Monday, 25 February 2008

Crown Prince Frederick Augustus of Saxony

Crown Prince Frederick Augustus of Saxony 1714 -15
Nicolas de Largillierre
Oil on canvas 140.8 x 107cm

The NGV's impressive portrait of Fred hangs opposite "The Banquet of Cleopatra" by Tiepolo. He was the first owner of Tiepolo's painting, and he seems to contemplate it with proprietorial interest over the heads of the tourists and art lovers wandering about the room. Two and a half centuries ago, it hung in his hunting lodge at Hubertusberg, where he had to abandon it together with the rest of his collection when he fled to Poland at the outbreak of the Seven Years' War. It seems appropriate that he has on some metaphysical level been reunited with his property, albeit in a city that did not exist when he owned Cleopatra's Banquet.

You may think it unduly familiar of me to call His Gracious Majesty "Fred", but I don't have the stamina to refer to him by his rightful name of Prince Frederick Augustus II, by the grace of God King Augustus III of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania, Ruthenia, Galicia, Prussia, Masovia, Samogitia, Kyiv, Volhynia, Podolia, Podlachia, Livonia, Smolensk, Severia, Chernihiv, and hereditary Duke and Elector of Saxony, so he'll just have to put up with being Fred to us.
Nicolas de Largillierre was a member of the Académie Français and the leading portraitist of his day. He was adept at the flattering enhancement of his sitters' apearance, which may be part of the secret of his success in attracting wealthy patrons.

Fred sat for De Largillierre during the year he spent in Paris in 1714-15, when he was still Crown Prince. He was 19 years old at the time. At the age of 20, he married the Archduchess Maria Josepha of Austria, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I. They had fifteen children.

The portrait was intended to be a pendant to that of his father, who had all the same names as Fred, (just with different numbers). He was known as Augustus The Strong and liked to show off by straightening horse shoes with his bare hands. His pendant portrait is now in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City.

The two portraits were painted at the same time – the sitters wearing similar armour and both sporting the sash of the Danish Order of the Elephant. They have a robust and confident air.

Painted against a stormy sky, Frederick Augustus (senior) points imperiously back into the landscape in a gesture of command. Frederick Augustus (jnr) has a more gentle expression, which seems to temper his power with benevolence despite his magnifencently regal bearing. Like his father, he was passionately interested in art and architecture. He amassed an impressive art collection and continued work on the fantastic baroque palaces his father started at Dresden and at Warsaw.

Together father and son created a collection of over 800 magnificent paintings, which can be seen today at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden. The collection includes major works like Giorgione's Sleeping Venus and Raphael's Sistine Madonna, among other well-known works by the entire First Team of Old Masters.

Frederick Augustus jnr had no great interest in politics or the affairs of his dominions, preferring to concentrate on his other interests: hunting, the opera, and his art collection. He delegated most of his powers and responsibilities to Heinrich, Count von Brühl, who became quasi-dictator of Poland.

This slack attitude fostered internal political anarchy and the weakening of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The thirty years of his reign saw the Seven Years' War and the partitioning of the Commonwealth among its neighbouring countries. His eldest surviving son, Frederick Christian, eventually succeeded his father as Elector of Saxony, but not as King of Poland.

The NGV acquired the portrait through the Everard Studley Miller Bequest, and the dull gold frame is the original 18th century French one, which is why I didn't crop it out. It is interesting to see how it sets off the splendor of the painting's Royal subject.
"Painting and Sculpture before 1800 in the International Collections of the NGV" : NGV Publication.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

"Cleopatra's Banquet" at the NGV

Detail of Cleopatra's face
 To see Our Kylie or Our Nicole, you mostly have to stand in line and buy a ticket, but you can go and see Our Cleopatra free of charge at the NGV any time you like. Like Our Kylie and Our Nic, Our Cleopatra is a blue-eyed blonde. Not the colouring I would have expected in a Greek/Egyptian lass, but maybe things were different in those days: how would I know?

The banquet scene depicted by Tiepolo takes place during Antony and Cleopatra's "honeymoon winter" of 50BC, when they spent their time in extravagant pursuits ~ sailing in her barge with the sails drenched in perfume, gambling and dining lavishly. Cleopatra is said to have bet Antony that she could host the most expensive banquet in history. Plancus, Antony's secretary, was to be the umpire.
Plancus. (detail)
When the queen dissolved one of her priceless pearl earrings in wine vinegar and drank the sludge, Plancus ruled in her favour. (It seems that it is actually possible to dissolve a pearl in vinegar, but only if you crush it finely first. It is mostly calcium so drinking it can't hurt you, except in the wallet.)

Tiepolo's "Banquet of Cleopatra and Antony" is one of the showpieces of the NGV, and it came to us through a lucky combination of circumstances.
Between 1742 and 1747 Tiepolo painted several versions of the banquet, each slightly different from the others: ours was painted in 1744. Other versions are to be seen in London, Milan, Moscow and Stockholm, perhaps the most famous one being the huge fresco in the Palazzo Labia in Venice. It is interesting that Tiepolo included a self-portrait in the fresco: he is the middle one of three onlookers in the detail below
The guy in the middle is a self-portrait of Tiepolo
Inspired by the fresco, in 1951 the Mexican millionaire Don Carlos de Beistegui threw a lavish costume ball in the Palazzo Labia. It was one of the biggest high-society social events of the 20th century. International socialites who were not invited, threatened suicide. Lady Diana Cooper came as Cleopatra, in a gown designed by Oliver Messel. Other costumes were designed by Dior, Salvador Dali and Pierre Cardin, all of whom were among the upper-crust guests. Cecil Beaton, dressed as a French curè, photographed the event. Just one of his photos, depicting Baron Alexis de Rede as the Emperor of China, recently fetched € 4.320 (or $A7,000) at Sotheby's. Sure beats selling your wedding pictures to Woman's Weekly!
Augustus III of Poland by Nicolas de Largillierre
Augustus III, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, appointed Count Francesco Algarotti to buy a collection of old masters and contemporary masterpieces for his new museum at Dresden. Algarotti commissioned three paintings from Tiepolo, who was rather over-committed and pressed for time. A king trumps a count, so Tiepolo gave Algarotti the Banquet of Cleopatra, which he had painted for Count Bruhl. The painting did not join the collection at Dresden but went to the king's hunting lodge at Hubertusburg. At the outbreak of the Seven Years War (no, don't ask! It involved Prussia and Austria, is all I know. Maybe one of them had Weapons of Mass Destruction hidden in the woodpile) Saxony was devastated, Augustus fled to Poland and in 1765 the Hubertusburg paintings were sold at auction in Amsterdam. Our Cleo was Lot 54 and sold for 495 florins to P. Yver. Until recently it was wrongly believed that he sold it on to Catherine the Great of Russia.

It subsequently came into the possession of Niccolo Leonelli, a Venetian dealer, who held a spectacular sale in St Petersburg in 1817. The sale included 22 works by Tiepolo, including Our Cleo's Banquet, which was bought by the Tsar Paul I, son of Catherine the Great. Paul is said to have had the painting placed on a ceiling of the Mikhailovsky Castle. During conservation at Melbourne, damage from nails found at the edges of the canvas bears this out. After Paul I's death it went to the Hermitage, where it was displayed until Stalin took power. It was then de-accessioned together with a great many other pictures that did not conform to the Stalinist ideology and were considered decadent.

As a means of obtaining foreign currency, the Soviet Government sold hundreds of masterpieces from Russian Museums bewteen 1925 and 1935. In 1931 an agent of the Hermitage Museum opened negotiations with the National Gallery in London for the sale of Tiepolo's Banquet. One of the Gallery Trustees, Lord Duveen, visited the Hermitage to inspect the painting and warmly recommended its purchase at £30,000. So far, so good.

But then, luckily for Melbourne, the infighting and backstabbing started among the Curators, the Trustees of the Gallery and the senior civil servants at the Treasury. Each faction was hell-bent on putting a spoke in the other's wheel. It didn't matter whether the picture was good or bad, all that mattered was that the opponents shouldn't get their way. Such spite and pettiness as you wouldn't see on the worst day in a boarding school for spoilt teenage girls. I'll spare you the details.

Just when several protagonists were on the verge of legal action, Sir Charles Holmes saved the day. He was a consultant in London to the National Gallery of Victoria as an adviser to the Felton Bequest buyers. He wrote an enthusiastic report in favour of acquiring the Tiepolo, it was bought for £25,000, and Our Cleo came to live in Melbourne. She arrived on the SS Orford in November 1933, together with the Rembrandt self-portrait, which at £21,500 was the second most expensive work acquired until then. Arthur Streeton peevishly claimed the Tiepolo's price was unjustified and compared the work unfavourably with murals by Puvis de Chavannes.

The Melbourne Banquet returned to London in 1954 where it was exhibited at the Royal Academy and recognised by Antonio Morassi, the greatest of all Tiepolo scholars, as "one of the noblest masterpieces of European painting of its time."

Sadly, Arthur Streeton is no longer around to eat his words. All of the above, and lots more, you can read in a fascinating and very beautiful book called "Tiepolo's Cleopatra" by Jaynie Anderson. Get it from your library and enjoy.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

"Blue, the History of a Color" by Michel Pastoureau

BLUE: The inside storyBefore the 12th century, blue was not a colour. It was not used in ancient cave paintings or rock art, nor was it used when the first dyeing techniques appeared, about 4 millennia BC. This despite the fact that blue is present in natural elements that go back to the earth's formation. Blue had no place in social life, religion or art.

Many Victorian researchers have wondered if the people of antiquity could even see the colour blue, since ancient languages have no word for it.

Red, white and black were the basic colours of ancient cultures. Blue, yellow and green served no function on a social or symbolic level.

The classic Greek authors used the word kyaneos, which meant a dark colour: it could be violet or black or brown. For the Romans, blue was the barbarians' colour: the Celts and Germans dyed their faces blue to terrify their opponents.
In the High Middle Ages, red was the colour of the nobility, while the dull blue of woad was the colour of servants and lower ranks.

In the 8th century, the Church started to use gold and bright colours for liturgical vestments. Ecclesiastical texts of the time discuss the meaning and symbolism of up to 12 colours, but blue is not among them.

Blue was, however, not completely absent from art: it was used in early Christian mosaics and illumination, but its use was marginal.

In the 12th century, blue was suddenly "discovered" and within a few decades attained a prominent place in painting, heraldry and clothing. Previously, the Virgin Mary was always clad in dark colours: black, grey, violet, dark red or dark green. Now her clothing became blue: initially a dark blue, which gradually tended to become brighter and clearer, because luminosity was a form of divine illumination. The growing cult of the Virgin assured the success of this limpid blue, and it quickly spread to other areas of the arts, like glass and enamel.

Heraldry, too, reflected blue's new status. Around 1200, blue appears in only 5% of coats of arms: by the 15th century, that number had increased to 40%.
The new vogue for blue was given an important boost by the kings of France, who chose gold fleurs de lis on a "royal" blue background as their coat of arms.
The wearing of blue garments by the upper classes was helped by the discovery of indigo as a dye. It produces a deep, solid blue that saturates silk, wool and cotton fabrics without requiring a mordant. This was far superior to the duller blue of woad, which was prone to fading.

By the end of the Middle Ages, blue had become the colour of kings, while red remained the colour of the papacy.

In modern times, blue in all its different shades, is the most common colour for Western dress. Since opinion polls started in 1890, blue has remained the favourite colour of adults in Western Europe and the US: over 50% choose it. Green is next at 20%, followed by white and red at 8% each.

Other cultures have other preferences: Latin America prefers red, in Japan white comes first and in African cultures it seems that the actual colour is not as important as whether it is dull or shiny, smooth or rough.
Interestingly, children of all cultures prefer red to any other colour.

Find out a lot more about the fascinating history of Blue when you read "Blue, the History of a Color" by Michel Pastoureau: in this little article I haven't even scratched the surface of this interesting and informative book with its beautiful illustrations.

Madame Melba (1901-1902) by Rupert Bunny

Helen Porter Mitchell was born in 1861 in Melbourne, the city from which she derived her professional surname. "Nell" or "Nellie" is a nickname for Helen. I can't think why she didn't just keep Helen Mitchell instead of becoming Nellie Melba – perhaps she thought "Melba" had an exotic touch that Mitchell lacked, but what about Nellie? Surely Helen has more grace and gravitas: Helen of Troy, Helen Keller … somehow Nellie smacks more of downstairs than upstairs.

Nevertheless, exit Helen Mitchell, while Nellie Melba went on to a stellar career. She was the acknowledged prima donna at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, well into the 1920s. She was feted all over the world, and her recordings always cost at least one shilling more than any other singer's, having their own distinctive mauve label as well.

Melbourne had to wait nearly a century for another of its singing daughters to make the international big time, when Our Kylie swept all before her. (I'm not counting Joan Sutherland – she comes from Sydney!) It must be said that unlike Kylie, Dame Nellie did not market her own line of sexy undies, but they did both have a weakness for Frenchmen. Dame Nellie, who was famous for upstaging her co-performers, easily trumped Kylie's Olivier Martinez with her own Philippe, Duke of Orleans, the Bourbon pretender to the French throne. She had a torrid and scandalous affaire with His Grace. They travelled romantically across Europe to St Petersburg in a private train carriage and were frequently seen together in a box at the opera, causing a lot of nudging and whispering in the stalls.

I don’t need to elaborate on Madame Melba's illustrious career other than to say that everything about it was superlative … other stars may have food named after them by any old chef, but Peach Melba and Melba Toast were created by none other than Escoffier; others may have a street named after them, but Nellie has a highway and a suburb; others may be made Dames Commander of the British Empire, but Nellie's plain Dameship was soon upgraded to Dame Grand Cross. The five-dollar note will do for Queen Elizabeth, but Nellie's face is on the $100 note, and that only because the Australian mint did not feel it necessary to print a thousand-dollar note (and I hope to goodness they may never have to!)

Others had their portraits done, but Dame Nellie is one of only two singers with a marble bust in the foyer of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and her portrait was painted by no lesser painter than Rupert Bunny.
Since the 1880s, Melba and Bunny met frequently in Paris and London. He was not just a painter but a talented musician and composer. Melba was so impressed by his piano playing that she offered him the post of her accompanist. Luckily for us he declined.

Bunny began the portrait in Paris in 1901, but did not complete it until Melba could give him a final couple of sittings in London the following year. It was shown at The Royal Academy in 1902, just when Melba was at the zenith of her career.

She had just begun her musical partnership with the great Caruso, whom she cordially disliked. She found him coarse and uncultivated. She was not amused when, during a performance of La Bohème, he pressed a hot sausage, that he'd hidden in his pocket, into her hand as he sang "Che gelida manina, se la lasci riscaldar."("What a cold little hand, let me warm it")

Rupert Bunny painted her in the grand manner of Reynolds, in a regal pose befitting the Grande Dame of opera and society that she was. Madame looks down imperiously at the viewer, further emphasizing her exalted status. She is opulently clad in a flowing white gown with silk stole, priceless rope of pearls and a flamboyant hat.

The setting is an open, romantic landscape, with summer clouds over a low horizon. The landscape setting was popular with 18th century portraitists, allowing the gentry and nobility to display their affinity with the land at their country estates. During the Victorian era, these "outdoor leisure" portraits enjoyed a resurgence of popularity.

We owe it to the philanthropist Henry Krongold that the portrait is today hanging at the NGV where we can all enjoy it. The NGV's catalogue, as catalogues do, just gives the barest detail: "purchased through the Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of Dinah and Henry Krongold CBE".
It is by the merest chance that I happened to be reading Henry Krongold's memoirs recently, and I was most interested to learn how it happened than Henry and Dinah rescued Nellie from a horrible fate: " … we heard that Rupert Bunny's portrait of Dame Nellie Melba needed refurbishment", he says.
" It belonged to J.C. Williamson and hung on a staircase at the Princess Theatre, where it was much stained by tobacco smoke. I went to [the gallery's president] and I said: 'Keith, the gallery should have this painting. On the staircase it rots'. "

Endearingly, he adds; "We'll pay for it … That's the amount we can give you for it so don't go into valuations!" He doesn't say what the amount was, but obviously no quibbling was allowed.

The painting was presented to the Gallery in Henry and Dinah Krongold's name on 28 May 1980, in front of 3,000 people. He doesn't say where the venue was, but it was clearly a glittering occasion – he mentions that the Queen was present and that her diamond and ruby tiara and necklace outshone everybody else's jewels. Well, they would, wouldn't they?

"They were large rubies", Henry says. "Duck-egg rubies they are called". I wonder if he confused his poultry and meant pigeon's blood rubies? Wouldn't duck egg rubies be a wee bit ostentatious? He mentions that her diamonds were large too, but thankfully he doesn't say anything like: "half-a-house-brick diamonds they are called".

While the NGV was being rebuilt, the painting hung at Government House. Henry was invited by the then Governor, Sir James Gobbo, to a dinner. "There were a hundred people", he says, "at a long table. I was placed right opposite Dame Nellie. At the end of the dinner, Sir James praised me and Dinah for it."
Henry's memoirs are a delight to read. Next time they have an open day at Govt House, I am going to have a look at the table that can seat a hundred people. Henry has many enchanting anecdotes to recount – he and the Queen are practically best friends, he is always meeting her. He tells how she often slips a foot out of her shoe and wiggles it a bit before slipping it back in. I know he is telling the truth, because I saw her do just that at a Buckingham Palace garden party. (Didn't know about the exalted circles I move in, did you?) That woman's feet must kill her, poor thing, I don’t know why she doesn't team a nice pair of Reeboks with the duck egg rubies.

The Royal Opera House borrowed the portrait in 1982 to display it in an exhibition at the Royal Academy. Henry proudly tells us that it was highly acclaimed by all who saw it, and one critic particularly admired her "voluptuous lips". Madame would not have welcomed such presumption!

"Henry Krongold: Memoirs" told to James Mitchell: Allen and Unwin, 2003
"The Edwardians: Secrets and Desires", National Gallery of Australia, 2004

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Role Play: Photographic Portrait Exhibition at the NGV

Role Play: Portrait PhotograhyNGV Level 3 Until 6 April 2008

A small, but thought-provoking exhibition and one which definitely merits a visit if you are near the NGV and have half an hour to spare.

The photographers concentrated on the "role playing" aspect of their sitters, and the portraits are divided into three broad groups: allegorical, theatrical/celebrity and portraits that illustrate social typecasting. I found it interesting to see the very different approaches taken by nineteenth-century and contemporary photographers.

The Victorian photographer Oscar Rejlander undertook genre work and portraiture at his photography studio. His contribution to the current exhibition is "The Virgin in Prayer" (1857) for which he posed his model to emulate the delicately beautiful "Madonna in Prayer" by Sassoferrato, which is part of the NGV's permanent collection.
Oscar Rejlander was a painter before he switched to photography, and he always attempted to push photography beyond documentation and into the realm of High Art. He maintained that the photographer was not any less qualified than the painter to represent the piety of the Virgin or any other "noble subject". (He didn't mention the kiddie porn that he called Erotic Poses, using street children and child prostitutes as models.)

It has been said that: "before photoshop, there was Rejlander." He pioneered the use of photographic manipulation and retouching and he created elaborate montages, the most famous of which is "The Two Ways of Life", an allegorical picture in which a young man is shown sinful pleasures on the one side and virtuous ones on the other. This picture was much in the vein of the allegorical paintings which were so popular at the time.

Henry Peach Robinson was another Victorian photgrapher who portrayed allegorical subjects, in the manner of the Pre-Raphaelites, whom he admired. "Elaine watching the shield of Lancelot" (1859) was one of his illustrations for Tennyson's poems.
"Elaine the fair, Elaine the loveable …", indeed! Elaine the gormless would be a much better description in my view. I have never had any patience with that silly young woman. Just look at her mooning over the shield of the arch-cad Lancelot.

William Wegman (1943 - ) takes a much more light-hearted approach: he likes to dress up and photograph his two Weimaraners, Man Ray and Fay Ray. I really liked Fay Ray as the hippie Jane Fonda character from "Barefoot in the Park". (I suspect he named her after Fay Wray, who screamed so famously in the original King Kong.)
The celebrity photographs are all of people who are celebrated for actually achieving something other than going to nightclubs, sniffing coke and wearing their underwear on the outside. (No offence, Britney and Paris!)

There are some iconic shots of people like Garbo, Noel Coward, Katherine Hepburn and Luisa Casati, but the one that grabbed my attention was a haunting study by Giséle Freud of Virginia Woolf, the famous profile emanating an air of aloof introspection.
I also liked the series of wardrobe stills of Ava Gardner modelling the various outfits she wore in "On The Beach". It seems that the critics all remarked on how well she acted and how unglamorous she looked in the film, but they must have been looking at a different Miss Gardner – to me she is glamour personified.
They don't make actresses like the screen goddesses of the fifties any more! Oh, well, autres temps, autres moeurs … you can’t expect high-octane glamour from women who want to be called actors and don't seem to own a hairbrush.
The last section was perhaps the most interesting, with portraits and composites purporting to illustrate various "types" from the era when phrenology was still considered scientifically valid.
There is a montaged dual portrait by Nicholas White, of Ellen Tremayne, who lived as a man for most of her life. She is standing beside her alter ego Edward de Lacy Evans: champion ploughman, mining captain, married man and father. The mind boggles.

She was married three times in her Edward Evans persona : her first 'wife' was one Mary Delahunty, who left the marriage in 1862. No, not to take up her seat in the State Parliament, but to marry Lyman Oatman Hart, an American mining surveyor in Daylesford. Evans' second 'wife' died of tuberculosis in 1867. When her third ‘wife’, Julia Marquand, gave birth to a child in March 1878, Evans registered herself as the father. She died in 1901 in Melbourne.

I also liked the 1850s photo, by an unknown American photographer, of two boxers squaring off. I can just see the photographer told them to hold still for sixty seconds! The boxer on the left reminds me irresistibly of Dame Edna asking a member of her audience: "Who does your hair, Dear? The Council?"

Finally, there is the dramatic picture by Davies & Co. of the stage magician, Dr H.S. Lynn, with his head neatly tucked under his arm in the approved fashion of headless ghosts everywhere. This gives an entirely new meaning to the concept of "having his head screwed on properly"! Play: portrait Photograp[hy (NGV P{ublication)