The Human Image: Art, Identities, and Symbolism
Portraits of people and human figures abound in art. Scratched into rocks, painted on cave walls, or sculpted in mammoth ivory are some of the earliest known images of humans. For thousands of years, our preoccupation with ourselves and the people around us has led to countless works featuring specific individuals or generalised, anonymous figures.
Drawing on a range of material from the British Museum, as well as the contemporary art collections of La Caixa Foundation, this exhibition explores the human image in art, past and present. Sculpture, coinage, paintings, video, photography, and more help make up this diverse look at our own image.
Some of the works highlight the ideals of beauty of a culture and offer a chance to see the ways in which perceptions of bodily perfection have changed, and what aspects of it – symmetry, proportions, and youth among them – are shared across different cultures. Others, such as ancient Egyptian sculpture and Moche ceramics from Peru, show how portraiture has been used to project an idealised image of a prominent figure – for instance, as a god-like ruler, military leader, or wise statesman. Earlier images of rulers lent later powerful figures a model to base their own image on, copying predecessors’ portrait styles and features to create a link to great leaders of the past. The human figure also plays an important role in the art of some religions, with devotional images that show gods and sacred beings in human form used as a focus for prayer and offerings.
As well as divine spirits, ideal beauty, and powerful portraiture, the exhibition considers the transformation of the body through death and the ways in which artists have used the body to convey anxiety surrounding violence and war.
Until 16 January 2022
Power, Justice, and Tyranny in the Middle Ages
Los Angeles, California, United States
In 1215, King John of England signed Magna Carta – arguably the most famous medieval document – as he agreed to the royal charter setting out the protection of Church rights and access to swift justice, and prohibiting the illegal imprisonment of barons. Today we generally view justice in medieval Europe as rather harsh, with punishments excessive for the crimes, and kings and those in charge routinely abusing their power. As Magna Carta shows, justice, tyranny, and disenfranchisement were very much on some medieval minds, and this preoccupation with power and how it is enacted on the people can be seen in a number of illuminated manuscripts from the period.
The rich illustrations in this exhibition reflect on power in a number of ways. Some, for instance, show the close involvement between Church and state, a good example being a scene of the coronation of the King of the Franks: both nobles and Church representatives are present and prominent.
The illuminators of these exquisite manuscripts were by no means only concerned with contemporary or recent figures. Alexander the Great appears as an examplar of both good and bad behaviour.
Mythological figures appear, too. On display to the public for the first time in this exhibition is a manuscript once owned by the French queen Anne of Brittany (1477-1514), and acquired by the Getty this year. The manuscript contains a translation of the Roman poet Ovid’s Heroides. In the Heroides, Ovid imagines a series of letters from mythological women or heroides (‘heroines’), giving them a voice against the men who wronged them. Thus Medea writes to Jason, Dido to Aeneas, and Penelope to Odysseus. In one manuscript, we see Ariadne – who had helped Theseus escape the labyrinth of the Minotaur – discovering she has been abandoned on Naxos by her lover, his ship sailing away into the distance. We also see her at her desk, as she writes to Theseus. The manuscript gives a glimpse of the tastes of Anne of Brittany: it seems this queen of France had a particular interest in injustice against women.
J Paul Getty Museum
Until 15 August 2021
Scent from Nature: Beauty’s botanical origins
The sweet fragrance of the rose – specifically Rosa gallica, one of the first to be cultivated in Europe – has been taken advantage of since antiquity, and its potential healing properties were recorded in both ancient and medieval herbals. Such documents give us some of the earliest examples of botanical illustrations and information on how to extract resins, juices, scents, and colours from leaves, petals, and roots, and how to use those extracts. As well as Rosa gallica, many other plants have been used in remedies, and in the beauty industry – Iris germanica, Rosa damascena, Pelargonium graveolens, Camellia japonica, and Rosa canina among them. For example, the seeds of the Camellia japonica – a shrub that can grow up to 11m tall – are harvested, crushed, steamed, and squeezed to extract their oil, which is then used for glossing the hair of geishas and sumo wrestlers.
This world of botanical beauty is explored through rare watercolours by prominent botanical artists Nicolas Robert (1614-1685), Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770), and Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840), and a range of cosmetic containers, including ancient Egyptian and Greek perfume bottles, 12th-century Korean oil containers, and ornate 18th- and 19th-century English scent bottles.
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Until 29 August 2021
Crossings: community and refuge
In October 2013, an overcrowded boat sank near the Italian island Lampedusa in the Mediterranean, killing 311 people on board who were seeking refuge in Europe. Francesco Tuccio, a carpenter on the island, created a cross from the wreckage, which is currently on display in the exhibition Crossings: community and refuge at the People’s History Museum. The Lampedusa cross, together with 12 small boats filled with burnt matches by the Syrian-born artist Issam Kourbaj (one of which is pictured below), draws attention to the fragile vessels refugees use to cross the seas, and the uncertainty of their fates. The exhibition uses such poignant works to consider questions of belonging and sharing, the challenge of mass movement of people, and European responses.
A British Museum Spotlight Loan, Crossings will subsequently travel to Hastings Museum and Art Gallery (10 September-5 December 2021), Derby Museum and Art Gallery (10 December 2021-6 March 2022), Ipswich Art Gallery (11 March-12 June 2022), Bristol Museum and Art Gallery (18 June-18 September 2022), Rochester Cathedral (22 September-27 November 2022), and Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum (1 December 2022- 26 February 2023).
People’s History Museum, Manchester
Until 5 September 2021
OWNING THE PAST: From Mesopotamia to Iraq
One of the first objects visitors see in the Ashmolean Museum is the magnificent Assyrian relief of a bird-headed spirit, removed from the palace of Nimrud (Iraq) during excavations and offered to the University of Oxford by Austen Henry Layard in gratitude for an honorary degree in 1848. Mesopotamian artefacts, like this, in British collections not only bear witness to the fascinating ancient civilisations that produced them, but also to the history of Britain’s involvement in the region – particularly after the First World War, when the borders of the state of Iraq were drawn up. In both Arabic and English, this dual-language exhibition explores that very period, delves into the meaning of heritage, and reveals how British control of the region has had an impact on Mesopotamian archaeology, too, not just on the people of Iraq. One highlight is Damage Field, a specially commissioned installation by Piers Secunda, created using casts (pictured above) of the Assyrian relief from Nimrud and drawing attention to the destruction of identities.
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Until 22 August 2021
The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512-1570
In the period of the 16th century covered by this exhibition, the Italian city of Florence, considered a hub of Renaissance art, went through a dramatic transformation from a republic to a duchy that was ruled by the Medici dynasty. Cosimo I de Medici became Duke of Florence in 1537, and soon put celebrated artists and intellectuals to use, commissioning architectural and engineering projects to enhance the city and spectacular works of work, among them portraits of the Medici family and others of the Florentine elite. The magnificent portraits on display in this exhibition – which includes not just paintings, but also drawings, engravings, medals, and sculpture – offer a glimpse of their subjects’ ambitions and highlight aspects of Florentine identity in this key period. On view are works by the likes of Raphael, Benvenuto Cellini, and Agnolo Bronzino, including Bronzino’s c.1550-1555 portrait (shown above) of a man, probably Pierantonio Bandini. This painting has a blue small statuette of Venus in the background, highlighting the cultural interests of its subject.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
26 June to 11 October 2021
Signed in Silk: Introducing a Sacred Jewish Textile
In 1755, a young woman in the Italian city of Ancona created a sumptuous silk parokhet, or Torah Ark curtain (shown above right). About 15 years old at the time, Simhah Viterbo left a dedicatory inscription at the bottom of the richly embroidered textile. This remarkable parokhet was acquired by the St Louis Museum of Art in 2019, and is now celebrated in an exhibition that examines her work, its place in the long tradition of Italian Jewish women producing textiles for synagogues, and its creation in the busy port of Ancona, a place where Jewish residents were forced into ghettos. Well connected through trade, Ancona had a wealthy and cosmopolitan community of merchants. This cosmopolitan environment, with links to London and the Levant, is reflected in Viterbo’s unusual design, which – rather than the more common floral motifs of 18th-century Italian Jewish textiles – features scrolls, shells, and baskets found in late Baroque and early Rococo clothing and silver. The composition is reminiscent of curtains from the Ottoman Empire, and draws on diverse influences such as Baroque garden design, Christian ecclesiastical embroidery, and Ottoman prayer rugs.
St Louis Art Museum, Missouri
Until 3 October 2021
Europe: Ancient Future
The new Halle für Kunst Steiermark has opened its doors with an exhibition exploring artistic responses to ideas of Europe, and its future. Many of these ideas have their roots in antiquity, such as discourses on the balance between the individual and society, and on democracy. As such, some of the artists taking part in the exhibition, described as a ‘thought experiment’ looking at community life and Europe as a place of diverse cultures and ideas, make reference to ancient and even mythological subjects. Among them are Cypriot artist Haris Epaminonda, whose film Chapters features archaic dances and elements borrowed from ancient Cyprus, and American photographer James Welling, who re-injects colour into objects and sculptures from Athens’ acropolis and agora through his images.
Halle fÜr Kunst Steiermark, Graz
Until 15 August 2021
Queens of Egypt
In the early 20th century, excavations by Ernesto Schiaparelli, at that time the director of the Museo Egizio in Turin, revealed the richness of the tomb of Queen Nefertari in Egypt’s Valley of the Queens. Finds from the excavation of the tomb, the artisan village of Deir el-Medina, and other objects from the Museo Egizio’s collection are now travelling to Gatineau, where they will tell the stories of royal women – the wives, sisters, daughters, and mothers of pharaohs, and sometimes even rulers themselves – of New Kingdom Egypt (1550-1070 BC). Stelae, statues, jewellery, tools and more are used to present important individuals like Nefertari, wife of Ramesses II, whose importance is hinted through her exceptional tomb; Ahmose-Nefertari, a queen revered as the founder of Deir el-Medina; and Hatshepsut, who ruled as pharaoh.
Canadian Museum of History, Gatineau
Until 29 August 2021
Late Gothic: The Birth of Modernity
From the 1430s onwards, the art of the German-speaking world began to change. This was the late Gothic era, when, following innovations in the Netherlands, German artists were depicting scenes of increasing realism. Some of these artists earned widespread fame, with their religious images increasingly regarded as art rather than just objects of faith.
Of particular interest at this time is the development of the printing press and the subsequent mass production of images and books. Early printed books followed some of the design principles of manuscript illustration, but soon printed books took their own direction. Engravings by the Master E S (for example, his letter ‘N’ from a figure-alphabet, c.1466-1467, shown below) show the rich and intricate images artists made for printed works. Print affected other art forms, too. Sculpture and paintings were influenced by graphic works, some of which had in their turn been influenced by sculpture and paintings. Works across this wide range of media, also including stained glass, have been brought together to shed light on the influences on and innovations of the late Gothic.
Until 5 September 2021
Time for Take-Off! Images of Flight from Albrecht Dürer to Jorinde Voigt
The act of flight has always captured the imagination, from Icarus’ mythical wings of wax and feather to hot-air balloons. People wished to take to the skies long before it was possible to do so, and this fascination – whether with winged creatures like birds and insects, or fabled beings like witches on broomsticks and flying demons, or aeroplanes and rockets – has made its way into visual arts. Marking the 2020 opening of Berlin’s BER airport, this exhibition presents a selection of depictions of flight by artists from the medieval period to the present day, and also considers ‘flight shame’, the modern environmental anxieties over air travel. There are works on view by Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya, and Eugène Delacroix, as well as more modern artists including Robert Rauschenberg and Anselm Kiefer. Shown on the left is a compelling engraving by Hendrick Goltzius (1588) of Phaeton, son of the god Helios in Greek mythology, as he falls to his death from his father’s flying chariot.
Until 1 August 2021
Palladio, Bassano and the Bridge: Invention, history, myth
The influential 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio – himself influenced by ancient Greek and Roman architecture, notably the works of Vitruvius – is widely celebrated for his villas, but unlike many other architects of his day he also designed bridges. Some of his unexecuted schemes for these structures, which included one for the famous Rialto bridge in Venice, attracted the interest of later artists: Canaletto, for example, was asked to include Palladio’s vision of the Rialto in a capriccio. One place that Palladio did actually build a bridge is the northern Italian city of Bassano del Grappa. The Ponte Vecchio (also known as the Ponte degli Alpini) has been destroyed and rebuilt several times since Palladio’s initial construction. To mark the most recent phase in its long life, the completion of a long restoration project, this exhibition examines the eventful history of Bassano’s Palladian water-crossing.
Museo Civico, Bassano del Grappa
Until 10 October 2021
Tota Italia: At the origins of a nation
Telling the story of the unification of tota Italia (‘all of Italy’) under the Roman emperor Augustus, this exhibition brings together a range of finds from pre-Roman and Roman Italy. Although Italy was ‘unified’, it was still divided into regions, which even today have their differences. The finds on view shed light on how the distinct pre-Roman regions were brought together – from the 4th-century BC to the Julio-Claudian dynasty – and how different cultures clashed and coalesced, influencing one another but still retaining their own rich traditions.
Scuderie deL Quirinale, Rome
Until 25 July 2021
Aztecs – The People Behind the Myth
Bringing together recently excavated finds from Mexico City on loan from Mexico and Aztec artworks in European collections, this travelling exhibition (previously on show in Stuttgart and Vienna) presents a rich overview of Aztec culture and beliefs, and sheds light on daily life in their empire. The many objects on show range widely in size and material, including gold pendants just a few centimetres high (shown right), a bird’s head made out of turquoise tiles, and a reassembled sculpture of the god Mictlantecuhtli, nearly 2m tall and originally discovered in hundreds of fragments.
Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden
6 August 2021 to 22 February 2022
Temples of Malta
Thought to have been first inhabited by Sicilian farmers around 5900 BC, Malta is home to a number of impressive prehistoric stone temples (among them Mnajdra, shown below left). There is still much that is unknown about the people who built these monuments between 3600 and 2500 BC, their rituals and religion, their knowledge of engineering, and how this ‘Temple Period’ came to an end, but this exhibition – organised by Heritage Malta and the National Archaeological Museum Malta, in collaboration with the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden – presents archaeological evidence from the monuments to explore what we do know about Malta at this time. As well as looking at the megalithic temples themselves, smaller finds like tools, decorated pottery, jewellery, and sculpted figures from Malta’s museums are on view. These figures include rounded bodies traditionally interpreted as women or mother goddesses (recent thinking suggests they may not necessarily be female), and a tiny 3200 BC statue found in the Tarxien temples, showing two people embracing.
Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden
Until 31 October 2021
Prehistoric Art: from the rock to the museum
In 1921, an exhibition of Spanish prehistoric art gave a platform to the fascinating rock-art discoveries that had been made in Spain. The country is home to the famous cave paintings of Altamira and a number of other sites, including what are now suggested by some to be paintings made by Neanderthals. The exhibition that was held 100 years ago helped Spain establish itself as an important place for the study of prehistoric art and brought the work of specialists to a broader public, helping pave the way to the widespread appreciation of rock art from countries around the world. Celebrating this milestone, this new exhibition looks back on the 1921 show, revealing how an international team brought the prehistoric art of different regions of Spain to one place in Madrid – for instance, through Francisco Benítez Mellado’s reproductions on canvas of the cave paintings (his boar from Altamira is shown above) – and considering how the relationship between the art, the museum, and the visitor has evolved and will continue to do so.
Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid
Until 31 July 2021