Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Paul Cartledge, The Sunday Telegraph, August 4th 2006

John Boardman - Sir John Boardman, FBA, Hon. RA - is a very hard act to follow. In a Festschrift entitled Periplous (Circumnavigation) - one of the several such volumes devoted to this most peripatetic of scholars - a distinguished former pupil neatly summarises the 'Boardman method' thus: lightning raids on the library's periodicals shelf, brief and pithy note-taking, questioning of published authority, suppression of romantic speculation, and, before everything else, speed, efficiency and thoroughness. All those qualities and more are abundantly present and correct in the latest of his almost innumerable books, produced - yet again - by the peerless art publishers Thames & Hudson (£40).

Boardman's first book with them was his 1964 Greek Art in T&H's famous 'World of Art' series (inaugurated in 1959; the firm itself was founded by Walter Neurath and Eva Feuchtwang in 1949). The present tome bids fair to be the capstone of a lifetime's monumental achievement, constituting as it does virtually a library of world art all by itself. The author modestly confesses that his qualifications for writing it may not be the very best, but they are pretty damn good, it has to be said. Books with titles like The Archaeology of Nostalgia, Persia and the West, and above all The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity betray anything but a narrowminded outlook for an emeritus Oxford Professor of Classical Archaeology and Art. His liberal interpretation of 'art' moreover includes not only architecture, on which he's always been specially acute, but also materials and technique - 'craft', in another word. And there's even humour here too: he finds Chinese art irrepressibly cheerful.

The World of Ancient Art does have a sort of overarching organisational principle, by way of three broadly climatic zones considered within the whole span of time from the year dot to, well, the nineteenth century of our era at least. These comprise a northern nomadic steppe-zone, a mainly northern zone of temperate farmers and city-dwellers, and a tropical zone (firmly embracing the New World of South America as well as Oceania and Africa). Whether each of these is equally artistically meaningful in itself and, in particular, whether diffusion or influence may usefully be traced throughout or across them is perhaps rather more doubtful. But there's no mistaking the ambition for bringing order out of chaos.

The images are grouped thematically and prefaced by relatively short blocks of text, delivered in the author's customary clipped, laconic, almost cryptic style, so that as well as - or rather than - being read from cover to cover the book may be sampled in more digestible chunks of different kinds: 'The Levant and the West' (a subsection of 'Persia to Rome'), for example, or 'Australasia'. The more expansive exceptions are the Preface and Epilogue, personal statements which contain many an aperçu and some refreshingly unguarded remarks - on museums, religion, nationalism, and much else besides. There is even a nod to fellow-globalist Arnold Toynbee's neglected Mankind and Mother Earth.

Connoisseurs of Boardman's extensive and often prize-winning oeuvre will be familiar with his batteries of well-reproduced and scrupulously documented images. There are over 700 here (including a few of his own), almost a hundred in colour. As an enormous and necessary bonus, each illustration comes with a detailed caption. Permultum in minimo: appropriate for a specialist in the miniaturist (not necessarily minor) arts of ancient gems and finger-rings. The caption for 313, for instance, is a gem in more than one sense, and 265, a sandstone head of an Egyptian princess dated about 1350 BC (Boardman is keen not to use the increasingly favoured 'BCE'/'CE' system), is captioned as 'a personal choice as the most beautiful artefact of antiquity'.

Coincidentally, just as this formidable book is published in London (Thames) and New York (Hudson), so the Musée du Quai Branly opens by the Seine in Paris. This is not a museum of 'tribal', let alone 'primitive' art, or even a Musée d'Arts Premiers, since the Museum's 'philosophy' holds that no hierarchy exists among the arts and that above all else a Western point of view must be rigorously avoided. Boardman, though entirely catholic in his geochronographic purview, would beg politely to disagree. It is no accident that 'The Classical Conundrum' is given a section to itself (within 'The Arts of Urban Life') and is placed pretty much at the dead centre of the work. Here we are told that the Greeks - some Greeks, exploiting the chaos of their societies' political structure to indulge individualistic inventiveness - took the revolutionary step of consciously looking at life and trying to render it, unsentimentally, in a totally realistic 'Classical' manner. Yet here we learn too that, for Boardman, the true function of the artist properly so called is to convey messages about the world and man's place in it, rather than merely to counterfeit it. The Parthenon or Temple I at Tikal? Dylan or Keats? You decide.

Whatever the decision, circumnavigating the world history of art with Sir John Boardman as cicerone is a rare privilege and source of both sensual and intellectual enlightenment. His 'Hon. RA' monicker is no mere soubriquet. He holds the chair of Ancient History at the Royal Academy first created for and held by Edward Gibbon. Another very hard act to follow, but John Boardman's macrocosmic reach does not exceed his sure grasp.

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