British Museum, Celts: Art and Identity

Image from the Gundestrup cauldron, part of the exhibition Celts: Art and Identity

The central argument of “Celts: Art and Identity”, made repeatedly as you walk around, is that there was no one people called the Celts and any attempt to understand the politically disparate but artistically unified art assigned under the word ‘Celtic’ will not succeed.  If that seems a bit like having your swirly two-headed cake and eating it then this exhibition will at least convince you that its line of thinking is sound, even if you walk out rejecting its thesis.  This is one of the smartest and best put together exhibitions you will come across.

Taking, broadly, a chronological approach and walking us through about 2,000 years of history during which empires, religions, languages, cultures rose, grew strong, withered and died, this is a surprisingly deep show.  We start with a horned helmet thrown into the Thames – it looks bizarre and otherworldly sat next to a Greek helmet from the same period – and end with a Boston Celtics jersey.  At least we can understand the basketball top.  Sadly, we are no nearer knowing how or if the ‘Celts’ wrote anything down, but there must be some meaning to those pictograms on the helmet, mustn’t there?

The term ‘keltoi’ first appears in Greek.  To them it meant everyone not Greek to the north of them.  Most of Europe, then.  Later writers narrowed it down specific parts of northwestern Europe but there were culturally similar groups in Iberia too.  But these groups did not see themselves as unified.  Even within Britain at least four distinct cultures existed under the term ‘Celt’ by now applied by Caesar.  The warring Picts of legend would be bewildered, and presumably gutted, to know that the country in which their culture is now unearthed is called Scotland.  Once the Romans left Britain the term ‘Celt’ drops from the language.  Nobody is called that, nobody believes themselves to be one.  The lost kingdoms of the Atlantic archipelago fight and trade amongst themselves.   The world becomes Christian.  In the renaissance the term ‘Celt’ is rediscovered and we move through romanticism and supposed rediscovery to the creation of identity, through twilight to nationalism.

Nobody is mocked here.  The Bards of the Gorsedd might be no older than when Iolo Morganwg first imagined them but they do speak back to something from earlier.  Even if, because of what has been lost or what we could never understand anyway, that something can be almost anything we want.  In Britain, Celtic art often implies spiritualism, in mainland Europe you’ll see the same symbols on the flags of neo Nazis.

The ideas throughout are solid and require engagement – and the art collected is equally strong.  This is a superbly curated exhibition.  To pick a few stand outs: the Gundestrup cauldron is an incredible piece and is beautifully shown here.  Unearthed in 1891, dating back to low figures BC or AD, and defying final analysis as to its purpose and origin it sums up everything wonderful about this exhibition.  The styles and motifs are ‘Celtic’ but the form and materials do not fit too well with that and where it was found is almost certainly not where it was made.  But, ignore the questions, and you left satisfied.  It is compelling in the way of all great art.  Elsewhere, you will find giant crosses including a replica of the circle cross from Iona, finely patterned jewellery and armour, Pictish carved stone and, from the modern day, romanticised modern art responding to a past that no one truly understands.

To base a modern identity on a imagined past does not make that modern identity wrong.  But the pretence that Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall and the rest were ever a united Celtic kingdom, a solid bulwark against unwanted Saxons, is false.  That the only interaction between the warrior peoples of prehistory was violence is false.  What we have instead are fragments, glimpses, of a world we can no longer understand.  Swirling, interlocked, hidden lines and images of intricacy, beauty and unknown purpose and power.  On shields, swords, cauldrons and crosses, this art looks back at us from the centuries before Christ but if we look up now we’ll see it echoed on the shirts of that most Catholic of football teams.  There never were Celts but, as this intelligent and brilliant exhibition shows, there has always been Celtic art and identity – and perhaps for as long as there are people there always will be.

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