The British Museum is a peculiarly London institution. The collections, rather like the visitors, are gathered from every corner of the globe, brought there by some kind of centrifugal force comprised of curiosity, adventure and money. Even the name of the museum is double-edged. Most of the artefacts are not, of course, British. But the knowledge-seeking, empire-building, sea-faring spirit that gathered them here most certainly is.
Working close to the British Museum allows for the most amazing lunchtimes, contemplating the Parthenon Marbles, for instance, or the exquisite simplicity of 17th century Chinese porcelain. Why travel, when you can nip from ancient Egypt to classical Greece in a 10-minute stroll? The entire world, it feels, is encompassed within Robert Smirke’s neoclassical edifice.
And now the museum includes a whole new world, within the current temporary exhibition, Grayson Perry’s Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. I’ve rarely experienced such pure delight in an exhibition, drawn into Perry’s imaginary world, where his own lovingly-created artefacts sit with dignity and grace – and not a little humour – next to borrowings from the British Museum’s own collections.
The richness of Perry’s pieces, replete with visual detail, reflect the emotional completeness of his artistic vision. This is not your one-note conceptual art, grudgingly sharing a blank, minimal flicker of thought with a cynical and jaded artistic elite. This is an entire world, crafted and revised from childhood, full of meaning, with the patina of myth and fable.
Perry borrows the language of older, more rooted cultures, but never as pastiche. His juxtapositions are charming and apposite; his choices of BM artefacts clearly made with love and admiration, a tribute paid by one craftsman to another. Themes include the power of magic that can be invested in objects; pilgrimage (he sees the modern pilgrimages to art galleries and museums as an extension of the older religious pilgrimage); shrines and above all, craftmanship.
The show is intended to delight, intrigue and engage – and it does so, with wholehearted good humour. It is quite simply impossible to stand back and view this exhibition through the cynical filter that much contemporary art seems to invite. It’s a very disarming show, not least because the artist makes himself so vulnerable that to meet him on anything other than his own terms would be churlish in the extreme.
I love Perry’s work because he gives us so much. At a basic level, there is simply so much to look at in a Grayson Perry pot, so many thoughts and images, all creating a mellifluous whole. They are lovely objects, full of meaning, and I could sit and look at them for hours. But his generosity is not just aesthetic. He has created a whole world of wonders, exposing his own private deities and mythologies, and welcomed not just visitors, but the creations of artists and craftsmen down the centuries – millenia, even, to be venerated. This exhibition is the work of a profoundly generous man.
And so I wasn’t so very surprised to spot Grayson Perry sitting quietly at the back of the lecture hall on Monday night, listening to Sarah Waters read from and talk about her most recent novel, The Little Stranger. Sarah Waters is one of my favourite writers, not least for her ability to conjure a whole world and invite us in to be entertained.
Both these artists are deservedly popular; both have made mincemeat of the trend for minimalism, restraint, cynicism and world-weariness. Like Grayson Perry, Sarah Waters was funny, engaging and honest, answering questions and staying behind to sign books after the talk, despite the efforts of the organiser to whisk her away.
Blake talked of artists ‘seeing a world in a grain of sand’. Some artists seem to have misinterpreted that as meaning they can just show us the grain of sand, and we’ll get the reference. Grayson Perry and Sarah Waters take the grain of sand and paint the world on it. Long may they, and their art, prosper.