London – 20 November 2018

ANGLO-SAXON KINGDOMS – ‘Barbaric splendour and fierce vision’…..

This was a blockbuster exhibition at the British Library on Euston Rd., a show where the real and the supernatural seemed to readily intertwine.

The Germanic peoples who invaded Britain after the departure of the Romans, in AD 410, pushed the native Celts westwards deep into what was to become Wales. The culture of these invaders included the introduction of serpentine images (… a Sutton Hoo belt buckle….. there a writhing image leaping off the page of the Northumbrian Gospels). One manuscript on show was the earliest surviving text of the poem Beowulf – a Scandinavian hero. When the Angles and Saxons first came to Britain they brought with them a pantheon of gods they shared with the Vikings and fellow Germans. There was an image on view of Woden, King of the gods – part German Wotan and part Viking Odin. The adoption of Christianity added yet another layer of pan-European culture. Perhaps the most striking exhibit was (the loan of) the Codex Amiatinus, the oldest surviving complete Latin bible, created in N.E. England and gifted to the Pope in 716 and returning to these shores for the first time in 1,300 years.

OCEANIA at the Royal Academy

God image, probably Ku the God of War, late 18th centuryIt was 250 years ago that James Cook embarked on the first of his three voyages of discovery to the S. Hemisphere, essentially to explore the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean. The Oceania exhibition highlights the diverse and remarkably sophisticated societies that Cook encountered, and brought together some of the treasures from a civilization very different from our own.

There was a rich vein of craftsmanship and design on show in this first ever survey of Oceanic art held in Britain; an exhibition that proved immensely popular with the viewing public. Covering a third of the World’s surface, the area is best recognised by a subdivision into three distinct island groups – Polynesia (literally many islands), Melanesia (black islands) and Micronesia (small islands). Papua New Guinea, by far the largest of the islands represented, not surprisingly, seemed to contribute the greatest number of artefacts on show. Canoes, often highly ornate with elaborate carved prows and, to the indigenous population, imbued with a spiritual energy and power, were an important status symbol. Different designs served differing purposes – for fishing, engaging in warlike activities and for inter-island communication. The culture of these islanders was strongly reflected in this show through ancestor sculptures, elaborate masks, dance shields, ceremonial clubs and personal adornments.

Such contact with Europeans, as Cook first initiated, brought with it harsh colonial rule and exposure to diseases to which there was no natural resistance. Today’s great threat, also largely a legacy of the west, is climate change, resulting in rising sea levels and the almost certain need to abandon some of the low-lying archipelagos.

Bob Williams

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