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The Scythians at the British Museum

“The Scythians: Warriors of ancient Siberia” is the title of a major new exhibition at the British Museum, London, running until 14th January. The show attempts to redeem from oblivion the culture and character of a people who strewed their path across the steppe with gold but who are otherwise little remembered and little understood.

The Scythians flourished in the 9th–3rd centuries BC. Their heartland was the Siberian steppe, but at their greatest extent they controlled territory and maintained trading links from north China to the Black Sea. They were never a single people, but a loose confederation of tribes, sharing certain customs and, it appears, speaking a language or languages with Iranian roots. They were herdsmen and hunters, nomadic and warlike, fighting both outsiders and each other over territory and livestock. They were superb horsemen. Their mounted archers, riding with saddles but without stirrups, struck fear into the hearts of Persians, Assyrians and Macedonians. And it appears that Scythian women rode as expertly—and fought as dauntlessly—as Scythian men. Scythian art is filled with representations of totem animals: deer, big cats, birds of prey. Chief of all these, though, was the horse. It was the horse that, in death, was caparisoned for the final great ride, to the world beyond, where it is presumed it would live again with its owner, roaming and grazing Elysian pastures. It is thanks to the Scythians' mastery of the horse and their skill with metal that they were able to rise to dominance.

 

The first room sets the tone for the show with an audio display of howling Siberian wind. As it whistles in your ears, you can admire the stunning gold belt plaque of the 4th–3rd century BC: a warrior, presumed deceased, lies in the lap of a woman, presumably a deity, under a tree in whose boughs he has slung his quiver of arrows. Beside him a groom holds two horses, their harness very carefully rendered. It is exquisite—and in Scythian terms, quite late. This type of narrative scene does not seem to emerge until about the 4th century and human representations before this seem to be rare. Instead we find examples of the so-called “animal style”: gold plaques fashioned in the form of stylised beasts: stags, vultures, panthers, often shown tortuously attacking each other, often inlaid with pieces of turquoise. Some of these plaques are quite large in size, designed to be worn on a belt around the waist. Others are smaller, for decorating bow cases or quivers or for use as bridle fittings. Others are tiny appliqué pieces that would have been attached en masse to articles of clothing.

 

These gold pieces were first revealed to the world in the early 18th century, when Peter the Great sent out exploration parties to Siberia in search of natural resources and trade routes. The pieces that were unearthed, from grave mounds, were all sent back to St Petersburg and drawings of all of them were made to serve as a record. It is from the Hermitage Museum that most of the pieces in the current exhibition have come.

 

A section of the finds in this exhibition were also preserved by ice. Water percolating into the tomb barrows, and afterwards freezing, has remained there ever since as a layer of permafrost. As the arid conditions in Egypt, so the freezing conditions in the Altai have preserved materials otherwise rare to find: human skin, leather, wood and textiles. There are pieces of clothing, horse apparel and tomb hangings made of wool, leather, squirrel fur, sable and felt. The women, presumably the high-born ones, had diamonds on the soles of their shoes, almost literally: a beautiful moccasin with a geometric decoration of pyrite lozenges on the sole is extraordinarily well preserved. The tomb remains of a Pazyryk chief from the Altai Mountains shows that these Scythians extensively tattooed their arms, legs and shoulders. It also shows how savage their battles could be. This man—not young, about 60 years old; and not short, about 176cm tall—died of axe blows to the head. Scythian warfare did not only take the form of mounted archery; they also fought hand to hand in close and bloody combat.

 

Which brings us to the question of what they looked like. This man was scalped, so the top of his head is missing. But as far as we can tell, the Pazyryk Scythians shaved their heads leaving only a tuft of hair at the crown. This applied equally to the women, who twisted this tuft into a tall topknot, threading it through a narrow, very tall conical headdress to form a sort of fountain pony tail. There is some debate as to whether the men wore facial hair. The gold belt plaque showing the dead warrior and his groom portrays both men with walrus moustaches. The Kul Olba cup (4th century), from the Black Sea (modern Ukraine), shows figures with flowing beards. There cannot have been a single type, or a single style. Fashions must have come and gone, as they do today, and different Scythian groups probably had different habits. The Pazyryk chieftain seems to have been clean shaven, but in death he was equipped with a false beard. Scholars speculate that it might have had a ritual function. False beards as divine appurtenances are not an anthropological oddity; they are known from ancient Egypt, for example.

 

The Scythians did not write anything down, which is frustrating, because we never hear them speaking for themselves. Instead, we hear from Herodotus, who encountered the Scythians of the Black Sea and wrote about their customs and behaviour. Some finds appear to bear out his accounts. He mentions their custom of inhaling the vapour of toasted hemp seeds at the funerals of their chiefs, and “howling with pleasure” as they did so. And sure enough, a hemp-smoking kit has been unearthed. Contact with Greece from the 8th century BC had an influence not only on their art but on their diet, as the traditional fermented mare’s milk was replaced with wine (a Greek kylix is one of the grave goods on display here), which they apparently drank undiluted, gaining a reputation for alcoholic excess. The famous Pazyryk rug, the world’s oldest known carpet, was found in a Scythian tomb, but in its design shows clear Persian influence. It would be fascinating to know who made it: a Scythian influenced by Persian forms? Or a Persian working to Scythian taste? The Scythians, at least in origin, were a nomadic people, and their goods are mostly portable. A round wooden table with lathe-turned legs reminds us of this: it is a collapsible table, which can be folded up and easily carried away. They took their art with them, and assimilated other styles and ideas as they went. But to what extent did they depend on settled peoples for manufacture?

7th-century gold plaque in the form of a stag, Hungarian National Museum.

The supremacy of the Scythians was waning by 200 BC, as other nomads moved in to replace them, or, as is probable in some cases, as they themselves settled down. They flashed brilliantly across the screen for a mere few hundred years. There is probably much of their culture left to find. And they are not entirely forgotten. In Hungary, for instance, the “Scythian gold stag” has mythical significance. There are two examples in the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest.

 

This is a very enjoyable exhibition, tantalisingly suggestive. It answers fewer questions than it asks, which is always the best way, leaving you thinking long after you have left the museum.

 

Annabel Barber

10.09.2017
19:02

Rogues' Gallery by Philip Hook

Philip Hook: Rogues’ Gallery: A History of Art and its Dealers. Profile Books, London, 2017.

In May 2017, I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner  Museum in Boston for the second time. Housed in a neo-Renaissance palazzo with courtyards and galleries, it is crammed—one might say cluttered—with the extraordinary collection of Mrs Gardner, accumulated with her vast wealth before her death in 1924. There are special objects, a brilliant Titian (The Rape of Europa) and a stunning John Singer Sargent, El Jaleo, of a Spanish gypsy dancing girl; but as Mrs Gardner was not a discriminating buyer and insisted that everything she had collected had to be displayed, the effect can be rather cloying. Perhaps I was biased, having come on from the wonderful new Art of the Americas gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts.

 

It is hardly surprising that Isabella Gardner appears in Rogues’ Gallery, Philip Hook’s history of art dealing. She had a large fortune, was avid for the best of Renaissance paintings, and thus became easy prey for suppliers. Bernard Berenson and his colleague Otto Gutekunst at Colnaghi saw their chance. As Hook puts it, ‘The race to supply Mrs Gardner with as many Renaissance masterpieces at as high a price as possible was on.’ Titian’s The Rape of Europa was extracted by Gutekunst from Lord Darnley for £14,000 and Berensen and Gutekunst agreed that it would be sold to Gardner for £18,000, with each of them splitting the difference. In fact, Berensen sold it to Gardner  for £20,000, paid Gutekunst £2,000 and pocketed  £4,000 for himself. Hook has no illusions about his ‘Rogue Dealers’ (although some of his subjects were more rogueish than others). The value of an artwork is what a buyer is willing to pay for it and this sum can be manipulated by the dealer in a number of ways. Often the aesthetic value of a picture, the way its composition or subject might grab a viewer, is secondary to the prestige of owning whatever is in fashion. There are all kinds of subtle ploys for creating desire for an object that the purchaser might never have thought of owning and certainly does not need. The fascination of Hook’s book lies in the different personalities and methods used to achieve this end.

 

The story starts in the 17nth century. The Rev. William Petty was an accomplished buyer for Charles I and the ‘Collector Earl’ of Arundel, outplaying rival buyers simply by staying put in Italy. In Amsterdam  Hendrick van Uylenburgh took Rembrandt under his wing, guiding clients into his workshop for their portraits but carefully leaving other pictures around in the hope of selling more to the sitters. By the 18th century, the market has shifted to Rome. Not all dealers there were insensitive to art. The Anglophile Cardinal Albani’s own collection was as fine as anything he sold on to English aristocrats. But as so much dealing was carried on amicably between social equals, it was hard to say where the balance between sociability and commerce lay. In the case of Lord Duveen, a hundred years later, his knowledge of Italian art was minimal but the skill with which he manipulated the expertise of Bernard Berenson to provide ‘authentic’  provenances for the culture-hungry and cash-rich American moguls brought fabulous returns for them both. Osbert Sitwell lamented that the austere galleries donated to British museums by Duveen were funded by selling the cream of English paintings to America.

 

One moves on to Paul Durand-Ruel, the great patron of the Impressionists. Hook is at his best in exploring the life of this reactionary Catholic monarchist who may have changed the direction of art history through his championship of a new and little regarded movement. In 1872 Durand-Ruel had seen two works by Manet and was so overwhelmed by them that he went off to Manet’s studio and brought everything that he found. He was prepared to subsidise his favoured artists and wait for the return that matured through his relentless proselytising. He cleverly created the aura of one who was simply an idealist, altruistically promoting needy artists, yet, as Hook points out, he would ruthlessly impose a monopoly over an artist’s works (as the curmudgeonly Ambroise Vollard did over Cézanne) and if prices were flagging, buy his own stock at public auction to keep up the fiction of increasing values. The fiction would eventually become reality. Why the conservative Durand-Ruel should have been so taken by the Impressionists when they were so little regarded is unknown.

 

Hook’s most intriguing chapter centres on an auctioneer, the legendary Peter Wilson of Sotheby’s. (Hook worked at Sotheby’s for many years so his account is as good as any.) Wilson was a connoisseur, passionate about art and with great taste. His theatrical sense of how to play an audience was unequalled, as were his negotiating skills.

He made the auction room a place of glamour, with dealers sidelined as bejeweled celebrities basked in the glare of publicity. Wilson sensed how the Hollywood elite would compete for the prestige of owning a major Impressionist and was adept at exploiting the power of the Press to create the necessary buzz. Record prices made news and stimulated beguiled collectors to pass on their treasures directly to Sotheby’s when before they would have been sold discreetly in a dealer’s office. Wilson also had a contempt for the buyers, a vital attribute for a successful dealer. It was said that he once sold a gold box by soliciting phone bids from an inebriated Barbara Hutton which probably took the price $750,000 dollars higher than it should have been. He would tell a seller to sell now before the market fell and for the same work would advise a buyer to buy now when prices were still low.

 

This is a knowledgeable and perceptive book that raises important questions about the value of art and the ways in which this can be exploited or even created from nothing. Rich in anecdote, cynical in tone (‘Art dealers are purveyors of fantasy’), it makes a good read. Sadly, Hook decided only to tell on dead dealers. I would have loved to have heard the gossip on how money is extracted from the new rich on contemporary artists of such varying quality and prospects.

Charles Freeman is Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

Ferragamo's Return

Ferragamo the Cobbler: from Naples to Hollywood and the return to Italy in 1927

 

Florence is determined to keep its place as a centre of fashion (despite fierce competition from Milan). Of the famous “Pitti” fashion shows, which are held throughout the year, the most prestigious remains “Pitti Uomo”, which takes place for a week in June. This year Eike Schmidt, director of the Uffizi and Pitti galleries, allowed fashion shows to take place in the Pitti Palace ballroom, thus reintroducing a tradition which flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. He has also renamed the Pitti’s Galleria del Costume. Now known as the Museo della Moda e del Costume, it makes clear its role in documenting the history of fashion.

 

Another exhibition centred on fashion, entitled “1927: The Return to Italy”, runs at the Museo Ferragamo, the company’s elegant flagship store at the end of Via Tornabuoni, until May 2018. Curated by the much-respected art historian Carlo Sisi, it provides a fascinating history of Italy in the 1920s. The setting cleverly evokes an ocean liner: in 1914 the 17-year-old Salvatore Ferragamo sailed from Naples for America as a third-class passenger. Just 13 years later he returned as a highly successful businessman, with a first-class cabin on the huge ocean liner R oma (she had made her maiden voyage the previous year and a film made at the time shows life aboard). Born in Irpinia in the south of Italy, where he had set up a business selling handmade shoes when aged only 11 (six older boys worked for him), Ferragamo decided to emigrate to the land of opportunities, and by 1923 was an American citizen and had opened a shoe store in Hollywood. All the famous movie stars soon became his devoted clients. His decision to return to Italy in 1927 was prompted by a desire to find skilled Italian artisans to increase production and it was only in Florence that he found the quality he was looking for. He settled in the city, founded a shoe factory, and by 1938 was able to purchase the huge medieval Palazzo Feroni on the Arno, which still houses the company’s main store. On show, beside the shoes he crafted, are numerous examples of the decorative arts made in Florence in the 1920s (including lovely woven fabrics). One of the most moving exhibits is the ‘home movie’ Ferragamo made of the wonders of Florence when he first arrived there from Naples with his sisters.

 

After the First World War hemlines had risen, exposing women’s legs and ankles, and thus the shoe became far more conspicuous. Ferragamo experimented with all kind of materials, including kid and antelope skins, and even ‘sea leather’ from fish. His sandals, boots and hand-painted shoes were renowned. He studied closely the anatomy of the foot and issues of posture in order to create models that were comfortable as well as stylish. Hundreds of these shoes are on show, as well as his archive of patented designs.

 

But the exhibition has also provided the opportunity to study the role of women at this time (just before Fascism took hold) and the influence of the emancipated American flapper in Europe. The importance of sport and dance in liberating the female figure (if only from corsets!) is underlined by contemporary films, and many fascinating of posters are included. Amongst the sculptures and paintings, all rigorously confined within this one decade, the 1920s, some of the most interesting are by the brothers RAM and Thayaht (Ruggero Alfredo and Ernesto Michahelles), little-known outside Tuscany, who were particularly interested in fashion. They were at work in Florence producing remarkable paintings, graphics and sculpture (some of them using an amalgam of aluminium and silver which Thayaht invented and named “taiattite”, after himself). A painting (owned by the Ferragamo Foundation) by Giovanni Colacicchi shows Palazzo Feroni itself in Piazza Santa Trinita at this period.

 

This is a delightful exhibition and is accompanied by an excellent catalogue. It clearly demonstrates that the fashion house of Ferragamo, even though now a global brand, can still contribute to the life of the city of Florence.

 

by Alta Macadam


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