Civilisations: How Do We Look/The Eye of Faith
Mary Beard
Profile Books
240pp, 94 colour illustrations
Hardback, £15

Nearly 50 years since it was first broadcast, Kenneth Clark's 1969 exploration of the greats of western European art, Civilisation, still stands out as an exemplary television arts documentary and still provokes debate. Picking up the mantle, Mary Beard has joined Simon Schama and David Olusoga in the BBC's recent follow-up Civilisations, and her two episodes form the basis of this engaging companion book on the human and divine in the art of diverse cultures around the world from prehistory to the present.

A Classicist, Cambridge don and now the presenter of BBC Two's Front Row Late, Beard combines her learned spirit with her usual lively style as she delves into some big questions in what is both a light read and a book chock full of interesting examples.

The first part of the splendidly illustrated book – How do we look? – tackles the human form in art, starting and ending with the Olmec civilisation in Mexico. Truly colossal stones heads carved some 3000 years ago and weighing up to 20 tons are, argues Beard, evidence that art has always 'been about us'. With no written records left by the Olmec, works like these are what we have to go on to establish a sense of their civilisation, though in this case there has been plenty of debate over whether the Olmec style represents a group of people with a shared identity.

How we look at their creations is, here in western Europe, ultimately influenced by our familiarity with or even reliance on Graeco-Roman art. The basalt figure known as the Olmec 'wrestler', for instance, is widely praised for its naturalism in its depiction of muscles, but even the designation 'wrestler' owes more to the ancient Mediterranean than it does to the image itself.

One important topic is the actual purpose of the human form in varied works. This can be to demonstrate might and power, as in the impressive statuary of Rameses the Great in Egypt, or to keep deceased loved ones visibly present in the world of the living, as in Roman portraiture. In contrast, other works, such as the fabulously detailed terracotta 'warriors' buried with China's first emperor, were not intended to be seen.

The human body can even serve as a way to depict a deity. As the second part of the book investigates, art is also about human relationships with religion. Extraordinary buildings at Angkor Wat, statues which seem to be alive, Byzantine mosaics, sacred texts, and Renaissance paintings, all offer material for studying ideas of glorification, vanity, iconoclasm and idolatry. What is perhaps most significant is how art can enhance or participate in the religious experience. For example, the modern-day, award-winning Sancaklar mosque in Istanbul blends into its landscape and evokes the cave of Hira near Mecca, where Muhammed received the first revelation. To the untrained eye, the Buddhist paintings at the Ajanta caves, India, lack order, but this apparent muddle involves viewers in a more active religious engagement as they focus on and interpret the images, seeking their own truths.

With discussions of myriad sacred works in mind, when it comes to the overarching question of what civilisation is, Beard's answer is: 'little more than an act of faith'.
Lucia Marchini

 

<back