The first challenge with this exhibition is how to buy the ticket. As I strolled up to the ticket desk I wondered to myself how many people had tried to pronounce Ashurbanipal. I bottled it an instead asked for the Assyrian exhibition. That seemed to do the job, then into the show. You are immediately greeted by these large stone carved slabs, that are the major part of the show (as above).
Works like this really transport me there, softly lit in a darkened black room, allows your imagination to work to full power. Artistically this is quite interesting. I like the thick square beards and the over defined musculature. There is a element that seems to reoccur throughout this show which is whoever the carvers are show almost the skeleton under the muscle particularly in the legs.
Ornate pedestals to columns are a big Assyrian things and thus you get people like this noble gentleman who the curators have very smartly elevated so it peers down on all us stumbling mortals (above left). You can imagine a great sweeping column emerging from his head. I do like those beards the do make for an excellent sculpture subject.
Mythical animals who have often a protective of deific meaning are another column base staple. Half person half animal is a common theme. My favourite of these is this cheeky little chappy above right. I like the paw like feet and those strange vacant eyes. I imagine those original had some kind of twinkling gem set into it. Like all such shows when done well you want to be back there, seeing the palace, sadly burnt but as we shall shortly see, the burning had unexpected benefits.
Cuneiform. Pretty much the first writing system in the world, backbone of the Assyrian empire and one of their major contributions to the culture of the world. Several artifacts of this survive. I have already shown you the multi-sided writing columns, but they wrote more commonly on wax and on clay. Wax for notes and learning show in this quite beautiful textured wax tablet, the wax now gone. Next to it these tiny detailed clay letters, packed with information.
In an inspired move the curators presented this bookshelf of written artifacts. This towering rows of soft yellow writing. As a bibliophile I almost salivated at the sight of this. Letters, prayers, orders, curses and all sorts of other things. The writing in clay made these a well preserved form of literature. The Assyrian's air dried their clay tablets. When the Babylonians burnt down Nineveh the caused the clay to be fired, thus making them even more durable. The serendipity of history.
One of the recurring issues with displaying historical artifacts, particularly decorations like tablet and statues is that often they were painted and other than faint glimmers, those paints have disappeared. . Of course you can't repaint them. One solution is to do a mock up. The other more brilliant solution that the curators of this show have done is to project what they think the original colours to be onto the work, so you have without (above left) and then with (above right). Thus you can see the original in its current state and near to its original state. It is a very smart idea and hats off to whoever thought of it. I hope to see more of this.
Lots of these tablets are story boards, usually of battles. You can just about work out what's going on for yourself, and there is a description to help. But in another stroke of genius elements of what is happening are recounted and the relevant part of this hugely complex and violent battle scene are highlighted. Smart right? I thought so. Again more please. Superb carving this vainglorious celebration of one of Ashurbanipal's victories.
There is much more than this, and I found this an excellent and inspiring show. On the way out there is a little display case (above) which invites you to learn Cuneiform and help in the translating and assembling the giant never-ending puzzle of various shards and pieces. Its tempting isn't it. One can see oneself on a lazy Sunday afternoon, sitting in the garden, translating fragment of Cuneiform and realising that they match a piece translated by another person doing the same in an Argentinian suburb, before of course you are rudely interrupted by Piorot investigating a murder.
Thus inspired I was fired into the bookshop and bought many things. This shop caused me to remember that I know someone who does exactly that, Gwendolyn Leick (below) is a member of the Hackney Weightlifting Club, where my wife coaches.
But now some about me. I have two shows going on at the moment. I know two. I have one featuring still life called Flowers and Rocks (below left) at Beans Love Greens in Shoreditch. I am also back at the Indo Bar (where I have exhibited before) with one painting in their Christmas show (below right) which is on until the new year. Go see them, buy one, make me rich!
William John Mackenzie
I am an artist with a specialism in landscapes and still life. My contact details are here.