Imag(in)ing the Celts

Article excerpt

In the latest of his periodic reviews of Celtic exhibitions in the pages of Antiquity (Megaw 1981; 1992; 1994) Vincent resumes the Grand Tour and evaluates a series of such events over the past decade.

It is fifteen years since that blockbuster of all Celtic exhibition blockbusters, I Celti: la prima Europa packed them in to Venice's Palazzo Grassi. While its doorstopper of a catalogue has long since been out of print, until recently it was still possible to obtain a pocket-bursting shrunk version--though without the invaluable catalogue entries of the original (Kruta 1997).

In what follows we shall largely restrict ourselves to noting those projects which have involved more than one country. In this context it is Venceslas Kruta, recently retired from the Ecole pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris, who seems to have continued a second career as major exhibitions co-ordinator, aided by his wife, Luana Kruta Poppi, herself associated with a small publishing firm set up with Japanese backing, Kronos B.Y. Editions. Together with other members of what might well be termed 'the early Celtic art mafia', Miklos Szabo in Budapest, Barry Raftery in Dublin and Otto-Herman Frey, formerly of Marburg University and surely the Godfather of early Celtic art studies, Kruta developed in 1998 the Japanese connection and was responsible for Treasures of Celtic art, shown at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum and accompanied by that rare thing, a catalogue both sumptuous and scholarly (Kruta 1998).

However, in the '90s, not everything was flourishing in the world of representing the Celts. In an extraordinary exhibition--all right, pun intended--of stingy local government tunnel vision, the Musee municipal of Epernay, situated amidst some of the richest Champagne houses of France, was closed to the public and essential repairs to its fabric postponed indefinitely. Its impressively titled 'Conservateur en chef du Patrimoine', Jean-Jacques Charpy, a former pupil of Kruta's, now finds himself in charge of rows of empty showcases and one of the most important Iron Age collections in Europe, when not in store, is now perennially on the road; its swan song on home territory was in 1991--certainly a good year for Celtic exhibitions (Charpy & Roualet 1991). What is Champagne's loss has been the rest of Europe's gain; thus in 1999 the Museo della Ceramica in Fiorano Modenese was host to Le arti del fuoco dei Celti (Kruta Poppi 1999) followed by Splendeurs celtes: armes et bijoux in the Musee du Malgre-Tout at Treignes in Belgium (CEDARC 2001). And there : is one more exhibition where the archaeological riches of Epernay have been on view--but we shall leave the best to last.

Since I Celti, there have been many other exhibitions investigating aspects of the European Iron Age. The Italians in fact have something of a European record for producing megadisplays accompanied by mammoth publications--both usually financially underpinned by an enviable level of sponsorship. Many volumes have been literally bankrolled (Carratelli 1988) and the problem is tracking them down before they go out of print. The Palazzo Grassi--a cultural foundation of the Fiat Group--followed the Celts by presenting the Etruscans in an exhibition which travelled to Paris and Berlin, once more plugging the European theme (Pallottino 1992); next came the Western Greeks (Carratelli 1996). Some other Italian-originating presentations, dealing with aspects of the Iron Age of key importance for studying the ethnogenesis of the region, have also travelled north: first Die Picener--ein Volk Europas--there's that word again--had a dramatic showing in Frankfurt's Schirn Kunsthalle (Schadler 1999). The shadowy Leponti, that Alpine community who appear to hold the key to many aspects of what might be termed proto-Celtic culture, have also been well served by exhibitions in Italy, Switzerland and Germany (de Marinis & Biaggio Simone 2000; Schweizerisches Landesmuseum 2001) as have the Ligurians (de Marinis & Spadea 2004). …