Ever since they removed the British Library from the British Museum, the Museum’s two biggest attractions are the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles. Maybe the Stone and Marbles have always been the biggest attractions these past hundred, two hundred, whatever years. I mean apart from traveling exhibitions of King Tut’s knickknacks and terra-cotta Chinese soldiers, and such like.
Though personally I favored the old Library’s main Reading Room, with its raised circular daïs (famously helmed by Angus Wilson in the 1940s and 50s) and its ghosts of scribblers past (Charles Dickens, Karl Marx, Colin Wilson). I don’t know where I’m going with this, except I want to say it always gets my goat when I see people whining about how London shouldn’t have the Marbles because they really belong to “Greece.” Yeah, right! The Greece of 2500 years ago, maybe. Not the hybridized Balkan-Turk polity that exists today.
If Lord Elgin or whoever it was hadn’t carted them off to England, they’d have gone the way of most ancient Greek treasures, with their heads and arms cut off, or full of bullet holes.
In case you don’t know what I’m talking about (a common problem once I get going), the Elgin Marbles are these sculptures that once decorated the cornice, or pediment or whatever it’s called, of the Parthenon. You know, the triangular part that sits on top of the pillars. I’ll try to find a picture. They’re not particularly astounding as sculptures, mind you, but the fact that they really are part of the Parthenon makes them interesting, and accounts for all the tiswas that people get into when they imagine they should be shipped back to Athens, because . . . well, just because.
Here’s a typical miseryguts article along those lines in the Grauniad. How pathetic. “As a Briton I hang my head in shame,” oh boo hoo.
The obvious solution, it seems to me, would be to ship the Parthenon, maybe complete with Acropolis, to London. I wouldn’t be adverse to moving it stateside, maybe Lake Havasu. You know, like London Bridge. But then we have the problem of getting the British Museum to give up the Elgin Marbles, and so we’re back to where we started. Perhaps we could compromise on someplace in between. Legoland maybe.
Another interesting thing about the Marbles is that originally they were painted. Still a little paint left on the Marbles, if you look closely. The Greeks painted their statues, you know. All these modern sculptors—Saint-Gaudens, Rodin, Epstein, Moore—think they’re being really classical with all-white or all-bronze figures. But if they really wanted to do the Praxiteles thing they should splash a nice coat of paint on their work. Then again, maybe they can’t paint, and maybe that’s the real issue.
Anyhow, that’s your art history lesson for the day. For extra credit you can read this really nice detailed history of the Marbles that was recently “published” in ArtNews.