Names and lists

The masthead of this blog proclaims ‘Taxonomy Domine’, and regular readers will have noticed that I seem to adhere to the Foucauldian notion that taxonomy is not a process of gathering together but of excluding. It’s always in my mind, because it is part of the process we employ when we marginalise something – yes, that’s another of my hobby horses, marginalisation, and you will have noticed that I have a slightly different take on that too from what is currently fashionable. This all came to my mind this week as I have been reading, and could not put down, Anne Youngson’s debut novel Meet Me at the Museum. The novel features the letters between a farmer’s wife in East Anglia and the curator of a Danish museum, a correspondence which starts from a mutual interest in the ‘Tollund Man’. Two passages struck me and have stayed in my memory. I will quote them below, without further commentary – I am sure the author will not mind. The first is from a letter written by Anders, the curator, and describes a day out with his daughter; the second by Tina, the farmer’s wife, and tours a room in her farmhouse.



….When I suggested going to the Botanical Garden, I could see Karin hesitating […] before she agreed. I was thinking of the unfurling fronds of ferns, but of course it is the wrong time of year for that. I had not understood how much else there would be to see and smell. The place was a surprise for us both. We had no idea what we were looking at, which, as you know, makes me uneasy. I like to be able to name things and I knew the names of nothing in the garden. Like the best museums, though, there were labels, full of information. Almost too much information. Each label told me what family the plant belonged to, and I started to compare one plant of the rosaceae family with another, quite dissimilar plant, and to speculate on what aspects of their taxonomy led to them being classified in the same family. Karin told me to stop doing this, because the plants were beautiful and what did it matter? But then she, too, became impatient when something she liked appeared to have no name. You see, I told her, names do matter.
….‘Names, yes,’ she said, ‘Otherwise I would have to say “the small tree with the soft green leaves and lovely scented dark red and white flowers”.’
….We came across someone working in the garden who told us this was a Clerodendrum trichotomum var fargesii. He wrote it down for me. What is the family? I asked, and he told me there was some disagreement about that.

* * *

….If I were to take one of the rooms in our house and make a list of all the furniture and the objects in it, I would need a spreadsheet. The task would only be manageable if I could put them into categories first – the useful and used; the useful but not used; ornaments, whole; ornaments, broken; items belonging elsewhere; random.
….Having written this list of categories, I went through to a room we call the parlour. This is a pretentious word for it, but it has been known as that by previous generations and so it still is. This is the room where we sit, in the evening, where we entertain friends. It is warm in the winter and cool in the summer and I chose this room because it is the most formal and therefore the least cluttered. As soon as I was in it, with my list, I realised I could not begin to make order out of chaos with the categories I had invented. This must be making you smile, you who are the master of cataloguing, sorting, sifting, putting item a) with item b) into a family. I looked first at a green glass vase. I do not use it to put flowers in it, though I could have if I bothered to grow and pick them for the purpose of brightening up the house, but also because it is cracked and the water seeps out. Is this ‘useful but not used’ or is it ‘ornaments, broken’? I think perhaps I should begin with two headings: ‘Broken’ and ‘Whole’ and then have sub categories underneath. I am happy that the vase would then slot neatly into ‘Broken – useful but not used’. There again, it is only in the parlour because I like it. The green is a pretty green and the shape is elegant. So is it, after all ‘Broken – ornament’?
….How do you do your job? I’m looking at a bootlace. Unused. Just the one, left behind by someone who has brought a packet of two new laces into the parlour to replace a broken lace, and did not bother to remove the one he did not need. I imagine I will have picked up and thrown out the remains of the old one in my passes through the room with a duster and a vacuum cleaner, but the unused bootlace cannot be thrown out. It needs to be picked up and taken back to the drawer in the scullery where anything to do with shoes is kept. I could pick it up now, but then I would have to go through the hall, along a corridor, across the kitchen and down some steps to the scullery, and it seems a lot of time and effort for one bootlace. If I look around I can see other things that need to be picked up and carried to where they ought to be, and put away: a pair of gloves, an elastic bandage, a biscuit barrel (empty), a penknife, two golf tees. None of these belongs in the scullery. If I were to carry them all at once (for which I would first need to fetch a basket or bag) I would have to travel through every room on the ground floor, up the stairs to the first floor and again to the second floor and finally out to the farm office in the yard, in order to put them all back where they belong. Why bother?


book details:
Anne Youngson. Meet Me at the Museum. Doubleday, 2018. pp.206. ISBN 9780857525512 (Hardback), £12.99.

C is for ‘Corinth’

Lovis Corinth. Ariadne auf Naxos. 1913.

There exists a photograph of Lovis Corinth dressed fantastically as Dionysus, a wreath of leaves and grapes around his head and a precariously-tilted goblet in his right hand. It was his right hand that was paralysed by a stroke – I don’t know when he suffered that stroke, relative to the date of the photograph, but it certainly was before he executed this painting, having forced himself to paint left-handed. The photograph comes down to us, therefore, as a touch of self-mockery, as though Corinth is saying that with the stroke he has been touched by the ritual madness of the god.

Although impatient with expressionism, his paintings under this stress had become more expressionistic. This painting, which compresses the Theseus-Ariadne-Dionysus story into a single tableau, is full of chaotic vigour, Corinth pouring out his personal frustration at his handicap but at the same time glorifying in the intensity of expression it gives him.

Does Corinth work himself into this picture? The god’s wreath is remarkably like the one in the photo, and the god himself is the only figure in the painting to retain his composure, presiding over the wild chase rather than leading it. He has the deadpan expression that typifies many of Corinth’s self-portraits, but with a hint of supercilious pride as he glances sideways at Theseus. Compare that with the haughtiness of Corinth’s final self-portrait before his stroke, in the guise of an armoured standard bearer.

The man-of-arms in the painting is, of course, Theseus, but no longer standing proud hefting a standard. Instead he is caught about to rise, the head of the sleeping Ariadne still on his lap, a look of rage and fear on his face. He is shouting at the god, “Damn it! You’re too early!” He has not yet abandoned Ariadne, to whom he had sworn eternal love, and to which oath he was to prove false. His martial vainglory – the pride of the standard bearer – is shown by the exaggerated crest on his Hellenic helmet, It’s almost a coxcomb! Is his rage and fear Corinth’s at having to battle a disability?

The god’s chariot is drawn by a tiger and a leopard, led – restrained? – by a boy child, standing unashamedly naked, and a dancing maiden, her chiton knotted around her waist. Other Dionysiacs struggle up the dune, from the beach, or straggle as they emerge from the sea-mist in an arc to land on the beach. Is Corinth any one of them? The sleeping Ariadne, unaware? Is he in the whole picture? This melding of classicism -> impressionism -> post impressionism -> expressionism is a thing of the moment. It actually repays not gazing at, not searching for details in, but rather allowing it to lead out randomly associated thoughts and reactions in the viewer.

Who owns the Stones of Callanish?

Recently Al Jazeera ran an item about a request to the British Museum by Nigeria for return of the Benin Bronzes being met with an offer of a loan. That set me thinking once again about an issue I first came across as an undergraduate. The following piece has turned out to be rather long, more than 3,600 words not including endnotes and references; nevertheless even at that length it cannot do justice to the questions it raises, and it leaves a lot not covered. Please bear with me.

The story of the Benin Bronzes.

In 1885 a British protectorate was established along the coast of what is now Nigeria – a ‘protectorate’ being, in simple terms, a territory that retains an appreciable amount of internal autonomy whilst accepting the authority of another power in external matters and accepting its ‘protection’, a system known in the days of the British Empire as ‘indirect rule’. In 1892 the protectorate was extended, by treaty with the Oba (king), to include the inland Edo kingdom of Benin. In 1897, however, at the urging of British traders who found that the Oba was exercising what were, to them, excessively tight controls on trade, a large but lightly-armed British force under Acting Consul-General James Phillips set out for Benin City. It’s approach was detected and it was ambushed, most of its number being killed, including Phillips. The next force, led by Commander R.H.S. Bacon and conceived as a punitive expedition, was soon dispatched, and after fierce fighting captured the city. Within two or three years of this, the Oba had been deposed and the territory absorbed into the British Empire. Classic imperialist strong-arm tactics, no surprise there.

Benin 17b Idia
Unknown artist, Commemorative head of Queen Idia, Benin 16c. British Museum.

After the capture of Benin City, a large number of artefacts were removed, including almost all of the sculpted brass plaques and other objects which would become known as the ‘Benin Bronzes’. Made by the ‘lost wax’ method, these artefacts were and are of exquisite design. These were eventually dispersed to museums in Britain, Austria, Germany, the United States, and the Netherlands. The British Museum retained seven hundred of them. In the 21c the largest collections are held in the British Museum, the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, and in museums in Nigeria, notably the Nigerian National Museum in Lagos.

What we know about Benin City in the period around the 1897 raid, we know almost exclusively from printed British accounts. One outstanding feature, mentioned more than once with the writer’s revulsion, is a terrain littered with corpses; firstly from Henry Lionel Gallwey:

At present the whole Benin country is, and has been for hundreds of years, steeped in Fetish. The Town of Ubini might well be called ‘The City of Skulls’ – I saw no less than four crucified victims during my few days there in addition to numerous corpses – some mutilated fearfully – which were strewn about in the most public places. The rule appears to be one of Terror […]
(“Report”, 348)

Just before reaching [Benin City] we had to pass through rather an unpleasant half mile of fairly open country. We presumed it was the place where all criminals’ bodies were deposited. The path was strewn on both sides with dead bodies in every stage of decomposition; skulls grinned at you from every direction […]
(“Journeys”, 128)

And then from R.H. Bacon:

The one lasting remembrance of Benin in my mind is its smells. Crucifixions, human sacrifices, and every horror the eye could get accustomed to, to a large extent, but the smells no white man’s internal economy could stand.

Bacon records finding a cache of the Bronzes in a building he took to be one of a series of storehouses:

The storehouses contained chiefly cheap rubbish, such as glass walking sticks, old uniforms, absurd umbrellas, and the usual cheap finery that traders use to tickle the fancy of the natives. But buried in the dirt of ages, in one house, were several hundred unique bronze plaques, suggestive of almost Egyptian design, but of really superb casting. Castings of wonderful delicacy of detail […].

Both Gallwey and Bacon, equally from the corpse-terrain and the fact that neither saw any evidence of the artisanship that produced the Bronzes, assumed that the Kingdom of Benin was in a wholly decadent and ‘savage’ state:

The Benin people at one time had the reputation of being great […] workers in metals. They undoubtedly practice these industries now, though we saw nothing of the kind going on during our few days in the place. We saw, however, many specimens of brass ware of very clever workmanship. (“Journeys” 130)

Beyond one blacksmith’s shop there was little sign of any native industry […] (Bacon 97)

Charles H. Read, Keeper of the Department of British and Mediaeval Antiquities and Ethnography at the British Museum, and his Senior Assistant Ormonde Maddock Dalton, writing shortly after the 1897 raid concur about the kingdom’s decadence, said: “At the time when Benin first became known to Europeans it was more powerful and prosperous than at any later period” (9, my emphasis). Portuguese adventurers had first visited at the end of the 15c, and experts subsequently dated a large number of the Bronzes to the 16c. Read and Dalton, however, place a different emphasis on the state in which the Bronzes were found, and display a level of erudition that Bacon did not have, notwithstanding his being the man on the spot:

We may safely infer, from the parallel practice at Dahome, and indeed in many distant parts of the world, that when a king died his house was shut up and never used again. This is almost necessitated by the West African practice of burying the dead man beneath the floor of his house, in which are also placed objects which he bused and valued during his life. This last point has an especial interest for us here on account of the fact […] that many of the finer bronze panels were found heaped together in a disused building in the king’s compound. (ibid.)

Even their erudition, however, did not mean a whole understanding of what was to be seen at Benin City. Read and Dalton’s book is full of descriptions of the hierarchal sociology and the religions of peoples of the Niger region, as recorded in the 19c. Did Bacon regard the removal of the Bronzes as, somehow, a work of rescue from the oblivion of an abandoned ‘storehouse’ or merely the spoils of war? Did Read and Dalton regard their retention by the museums of the ‘civilised’ North-Western Quadrant to be an act of preservation and conservation? The charnel-house terrain’s descriptions will even shock readers who are more culturally aware, by today’s standards; who knows what was really going on, and whether there was some stern social lesson or profound ritual function, that we do not know and could not understand if we did, involved in the display of corpses? In Benin, history and custom was not recorded in any way we consider orthodox.

How about the Elgin Marbles?

Benin 8 Thos Bruce 7th Earl Elgin
Thos. Bruce, 7th Earl Elgin.

I have very deliberately used the word “removal” so far throughout this article, with reference to the Benin Bronzes. There exists a very sharp binary debate in the world today, in the topic of artefacts housed remote from where they originally stood. I differentiate the two elements of this binary thus: conservation versus repatriation, or perhaps better expressed as legal title versus moral entitlement. I dare say that until I brought this matter up, some readers may have been itching to get to the comments field in order to castigate me for not saying ‘plunder’ or ‘loot’ instead of ‘removal’ – those who did not simply scroll down without waiting. To some – to many – the binary collapses into a clear and obvious singularity, to argue against which is unacceptable, unthinkable. Sarah Cascone in Artnews in 2014 nails her colours to the mast with this headline: “Benin Bronzes looted by the British Returned to Nigeria.” No doubt when Thomas Bruce uplifted the sculptured freeze from the Parthenon in Athens he was equally sure that he was rescuing from more than a millennium of Byzantine Orthodox Christianity and a few centuries of Turkish suzerainty, cultural items of which he, as a classically-educated man, bred up on ancient Greek and Latin at Westminster and Harrow Schools, at St. Andrews University and the Sorbonne, was the rightful cultural inheritor![1]

To the person who speaks for moral entitlement the issue is blindingly simple: no artefact removed from its original location – from its cultural history, as it were – has been obtained legitimately, and that’s that. It is ipso facto loot. The person who speaks for legal title relies on a multifaceted argument, often based on matters such as conservation[2], danger, footfall, and acquired cultural history. To replace every cultural object in its original setting would mean the end of museums worldwide, runs the argument, and with that the end of the conservation expertise that goes with those institutions, it being unlikely that such expertise would be fostered uniformly elsewhere. The destruction of Palmyra and the Buddhas of Bamiyan signals that the political climate of the world is not conducive to large-scale translocation, and the level of pollution in cities such as Athens would endanger outdoor installations of monumental works. A greater number of people visit the British Museum, thereby accessing its collections, than visit the original locations, and, as Professor J.H. Merryman of Stanford University says, “the Elgin Marbles have been in England since 1821 and in that time have become a part of the British cultural heritage” (6).[3] The advocates of legal title are often accused of sophistry, the advocates of moral entitlement of oversimplification.[4]

I headed this article “Who owns the Stones of Callanish?” but so far I have only talked about the Benin Bronzes and the Elgin Marbles.

For a moment or two I’m going to consider taxonomy. I have three distinct items – why am I taking them together? After all, they are very different. One was acquired by violence, one was acquired by trickery, and one stands where it has always stood. Two have been dispersed, one is complete. By looking at them that way, all we are doing is thinking of reasons for exclusion (which is actually what taxonomy is all about, much as we would like to think it is about grouping like with like). So let’s make an effort to see what binds them.

They are all collections rather than a single item.

They are all have a presence in Britain.

I have seen all of them.[5]

The other factor by which I want to group them together is that of cultural disjunction. Starting with the Bronzes, then. The accounts of and roughly contemporaneous with the 1897 raid have their limitations, inasmuch as they are made with varying degrees of understanding and from the point of view of assumed cultural and probably also assumed racial superiority. However, they suggest at the very least a culture that has decayed from its height of some four centuries previous. The Kingdom of Benin no longer exists, although the Edo people certainly do, the territory having been swallowed up in the colonial fiction and subsequent independent establishment of Nigeria. Even in a specifically national museum there is still a distance between the culture that produced them and “buried” them, and the culture that displays them. The cultural disjunction between early 19c Greece and the classical city-state of Athens – the possible mind set of Lord Elgin – can be argued, but again the same can be said for the display in Athens in sight of the Parthenon as for the display in the British Museum.[6]

Benin 5 Callanish
The Standing Stones at Callanish, Isle of Lewis.

The standing stones of Callanish exist, undisturbed as far as we can tell, where they have always stood. Who owns them? “You do!” says someone, noting that I am a Scot by citizenship and that the Callanish stone complex is in Scotland. Here, surely, legal title and moral entitlement dovetail? I think not. The stones are on privately-owned land, though it has proved difficult to  find the name of the owner(s), not that this is directly relevant. It at least establishes that I, even as a Scot, have no legal title to the stones. The site is managed by Historic Environment Scotland, an executive, non-departmental body with charitable status, with a visitor centre operated by Urras Nan Tursachan (The Standing Stones Trust). The stones are thought to date to the late Neolithic era, with use that probably continued into the Bronze Age. Interpretation of their construction and purpose is elusive and speculative; they certainly have no direct  relevance for me in the 21c. In the more recent past, folklore has the stones as petrified giants who would not convert to Christianity, so that in the 17c their handed-down name was ‘fir bhrèige’ (‘false men’), or that on midsummer morning a being known as ‘the Shining One’ walks down the avenue of stones, his coming heralded by the call of the cuckoo; but these are not my legends, and my citizenship of Scotland can’t make them mine. As for me, so for most Scots, so even when something remains right where it always was, there is no guarantee of a meaningful cultural connection.

So what can any of us – Gael, Scot, Greek, Edo, or whatever – be said to ‘own’?

In order to break out of this binary bind, this unsquareable circle, this irreconcilable debate, we need to look at the whole concept of ‘ownership’. I ask again: what can any of us ‘own’? Nothing physical can ever be ours, no matter how we acquire it, no matter if we pay for it; even if its fashioning post-dates our birth, its molecules, atoms, debatable particles existed before us, and even if it is smashed at our death or cremated with us, those particles will exist when we are gone. Our ‘things’ are on loan to us, and we are transient. None of us can truly own the Benin Bronzes, the Elgin Marbles, or the stones of Callanish, whoever we are and wherever we place them.

Kelvingrove head of Oba 1
Unknown artist. The head of an Oba, Benin, poss. 17c. Kelvingrove Museum.

The only thing that is truly ours is what we experience directly, moment by moment. That much is ours, no matter that it is intangible. Out of the three sets of artefacts mentioned in this article, the one I have seen most recently has been the small group of Benin Bronzes housed at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow. I went to the museum, a few years ago, specifically to look at these because I had been studying the account of the forcible annexation of Benin, the removal of artefacts from the sacked city, the effect of these artefacts on the consciousness of people of the North-West Quadrant, and the modern issues of their location and ‘ownership’. I stood and looked at them, marveling at their beauty and sophistication, my thoughts wandering to what I knew of the 1897 raid and from there in a thousand directions. It mattered not at all, just at that moment, how coloured my thoughts were by my opinion  about where these items should be; what mattered was the experience. Consider this thought by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a description of standing in front of what might be his old school desk:

[…] this table bears traces of my past life, for I have carved my initials on it and spilt ink on it. But these traces in themselves do not refer to the past; they are present; and in so far as I find in them signs of some ‘previous’ event, it is because I derive my sense of the past from elsewhere, because I carry this particular significance within myself.
(Merleau-Ponty 413, my emphasis)

This immediacy, this importation will-I-nill-I of significance, does not alter, whether I am in Kelvingrove, the BM, Lagos, or able by time-travel to peek into the burial chamber of a dead Oba. What I own is that moment of experience.

What does this moment of experience have to do with art?

This blog deals with literature, art, and so on, so there must be some kind of tie-in.

Benin 20 Plaque and Kirchner

When I was an undergraduate, one issue we were guided to look at was the way in which artists of the North-West Quadrant misinterpreted items of African art, such as the Benin Bronzes, ignoring or failing to see their sophistication and searching instead for some kind of ‘primitive’ energy. One assignment required us to look at a photograph of a 17c Benin plaque housed in the Staatliche Museum für Völkerkunde in Dresden and to compare it with a 1911 sketch of the same object by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, an artist of the German Expressionist movement (see the illustration above). The assignment said “[…] outline the ways in which Kirchner alters his original model from Benin to make it look more primitive.” The supposition was that we were to show what we had learnt about European modernist misconceptions about African art. I decided, in answering, to challenge the premise of the question[7]. Here, slightly edited, is what I wrote:

This question’s basic premise – that Kirchner specifically ‘altered’ the original as a modernist response to ‘primitive’ art (Wood, 68) – is somewhat open to challenge. That there are profound differences between the two objects is undeniable, as is that one was drawn from the other; but does that really constitute ‘alteration’? It is worth considering the following differences: firstly in the cultural context of each, secondly in their physical nature, and thirdly the similarities and differences of detail.

The plaque was created by Benin craftsmen in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, and had a specific purpose within the royal culture of Benin (Woods, 15; O. J. Eboreime quoted in Wood, 85-6). The sketch is by an early twentieth-century German artist, and one of only a handful of drawings by him of a Benin artifact (Catalogue, 77); although Kirchner’s life-studies of Black European nudes did try to capture a ‘primitive’ expression (Perry, 6), his Benin sketches are isolated examples of any direct African influence in his work. Given the differences in cultural context of each, it might be more accurate to say that they had entirely different starting-points, rather than one being an alteration of the other.

Next, the Benin original is a three-dimensional, bas-relief casting in a copper-alloy, and is the product of a lengthy and careful process (Woods, 6). The German object is a two-dimensional drawing in pencil on paper. Kirchner said of his own drawings: “The important thing about my drawing is its rapidity” (Ketterer, 92). Their method of execution, including the time taken and their materials and thus their basic physical nature, is different.

The basic composition of each object is the same, although the obvious differences are in the detail. The probable speed with which the sketch was executed has contributed to a distortion of certain features, for example the now grimacing faces, the position of the central figure’s feet, and the position of the partial figure top right. Kirchner has also added detail to each bottom corner, where the original has been broken. One clear omission is the partial figure top left; another is the central figure’s cross-belts. Close inspection of the plaque reveals small-scale, sophisticated decoration throughout; this is entirely missing from the sketch, perhaps most clearly in the hurried lines making up the central figure’s necklace, in the lack of decoration on all figures’ dress and accoutrements, and in the entire background. There has been an attempt to convey a three-dimensional effect, most noticeably in the dark shading under the arm of the figure on the right, but this has been almost totally abandoned in the rest of the drawing.

In conclusion, it might be more appropriate to talk about ‘alteration’ where two works which share more basic similarities. The many substantial differences evidenced above are significant, and might support in part the view that Kirchner’s drawing constitutes alteration in search of the modernists’ notion of ‘primitivism’.

In the end, I had to ‘wimp out’ and concede the point that the lesson was supposed to convey. New undergraduates are not supposed to display too much independent critical thought, I quickly learned, and even though I was being a bit of a renegade that is still very clearly a new undergraduate’s answer. Had I been answering the same question today, I would have been quicker to point out that the speed of Kirchner’s sketches could have meant an attachment of the artistic endeavor to the experience of the moment, and thus he was being true to that rather than false to the ‘original’ (the plaque). But my main point is that Kirchner ‘owned’ only the moment and its immediate experience; he does not even ‘own’ the sketch any more!

However, the experience was possible – and this shocking fact needs to be reiterated before it submerges is a sea of art criticism and phenomenology – because of the 1897 Benin raid. Simplistically, because we had Bacon we have Kirchner.

So what can we do about it? What can we do about anything?

History can’t be ‘fixed’.

The wrongs of history, even with the best will in the world, cannot be righted.

I’m sorry, this article isn’t really about Callanish after all. It is much more about the Benin Bronzes. But this much is true: in the 21c, on the one hand the world is getting smaller, and on the other the pettiness of nationalism and ethnism is on the rise again. This is a dangerous time for using artefacts as cultural footballs in a binary game. No matter what we do with the Benin Bronzes, whether they are on display in London, or Lagos, or Ulaan Bataar, whether we build a special museum right smack dab where the royal palace was, whether we reconstruct the sealed house of a dead Oba and leave them in there unseen, the disjunction has taken place and cannot be fixed.

At this point I shall refuse to venture a practical answer. If there is one, it will only become obvious if and when we all can free out minds from the shackles of the binary debate, from the irreconcilable “Here I stand, I can do no other” of legal title versus moral entitlement. Maybe the lesson about the ‘ownership’ of experience will help. I don’t know.

Good luck!


[1] Actually, originally Lord Elgin originally had no intention of removing ancient marbles from Athens. The decision to remove from their position on the Parthenon and ship to England one half of the total frieze was taken by Philip Hunt, Elgin’s chaplain and representative in Athens. The terms of the agreement with the Ottoman Governor of Athens specified to “fix scaffolding round the ancient Temple of the Idols […]and to mould the ornamental sculpture and visible figures thereon in plaster and gypsum […] to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon” (I am not sure of the precise reference at present, but will insert it in due course, if I find it). Hunt persuaded the Governor to interpret that last sentence very liberally! Back in England, a parliamentary committee, having vindicated Elgin’s behaviour, authorized the purchase of the marbles by the State.

[2] Janet L. Schrenk, an academic of distinguished standing with a PhD in inorganic chemistry, makes the following observation about the Benin Bronzes:

The objects were probably not buried but had accumulated dirt while in the building. This may have been the house and burial chamber of an oba, and the objects closely associated with his reign […] This could account for the observation of heavily corroded surfaces on some objects, generally in large museum collections established immediately after the punitive expedition and thus less likely to have been heavily cleaned […] It is likely that at least some of the objects had a cuprite layer on their outer surfaces at the time they were removed from Nigeria.

Several points here are interesting. Firstly in the way she assumes that the phrase “buried in the dirt of ages” (Bacon 91) implies active burial rather than being passive to the fall of dust and detritus over time. Secondly, her concern is purely with the physical condition of the Bronzes; that is quite in keeping with the remit of the book to which she is contributing, of course, but nevertheless it illustrates perfectly the position that prioritises conservation.

It is also interesting to note that the condition of the Elgin Marbles has deteriorated during their sojourn in the BM, partly due to attempts at cleaning and conservation. Sometimes it must seem like a lose-lose situation!

[3] Though how he quite reconciles that with his citation of the 1954 Hague Convention’s principle that any cultural property is “the cultural heritage of all” is another matter (Merryman 9). His whole article is well worth reading, by the way.

[4] Take Sarah Cascone’s headline. Apart from the sweeping synecdoche of “The British” coming close to dumping guilt on a whole nationality, she says of the translocated artefacts that they have been “Returned to Nigeria.” Nigeria – a territorial delineation created by the colonial/imperial power, did not exist until 1914, seventeen years after the notorious raid. It became an independent, multiethnic state, with Edo people one of its minorities, in 1960. Thus any “return” is, arguably, little more than a geographical matter, and not a cultural one.

[5] As regards the Benin Bronzes, I have specifically and recently seen the small number displayed at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow. Although I have been to the British Museum that was many decades ago; I can remember most distinctly seeing the Marbles but I can’t remember seeing the Bronzes.

[6] I do not, however, believe in the doctrine of the ‘killer argument’!

[7] I don’t say this to show ‘clever’ I am, but merely to illustrate that it is possible to look at things from a totally different critical position. I did pass the assignment, as it happens.


Works cited:

Bacon, Reginald Hugh Spencer. Benin, City of Blood. BiblioLife, 2013.

(Text also available online at

Cascone, Sarah. “Benin Bronzes looted by the British Returned to

Nigeria.” Artnewsonline, 23rdJune 2014. Accessed 7thDecember 2018.

Catalogue of the Kirchner Museum, Davos, Kirchner Museum, 1992.

Gallwey, Henry Lionel. “Journeys in the Benin Country.” The

Geographical Journal, vol.1 No.2, 1893, pp.122-130. Accessed 7thDecember 2018.

—. “Report on visit to Ubini (Benin City) the capital of the Benin

Country.” Benin and the Europeans, 1485-1897, by Alan

Ryder. Longmans, 1969, pp.344-348.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by

Colin Smith. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962.

Ketterer, Roman Norbert. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Drawings and Pastels,

Alpine Fine Arts Collections, 1982.

Merryman, John Henry. “Whither the Elgin Marbles?” online,

Washington University in St. Louis. Accessed 7thDecember 2018.

Perry, Gill. “Primitivism and the ‘Modern’.” Primitivism, Cubism,

Abstraction: The early Twentieth Century, eds. Charles

Harrison & Francis Frascina, Yale UP, 1993, pp.3-86.

Read, Charles Hercules, & Ormonde Maddock Dalton. Antiquities from

the City of Benin and Other Parts of West Africa in the British

Museum. British Museum, 1899. Accessed

7thDecember 2018.

Janet L. Schrenk. “The Royal Art of Benin: Surfaces, Past and Present.”

Ancient & Historic Metals: Conservation and Scientific Research,

eds. David A Scott, Jerry Podany, Brian B. Considine. J. Paul Getty

Trust, 1994, pp.51-62

Wood, Paul. “The Benin Bronzes and Modern Art.” Cultural Encounters,

ed. Richard Danson Brown, The Open University, 2008, pp.58-78.

Woods, Kim. “The Art of Benin.” Cultural Encounters, ed. Richard Danson

Brown, The Open University, 2008, pp.4-15.

James Tait Black, W.G. Sebald, Kraftwerk, and George Fox

June and Vivek
Photo © The Herald

This item is an excursus from my normal posts.

If you have not heard of the James Tait Black Memorial Prizes for Literature that is probably because they don’t have corporate sponsors, and therefore their annual award is not accompanied by media fanfares. However, they form the UK’s most venerable event of literary prize-giving, are entirely academic based, and are free from any commercial pressure. First awarded in 1919, the prizes are in fiction, biography, and drama (that category was added in 2012), and are judged by the Professor of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, assisted by a team of postgraduate students.

The JTB Prizes are not a lightweight matter, nor are they awarded to lightweight writers. Four writers who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature won earlier in their careers, and names on the honour roll include D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, Muriel Spark, William Golding, J.G. Ballard, Salman Rushdie, and many other notable authors.

The photo at the head of this post shows two colleagues of mine, June Louise Laurenson, leading postgraduate reader for biography, and Vivek Santayana, postgraduate reader for fiction, both of whom are now deeply involved in the process of selecting the shortlist. June’s own research field is space and place in the works of Anthony Powell, and Vivek’s is the politics of style in the late works of Nadine Gordimer (a former JTB winner). I am in two minds whether I envy their involvement in the Prizes, given the pressure of work in their PhD candidacy!

The site for the James Tait Black Memorial Prizes is here.


Meanwhile, some personal news: in addition to independent research, I have started work on a couple of projects. Firstly my recent dissertation (“Time And Relative Dimensions In Sebald: Time, space, and distance as phenomena, in the documentary fiction of W.G. Sebald”) has just been read by no less a person than Dr. Uwe Schütte, Reader in German at Aston University, an acknowledged expert on Sebald, who was his PhD supervisor. Dr. Schütte made some encouraging remarks, as a result of which I will be attempting to draft a cut-down version of the dissertation as an article for a suitable journal.

It turns out, by the way, that he and I share an interest in veteran German pioneers of electronica, Kraftwerk.

Secondly there is another article in the offing, this time in collaboration with a long-time friend and colleague Constance Tonge, PhD candidate at the University of Newcastle, and the person who is single-handedly responsible for my interest in phenomenology. Our subject matter will be a phenomenological approach to the Journal of 17c evangelist George Fox.

Next time, back to more serious posting and less chit-chat!

B is for ‘Balthus’

Balthus sleeping girl

I started with Auerbach and I’ve moved on to Balthus. I didn’t announce an artistic alphabet, but I might just let it continue. Neither did I announce a connection with W.G. Sebald for every letter of the alphabet, and I don’t intend to seek one; but it just so happens that there is a tenuous one with Balthus.

At the head of this post is Balthus’s Sleeping Girl from 1943. His philosophy of art was that it is there to be looked at, not written about – his famous telegram to the Tate Gallery in 1968 made that all too plain – but writing about art is precisely what we in academia do. It is perversely what we do, and to hell with what Balthus wants! What else can we do, in the face of a style of painting that relied on the figurative when mainstream art was moving into more and more abstract presentations, but where that figurative force, although it echoed the Old Masters and was full of sepia, depicted a dream world where the Freudian minefield of pubescent sexuality was hopscotched across, sometimes provoking controversy and even outrage?

It was small wonder that when the commissioning editors of Penguin Classics wanted a cover for the novel of love and obsession that first springs to mind when the name Vladimir Nabokov is uttered, chose a painting by Balthus. And Nabokov, of course, is inextricably linked in the mind of the reader of Sebald with the elusive butterfly man, though that link is tenuous too.

Balthus’s subjects are found reclining on a chair, a chaise longue, or a divan, with the langueur of the Empress Josephine in François Gerard’s 19c portrait. The browns, dull reds, and off-whites are similar. But in paintings by Balthus the subject often seems like a peg- or rag-limbed doll deposited carelessly, half-slipping from the piece of furniture, tired or jaded, or with eyes closed and hands clasped behind her head in some private reverie as in his Thérèse Dreaming. The new prudishness of the 21c has seen demands that Thérèse Dreaming be removed from its place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, so reluctant do some modern audiences seem to allow a work of art to be sexually disturbing. In the case of Sleeping Girl, the disturbance offered by the girl’s half-exposed bust sits deliberately awkwardly with the peace and innocence of sleep; it is the face that draws the eye of the innocent viewer, even though our prurience is teased by the highlighting and the composition.

Poetry our old partner in crime: an examination of ignorance.

Poetry our old partner in crime
each act we committed complicit with it

 ‘Şiir’ (‘Poetry’) by Gülten Akin
(tr. Nilgün Dungan & Mel Kenne)


The reason I study is to reveal my ignorance. The more I study, the more ignorant I realise I am. The more I learn, the more I see the boundaries of the field of knowledge retreating before me faster than I can run. My ignorance is not just a result of the vastness of the stacks of books that I will never have the time to read, but also, and importantly, a feature of my culture and my privilege. Both of the latter contribute to my inability to see – what? – myself? what is important to others? I can see you scratching your heads about my juxtaposing ‘ignorance’ and ‘privilege’, but it is a fact that people in majority or normative groups are so used to their (our) view of things, that it ceases even to be a yardstick to judge alternatives. It becomes quotidian, mundane, unquestioned. The wisdom of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is that we are the Alphas, the Betas, and so on. The tragedy is that we don’t see that, we only see a weird dystopia, unrelated to ourselves.

Despite my becoming increasingly aware of my own ignorance, what still surprises me when I find a writer, a poet, or an artist who is little known here, is how well they are known in their own country or community. Gülten Akin was born in 1933, died in 2015, and published at least a dozen books of poetry in her native Turkey between 1956 and 2003. In 2008 a poll of readers of Milliyet Arts Journal declared her to be the greatest living Turkish poet, and yet when I made a quick search for critical articles etc. about her, I found one thesis and very little else beyond a couple of English-language abstracts of dissertations presented in Turkish. In fact, if I hadn’t chanced upon a copy of Turkish Poetry Today 2017, the fifth annual English-language journal in that series to be published and the one that granted her a retrospective showcase, I would never have heard of her. I don’t mind admitting to ignorance – that’s the whole point of this exercise. It is not as though Gülten Akin laboured in obscurity, the obscurity is right here.

2521Discovering her brought it home to me that any project that seeks to broaden the scope of the literature we study, is not dipping into a tiny pool, but into a huge ocean in which we, here at home, are a very small fish. In fact if there is a ‘tiny pool’ at all, it’s the canon we grew up with. But what can we do? We can’t read everything, we can’t study everything, I know that there is so much out there, even from my own culture, that I’ll never get round to. All we can do is make a splash in our own tiny pool when we can actually see something worthwhile from somewhere else, and hope that there will be a ripple effect.

The poem that introduced this article reverses the declaration that Percy Shelley made to the effect that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Akin appears to be saying that poets have, rather, a long tradition of transgression. Perhaps this is rather a strange observation for someone to make who was, in a way, and establishment figure. She was married to Yaşar Cankoçak, who served as Governor of several provinces of the Republic of Turkey; Akin herself worked in the Turkish Language Association and as a member of the editorial team of the Ministry of Culture, but she was also prominent in the cause of human rights in Turkey. The country’s recent history as a secular republic covers less than a century and has not been without internal problems. Three military coups during a person’s lifetime must leave an impression. Perhaps this explains why, when Akin had a point to make, she made it with wry subtlety, as in the translated poems below.

              Being Quiet

The woman is nowhere to be seen, neither here nor there
Not on the balcony, not on the terrace, nowhere
She shut herself away in her solitude
Lounge-chair, book, sunglasses
There, just like that
She went quiet as she backed away
She knows
every conversation changes something in our lives.
(TPT 32)

                Ruling Power I

Home’s powerful hand is even
mightier than the state
some women know that
so they settle in for a balance
unshakeable, to be borne

An anonymous contributor to a blog is quoted in Saliha Parker’s introduction to What Have You Carried Over? (Akin’s only collection of poems translated into English) thus: “Gülten Akin knew how to pull together the energy of socially conscious poetry […] and the sensitivity of womanhood.” Turkish Poetry Today 2017 features not only a selection of Akin’s poetry but also that of other Turkish women poets who, according to the editors, might never have come into their own as poets if they hadn’t “followed the paths to self-discovery blazed by their prolific forebear, whose passionate commitment to feminism […] echoes from the lines of virtually every woman writing poetry in Turkey today” (9). This illustrates the ‘ripple effect’ I mentioned earlier – I hope the ripples continue to spread outward from this post.

Akin’s adherence to Sufi, the inward, mystic experience of Islam, also nuances her writing. When something could be expressed with absolute simplicity she would not waste her breath to complicate it. Her poem ‘A Single Line’ has a zen-like quality:

Söz saldırır, sus kaçar

The word attacks, quiet flees
(TPT 23)

I include the Turkish original because it carries a subtle alliteration and balance that don’t quite make it into the translation – Akin knew well enough that once pronounced a poem sets out into danger:

Words, being birds, outgrow the mouth
and fly away, of course, set free
to hold their liberator enslaved

But she could be outspoken too, for all that. In 1977 she wrote an article containing this unequivocal statement:

[…] for hundreds of years […] men have set apart as “female sensitivity” and blown [it] out of proportion. What they mean by it is nothing but the ability to sympathize with others. Hence it’s a passive function […] If women have an equal share in the burdens of eliminating the primary contradictions of the world – and that’s what’s happening now – we will speak of a human sensitivity which is not held exclusive to women. “Women’s sensitivity” is a decrepit concept that does not belong to this age; the creative powers of women should not be inflated and isolated from art and creativity in general, like some anomaly […]
(quoted in TPT 14)

There is good reason to study Akin’s poetry, her short plays, her collection of essays on poetics, Şiiri Düzde Kuşatmak / Surrounding Poetry with Simplicity, and her life and declarations as a political activist, though for us in the English-speaking/writing quadrant such an enterprise would have to begin with a major programme of translation. Step forward.


Works cited

Akin, Gülten. What Have You Carried Over? Poems of 42 Days and Other

Works, edited by Saliha Parker and Mel Kenne, Talisman House, 2014.

Kenne, Mel, İdil Karacadaǧ, & Neil P. Doherty (eds.). Turkish Poetry Today

2017, Red Hand Books, 2017.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. A Defence of Poetry, 1821, online & unpaginated.

Accessed 4thFebruary 2018.