15 APRIL 1966, Page 22

The Ozymandias Effect

The Art and Artists of Russia. By Richard Hare. (Methuen, £5 10s.)

The Art of Buddhism. By Dietrich Seckel. (Methuen, 50s.)

The Art of the Renaissance in Northern Europe. By Otto Benesch. (Phaidon, 36s.) MANY years ago, when I was a traveller in an antique land, I sought and acquired in the Peshawar bazaar a small bowl of Russian Im- perial porcelain. I conveyed it no farther than the Greco-Buddhist site of Taxilia, where the man from whose pony's back it fell upon an ancient pavement used a tense of the Urdu verb `to break' which appeared to express the fneluctibility of fate.

Since the date of that lost export I have often pondered on the curiously metropolitan conno- tations of the term 'Russian art.' It is true that I was not within the borders of Russia's Asian empire at the time of the incident. But neither is Professor Hare, nor are the readers of his introductory survey of Russian art. At the begin- ning of his account in the eleventh century, whispers of orientalism are reaching Kiev in the Byzantine icon-prototypes. At the end of it they are heard again, though fainter than those of Slavonic folklore, with Bakst and Ritnsky- Korsakov. Between lie nine centuries during which Tartar domination of Muscovy was re- placed by a Russian imperium stretching to the Pacific; yet the chronicle, as perhaps it must be, is largely concerned with whatever stamp Rus- sian temperament, craftsmanship and materials could imprint upon the luxury products of Western Europe. Of Professor Hare's lavish pro- vision of plates, many will be new to all but the specialist. An elegiac sense of the Romanov doom, however, has robbed his conclusion of any hint of that fertile stirabout between 1907 and 1914. In their place we are shown a mournful struggle to resist the tide of Western decadence, a struggle for which the new Russia was to find, and is still applying, political texts.

The lone and level sands stretch far away, sur- veyed today by the Marxist orientalists of Tash kent, but with a zeal confined (like the British Museum's former attitude to Oceanic art) within sociology and ethnology. Looking upon their excavated works, the mighty promoters of cul- tural conferences and dance ensembles have no thought of despair. Are we, on the other hand, looking for something we have lost and cannot match as the art books, turning from the 'great' to the 'peripheral' cultures of the past, en- courage us to explore the vast grazing lands between the Roman and the Chinese frontier walls, the caravanserais, the cave monasteries, the preserving deserts, and the settled fringes which from neolithic times established connections between trader and nomad?

Mrs Talbot- Rice, who was born in Russia, uses new material to trace some of the numerous cultures which can be identified in Trans- caucasia and Central Asia between 3000 ac and AD 1000. Distinct in themselves but intriguing

in their affinities, mobile in disposition yet often productive—as the illustrations are enough to prove—of -splendidly original works of art. Necessary maps and chronology are included in a book interestingly planned towards a discussion of the cultural defection of the Ciscaspian peoples to the Christian and European world.

For the very different course from—or through —Central Asia followed by Buddhist culture, Methuen's 'Art of the World' series departs from its single-area treatment; and the reader should be warned that this, coupled with the author's diffidence, results in the virtual exclusion of both Tibet and Burma from The Art of Buddhism. This is odd, but as an introduction to a scarcely embraceable subject the text is suggestive— sometimes, indeed, provocative—and the plates and arrangements are up to the usual standard. In Antient Iran, in the same series, they are above it, and some landscape photographs are happily included. Here, indeed, is an Ozymandian feast; yet for that very reason it remains somewhat museum-bound, since the archaeological service introduced in 1928 by Riza Shah Pahlawi was subsequently curtailed lest it reveal past at the expense of present glory. The work of the first Director-General of Antiquities in Iran, M Andr6 Godard, now translated and sumptuously illustrated as The Art of Iran, stresses the major architectural and other testimonies in situ to a continuing civilisation of which the future could yet be worthy.

On what principle, then, does one recoil, as many of us must recently have done, from the reported possibility that the Turkish government may reconvert St. Sophia from a museum to a mosque? It will still be, in most of its essentials, the daring masterpiece of Justinian's 'non- professionals,' surviving earthquakes, subsidence and 1,430 years -of history `by sheer miracle.' The exclamation is wrung from the immensely careful and authoritative Professor Krautheimer, whose volume in the Pelican History of Art is indispensable for the serious Byzantinist and will certainly tempt others to do more than browse through its 200 plates.

The distinctive emphasis of Professor Kraut- heimer's book is upon Byzantine and Early Christian architecture as a late harvest of the Roman world of the Eastern Mediterranean rather than as the seed of a Western fruition. There is force even today in Dr Johnson's pro- nouncement that the grand object of travel is to see the shores of the Mediterranean (one fancies him bellowing it at Boswell through a wet mist in the Sound of Mull). And a Western invention that favours the idea is that of art-history. Hope- fully synoptic or busily analytic, we must have our toes in the tideless sea. The impulsion that has carried Dr Michael Grant from his excellent presentations of the Classical world to a cul- tural history of Europe is understandable. The result, attractively illustrated, is probably just right for university students under the new curricula.

Finally, I should like the least showy item in this exuberant list to be marked with the whitest of stones. After twenty years we at last have an English edition, appropriately illustrated, of those Boston lectures in which the late Otto Benesch, once a pupil of Max Dvorak, brought to bear his feeling for `movement' (rather than `style') and his imaginative connoisseurship upon Et theme—sixteenth-century art beyond Italy— which is too rich and meaningful to be left to curiosity and competitive pedantry. Get it and see what I mean.