MUSEE DE LA VIE ROMANTIQUE, PARIS, FRANCE

Now entering its fourth decade as a public museum, the Musée de la vie romantique is a thoroughly charming collection dedicated to French romanticism (which reached full swing after the fall of Napoleon, some decades after its British counterpart ‘movement’).

It’s a crossover affair, and will delight those with an interest across the arts, including painting, being, as it was, the former home of Dutch-born, French-domiciled artist Ary Scheffer, who entertained a great many luminaries here at his Friday evening salons. The guest list regularly included novelist and memoirist George Sand, poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine, composer Chopin, and painters Delecroix and Ingres, and the collection commemorates the lives and works of Scheffer and his circle, though the padrone himself quite rightly dominates, along with the indefatigable Sand.


The Musée de la vie romantique: formerly known as the Musée Renan-Scheffer, which doesn’t sound quite so romantic

The look and layout of the house and its grounds are very suggestive. Scheffer’s studio occupied the space now dedicated to the ticket and book shop (while admittance to the permanent exhibition is free, visitors still  need to get their tickets first). I’m told that tea and cakes are served in the garden during warmer months, and the main pavilion, which looks like a cross between a Swiss chalet and a French farmhouse, now contains the collection, split across two floors. Don’t be deterred by Thomas Phillips’s stern portrait of Scheffer that greets visitors on entering the house. Once you pass this first hurdle, there is a sumptuous collection of paintings and sculptures, photographs and mementos, to discover, all set amidst an atmosphere of boudourish opulence (and of particular note is the recreation of a panelled room from Sand’s Nohant home ). Take heed of the uneven, slightly perilous staircase, however, which is certainly not for the faint-hearted (nor indeed for the faint-kneed).

It’s all thoroughly lovely, but it might just lead some who cross its path to ponder why more wasn’t made of the connections between the great figures who grace its displays.  And many of the international guests who visited Scheffer here aren’t represented at all. Surely a little Dickens-related something or other wouldn’t have gone amiss?

No, not the House of Horrors, but a display case from the Musée de la vie romantique, containing plaster casts of George Sand’s (somewhat masculine) right arm and Chopin’s (somewhat feminine) left hand. Don’t ask, just  go!

MUSEO MARIO PRAZ, ROME, ITALY

Mario Praz was a literary scholar, art collector, and aesthete. As with many house-museums devoted to the passions and endeavours of one man, the sense of the collector’s personality emanates from every wall and corner, and is duly presented with love and care. But while Praz’s distinctive tastes are evidenced throughout the sequence of rooms, nods to Praz’s professorial life are few and far between. The library contains a truly handsome oak bookcase which is all but empty, save for a few ornaments and books with attractive bindings, pushed to one side. You wouldn’t know from this house that it and its possessions once belonged to a man who rocked European literary criticism with his seminal book about the overlaps between death and eroticism in the romantic imagination.

In addition to his day job as professor of English Literature, Praz also published several works of art and design criticism, and the theories in An Illustrated History of Interior Design and The House of Life went on to inform the ways in which he constructed his own living space as a sensuous manifestation of his personality. The house itself thus becomes the one key work to look at, with its individual displays mere components of the bigger picture, so to speak. On the downside, this means that very few items stand out per se, and to the unspecialised eye, the trail of paintings and sculptures, ornaments and furnishings – particularly those from the Italian ottocento – might seem to be something of an acquired taste, with very little information displayed about individual works or artists. The upside is that visitors get to enter and wander around what is essentially a giant piece of installation art.

GRAYSON PERRY: THE TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN CRAFTSMAN, BRITISH MUSEUM, LONDON, OCTOBER 2011-FEBRUARY 2012

In turns baffling and dazzling, this exhibition will mean many different things to different people, but to its curator, Turner prize-winning artist Grayson Perry, it’s about his personal reflections on, and aesthetic engagement with, the British Museum.

For most periods of human history, the kinds of things we now consider to be works of art were judged not by the bold statements they made, or by the celebrity of the person who made them, but by their technical accomplishment, or ‘techne’, as the Ancient Greeks called it, a word that roughly correlates to ‘craftsmanship’. Our modern obsession with the figure of the artist has often eclipsed the age-old virtues of craftsmanship, and so Perry raises his glass to all the anonymous craftsmen of eras past, whose unsung efforts have helped make the British Museum the venerated institution it is today.

The exhibition’s subtitle is served well by its designated setting, for the rotund exterior of the former BM reading room does resemble an enormous mausoleum. Inside are objects from the museum’s permanent collection, which have been picked and placed alongside Perry’s own works. And so the whole thing serves as a reminder that fame and celebrity are fickle things and that one day Perry might also be just another long-forgotten craftsman.

For the time being, however, visitors to this exhibition will leave feeling assured that Perry isn’t just a major celebrated artist but also a fine craftsman in the traditional sense, and one who has mastered a great many materials and media, from pottery to tapestry. Of the latter, look out for his Map of Truths and Beliefs, a sprawling graveyard scene in wool and cotton that seems to commemorate some of the concepts and institutions that have defined us.

Grayson Perry, Map of Truths and Beliefs, 2011


DEGAS AND THE BALLET: PICTURING MOVEMENT, SEPTEMBER-DECEMBER 2011, ROYAL ACADEMY OF ARTS, LONDON, UK

Once your eyes adjust to the darkness of the galleries – which from the outset give a sense of theatricality, of being at an actual ballet performance – there is much to marvel at here. The exhibition surveys the development of the artist’s obsessions with young dancing girls over a period of almost half a century, covering a variety of media and modes of experimentation, and shifting insights into his subjects against a backdrop of changing technological developments. The early solitary, stretching figures give a thrilling insight into the here and now of the performance, and contrast vividly with the rather more staged, artificially posed photographs of dancers from the same time. Through the 1870s and ‘80s, the paintings become ever more voyeuristic, as the girls are shown in classes, here and there practising their craft, now and then stopping to gossip with one another between lessons. In 1895, Degas acquired his first camera and proceeded to experiment with a medium that sharpened his eye and increased his attention to the effects of colour, light and shade. The results are startling, and the gelatin dry plate negatives showing dancers with anatomical exaggerations have a chilling, ethereal look about them, as if these adolescent girls, who are at the same time vulnerable and arrogant, frail and strong, are trying to reach out and burst through into our world. No one single painting or drawing stands out, and centre stage is given to a bronze cast of his famous sculpture, the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (the original wax of which may be found in Washington D.C.). Resembling a human museological specimen, she has never lost, and never will lose, her power to shock.

Degas, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1880-81, cast in bronze c. 1922)

Throughout, a sense of squalid eroticism pervades all, and as visitors wander around the dimly lit displays, the murky implications of this world become gradually more apparent. Yes, the girls depicted here were trained dancers, but behind the sheen of the society of the spectacle lies a rather more tawdry existence, and many of these girls would have supplemented their earnings from dancing with those from less glamorous means. Some 50% of Degas’s oeuvre was inspired by dancers, and he once said that his obsession with the ballet was ‘a pretext for depicting movement’. One wonders from all this, however, whether the very reverse may be the case: that his attention to the art and science of movement was fuelled by his fascination with ballerinas.


JOHN ADDIS GALLERY OF ISLAMIC ART, BRITISH MUSEUM, LONDON, UK

Tucked away to the east of the museum’s Montague Place entrance, the John Addis Gallery is a splendid place to lose yourself for an hour or two (assuming, of course, you don’t first get lost in the museum trying to find it). In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the British Museum’s best-kept secrets.

The museum’s many and varied secular and religious objects from the Islamic world show that Islam has always been a truly global culture that soaks up influences from a great many traditions, particularly from Chinese, which is evidenced across the gallery from Ottoman Iznik pottery to Egyptian Mamluke mosque lamps. It’s also fascinating to discover the ways in which pre-Islamic traditions continued to manifest themselves in Islamic art. Look out for a late 7th/early 8th century Persian silver plate from Tabaristan showing a Sassanian court scene in relief. (Neither the hanging vine and grapes nor the wine jugs are items popularly associated with Islam, although, of course, Iran was an important wine-producing nation and Classical Arabic and Persian verse brims with references to wine.) The Sassanians were the last pre-Islamic Persian dynasty, and ruled from the early 3rd to the middle of the 7th century AD, at which point Iran joined the ranks of the burgeoning Islamic Empire. But pieces like this show that old traditions don’t roll over and die so easily. Other exhibits show the influence of Greek philosophy and science on early Islamic material culture, particularly in the Golden Age that followed the founding of the Abbasid capital at Baghdad in the middle of the 8th century, and the gallery is home to a very beautiful, very mysterious astrolabe, which means ‘star holder’ in Ancient Greek.

Throughout the gallery you’ll see an impressive array of tile work – tiles being a particularly prominent aspect of Islamic decorative art, and one that owes much to the very Mongol invaders who devastated other important crafts before establishing a fine architectural tradition. Special mention must be made of the Safavid tile spandrel, which is believed to come from the stables of the imperial palace of Shah Abbas I at Isfahan. (And if this came from the stables, you can only imagine how opulent the palace itself must have been!) Prior to becoming his capital city, Isfahan had been Shah Abbas’s hunting ground, and the spandrel shows an outdoor hunting scene with curious figures in European-style hats. And that’s because Shah Abbas made concerted efforts to engage in dialogue with European rulers, aristocrats, diplomats and merchants; partly because he wanted Iran to be an international player, and partly, also, because he wanted to get one up on the Ottomans, another of the great Islamic empires at this time.

The hunters on the tile spandrel aren’t the only human figures to be found here, and the collection might just surprise those visitors who believe that images of beasts and men may not be found in Muslim lands or in the work of Muslim hands. Secular objects made for secular places have often included figural representation. As well as the aforementioned Persian Sassian-esque silver plate there’s a 12th century Egyptian marble kilga, which was used to purify water from the Nile so as to render it drinkable, and which is supported by crouching lions and decorated in relief with lions and eagles.

Egyptian kilga, 12th century: Not in fact something from a medieval garden centre, though it is a water feature of sorts

The real show-stopper, however, is a large jade terrapin from Mughal India, discovered at the bottom of a water cistern during engineering works at Allahabad Fort in Northern India in 1803, and believed to have been commissioned by Prince Selim, son of Akbar the Great.  If you ever hear anyone saying that Islamic artists were afraid to make perfect likenesses of animals, tell them to come and see the Mughal jade terrapin at the British Museum, which will blast away all their misconceptions about Islamic art!

 

CLAUDE LORRAIN: THE ENCHANTED LANDSCAPE, OCTOBER 2011- JANUARY 2012, THE ASHMOLEAN MUSEM, OXFORD, UK

Like many northern artists in the 17th century, Claude Lorrain went to Rome to seek inspiration from the city and its surrounding campagna. He soon became the toast of European aristocratic patrons and then, in the following century, of English and Scottish aristocratic collectors, who bought and brought his work back from the Grand Tour to Britain. By the early decades of the 19th century Claude had become so central to the canon of landscape painting that his praises were sung by two of the genre’s very greatest practitioners, Constable and Turner.  But time can be so cruel, and Claude’s pastoral fantasies in paint began their slow descent from grace when Ruskin dismissed him as ‘a man who had neither feeling for nature nor knowledge of his art’ (which is, of course, complete nonsense).

The Ashmolean exhibition might just surprise those who, like me, were familiar with Claude’s idealised landscapes but who had little idea just how topographically accurate and meticulous his drawings and etchings are – he was even able to etch the sun, and quite superbly at that! True, some early drawings, such as the much too tall Pyramid of Caius Cestius, are far from accurate, but he went on to become a master draughtsman, capturing with pinpoint precision scenes of Rome and his beloved Tivoli. Claude didn’t distribute his drawings but used them for future reference, cataloguing everything in his Liber Veritatis, or ‘Book of Truth’, which he kept from the 1630s in order to record everything produced by his own hand.

While Claude’s drawings were done on-site, he preferred to do his painting in the studio, composing them from his sketchbooks, from previous paintings, and from his own imagination. Consequently, many of his paintings become ostensibly realistic scenes enmeshed with memory and imagination. Take his Pastoral Landscape with the Ponte Molle (1645), which depicts a real ancient bridge (and one which is faithfully rendered here), and, if an earlier drawing of his is to be believed, a real tower, albeit one that is now placed on the other side of the Tiber. The scale seems a bit strange, with the towering, overly enormous tree in the foreground, whose leaves merge into clouds like patches of dark, thick smoke. However, Claude’s ever-inventive use of light, with its astonishingly subtle shifts in tone,  makes everything alive and real.

Claude Lorrain, Pastoral Landscape with the Ponte Molle (1645): Enchanted and enchanting

On other occasions he’d lift recognisable Roman landmarks from their original street and cityscapes and recontextualise them, occasionally re-imagining the city altogether as a great seaport. He also dreamed up buildings from scratch, as can be seen in his Landscape with Psyche Outside the Palace of Cupid (c. 1664), where the palace is a frankly unsightly, and faintly unsettling, mix of Norman and neoclassical features. Claude is often credited with being the greatest ‘pure’ landscape painter of the 17th century, but his landscapes owe as much to what he dreamed as to what he saw.

The exhibition’s final section, professing to attest to Claude’s influence on later artists, was a little anaemic and quite unnecessary. Its selection of 18th and 19th century British watercolours, all from the Ashmolean’s permanent collection, didn’t say much about Claude’s legacy and just seemed like an excuse to have fun with some rehangs and to fill up space. But if you love Rome you’ll have no excuse not to love Claude. He was a man who made Rome, that most extraordinary of cities, just that little bit more extraordinary.

BARRACCO MUSEUM OF ANCIENT SCUPTURE, ROME, ITALY

This handsome collection – which formerly belonged to one Barone Giovanni Barracco, who left his acquisitions to the City of Rome at the start of the last ­­century – purports to trace the development of ancient sculpture (including pottery, reliefs and sarcophagi) from Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, through Greece and Cyprus, Etruria and Rome, and culminating in the early Christian period.

Its nine rooms, spread over two floors of a charming cincequento palazzo, offer something for everyone. I saw a woman and her young son engrossed for about five minutes with an Assyrian relief showing women being deported in order to repopulate deserted areas. The little boy was openly compelled with the central figure reaching out to her child, and I was secretly compelled by his analysis of it, while browsing the neighbouring funerary reliefs from Egypt.

Later, in the Hellenistic gallery, a middle-aged German man couldn’t take his eyes off a wounded bitch, such was the tension of the taut skin over the sinews on her neck, and the intricacy in detail of her paws and pads.

The she-dog, signed by Sopatros, is a marble copy of an original bronze by Lysippus, which Pliny the Elder raved about in his Natural History, after he saw it in the Cell of Juno at the Capitoline Temple of Jove. Pliny couldn’t believe how realistic the dog looked, and  nor, two millennia later, could the man in the museum, who seemed to twitch with self-restraint from bending down to help her.

And that’s the real beauty of the Barracco Museum. Despite its stated mission to tell the story of ancient sculpture, the real joys come in the eclectic mix of exhibits themselves, with each one telling its own story, and inspiring audiences to create new ones along the way.