Saturday, February 28, 2009

Cleopatra And The Caesars

Aside from numerous sculptures from Classical Antiquity, "Cleopatra And The Caesars" also presented paintings, drawings, coins and objects d'art associated with Cleopatra and created over the course of the last two thousand years.

Michelangelo’s legendary drawing of Cleopatra was on display, as was a 19th-Century recreation of the equally-legendary Portland Vase (which looked exactly like the original at The British Museum).

The penultimate room of the exhibition displayed film posters from movies about Cleopatra. The posters were from all over the world, dating from the early silent-screen era to the Joseph Mankiewicz film from 1963.

The final room had been turned into a screening room in which excerpts from Cleopatra films were shown. Most were silent films from France, Italy, Germany and Russia.

The paintings ranged from the 16th to the 19th centuries, but 19th-Century academic paintings from Britain, France and Germany constituted the bulk of the paintings on display.

As a general rule, I dislike 19th-Century academic painting and, true to form, I disliked the paintings in the "Cleopatra And The Caesars" exhibition. Sizable numbers of the paintings on display were little more than kitsch.

Three of the paintings carried some degree of fame, and had never before been displayed in the same exhibition, let alone the same exhibition room. All three were giant history paintings from an era that had witnessed a renewed fascination with Cleopatra, the result of contemporaneous and exciting excavation finds in Egypt and Italy. These three grand-scale late-19th-Century re-imaginings of Cleopatra were painted by Jean Andre Rixens, Alexandre Cabanel and Hans Makart.

Jean Andre Rixens (1846-1924), a little-known French academic painter, is today remembered solely for his 1874 painting, “The Death Of Cleopatra”. The painting was loaned by Musee Des Augustins in Toulouse. The painting’s measurements are six feet eight inches by nine feet eight inches.

Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889) is far better-known than Rixens, as Cabanel was an influential teacher and one of the most popular artists of his day. His paintings are held (but not necessarily on view) by major museums throughout the world.

“Cleopatra Testing Poisons On Condemned Prisoners” (also known, inaccurately, by the title “Cleopatra Testing Poisons On Her Lovers”) was painted in 1887. It is one of Cabanel’s most celebrated paintings, but it is seldom seen by art lovers, as it is owned by Koninklijk Museum Voor Schoene Kunsten in Antwerp. Its measurements are five feet six inches by nine feet eight inches.

I generally do not object to Cabanel’s work, and I actually enjoyed seeing his Cleopatra painting. It was one of the finest paintings in the exhibition, and revealed fully Cabanel’s excellent draftsmanship and skillful use of color.

Hans Makart (1840-1884) is a major name in Central Europe, but Makart is largely unknown to American art-lovers. An Austrian painter so famous during his lifetime that he became de facto court painter for the Habsburgs, Makart was a great influence on the generation of Austrian artists that followed him, including and especially Gustav Klimt.

Makart was an excellent portrait painter, an interior designer of great renown, and is credited with introducing a striking and original use of color to Central European painting (his primary influence on Klimt). He was also a very learned man, one of the great art history experts of the time.

Makart’s “The Death Of Cleopatra” was painted in 1875. It is owned by Die Museumslandschaft Hessen in Kassel. Its measurements are six feet four inches by eight feet six inches.

Impressive in scale, Makart’s Cleopatra painting is typical of his work in the field of history painting, but it does not display Makart’s talent in the best light. Makart was a major portrait painter—I’ve seen dozens of superb Makart portraits in Vienna—but in his painting of Cleopatra I see nothing but the overstuffed interiors typical of the middle-class Viennese home of 1875. The painting is too closely-tied to the tastes of its audience and too closely-tied to the tastes of its time, and reminds me of the excesses of Pre-Raphaelite painting from Britain, an art movement I have always abhored.

I doubt I shall see any of these paintings again, as they are seldom loaned, as they are held by out-of-the-way museums, and as I do not anticipate spending much time in Toulouse, Antwerp or Kassel in coming decades.

In that sense, a visit to "Cleopatra And The Caesars" was rewarding.

My brother detested the art on display at the "Cleopatra And The Caesars" exhibition, but he found the audio guide totally fascinating (it was the best—and most scholarly—audio guide any of us had ever encountered). Josh did not like the exhibition at all (but at least he liked the excellent lunch in the museum cafĂ©).

My father took a pass on the exhibition, so the rest of us attended on one of the days my father had business engagements.

My mother, however, was utterly captivated by the exhibition, even though she disliked much of the art on display. She is very knowledgeable about 19th-Century academic art, and she enjoyed the rare opportunity to examine so many notable specimens of the genre gathered in one place. She also enjoyed seeing so many sculptures from antiquity never loaned to U.S. collections. She said that many of the portrait busts—and they were all undamaged—were among the finest to be seen anywhere.

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