It would be pleasant to report that the Vikings had landed in New York and had, if not plundered, at least won our hearts and respect for their culture and their art.
That, alas, will almost certainly not be the case judging by "The Vikings," the Metropolitan Museum's current major and comprehensive exhibition here of Viking art and culture.
While it is interesting from an archaeological and historical point of view, this show fails rather dramatically to prove that the Vikings produced much in the way of arts or crafts of exceptional merit or value -- unless an object's value is defined exclusively by the fact that it is made of gold or silver.
Now this is all probably rather unfair. the Vikings, after all, are world-famous for their maritime skills, and have, in fact, often been called the greatest sailors of all times. So they should probably not be judged on the basis of objects reflecting activities highly peripheral to their genius on the high seas -- or their fighting skills on foreign shores.
But this is an exhibition of art and artifacts assembled in great art museum to give us not only an idea of the life and times of a peoples known collectively as Vikings, but to show off their art as well. As such, it invites critical comment, and mine, I'm afraid, is, with a few dramatic exceptions, largely negative.
It's disconcerting, to say the least, to discover that some of the things I liked best in this show were foreign items removed from their negative homelands as plunder, tribute, or trade. That may be historically interesting, but it disturbed me and made me feel the way I would at an exhibition of American art if I found it studded with French Impressionist or German Expressionist paintings brought over by rich American collectors.
Such overseas items tell us more about Viking and aggressiveness toward foreign peoples than about their creative sensibilities, which were actually, this exhibition informs us, largely put to utilitarian or decorative use.
The great age of the Vikings betan shortly before AD 800, when Viking ships first appeared off the coasts of the British Isles and ravished the island monasteries of Lindesfarne and Iona, a period ending roughly during the middle of the 11th century.
During these 2 1/2 centuries, the Vikings traded and plundered as far as Morocco and Italy in the south and Byzantium in the east. They colonized the islands off Scotland, established the cities of Dublin, Waterford, Cork, and Limerick in Ireland, settled extensively in parts of England, and founded the Duchy of Normandy in France.
In addition, the Vikings sailed out over the Atlantic to discover and colonize Iceland and Greenland, and they were the first Europeans to reach the North American continent.
Their homeland consisted of what is now Norway, Sweden, and Denmark -- as well as part of finland. farming, hunting, and fishing were their historical pursuits, although several venturesome individuals had already tried to improve their lot by plundering abroad several centuries before the famous raids of the ninth through 11th centuries.
Political consolidation among the Scandinavians began in the seventh century, and trade with England and Europe became increasingly common during the eigth century. The Vikings, in short, were ready by the end of that century to strike outward for loot and glory.
But for that they needed ships, and it is here Viking genius found its greatest expression. Their shipbuilders perfected sailing ships that had no need of deep water, safe anchorages, or docking facilities, but couls use any sloping beach as their harbor. They could maneuver in waters too risky for most European vessels of that time, and could, if necessary, be rowed up rivers leading to rich inland cities and monasteries.
As a result, these ships cominated the seas and coastal areas of Europe. They were, together with superb Viking seamanship, primarily responsible for the speed, efficiency, and success of Viking raids upon foreign shores.
Although no Viking ships are included in the Metropolitan show, "Odin's Ravin ," a 60-foot replica of a Viking longship modeled after the famous Norse Gokstad ship, and built in Norway to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of the Isle of Man's Parliament, will be on view through Nov. 30 at New York's South Street Seaport Museum.also open to the public is a Viking boatbuilding demonstration at which a 20-foot rowing and sailing boat of Viking design is being constructed by four boatwrights at Pier 16 here.
Boatbuilding aside, Viking art generally took the form of decorative applied to everyday objects. Pictorial art was extremely rare, and when human or animal forms were portrayed, they tended to be crudely executed (as in their stone carvings or in the Thondheim crucifix) or high stylized (as in the Trollaskogur brooch or in the Nonnebakken disc brooch).
This tendency toward extreme stylization is apparent in almost everything they touched, from the decoration on glass beads to the incised images on memorial stones. Even their later wooden church portals didn't escape this trait, as the replica on view of the 12th-century stave-church portal at Urnes in western Norway proves. Overly ornate as this latter piece may appear to us today, there can, however, be no denying the handsome design and superb craftsmanship.
These exceptional design and craft qualities are also very apparent in the various ornamented brooches, in the gilt bronze bridle-mounts, and in the splendid Mammen horse collar.
I must admit, however, that the objects which impressed me most were the iron tools used in everyday Viking activities. These simple hammers, shears, pincers , nails, etc., seemed more real and to the point of Viking life than almost all the other items on display. their blatant practicality and ordinariness gave them an aura of integrity hard to find in most of the other Viking art on view.
This exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum will remain open to the public through Jan. 4.