ‘transcendental homelessness’ of the modern age. Modern life was defined by the experience of exile, and the novel was the most direct expression of this experience. ‘Transcendental homelessness’ seems to float over the images created by Baselitz in his early series of drawings, prints and paintings of ‘heroes’, lonely figures walking through desolate landscapes. It is a feeling of restlessness that I also sense in the way Markus Lüpertz and A.R. Penck made drawings, producing vast quantities, as if constantly searching for something, some form of resolution. Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter’s early works are marked by a cool irony, and a feeling of keeping a distance from ‘art’ itself — Richter used photography, Polke an absurdist humour, as a way of avoiding ‘going home’ to older ideas of making art. And the myths that have gathered around the life and work of Blinky Palermo, whose name is itself a token of not-belonging (he was born Peter Stolle, and went through a number of change of surname, before alighting on the pseudonym as a student at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie), make of him one of the most romantic, and elusive artists of all the ‘Baselitz generation’.

Listen to James Wood’s lecture via the London Review of Books website

Germany Divided: Baselitz and his generation is on show at the British Museum until 31st August 2014.

Read more about this period of art and history by John-Paul Stonard in the beautifully illustrated catalogue which accompanies the exhibition.

Shakespeare: staging the world – An Interview with Curator Dora Thornton

The British Museum is currently presenting a major exhibition on the world and works of William Shakespeare, supported by BP. Shakespeare: staging the world is part of the World Shakespeare Festival and the London 2012 Festival. The exhibition provides a new and unique insight into the emerging role of London as a world city four hundred years ago, interpreted through the innovative perspective of Shakespeare’s plays.  The exhibition features over 190 objects, more than half of which are lent from private and national UK collections, as well as key loans from abroad. The book, Shakespeare: staging the world by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton complements the exhibition and is published by the British Museum Press.

We spoke to author and British Museum curator of Renaissance Europe Dora Thornton about the project, the London 2012 Festival and the world in Shakespeare’s time.

Dora Thornton

Dora Thornton

Shakespeare has been studied for centuries by hundreds of scholars from around the world. What is new about this project?

We reveal a very different Shakespearean landscape when we use objects to illuminate dramatic texts and texts to illuminate objects. We bring together a selection of ordinary and extraordinary things from the early modern world and examine them through the lens of Shakespeare’s plays, creating a dialogue between his imaginary worlds and the lived experience of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. This is very much a British Museum approach, in that we use objects to take us directly to the issues that mattered to Shakespeare and his audiences; we examine world cultures in his day but as they were imagined or encountered from London; and we work across the range of the British Museum collection and way beyond it.

This summer, the world has focused on London for the Olympic and Paralympic Games: how important do you think Shakespeare is to the capital and to Britain itself ?

He is still very significant to us as a writer whose name is synonymous with theatre, with poetry and with Britain’s contribution to world culture. Through his plays, which explored human experience in the new arena of the London playhouse for a wide and diverse audience, Shakespeare gave us a vocabulary and a vision of what it meant to be English, then British, and finally a citizen of the world. The exhibition and the book, Shakespeare: staging the world is the British Museum’s contribution to the Cultural Olympiad, a series of events to showcase British creativity and culture. As Britain moved onto the international stage in the 18th and 19th centuries, so did the national poet, proving the universality of his appeal and his friend Ben Jonson’s claim that “He was not of an age, but for all time!” The World Shakespeare Festival, of which contribution is just a part, will demonstrate how his plays continue to live, and give life, four centuries on, across the great theatre of the world.

What would the city have been like for a foreign visitor in Shakespeare’s time?

We explore ways in which the world came to London in his day; the traffic of people passing through the city as well as in the plays; the way in which Shakespeare appears to be lip-reading an increasingly global conversation, as John Hale once put it. We look at how cultures meet and mingle within some of the objects discussed in our book. The visitor’s experience is something we discuss in the opening chapter of our book—particularly in relation to the importance of the royal tombs in Westminster Abbey as documenting English history and kingship, and what that meant in making early modern memory. The tombs were very much on the tourist trail, which was becoming established for London around 1600 as it had long been for more famous trading cities like Venice. Some of the comments made by foreign visitors are still telling about London and Londoners today—for example, Thomas Platter says that “London is said not to be in England, but rather England to be in London” and notes that the English are armchair travellers who “prefer to learn foreign matters and take their pleasures at home”.

The range of objects in Shakespeare: staging the world is astonishing – is there one which, for you, sums up the world that Shakespeare was living and writing in?

As curator of the exhibition who has found all the objects, and thought long and hard about their status and significance, I find it difficult to choose just one: it’s the inter-relationships between the objects and Shakespeare’s words, and the groupings, which matter more in layering experience. But I am particularly fond of the way in which we relate a drawing after John White of Kalicho, an Inuk brought to England by Frobisher in 1577, with a doit coin, which take us very directly to Trinculo’s comment: “when they [the English] will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian”. The doit was the coinage of cheap celebrity entertainment. Juxtaposing a real doit coin with the image of Kalicho does much more than illustrate Trinculo’s words: it takes us to the issue of “this new prey”; human beings brought back as trophies from the New World. What were the British to make of this “brave new world” which was opening up all around them?

Shakespeare: staging the world is £40 in hardback, £25 in paperback and can be purchased through the British Museum online shop.

The Telegraph Hay Festival: 31 May – 10 June 2012

TheTelegraphHayFestival-White

This summer, the Hay Festival celebrates its 25th year with a stunning programme of international writers and thinkers. The British Museum Press is delighted to be partnering with Hay to present a lecture and talk for our recent release, Shakespeare: staging the world.

Thursday 7 June 2012

Shakespeare 1 – Staging the World

Barclays Pavilion

1.00PM

Written by internationally-acclaimed author and editor Jonathan Bate and the curator of Renaissance Europe at the British Museum, Dora Thornton, Shakespeare: staging the world provides a unique and fascinating insight into the early modern world, seen through the lens of Shakespeare’s plays.

The event will be chaired by Clemency Burton-Hill, and will be the first of three Shakespeare sessions.

The full festival programme is available here.

Bath Literature Festival – 2-11 March 2012

While the outlook is cold and gloomy, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a bright spot on the horizon for literature lovers. The full line up for the Bath Literature Festival (2-11 March 2012) has now been released and as predicted, it looks fantastic. The British Museum Press is delighted to be joining up with this event for the first time and presenting lectures and talks from the Authors of three of our most recent releases.

The full programme is available here or read the rest of this entry for details of all featured British Museum Press events:

FRIDAY 9TH MARCH 2012

Indigo
Guildhall, G5
1.00pm – 2.00pm, This event has now sold out.

Writer, artist, traveller and lecturer, Jenny Balfour-Paul has researched and worked with indigo for over two decades. In today’s multi-coloured world, it is hard to imagine the incredible impact indigo must have had on the many civilizations that chanced upon it. Jenny uncovers all aspects of this subject: historical, agricultural, and scientific; sociological, medicinal, and folkloric.

Ticket holders can enjoy a FREE screening of Mary Lance’s documentary film Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo from 2.45 – 4pm.

SATURDAY 10TH MARCH 2012

David Stuttard on The Olympics
Bath Masonic Hall, H2
1.00pm – 2.00pm, £8 (£7 concessions)

Power: The power of the gods, the power of Greek cities, the power of the human body; all of these were celebrated at the ancient Olympic Games. David Stuttard gets up close and personal and shows us what it was like to be there, to witness the rituals, official banquets, bloody contests, victory celebrations and subsequent political parleys. This is your chance for a ringside seat.

How the Olympics Came to Be
The Holburne Museum, H8
1.15pm-2.15pm £5
Ages 5 – 10, children must be accompanied.

Join Helen East, storyteller and author, to hear all about the excitement of the ancient Olympic Games and the gods, heroic mortals and adventures that inspired them! Helen will be telling stories around the museum so seek her out and find out more about the origins of the Olympic Games.

Event bookings are now open, head to the Bath Literature Festival site for more information.

Hoshino Yukinobu and Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure

Lots of excitement this week as our first ever manga,  Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure, by Hoshino Yukinobu, is now printing and will be arriving at British Museum Press HQ in less than two months!  In anticipation of its publication Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere, who has been working with Hoshino sensei on the project since its inception, took a trip to Japan to show the artist the final proofs of  his book. We asked Nicole to tell us a little more about her trip, Hoshino Yukinobu, and his thoughts on the English  publication of Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure. Read the rest of this entry to see what she had to report.

Through her work with Hoshino Yukinobu, Nicole inspired the character of Chris in Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure

Nicole's work with Hoshino Yukinobu inspired the character of Chris in Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure

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Power Games: Ritual and Rivalry at the Ancient Greek Olympics

Look up the sky tonight and you should see the August full moon: a lunar event that has resonated throughout history. Next year this mysterious night will fall right in the middle of  the London 2012 Olympic Games and we’ve asked David Stuttard, author of our forthcoming title Power Games, to explain why this is more than just coincidence.

Power Games

For over a millennium, the August full moon marked the focal point of the four-yearly Festival which included the Olympic Games. To many Ancient Greeks the moon was a goddess, so the full moon had especial power. Like our Easter, the timing of the Olympic Festival was closely linked to the movement of the heavenly bodies – and, although we do not know exactly how the date was calculated, it seems to have coincided with the second or third full moon after the summer solstice, thus associating it with important dates in both the lunar and solar calendars.

The Greeks’ days began at sunset, and the central ‘day’ of the Olympics, when the moon was full, was spent in evening banqueting, morning sacrifices, and a few races in the afternoon. For the ancient Olympics were not just about athletics. They were part of ancient religious observations, where ritual was just as important as the sport – perhaps even more so. In 2012 the Olympic full moon is on 2nd August – but, although contestants in beach volley-ball, table-tennis or cycling events might take encouragement from the auspicious date, of all that day’s contestants, only the boxers can boast a truly ancient Olympic pedigree.

Power Games: Ritual and Rivalry at the Ancient Olympic Games will be publishing on 7 November 2011. ‘Read the rest of this entry’ for an extract from Chapter Four -  ‘the full moon chapter’

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