Monday, May 9, 2011

The Lion King . . .

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When I was ten years old, my parents took my brothers and I along on six week trip to Europe. The influence of that trip could well have planted the seeds that led me to return to live in Europe for good. In exile. In love.
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The first stop of the trip was in London, after the adventure of flying for the first time across the Atlantic Ocean, on a Boeing 707, if my memory serves me correctly. We stayed in a hotel on Russell Square which figured in that famous early travel book : Europe On Five Dollars A Day. The British Museum was practically next door.
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So it was not without some considerable nostalgia that I went back to the British Museum in February. The Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon, and the Rosetta Stone of course are perhaps the "biggest" attractions there, but between them lies a long room dedicated to the bas relief lion hunt scenes from the Assyrian palace at Nineveh, in what today is the tragic land of Iraq. For me these sculptures are some of the saddest and most moving artwork I've ever come across anywhere. They date from over 600 years BC, during the realm of King Ashurbanipal, but already they foreshadowed the devastatingly arrogant vision of man regarding the natural world around him, which has grown to epic proportions today.
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The power of these images is such, when one beholds them in the reverent quiet of the museum in their raw, rich stone, that one could almost imagine warning signs posted at the entrance to the room, like the ones we sometimes see on internet news sites to the effect of : "Warning; the images that follow are graphic in nature, viewer discretion is advised", or "Danger, not for the faint of heart".
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When the last lion in the wild has been killed, we will at least still have these sculptures to help us remember the glory of such beasts, and the brutal stupidity of man, who would slaughter them for sport. Sculptures executed by an incredibly talented artist, or artists, who sadly remain anonymous to us today. How I would have loved to watch them at work over these large stone panels. One senses a strong degree of sympathy between the artist and the dying lions.
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Have you been to the British Museum ? If yes, did you stop for a moment in the lion king's realm ?
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42 comments:

Owen said...

PS, Many thanks to the British Museum for graciously allowing visitors to take photographs... I will treasure these images.

The Sagittarian said...

wow, amazing images indeed (very raw or should that be 'roar'?), feeling sorry for the Lion's now! Isn't it fabulous that this bit of history has been preserved, imagine what the average Assyrian blog would have been like...

...louciao... said...

Beautifully executed (no pun intended) carving, sensitive in all detailing, brutal in what it depicts. The selfish arrogance and bestial stupidity of man is astounding, and well documented in these tragic, horrific scenes.

I, too, went on a tour of Europe, and stayed in London at Russell Square, just off Tottenham Court Road. I was 11 years old and accompanied my grandmother. We stayed at the "Y" and I loved the old-fashioned cage style elevator that I got to operate myself, the creaky wooden floors, and the baked beans with stone cold toast breakfast option (avoiding the kippers at all costs). I was absolutely smitten with the British Museum...of course the mummies...and poured over the illuminated scripts under glass cases in utter awe and enchantment. I always imagined I would return to London, and spend weeks or months or my whole life there, visiting the museum daily. (There is a tiny ache in my heart that I did not, although I did return to London a couple of times since). Fond memories; thanks for stirring them up.

English Rider said...

And yet Man considers himself a superior being:(

Lena said...

I love this one... Maybe because the first time I saw it I was a teenager?
Thank you so much for bringing back such happy memories...
Warmest hugs,

lgsquirrel said...

My reference travel book was "Europe on a Shoestring". :)

Thanks for sharing these evocative pictures. I agree that the artists seem to be sympathetic to the lions as the images invoke a sense of the suffering and tragedy of the great beasts more so than any frivolous glory of the hunter.

Steve said...

Gosh. I'm quite shocked to see the death throes of these beasts shown in such a graphic nature. The hunters come across as being cruel and unnecessarily blood-thirsty.

Mary Ann said...

I've been to the British Museum, but it was with my children when they were 3 and 1. Not the best company for such a visit, but it's such an amazing place and they have lots of helpful resources for kids.

I remember this work from Art History classes. It's amazing, and your photos are better than the ones in the text books. You've just done all us arm-chair art historians a great service.

Pastelle said...

Ca me fait beaucoup de peine pour ce pauvre lion.
Mais ils sont très sympas au british museum. Chance pour les photos !

Lydia said...

Oh, the horror. Have never heard of this exhibit before - actually do not know much about the British Museum - but I surely will not forget these images. I feel like puking as the one dear lion is shown doing. This species of ours...oh, the horror.

Alistair said...

Aye - brutally honest in every way. There seems a clear empathy with the lions and a sense of distaste raised when viewing something so graphic. Interesting too that although the humans are clinically described there is an empty, dispassionate and unsympathetic feel to them. Like you I wonder if that is what the artists were trying to portray or whether it's a simple graphic statement of the implacable power of the king and we are putting our modern humanistic slant on it instead?

I prefer your interpretation.

Owen said...

Dear Saj, yeah, I think it's a damn shame that ancient peoples, Egyptians, Assyrians, Chinese, or even farther back to the cave dwellers and artists, that those folks didn't create the internet already back then so they could all keep blogs that we could have looked at today... having to carve your blog on stone panels was long, hard work, could take years just to do one single blog post ! We are indeed lucky that these pieces survived the past two and a half thousand years... And it just makes me wonder what other wonders are still out there buried under sand in the desert...

Owen said...

Ah Lynne, dropping in right on the heels of sister Saj, did you see her as she was on her way out ?

So you too were in London as a kid on a trip... I'm wondering now if there is some sort of psychic connection ? Where else did you go on the trip ??? And why on earth would anyone want to avoid kippers ??? Kippers are delicious !

Ok, a bit fishy, but delicious !
:-)

I wonder if the "Y" was in the Five Dollars A Day book also ? I think my parents still have that book. I remember that it also helped us find a very inexpensive hotel in Paris where there were more bedbugs than there were paying guests.

But travelling as a child is a powerful experience, I think it can't help but to contribute to adults who have major cases of wanderlust. (now don't get started on the lust part there, that was "wander-lust", I'd put the "wander" part in bold and underlined if I only knew how, but being technically ignorant today is almost as big a handicap as having to carve messages in stone), ah, but where was I, my mind was wandering, wandering, seems to be happening more and more in my advanced old age...
:-)

Yes, we saw mummies too and the British Museum, and there was that crystal skull which you so kindly dressed up with sunglasses there a while back. A treasure trove, that place.

Ah yes, and baked beans for breakfast with stone cold toast. The finer things in life. They feed the beans to tourists to give them added propulsion for getting around London.
:-)

Owen said...

Hi ER, I hear you... superior indeed... but superior in relation to what ? Far too superior for our own good I fear. Since the dawn of history.

Owen said...

Dear Lena, did you also visit the British Museum as a teenager then ??? Were you living in London, or travelling ?

I consider myself extremely lucky to have had that trip as a kid... the things we saw ! London, Paris, Florence, Rome, Copenhagen, Leningrad (St. Petersburg today), Moscow. I still remember how excited we were to be going up in an airplane for the first time.

You are very welcome for the memories ! Bises...

Marginalia said...

I wonder how realistic these images are or, as in much of the Assyrian iconography, are they designed to exaggerate the King's power and bravery.

That said they very realistically show the pain and suffering of the lions.

Lena said...

I was travelling, Owen... Never lived in England... (Only lived in Exeter for a summer when I was 16... doesn't quite count as living, huh?)
My first time on a plane... I was 2 years old... Alone... Or almost... My 4 year old brother was with me... (Irresponsible parents, huh?):)
Have a great week!! *Hugs*

Elisa said...

Wow what great pictures! You're lucky when you get to take pictures and nice when you show them to us. Travelling broadens your horizons on many levels. In Finland the weather is finally warming up, but I having to leave on a business trip to Lapland for a week. Quietly hope that the spring progressed very much in my absence:) Have a nice week!

Owen said...

Hi LGS, travelling on a shoestring leaves priceless memories at least. The lions here do come across as far more noble than the royalty hunting them.

Owen said...

Steve, I guess the royal news censors back then didn't have any regulations against printing, errr, carving blood and gore for portrayal to the public. And I suppose the hunters were not only thirsty for lion blood, but also for whatever wine or mead they had along for refreshment in large amphoras... spearing lions is hot thirsty work...

Owen said...

Hi Mary Ann, well, you can't get your kids started with art appreciation much earlier than you have... who knows what long lasting impressions their sponge-like brains were soaking up in there.

I guess you could call me an armchair art historian as well, I did take two semesters, which I loved a lot more than some other courses I was taking at the time. The textbook was Gardner's "Art Through the Ages". There are two photos of these lion hunt scenes in that book, including the lionness shown here dragging her hindquarters, but the photos are poor quality black and white, I think these colors images with the saturation and contrast just very slightly enhanced do them more justice. But seeing them in the stone is best of all. I just wish I could have seen them in the original setting at Nineveh... need a time machine...

Owen said...

Bosoir Pastelle, en dépit de toute la peine de ces images, tu as raison, une énorme chance que nous avons que ces oeuvres ont survecu ces derniers 2500 ans. C'est assez incroyable, ils auraient pu facilement être perdus à jamais.

Bonne soirée à toi...

Owen said...

Lydia, indeed, indeed, the horror. The artwork here is just unbelievably powerful in its capture of the end of these poor beasts. Mankind at his worst...

Owen said...

Hi Alistair, yeah, I think certainly a big element of glorifying the king and his killer instinct and prowess with arms. Also back then I guess they thought the supply of lions was infinite...

Owen said...

Marginalia, absolutely... the pain and suffering these convey just floors me. The claws of the one seen from above seem to be literally digging into the stone, just as fresh now as when they were carved 2500 years ago.

Owen said...

Hi Elisa, For sure, can't even begin to tell you how lucky I feel on very frequent occasions to be able to take photos and then share them here in these pages.

My goodness, what kind of business are you off to do in Lapland ? In any case, I hope you'll be taking your camera along ! Have a great trip...

...louciao... said...

Yes, but did you like kippers as a 10 year old kid??? I don't think we had the $5 A Day book because we were visiting relatives in England, then on a guided tour in Europe of the "If this is Tuesday it must be Switzerland" ilk. My grandmother was peeved with me because I had my nose in a book through much of the tour (France, Italy, Switzerland). In France I was impressed by a European lad a little older than myself who was drinking wine with his lunch. He had big round glasses and wore shorts. Sort of set the standard for the type of men I'd be attracted to in the future.
:-)

...louciao... said...

PS. It was also my first time on a plane--a Boeing 707. We'd sailed over from Montreal on an ocean-liner (NOT a cruise ship) but the Cunard workers were on strike when it was time to return to Canada, so they flew us. My grandmother was terrified! I loved it. I mean the flight, not my grandmother's terror, though that was slightly amusing. (BTW: It was also on that trip that I got to read The Wind in the Willows and made the acquaintance of Mr. Toad.)

Owen said...

Actually, I don't remember having ever been presented with any kippers to sample either on that trip, or subsequently, though I did once photograph a sign which mentioned kippers for sale in Whitby, England, much later on in life. I think I had the Wind in the Willows read to me when I was fairly small, so Mr Toad is an old, old friend. We did like the borscht and the salted fish the russians seem to eat a lot of, and the dark bread they had, which we covered in butter, then lightly salted... yum... And coffee, I think I was first allowed to drink coffee with breakfast in Denmark, they had a version with plenty of milk and sugar in it...

There was a red headed girl in the park at Hampton Court who I will never forget...
:-)
Thanks for all the anecdotes...

Stickup Artist said...

Dear Owen, these are magnificent and so is your commentary. The richness of detail and tone almost makes one forget the tragic and terrible scenes one is witnessing. Your post reminded me right away of this Cree Prophecy that you once left in a comment on my blog:

When all the trees have been cut down,
when all the animals have been hunted,
when all the waters are polluted,
when all the air is unsafe to breathe,
only then will you discover you cannot eat money.

Amanda said...

yes, i studied these friezes in grad school, but the focus was on sculptural quality, narrative content and relationship to the architecture it adorned. never did i consider the brutal nature of the images, only now that you bring it to my attention.

yes, they do conjure up the self important attitude of he who commissioned the images, the same with most rulers anywhere in the world, ancient or modern.

wonderful post, owen.

nouvelles couleurs - vienna atelier said...

oh thank you for these photos.. beautifull

Peter said...

Fantastic art!! However, sometimes you feel a bit "ashamed" when you think of how much was brought to "our" museums, instead of remaining where they originally belonged. On the other hand, this was perhaps the way much could be saved, which otherwise would have been lost.

The rules about taking photos or not are so different from one museum to another, from one church to another... Louvre is OK, Orsay is "no"? Notre Dame is OK, Sacré Coeur is "no"!

Virginia said...

Reading Peter's comments. I was able to take photos all over the Orsay on both visits, but the last was in 2009. Guess they've gotten stricter? If it's ok at the Louvre, why not everywhere else on the planet?

Now about your images. Just stunning. I 'd love a grouping of these photos in my new home Owen!
V

...louciao... said...

BrOwen,
You never cease to amaze me! Making bold face and italics in the comment box!!! I am exceedingly impressed. So you were drinking coffee at age 10. Hmmm...well, I was drinking tea in grade 1. You thought we might be psychically linked; I would say more "side-kickedly" so. Aside from the little red-headed girl, and the British Museum, is there something else that really impressed you? I imagine it must be thrilling to see the many mushroom-hatted colourful cathedral (?)in Moscow.
I went to Hampton Court, too. Gee, our paths crossed so near and yet so far!
Once one gets a case of wanderlust it's pretty impossible to get rid of it; it lies dormant but every so often you just know it's going to flare up and cause that unbearable itch. Please forgive my rambling...

Nevine said...

How dazzling, these photos, Owen! And how stark in their rawness. You know, on first glance, some of the reliefs bring to mind the "sport" of bullfighting, though it is truly hardly a sport. But then, when I look at the faces of the men, I wonder to myself who is the true animal in these reliefs? The lion? Or the men?

Nevine

Catherine said...

Yes I know these rooms in The British museum - they really do have an amazing question of wonderful powerful stuff - am looking forward to revisiting in the summer...

Owen said...

Dear Stickup, that's exactly what I was thinking of when I wrote, "When the last lion has been killed"... And I was just reading a piece yesterday about the last tigers in India at high risk of disappearing. Forever. No more Jungle Books. Adios Sher Khan. Breaks my heart. Too many people. Not enough lions and tigers.

Owen said...

Hi Amanda, same for me, when we covered this in Art History, no one mentioned the lion's feelings about the proceedings being depicted. Just the quality, qualities of the artworks in question. Art History classes could go a lot farther perhaps in helping students to feel the art they are seeing...

Owen said...

Hey Peter, Not sure these would have survived the war in Iraq, already the national museum was plundered shortly after the shock & awe invasion, if I recall correctly... I saw where Greece is trying to obtain the return of the Elgin marbles, but is unlikely to succeed I gather. And these lions are far more accessible to a larger public than they would be in Iraq. It's going to be a long time before any tourist wants to go to Iraq again I fear. Sadly so, there are other wonders there. If they are not covered too deeply in depleted uranium dust now. Crazy world we live in. And not much logic to the rules about photos. Pretty impossible to stop people from taking pictures with cell phones...

Dee Newman said...

Our blogs allow us to be connected to a global community of people from all walks of life and perspectives, some of whom are dedicated to living with kindness and respect for all living beings.

James said...

You knocked it out of the park! I love the way you captured the texture, the color and the lighting! Nineteen years ago this month my wife and I went ot London it was my first trip to Europe. We stayed at The Churchill Hotel I think we walked to the British Museum. I still kid my wife because she got hasseled fro taking a picture of the Rosetta stone. :) Great memories!