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Feb 2011 Journal

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Art notes (review)

The Ben Uri has announced new acquisitions with the help of private and public funds. They include Hans Feibusch’s dramatic gouache The Almighty and George Grosz’s highly graphic Interrogation, which depicts a man being tortured by Nazis. Both share a fearsome authenticity.

Through audio-visual material, the gallery also took its largely hidden collection to three London schools in a pilot Holocaust Education project, Looking Forward, Looking Back, supported by the London Museums Hub and the Museum of London. Artist Heather Libson helped the students connect with the Holocaust through their own self-portraits in chalk pastels to convey moments of terror and disbelief. The response to the project is described by both pupils and teachers as overwhelmingly positive. One painted ribbons in the sky and says – ‘[I]t’s there stained in the sky for everyone to see.’ Another illustrates shards of glass ‘representing the cracks in humanity I feel the Holocaust has created.’

Many ancient cultures are defined by their death cults. The Egyptians believed that life and death were part of the same cycle, created by the sun god Ra’s travels across the sky by day and night. The British Museum’s current exhibition, Journey through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, shows mummies, painted coffins, gilded masks, amulets, jewellery, small sculptures and the familiar illustrations of handsome black-haired men and women in their static poses. These belie the vitality of the tomb paintings, which suggest more life than death.

In ancient Egypt members of the upper classes would commission a book of the dead on papyri in which the various gods were asked to intercede on their behalf. These papyri, perfectly preserved in the desert sands, glow literally with eternal life. In fact, many artefacts on show first appeared over 7,000 years ago. They show the dead rowing through a field of reeds. But the Elysian fields and rivers of the netherworld were not plain sailing. Wild beasts, demigods and demons were destined to waylay the time traveller: falcons, snakes, baboons, hippos and other creatures were invested with mythic powers. And in the hall of judgement known as the hall of the two truths, they had to face a terrifying ritual: the weighing of the heart, which determined the soul’s future - condemned to destruction by the terrifying Devourer, a hybrid of crocodile, lion and hippo, or safe passage to the realm of the sun god Ra or Osiris, ruler of the netherworld.

Pyramid texts are one of the earliest collections of religious writings provided for the dead kings and they eventually became available to other royal members, noblemen and people of high status. They were inscribed on the tomb walls as spells or incantations. The paintings which show the passage to Nirvana or damnation are gorgeous; they reflect what was familiar to the Egyptians - the lush and fertile Nile valley - and this romantic view probably influenced the Elysian fields of Greek myth. But such necromancy was the preserve only of the wealthy - how poorer people negotiated their pathways to life eternal, heaven only knows!


The Ben Uri has announced new acquisitions with the help of private and public funds. They include Hans Feibusch’s dramatic gouache The Almighty and George Grosz’s highly graphic Interrogation, which depicts a man being tortured by Nazis. Both share a fearsome authenticity.

Through audio-visual material, the gallery also took its largely hidden collection to three London schools in a pilot Holocaust Education project, Looking Forward, Looking Back, supported by the London Museums Hub and the Museum of London. Artist Heather Libson helped the students connect with the Holocaust through their own self-portraits in chalk pastels to convey moments of terror and disbelief. The response to the project is described by both pupils and teachers as overwhelmingly positive. One painted ribbons in the sky and says – ‘[I]t’s there stained in the sky for everyone to see.’ Another illustrates shards of glass ‘representing the cracks in humanity I feel the Holocaust has created.’

Many ancient cultures are defined by their death cults. The Egyptians believed that life and death were part of the same cycle, created by the sun god Ra’s travels across the sky by day and night. The British Museum’s current exhibition, Journey through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, shows mummies, painted coffins, gilded masks, amulets, jewellery, small sculptures and the familiar illustrations of handsome black-haired men and women in their static poses. These belie the vitality of the tomb paintings, which suggest more life than death.

In ancient Egypt members of the upper classes would commission a book of the dead on papyri in which the various gods were asked to intercede on their behalf. These papyri, perfectly preserved in the desert sands, glow literally with eternal life. In fact, many artefacts on show first appeared over 7,000 years ago. They show the dead rowing through a field of reeds. But the Elysian fields and rivers of the netherworld were not plain sailing. Wild beasts, demigods and demons were destined to waylay the time traveller: falcons, snakes, baboons, hippos and other creatures were invested with mythic powers. And in the hall of judgement known as the hall of the two truths, they had to face a terrifying ritual: the weighing of the heart, which determined the soul’s future - condemned to destruction by the terrifying Devourer, a hybrid of crocodile, lion and hippo, or safe passage to the realm of the sun god Ra or Osiris, ruler of the netherworld.

Pyramid texts are one of the earliest collections of religious writings provided for the dead kings and they eventually became available to other royal members, noblemen and people of high status. They were inscribed on the tomb walls as spells or incantations. The paintings which show the passage to Nirvana or damnation are gorgeous; they reflect what was familiar to the Egyptians - the lush and fertile Nile valley - and this romantic view probably influenced the Elysian fields of Greek myth. But such necromancy was the preserve only of the wealthy - how poorer people negotiated their pathways to life eternal, heaven only knows!



previous article:Business as usual
next article:Hidden lives (review)