Friday, February 27, 2009

Exhibition: Byzantium at the Royal Academy

Byzantium exhibition, Royal Academy

I went to the Byzantium 330-1453 exhibition at the Royal Academy in London (UK) yesterday morning. I'm not going to do a full review of it but I thought I'd note down a couple of things.

There are a couple of logisitcal points worth highlighting.

I had pre-booked tickets for the 10am time slot (they are split by the hour). I arrived a little early hoping to collect them without a queue but the doors weren't opened until 10am on the dot, so there was instantly three queues - one to buy tickets, one for prebooked tickets and one for the cloakroom. In spite of the confusion at the pre-booked ticket machine (and you need the card with which you paid for your tickets, which was causing some people headaches) the queues went down quite quickly.

The RA now have strict rules about what sort of baggage they will accept in the galleries and in the cloakrooms. These are shown on the wesbite. My friend, who put his coat into the cloakroom, says that there is an airport-type baggage frame and if your case/rucksack/bag will fit into it they will take it and if not they won't and you are pretty much stuffed at that point. Only small handbags are permitted in the main galleries.

Photography is not permitted at the Byzantium exhibition, which is just as well because it was far too busy to cope with people trying to get images.

In spite of having bought the earliest tickets of the day it was busy. Thanks to the RA for selling tickets in hourly rather than half-hourly slots it was certainly manageable, but I am very glad that we didn't try for a later viewing as my experience of London exhibitions is that the earlier you arrive the less busy it will be.

There were audio guides, as you would expect these days, but fortunately not many people were using them, which meant that there was less of the zombie factor than I have become accustomed to dreading in exhibitions of this size.

It was a much richer and more varied selection of items than I expected, representing the period from 330 to 1453. The gallery information boards were excellent, with some good maps, and the exhibition was laid out and ordered in a very practical and helpful way. Galleries were organized by themes, which helped put them into context and break up the sheer assault on the senses. It took us two hours to walk around. I am notorious for taking my time, but I found that the same people were with me in each room, meaning that many of us were moving at the same pace and taking the same time to see the exhibition.

The quality of each individual item was remarkable. Ivories, manuscripts, micromosaics, items of intricate jewelry and delicate icons were on display along with bigger items like a full mosaic floor, church bells, huge icons from Sinai and elsewhere and pieces of massive church furnishings. The micromosaics were new to me and one of the labels said that there are only around 50 known in the world. Each of the mosaic pieces on some of them is little larger than a pin head.

The exhibition is only on until 22nd March 2009. If you're interested there's an excellent adult educational pamphlet available for download from the RA site (21 pages long, PDF format, 3.3mb, lots of pictures from the exhibition and a very useful introductory summary of the Byzantine period). There is also a junior version available (12 pages, PDF format).

I didn't buy the big glossy catalogue, available in hard back and paperback, but it looked lovely.

I am currently reading the book Byzantine Art by Robin Cormack (Oxford) which I find a helpful compliment to the exhibition and which examines the question of the extent to which the art work represents continuity with the pagan past and the relationship with the development of art of the western world.

There have been several reviews of the exhibition at the RA which can be found online. Here are a couple of the better ones, which offer both positive and less positive remarks:

Culture24 by Graham Spicer
BBC Newsnight (video - over 7 minutes long and well worth viewing)
The Independent, UK by Charles Darwent
The Telegraph, UK by Richard Dorment

Thanks to Tony Judd, who I last saw in the Eastern Desert in 2006, for an absolutely excellent morning.

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