This week, we were introduced to a ground-breaking new series, taking us across 31 different countries to explore and hear the story of its Civilisations. Presented by Simon Schama, Professor Mary Beard and David Olusuga, the nine-part series will air on Thursdays at 9 PM on BBC2, each episode examining a new theme through the world's visual culture, those who created it and those who have viewed it. We will be responding to each of these shows, looking at works in our collection.
To begin, Simon Schama introduced us to the Second Moment of Creation - the role that art and creativity have played in the development of human culture. Through objects such as the Lion Man and the Lady of Brassempouy, Schama showed how the earliest world cultures invested time and energy away from the necessary tasks of survival to that of artistic creation. By investing in the production of objects that served no practical purpose, yet held significant meaning; this gave birth to the essential notion of human creativity – the idea that people can represent their world and give it a presence that would endure beyond them.
In Scotland, one place that retains a rich legacy of this early creative explosion is the surviving historical sites on the island of Orkney – some dating back over five and a half thousand years. Amongst these are the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar – the former possibly the oldest henge site in Britain.
Serving no practical or defensive purpose, the true nature of these structures is not known – yet they proclaim a triumph of human creativity, even in the most isolated of places.
The sites have been the subject of fascination and speculation of later cultures – from the Scandinavians who migrated in the 9th century, to the antiquarians and historians of the Scottish Enlightenment who wrote about them. They have also drawn the attention of artists who have chosen to depict them, such as the drawing below of the Stones of Stenness by James Wright. In John Frederick Millers watercolour of the Ring of Brodgar shown above, he has chosen to include contemporary figures, three of which show the lasting interest in this example of early civilisation.
These sites, and others like them across Europe have also continued to influence and inspire artistic practise in the contemporary era. For instance, the work of Richard Long is rooted in a deep affinity with nature and the landscape, rearranging materials to form simple, geometric shapes. Many of his temporary sculptures involve creating circles, the artist noting that they could “…serve as a constant form, always with new content”. He sees them as ancient, timeless signs with the same simplicity and grandeur as the landscape itself.
It is therefore not only the stones of Orkney that have persevered but the very concept of the stone circle as an object of artistic creation that has stood the test of time. As Simon Schama concluded at the end of this first episode:
“All these ruins, all these remains are monuments to human creativity, amibition, hopes. Monuments to shaping hands and minds. Monuments to humanity itself”