Bearing the Truth about Celtic Art: Kunst der Kelten in Bern

Article excerpt

This exhibition certainly made its mark. Stepping out of the station, after a 5 a.m. start to a five hour journey, into the centre of Bern, my location was soon confirmed; every tram seemed to sport not only the coat of arms of Kanton Bern--a black bear--but the striking exhibition logo, a profile head comprising the gold covered helmet from Agris (Charente) (c. 350 BC) and the complex engraved design on one of the c. AD 700 Donore, Co. Meath, tinned bronze discs (Figure 1); though the Donore disc appears at several points in the exhibition and as end-papers to the book, it is unfortunate that it was not possible to include the actual piece in the display.

'Kunst der Kelten 700 vor bis 700 nach Chr.' ('Art of the Celts, 700 BC to AD 700'), staged ar the Historisches Museum in Bem from 18 June to 18 October 2009, is a worthy successor to some half-dozen major projects on similar themes presented over the past 25 years, adding to the seemingly inexhaustible list of exhibitions dealing with early Celtic art. A joint project with the Landesmuseum Wurttemberg in Stuttgart, it was conceived by Felix Muller, of the Historisches Museum and Honorary Professor ar Bem University, in collaboration with his Stuttgart counterpart, Thomas Hoppe. Muller, whose doctoral thesis is one of a handful of modern in-depth studies of Iron Age art to appear in print (in 1989), has also revisited the emblematic La Tene cemetery of Munsingen-Rain near Bern (Muller 1998), discovered in 1906 anda key site for the relative chronology of Iron Age Europe. He and colleagues have recently demonstrated how ir was the last resting-place of an inter-related high ranking group (Muller et al. 2008), so it is natural that finds from the cemetery should play an important if necessarily small-scale role in Bern again in 2009. Muller is also the main author of the text of the publication accompanying the exhibition (Muller 2009; full details in the references here) chiefly assisted by Martin Guggisberg of Basel University's Institut for Klassische Archaologie.

On the station bookstalls, and seemingly unaware that for some the concept of a Celtic Europe has no universal validity, a special edition of L'archeologue 103 (2009) vied for my Swiss francs with Damals 7 (2009) devoted to 'Kelten in Europa'. In Bern there has been a whole series of cultural events associated with 'Kunst der Kelten'. I am particularly sorry to have missed two performances in Bern's splendid Statdttheater of Vincent d'Indy's 'Fervaal', a product of the nineteenth-century Celtic revival based on the novel "Axel' by Esaias Tegner and first performed in Brussels in 1897. But there were compensations.

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Making for the exhibition I entered the museum precinct under a reconstruction of the Gournay-sur-Aronde sanctuary gate, just as was on display at Lyon in 2006-7 (Goudineau 2006). Just to the right, Markus Binggeli, master metalsmith and specialist in reproducing archaeological material and Anna Kienholz from the P"dagogische Hochschule were finishing a full size replica of an extraordinary bronze couch. The original comes from the late Hallstatt chieftain's grave of Hochdorf and has obvious links with the 'situla art' of the Atestine region and what is now Slovenia (Frey 1989). Using nothing but original materials, copies of prehistoric tools and what is known of contemporary casting techniques the result was a tribute to modern craftsmanship. The 'Biedermeier couch' with its eight 'trick cyclists', naked women with coral-studded bodies, upraised arms supporting the main weight of the couch and feet attached to small spoked wheels, is hardly less of a museum show-stopper than the original.

The main exhibition area within the museum's new annexe was divided into eight sections, each one supported by trilingual texts--German, French and English--anda range of film clips and computer graphics. Indeed the combined effects of artefacts, text and images achieved a near-perfect balance. …