Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Dreaming Antiquity at the Louvre

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), Psyche Abandoned
Private collection
Antiquity Rediscovered: Innovation and Resistance in the 18th Century
Louvre Museum, Paris
2nd December 2010 - 14th February 2011

Antiquity Rediscovered: Innovation and Resistance in the 18th Century features a selection of over one hundred and fifty major works that illustrate the emergence of the so-called 'neoclassical' movement, which spurred eighteenth-century Europe to look back to Antiquity once again. Running counter to the formal inventiveness of Parisian rococo and Italian 'decorative baroque' trends, which had spread across the continent, this stylistic revival concerned not only the visual arts and architecture but also a way of life, stimulated by archaeological discoveries and academic debate.

However, by the 1760s various alternative trends, based on other historical sources, emerged. They are included in this show under the themes of 'baroque revival', 'mannerist revival', and the quest for the 'sublime'—from Rome to Edinburgh and from Stockholm to Paris, artists flaunted their uniqueness by expressing their vision of an imagined Antiquity, one based less on archaeology and more on inspiration from the Renaissance, the seventeenth century, indeed the Middle Ages (associated with France’s own 'ancient' history).

Report on the exhibition by France2 TV (in French):


The final quarter of the eighteenth century nevertheless saw the lasting affirmation of a more universal idiom whose radical expression focused on heroic values, conveyed here through the themes of the Triumph of Mars, Great Men, the Defence of Virtue, and the Body Magnified. These sections feature masterpieces by David, Fuseli, Sergel, and Canova along with architectural plans, monumental canvases, and large marbles that convey the new aspirations of European society on the eve of Revolutionary upheaval.

This blog has nothing to add to the large exhibition mini-site, in English and French, which features high-quality digital images of all the major works in the exhibition; suffice it to highlight below a few items of interest to us. I should point out, however, that the official title of the exhibition, L'Antiquité Revée (dreamed antiquity) seems to me a much more apt title than their translation Antiquity rediscovered.
Hubert Robert (1733-1808), The Finding of the Laocoön (1773)
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond
Painted eight years after Hubert Robert returned to France, this work appears to sum up the lessons learned by the artist during his long initiatory tour of Italy. For Robert, the important thing was not a scrupulous depiction of the real circumstances of the chance discovery of the large sculpted group known as The Laocoön in 1506; instead, he set the scene in a vast gallery that looks more like the plans he would later propose for the Grande Galerie at the Louvre than the authentic surviving cellars of Nero’s palace in Rome. The impression of vastness is enhanced by the back-lighting, and the perspective is cleverly shifted to the left in order to forestall any impression of monotony; meanwhile, the drama of the discovery of the sculpture is reinforced by the raking light coming from the right, as though from the wings of a theatre. Instead of clothing the women and workers in Renaissance garb, Robert shows them in working-class garments of his own day, strangely mingled with a few less-obvious figures wearing togas. The opening of a sarcophagus in the left foreground creates an atmosphere of profanation. Robert’s imagined archaeological scene evokes not so much a Renaissance discovery as the resurgence of a heroic past.
Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806)
The High Priest Coresus sacrificing himself to save Callirhoe (1765)
Musée du Louvre, Paris
In 1765 Fragonard presented this very large painting in support of his candidacy for membership in the Academy. When exhibited at the Salon, the work was hailed by the public, as echoed in the press and by Diderot. The story of this ancient legend, told by Pausanias, is rather obscure though it had been the subject of a tragic play and an opera early in the eighteenth century: Coresus, a high priest of Dionysus, was in love with Callirhoe. In despair at his unrequited love, the priest announced that his god had ordered the young woman to be sacrificed. However, just when the innocent Callirhoe is about to be sacrificed, Coresus recoils at the horror of his deed and kills himself instead. Fragonard composed this painting like a theatrical play. The tragedy unfolds before spectators, in the intense glow of supernatural light. This painting thus functioned as an admirable standard-bearer for a spirited aesthetic quite different from the works advocated by Antiquity-loving purists, and it was supported by critics and the establishment. Fragonard’s admirably successful painting actually incorporated and corrected discoveries made by the promoters of Antiquity, yet it was free of excessive purism and above all endowed with an intense enthusiasm and passion totally alien to their marble-cold aesthetics.
Francesco Solimena (1657-1747), The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple
Musée du Louvre, Paris
This painting was a sketch by baroque artist Francesco Solimena for his fresco adorning the inner façade of the church of Gesù Nuovo in Naples, completed in 1725. Fragonard made a copy of Solimena’s fresco during his tour of Italy. Fragonard’s staging of his Coresus was notably indebted to this composition. The Biblical subject comes from the Second Book of Maccabees (3:24–7). When Heliodorus tried to seize the treasure housed in the Temple of Jerusalem on the orders of the Syrian King Seleucos IV, he was driven out by angels on horseback. The scene takes place in a vast, open palace whose columns provide a magnificent setting and whose staircase was conducive to placing the groups at different levels, the better to link the various elements. Figures skilfully placed in the front corners function as repoussoirs, while large opposing masses and key contrasts of light and shadow were techniques that characterised paintings with the typical baroque spirit so alien to the restraint of Antique-style works inspired by Winckelmann.

Anton Rafael Mengs (1728-1779), St Peter Enthroned
Galleria Sabauda, Turin
It was during his second stay in Madrid (1774-76), when he became First Painter to King Charles III, that Mengs—whom Winckelmann called the greatest painter of his day in 1764 and who was at the peak of his brilliant international career—conceived this painting. It reemploys the composition he had already used for a Saint Peter painted in tempera on the ceiling of the Sala dei Papiri (Papyrus Room) in the Vatican, here on a larger scale yet tighter composition that accentuates the monumentality of the image. Compared to the Vatican St Peter, the picture here is devoid of setting and the apostle henceforth stands out against a bare, luminous background that further stresses his powerful massiveness. Mengs combined this arrangement with a chiaroscuro technique that confers a sculptural quality to his painting, which would become typical of his late works. In this pivotal painting, Mengs was therefore revitalizing his approach, always marked by 'primitive' simplicity and grandeur yet henceforth concerned with lively, powerful expressiveness that harked back to great 'baroque' statuary.
Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787)
Thetis Confiding the Education of Achilles to the Centaur Chiron (1760)
Galleria Nazionale, Parma
In 1760 Pompeo Batoni was commissioned to do this painting by the duke of Parma, Philip of Bourbon. The chosen subject was a fairly direct way to praise the education that the duke’s wife, Louise Élisabeth of France, intended to give their young son Ferdinand by confiding him to a prestigious, enlightened tutor, the abbé de Condillac. In the painting Batoni focuses on the moment when Thetis, Achilles’ mother, hands her son over to Chiron; Batoni did not invent the subject, which was already present in Italian Renaissance art and resurfaced in painting done in Emilia in the eighteenth century. In Batoni’s canvas there are obvious echoes of the art of Correggio and Raphael (the latter’s Farnesina Galatea can be recognized in the figure of Thetis) along with clear reminiscences of Parmigianino (the sinuous lines of the lithe figure of young Achilles) and of ancient sculpture (Chiron’s resemblance to a youthful centaur unearthed by Monsignor Furietti in Hadrian’s Villa in 1736).
Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), The Nightmare
Institute of Arts, Detroit
Born in Zurich as Johann Heinrich Füssli, the artist known as Henry Fuseli moved permanently to London in 1779 after a ten-year sojourn in Rome. He aroused striking public interest on presenting this soberly titled painting, The Nightmare, at the Royal Academy show of 1782. He depicted a young woman lying on a bed in a room with contemporary furniture reflecting a stylized Antique taste. Although dressed in virginal white, the sleeping—or swooning—woman is tormented in her sleep by a little demon who crouches heavily on her belly. That is the mara—spirit or hag—who gives its name to the painting, because 'nightmare' originally meant not a bad dream but an incubus. According to a marginal Christian belief in the late Middle Ages, an incubus was a spirit that came to trouble women’s dreams with its sexual ardour. The horse whose head emerges from the left is clearly the fantastic spirit’s steed yet also an allusion to a passage in Romeo and Juliet that refers to a being who “gallops night by night through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love.” Fuseli’s painting was immediately engraved by Thomas Burke and swiftly became famous, indeed so popular that it spurred a great number of forgeries and caricatures. Fuseli himself produced painted and drawn replicas. Today this painting is certainly one of the most studied 'Romantic' or 'pre-Romantic' works of European art, henceforth presented as emblematic of the movement.

Antonio Canova (1757-1822), Psyche
Private collection
Commissioned from Canova in 1789 by the English art lover Henry Blundell, this Psyche was completed in 1792 and sent to London where it was briefly exhibited in the summer of 1793 before being shipped to Ince Blundell Hall near Liverpool. Canova decided to depict the young heroine gazing at a butterfly as though meditating upon her own soul. It is emblematic of a work inspired by Antiquity yet resolutely different. Psyche’s body curves subtly as it occupies space; her slightly withdrawn right leg, like the clutch of drapery at her side, invite the beholder to circle around her. The choice of the theme—the concentration of the young woman gazing at a butterfly—creates a theatrical 'special moment' that runs throughout Canova’s art, riveting the beholder’s attention. The handling of the surface of the marble, whose finish was always the work of the sculptor himself, is dazzling, from the transparence of the fabric to the lovingly polished skin, creating a stimulating effect of reality in the context of idealised beauty.

(texts from the Louvre's official exhibition guide)

Antonio Canova, Psyche revived by Cupid's kiss
Musée du Louvre, Paris
The Louvre is unquestionably, along with the Prado in Madrid, at the forefront of the development of online presentation of art. Witness this superb multimedia presentation (in English) of Canova's Psyche revived by Cupid's kiss, a work in the Louvre's permanent collections and not part of the exhibition, although it certainly fits with the theme.

1 comment:

  1. hello carlo here! i thought this was work by micheal angelo.. lols

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