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.

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