The Lewis Chessmen Winter North

This month saw the arrival in Aberdeen Art Gallery of The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked exhibition

“Probably made in Norway…Found on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland”

So the British Museum’s website prosaically introduces us to the Lewis Chessmen, or Uig Chessmen, a collection of 93 chess pieces intricately carved out of walrus ivory and whales’ teeth by three Vikings between 1150 and 1200 AD.  (Yes: three!)  The BM owns 82 of the 93 pieces which form this beautiful collection.  The other eleven are normally housed in the National Museum in Edinburgh, and a selection of just over 30 pieces from both museums is currently touring Scotland as part of the Unmasked exhibition. 

Unmasked began in Edinburgh in May 2010 and will travel to Shetland in January 2011 and before completing its Scottish tour in Stornoway from April to September of that year.

I’ve been walking around Edinburgh for the last six months or so with a notebook bearing the furtive coffee- (or maybe pint-) induced note-to-self: “Write something on the Lewis Chessmen”.  It didn’t happen; the exhibition came to Edinburgh, and then went, and the devil won the day.  Fortunately, I have intermittent occasion to travel to Aberdeen (well…), and when my girlfriend’s father asked me if I’d heard about this new Chessmen exhibition I couldn’t in good conscience say no.

In my ignorance I had expected a Mona Lisa-type scenario, an unsatisfying huddle around a single glass cabinet searing the eyes out of my head from all the reflected camera flashes.  Far from it, The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked is a beautifully curated experience.  In a darkened wing with standing room aplenty, visitors can move easily through the space.  The chessmen are displayed in numerous cabinets, occasionally contextualised beside other artefacts from the same period in Lewis such as broaches, swords, and tools – all grim pieces beside the curious beauty of the collection, but adding depth of visual understanding for the visitor.  There are even gaming boards where visitors can play chess, drafts and another Norse board game whose name escapes me.

The chessmen themselves are not high art by any means, but they do exhibit a mysterious gravitas and a window into the ideology of the age that clearly fascinates.  Faces stare out at their game with expressions ranging from furtive suspicion to deep contemplation, investing the offices of bishop, queen and king with unquestionable wisdom, seriousness and a degree of serenity.  Soldiers, on the other hand, tend to look cautiously out over shields, clutching their spears and swords tightly with what would be whitened knuckles of only the whole surfaces of the pieces weren’t the same tone.

The real appeal of the Lewis Chessmen seems to be their ability to civilise the past.  The soldiers’ mysterious Dark Age faces contrast with the sense of education, reason and patience which emanates from those of the civic and religious authorities.  And the function of this set (or three sets) – to entertain, pass time, socialise – contrasts with a storybook image of a dark, barbaric north.  This more civilised picture is added to by the broader context of artistry, trade and communication which the exhibition presents well.

But let’s not pretend that this is all about the Dark Age past.  For a start, a major element of the story concerns the discovery of the pieces in Lewis in the nineteenth century and their journey which ended in various museum collections.  Strikingly, the exhibition’s concern with the Lewis discovery story has resulted in the use of Gaelic throughout with English translation, including during the audio-visual presentation.  The sight of the written words, the occasional broad backdrops of the stone and green Lewis landscape on the walls, and the sound of the Gaelic language film leaves you with little doubt: this is a Gaelic, Scottish experience.

The sounds and sights of the Gaelic Western Isles are charming indeed, but their deployment here in this exhibition’s tour of Scotland does tend to make one question their purpose, particularly when it is freely admitted that Lewis at the time of the chessmen’s creation was, culturally speaking, Scandinavian.  It can’t be denied that this is viewed to a large extent as a homecoming tour and that conversely those pieces which normally reside in the British Museum are not at home there, as such.

Furthermore, the Lewis Chessmen Unmasked, supported by the Scottish Government, has a thing or two to say about contemporary Scotland.  This is a Scotland which embraces its past and its cultural diversity.  It says ‘anyone in Scotland can be Scottish’, but it also suggests positive discrimination towards the Gaelic world or an ideal of it.  It even looks north to Norway, the last-man-standing in Alex Salmond’s ‘Arc of Success’.

The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked is in Aberdeen until 8th January 2011.  This blog commends it to you.

I thought I’d invented a new word…

Main Posts — Tags: , , , , — comelybankingcrisis @ 1:26 pm

A bolivious gesture? Velezuelan President Hugo Chavez presents Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with yet another replica of Simone Bolivar's sword

The Comely Banking Crisis was at some point in the last day or two attempting to tell someone that he was ‘oblivious’, but through some confusion of the mind or speech impediment, this came out as ‘bolivious’.  Subsequent research into the use of this non-word on Urban Dictionary, corroborated by Cha Cha, has led me to the following definition:

“Believing that you are mindful or aware of something.  But you’re not.  But you SHOULD be.”

I must say I found this definition quite disappointing, to say the least.  This is because I wanted a little bit for this new word to be my own creation, therefore granting me the authorial right to its definition (a little naïve there, I’ll admit).  But mainly I was disappointed because I thought a much better definition would be:

“Believing that you are the great American Liberator Simone de Bolivar.  But you’re not.  But you SHOULD be.” 

(And I mean ‘American’ in the proper sense here.)  I would have preferred this one. 

Can you think of any bolivious world leaders?

192 years ago this very day, Simon de Bolivar was passing baggage across a ravine in Venezuela and narrowly escaped a Spanish attack.  Unfortunately, he lost the baggage.  

Honestly, where would we be without the internet?  Without useful knowledge like this!

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