Ambiguous, fluid and hybrid people

02 December 2015

If asked to describe ‘Celtic art’, the majority of people would, perhaps, draw on items and imagery associated with early medieval Christianity in Ireland or Scotland: the intricate interlaced designs associated with the Book of Kells, the Ardagh Chalice and the Hunterston Brooch, for instance. The ambitious aim of the ‘Celts: Art and Identity’ exhibition currently on display at the British Museum is to present these items in a new light. In doing so, it explores the distinctions and continuities between different forms of Celtic arts: incorporating items of artwork made by people known to the Greeks and Romans as Celts, items of artwork associated with ‘Celtic-speaking peoples’, and more recently, the artistry of the Celtic revival and beyond, produced as a means of articulating a distinct ‘Celtic’ cultural and political heritage.

The exhibition thus operates on two levels: both to showcase a diversity of fascinating artistic objects, but also to explore the shifting meanings of ‘Celtic-ness’ throughout history. British Museum Director Neil McGregor has described it as not so much a show about a people, as about a label: that of ‘Celtic’. This is occasionally an uneasy balancing act: although the objects are presented chronologically, the informative interpretation text periodically reminds the visitor not to think of ‘the Celts’ as a continuous ethnic group throughout history. That this balance succeeds is largely due to the power of the objects themselves, presented in such a way as to bring the visitor to a more nuanced understanding of ‘the Celtic’. Towards this end, the first chronological piece of ‘Celtic art’ the visitor encounters is well-chosen: a 2.3m sandstone statue excavated in Holzgerlingen in South-Western Germany dating from the 5th Century BC. The deliberate simplicity and abstraction of this object, and others from the area north of the Alps during the Iron Age is contrasted to the more realist forms contemporary to the Mediterranean world. The objects also stand in stark contrast to what the visitor might have expected from an exhibition of Celtic art.

The major strength of the exhibition is to lead the visitor from the Holzgerlingen statue to the Hunterston brooch and beyond without a sense of it feeling disjointed or jarring. Along the way, we are introduced to objects of war, of domesticity, and of decoration. The highlights include the spectacular boar-headed carnyx war-horns (complete with sound effects), alongside a magnificent collection of torcs, excavated throughout Europe [pictured: The Great Torc from Snettisham. Iron Age, about 75 BC. Found at Ken Hill, Snettisham, Norfolk, England]. The variety of torc designs, we are told, indicates that they were probably more expressive of local identities than any unified Celtic one: identity construction through torc, as it were.

As well as these local variations, the distinctions between ‘Celtic’ and ‘non-Celtic’ art styles also become blurred. Brooches from the years following the Roman invasion of Britain indicate the emergence of a new hybridised Romano-British style, incorporating Celtic motifs on typically Roman shapes. Similarly, the presentation of ‘Insular Fusion’ artwork from the early medieval Christian period demonstrates the Anglo-Saxon origins of the intricate interlace decoration now popularly thought of as ‘Celtic knotwork’.

Bringing the concept of ‘Celticity’ up to the modern day allows the exhibition to engage with the Celtic Revival, both as an artistic movement, and as a ‘usable past’ towards demands for greater political autonomy and liberation among what are now widely known as the ‘Celtic nations’. The emphasis is mostly on the former: highlighting how growing public interest in the Celtic past, coupled with new archaeological and antiquarian discoveries (and inventions) inspired 19th Century artists in both theme and design. Some of this is undeniably melodramatic to the 21st century eye, but of particular interest here are the more subtle usages of design within ‘Celtic modernism’.

The exhibition has less to say, perhaps understandably, about the contemporary political meanings of ‘Celtic’ identity. Attempts by archaeologists in the 1990s to question public understandings of the Celts as a historically coherent people met with a backlash from those who characterised this as a thinly-veiled revisionist attempt to undermine the cultural validity and real political concerns of the ‘Celtic nations’. Perhaps mindful of avoiding such controversy, the exhibition is at pains to stress that while ‘the Celts’ may not have been a recognisable ethnic/racial group in the past, this does not invalidate ‘Celtic’ as a collective identity in the present. As if to demonstrate this point, the final exhibits are devoted to the ‘Celtic Diaspora’, and include video footage of Celtic, and pan-Celtic festivals worldwide. While footage of St. Patrick’s Day parades in Tokyo undeniably finish the exhibition on an upbeat note, there are perhaps more problematic aspects that are glossed over in this carnivalesque portrayal of Celts worldwide: for instance, the appropriation of Celtic imagery by some far-right groups.

It may be beyond the scope of the exhibition to engage with such politically contentious matters, but it can be argued that the objects are their own best response to such appropriations. What emerges here does not easily lend itself to any notions of a singular authentic ‘Celticness’, but rather of ambiguity, hybridity and fluidity: a way of reading art through an identity category, rather than the art of an identifiable people.

The exhibition runs at the British Museum, London until the 31st January, and at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh from the 10th March to 25th September 2016.

- Reviewed by Marc Scully, Lecturer in Social Psychology, Loughborough University.