Troy: Myth and Reality review,  British Museum: plunges you into an epic tale that has thrilled for 3,000 years

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Relief from an Etruscan Funery Urn depicting the abduction of Helen
Relief from an Etruscan Funery Urn depicting the abduction of Helen Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

It begins with a bloodied spear: a sparse, savage picture of a weapon’s tip, smeared with frenzied dabs of vicious red oil paint. This is Vengeance of Achilles (1962), by the American artist Cy Twombly, the first work visitors see upon entering the darkened galleries of Troy: Myth and Reality, a vast new exhibition, seemingly the size of an ancient city, with almost 300 objects, at the British Museum. 

Nearby, enhancing the sombre mood, three sculptures by the British artist Anthony Caro evoke the battlefield of the Trojan War. Here lies the corpse of the Trojan hero Hector, his carcass a dismembered chunk of clay. Beside him sits his father, King Priam, another lump of clay resembling a battered breastplate, fated to watch as Hector’s vanquisher, the Greek hero Achilles (invulnerable save for that pesky, mortal heel), desecrates his son’s corpse by dragging it behind his chariot, outside the city’s walls.

Achilles, himself, also appears in this atmospheric, scene-setting opening gallery, on the side of an amphora decorated by the ancient vase-painter Exekias. In furious battle mode, he plunges a spear into the breast of an Amazon queen. As gore spouts from her pale flesh, they lock eyes – and fall in love. Greek mythology: it remains powerful, unforgettable stuff. 

It’s worth dwelling on this prelude, which is accompanied by a bleak soundtrack of whistling wind, because it encapsulates the exhibition’s enterprising, exciting approach. It is more than 140 years since the German braggart and businessman Heinrich Schliemann exhibited in London finds from his excavations at the archaeological site in northwest Turkey now believed to be Troy. Some of these artefacts are part of the British Museum’s new show, including a two-handled silver cup which, Schliemann said, in his sensationalist, PR-savvy style, was a goblet fit for a Homeric hero, and part of “Priam’s Treasure”. In fact, it dates from a thousand years earlier than the time of Priam, who – if he was a historical figure at all – lived during the late Bronze Age, around 1200 BC.

Really, though, this isn’t an exhibition about archaeology. Yes, that amphora by Exekias, a masterpiece of black-figure vase-painting, is ancient. But Twombly and Caro lived during the 20th century. Elsewhere, we find a poster for the 2004 sword-and-sandal epic Troy, starring Brad Pitt. People have been telling the story of the Trojan War for 3,000 years. 

The Shield of Achilles 1822 from a design by John Flaxman Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

The exhibition’s subtitle, then, may be “Myth and Reality”, but the “reality” of historical Troy – the Greek city of Ilion (as it was also known) at the site of Hissarlik in modern Turkey, by the entrance to the strategically important Dardanelles – is swiftly dispatched. Halfway through, a single, unenticing display case provides evidence for “a”, but probably not “the”, Trojan war.

Really, it is the “myth” of Troy – that sprawling, powerful narrative, dramatised by countless authors and artists, which still has the capacity to make us weep – that is the show’s subject. Think of this, then, as a postmodern take on Troy – short on cold, hard historical truth, but long on the story’s imaginative reception over millennia.

This explains why, after that moody intro, we meet several “storytellers” – principally, of course, Homer (“the source whence all the rivers flow”) and Virgil – who, over the centuries, fashioned and finessed the tale of the Trojan War. Crucially, we learn, there is no one canonical version of the saga. 

Then, as a voiceover-like wall-text intones, “It is the age of heroes…”, we are plunged into the rip-roaring narrative itself, with the momentum of a fleet-footed screenplay, starting with the origins of the conflict: the judgement of Paris, a Trojan prince, and his subsequent abduction of the beautiful Helen, who was married to King Menelaus of Sparta. Helen’s face, in Marlowe’s immortal line, launched a thousand ships – but she appears less than alluring here, in an Etruscan wall painting from 550 BC. 

The Wounded Achilles, on loan from Chatsworth House  Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

Throughout, the action is illustrated using ancient artefacts such as this. As well as painted pottery, there are lovely frescoes on loan from Naples, a Roman sarcophagus from Woburn Abbey, and a pair of glorious Roman silver cups, one depicting a bearded Priam petitioning for the return of Hector’s corpse by kissing the hand of his son’s murderer, discovered in a chieftain’s grave in Denmark.

An ancient vase depicts the fully armed Greek warriors Achilles and Ajax playing a board game during the decade-long siege of Troy, suggesting that even heroes need their downtime. The catastrophic fall of the city, brought about by the wily Greek ruse of the Trojan Horse, is brilliantly evoked by the exhibition’s designers using enormous wooden ribs, through which we pass. 

Eleanor Antin's Judgement of Paris (after Rubens), 2007 Credit: © Eleanor Antin, Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery

Having established the outlines of the epic cycle of Troy, the curators dwell on Schliemann’s archaeological discoveries, before whisking us into the post-antiquity world. During the Middle Ages, the Trojans, not the Greeks, were considered the “goodies”. As the centuries passed, various artists (including, here, Rubens and Angelica Kauffman) engaged with and adapted the myth of Troy. Often, in shows like this, the “modern” stuff, imagining the ancient world, is tacked on at the end. Here, though, presented thematically, it feels integrated. 

Admittedly, the art in this final section isn’t always scintillating or first-rate, but the ideas the curators try to put across are consistently fascinating. In a sense, they do a demolition job on the whole notion of heroism. Achilles comes across as a sulky, wrathful, man-killing machine, especially in two searing lithographs from 1905-06 by the German artist Max Slevogt. Meanwhile, a moving moment about the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War invites us to remember those ex-public schoolboys, weaned on Homer, who headed for mechanised slaughter not far from Troy’s plains. Brutality is, unsurprisingly, an ever-present theme.

Achilles kills the Amazon queen Penthesilea, Athenian amphora, c 530BC Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum

At the end, in a section about the Trojan War’s important female characters (including the never-believed prophetess Cassandra), we find John Collier’s memorable 1882 canvas of King Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra, wearing a cascading gold diadem discovered by Schliemann as part of a trove he inevitably talked up as “Helen’s Jewels”. In Collier’s painting, Clytemnestra, swivel-eyed, holds a blood-spattered battle-axe, having murdered her husband as revenge for killing their daughter Iphigenia to secure fair winds for the Greek fleet. Thus, a bloodied weapon closes the show, too. 

There is a lot of scholarship bulking out this compelling exhibition, if you wish to seek it out – but, ultimately, that wasn’t the reason I lingered for the best part of three hours. No, it’s been a while since I properly engaged with the story of Troy – and it was, simply, a pleasure to be immersed again in such a cracking, and influential, yarn.

From Thurs [Nov 21] until March 8. Details: 020 7323 8000; britishmuseum.org