At home, and abroad.
It’s been there for four years, but yesterday was the first time I’d seen it: the Wisteria Room, created by Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer. According to the info plaques, wisteria flowers are associated with welcoming. The room was created for a French engineer, a connoisseur of art nouveau. The lighting in the installation is not this bright, and it is difficult to get a sense of the wonderful color of the murals. Fantastic, nevertheless!
I visited the Met today to see the exhibition on caricature – Infinite Jest. Among the things I learned was that Delacroix was heavily into satire and caricature early in his career, and that he studied my favorite, James Gillray, very closely: The show had studies by Delacroix of Gillray’s cartoons. Of course, Gillray was well represented, including his most famous image, and one of the most famous political cartoons of all time, The Plum Pudding.
There were several by Daumier of course, including the one at the top here, showing Louis Phillipe as a three-faced pear-headed fellow. Each face sees a different time, past, present, future, and they are all bad. Daumier did many variations on the King-as-pear theme, including one showing him, popular and democratically inclined at first, slowly mutating into peardom as he sinks into corruption and incompetence.
Another Daumier shows the Marquis de Lafayette, the one who helped George Washington in our Revolutionary War, dreaming a very bad dream that he is oppressed by a pear standing in for a succubus. Lafayette publicly embraced the king when he took power (shown in the picture on the wall behind him) and grew to mightily regret his early support.
Elsewhere in the museum, time continues to stand still. These Renaissance plates, maiolica ware, show Actaeon, a favorite theme of mine (see here and here), and the death of Achilles. I’ve never seen Actaeon turned into a stag with his full suit of clothes still on him, nor have I seen Diana and her nymphs bathing in such a crowded fountain. As for Achilles, I never imagined that Hector was so darn close to him when he got in his lucky shot at the heel of the invincible hero. These images have a slightly cartoonish look to them, I think.
In cartoons, sometimes you see into the hearts of characters, literally. This marvelous statue group of The Visitation, the mother of Jesus and the mother of Saint John the Baptist meeting and greeting each other, provides each figure with a large rock crystal lozenge on the breast of each woman. Originally, you would have been able to see a little image of the Christ child and the Saint growing within each of the women.
The Metropolitan has a marvelous exhibit of the works of Jan Gossart (he is known by a variety of names) that I visited today. A northerner, in the pictorial tradition of van Eyck and other pioneering artists in oil, he, like Albrecht Durer, went south, and was enthralled by the ruins of the classical world and the Humanist revival in Italy. He fuses this taste with his northern gothic tradition and produces something that is at times downright weird, but compelling. The exhibit was unusual, I thought, in its emphasis on the sources in contemporary art of the north for many of his works. Gossart was on the cutting edge; one of a group of humanist-scholar-artist afficianados who found deep-pocketed patrons to finance their new vision.
As always, click on the images to enlarge them.
The image at the top was one of my favorites – a disguised portrait of a young girl as Mary Magdalen, so simple, plain, and lovely compared to the other Magdalen below.
His debt to Durer’s popular engraving is clear and direct, but he drops some of the classicizing of the print’s image.
Here, he cuts loose a bit and depicts Adam and Eve as actual human beings, rather “than Biblical Figures”, who are obviously quite attracted to one another.
The Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalen: The first is calm, contemplative, and shows that strange marble-like texture found in so many of his portraits. He seems to enjoy painting people as though they were sculpture, sometimes to a degree that it appears trompe l’oeil. The second is strange, twisted, writhing, and definitely tipping in the direction of mannerism.
Hercules and wife, classical architecture, bodies – see, her breasts are perfect hemispheres – and a weird, erotic entangling of legs. The picture on the right makes use of blue pigment created from lapis lazuli that was as expensive as gold.
A bit of weirdly erotic classicizing…
A portrait of a man who was in charge of municipal toll collections, an important and lucrative post. From his look, he seems right for the job. If you look very closely at his eyes, at the white highlight on the iris reflecting the incoming light, you can see the image of the mullions of the window from which this scene is illuminated.
Dipped into the Metropolitan today to see some of my old favorites. Why do I love these reliefs so? The inscriptions relate the insufferable and ceaseless bragging of the Great King. “I fought, I killed, I conquered, I slew…etc. etc.” Perhaps it has something to do with a different sort of Magic Kingdom, the one to which I was occasionally vouchafed a visit in my southern Californian childhood, the original Disneyland. On the freeway ride there my eyes were always diverted by this outlandish structure shown below: It’s the Samson Tire Factory, built in the late 1920’s.
Whenever I am at the Met, I always make it a point to take a few minutes to pay my respects to the founder of modern chemistry, painted with his wife by Jacques-Louis David.
Antoine Lavoisier was a minor noble, and a very great scientist. He was among the most liberal of the pre-revolutionary elite, and he was guillotined in The Terror for his pains. (He had held the post of chief tax farmer for the king.) I was thinking today that this picture shows only one of the couple having their portrait painted. Madame is posing, looking out at us, but he is busy working at his desk. You can just hear her, “Dear, Monsieur David is here to paint our picture. Please stop your work a moment, as important as it is.” He hears something, looks up, over his shoulder, “Ah yes, my dear. So sorry, I forgot all about it…Now where was I..?” He is busy with his intellectual business, she performs the crucial domestic support function of a loyal and loving wife, the perfect pair.
In fact, Madame was an accomplished if unacknowledged researcher on her own, and her contribution to Monsieur’s work is now recognized as having been very important. She, however, escaped death during the revolution. Madison Smartt Bell has written a very nice short biography – Lavoisier in the Year One – the title of which nicely captures that good old apocalyptic spirit of revolution that I love so well. He does a better job of explaining the unravelling of the weird and complicated pre-modern theories of chemistry demolished by Lavoisier than a mere novelist has a right to do, although he confided to me in an email that he did commit an error that no one but a chemist friend had noticed.
I find it hard not to confuse this manuscript with the perhaps more famous, Très Riches Heures, which is known for its beautiful scenes illustrating the progression of the seasons on a medieval estate. This manuscript, also a prayer book, features illuminations of The Passion, St. Jerome, and St. Catherine, who refused to be broken, on the wheel or otherwise.
The manuscript has been disassembled for restoration, and before putting it back together, it is being exhibited as individual pages, so you can see both sides in upright glass holders – magnifying glasses are available! Soon, it will return to its bound state, and visitors will be able to view only two pages, chosen by the curator, at time.
Aside from the dazzling ornamentation of the pages, the pictures are alternately dramatic, poignant, and even humorous. Viewing them all is totally exhausting, and of course, they were not meant to be viewed this way at all. The books were meditative/prayer aids, intended to be read one page at a time, a few each day, year after year.
Among my favorite images, with links:
A lovely image showing a crescent moon, and an almost 3-D effect of some angels in reddish hues.
St. Jerome tempted by some dancing girls.
A fanatical Christian, accosted by a loose woman who fondles his thigh. Rather than be seduced, he bites off his tongue so that the pain will drive away temptation.
St. Jerome listening to a scholar discourse on the classics. Jerome was torn by his love of Greek and Latin literature and its conflicts with his Christian faith.
St. Jerome is tricked by his colleagues into wearing a woman’s dress. He is so absorbed in meditation, he puts it on without realizing that his fellow monks have switched his clothing.
There is also a current exhibit of a series of small statues in alabaster depicting a procession of mourners at the funerals of two Burgundian noblemen, the same ones who commissioned the books of hours, I believe. This figures are placed around the base of two elaborate raised platforms, inside a series of ornately carved gothic niches.
They are displayed in two parallel rows on a simple base in the Metropolitan while their home museum in France is restored. This means that they are visible completely in the round. They display a wide variety of costumes and physical manifestations of their grief, all with great realism. You can view each figure at this link. The figures have been digitally scanned in the round, so you can actually rotate each virtual figure in your web brower – fantastic!
After leaving the museum, I took a bus downtown to Penn Station, and stopped to look at the new pedestrian mall that has taken over Broadway around 34th street. Even on a cold night, it is wonderful. To stand in the middle of a street in Manhattan, with the view that affords, and not have to dodge traffic!
A view of a mysterious moon near the Deco spire of the Empire State Building from the Broadway mall.
Nowadays, we have our own form of illuminations, as followers of Walter Benjamin might say. A store window advertisement got a felicitous double effect from the reflection in the back of a chromium chair. And a snap of a hard working artist, creating the dazzling festivals of desire along the street scape.
T0urists doing what they do, recording their ephemeral presence in my phenomenal world.