Current & Coming | By Carolin C. Young

Blockbuster shows in London and Paris

November 12, 2009  |  Moctezuma
The British Museum inaugurates a fall blockbuster season with a sweeping exhibition on the last Aztec ruler.

Anticipating the 2010 bicentennial of Mexican independence and the centennial of the Mexican Revolution, the British Museum completes its four-part series on great rulers with the first major show devoted to the Aztec emperor Moc­tezuma II. That the museum has chosen to use the spelling Moctezuma, which more closely approximates the ruler's name in his native Nahuatl tongue, instead of the more familiar Montezuma, right away proclaims its intention to reach beneath hackneyed stereotypes.

Most radically, the exhibition and its catalogue challenge the widely held notion that the ruling lord (Huey Tlatoani), who had been elected to this semidivine status in 1502, and whose formidable military prowess allowed him to consolidate the Aztec state, complacently ceded his nation to the Spanish, for which betrayal his own people stoned him to death. Presented alongside depictions of this account, are two manuscript images of the 1560s attributed to Aztec artists in the service of the Spanish. They portray Moctezuma with a rope around his neck and shackled as he was led to be hung.

These dual representations open up more questions about this elusive personality than they answer, calling into question the "truth" of the accounts. This investigation into one of history's most enigmatic personalities presents an aesthetically stunning array of Aztec, colonial, and European objects and artworks, some newly excavated. A dramatic turquoise mask; a stone box bearing Moctezuma's name-glyph; his coronation stone; fragments of his palace; ceremonial weaponry, and elaborate works in gold illustrate the heights of Aztec craftsmanship. Enconchados (oil-on-panel paintings inlaid with mother-of-pearl) vividly depict Hernán Cortés's 1519 landing and conquest, while subsequent Aztec codices offer a native interpretation of these events. European portraits present a romanticized view of Moctezuma. Repurposed artifacts, such as an Aztec serpent sculpture later inverted to form a baptismal font, bear witness to the hybrid creations that arose from this cataclysmic clash of two cultures, as encapsulated in the biography of a single man.

Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler · British Museum, London · to Jan­uary 24, 2010 · www.british museum.org

Maharajas
The Victoria and Albert Museum reexamines India's maharajas from the eighteenth century through the end of British occupation.

The Victoria and Albert Museum opens its fall show, Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts, on October 10, just days after London's auctions of Indian art (October 6 at Christie's and 7 at Sotheby's). The more than 250 objects on view include many first-time loans to the United Kingdom from India's royal collections: silver and gilded thrones, gem-encrusted weapons, sumptuous ceremonial paintings and portraits as well as, from the last years of British occupation, extravagant Indian commissions from Western firms such as Rolls Royce, Cartier, and Van Cleef and Arpels. Dripping magnificence, the show and its hefty catalogue nevertheless reach beneath the sparkle to present a new assessment of the evolution of Indian rule from the height of the maharajas' powers in the eighteenth century until the end of British occupation in 1947

The curators draw out the nuanced subcategories of rulers, whose powers fluctuated over time and across the Indian subcontinent. In particular, they reassess the period after the collapse of Mughal rule in 1739 not as one merely of fragmentation and turmoil, but as an era in which powerful new states emerged. The glamorous Anglo-Indian aesthetic that developed as these rival entities gradually came under the authority of the English East India Company is studied as evidence of how India's rulers incorporated Western notions of hierarchy and ceremony into their own. Under outright British rule from 1876 to 1947, the last maharajas are examined as patrons whose lavish commissions often drove fashion in the West as much as in the East. This visually opulent exhibition offers up an insightful exploration of power and its manifestations in India.

Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts · Victoria and Albert Museum, London · October 10 through January 17, 2010 · www.vam.ac.uk
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| By Carolin C. Young

Last shades of summer: first tones of fall

September 29, 2009  |  The month offers a last chance to catch some of summer's notable exhibitions: Islamic ornament in Frankfurt; baroque splendor in Florence; and Dufy ceramics in Ghent. Europe's big event in September is the Twenty-sixth Biennale in Florence.

Ornament
The Museum für Angewandte Kunst Frankfurt gets philo­sophical about the meaning of ornament.
In a small but insightful temporary exhibition of approximately forty objects set into its new permanent display of Islamic applied arts, the Museum für Angewandte Kunst Frankfurt compares and contrasts Western versus Islamic concepts of the term ornament. James Trilling's statement that "Ornament is decoration in which the visual pleasure of form significantly outweighs the communicative value of content" (Ornament: A Modern Perspective [Seattle, 2003]) is used to summarize the Western attitude of ornament as surface decoration with no intrinsic meaning, or value. By contrast, the show points out that the Arab world has no equivalent translation of the word ornament, although the Muslim avoidance of depicting human forms led to an art replete in patterns.  Exquisite Persian artifacts—ceramics, bronze works, and richly decorated manuscripts from the museum's collection—offer another interpretation in which pattern, repetition, abstraction, and transmutation playfully inspire intense observation.

The show suggests that ornament should be interpreted as "an intrinsic part of the artistic language of a culture that cannot be measured by European standards."
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| By Carolin C. Young

Hidden treasures

September 3, 2009  |  Those wishing to escape crowds this summer need not avoid Europe. With minimum planning, you can view some of the most spectacular but still privately owned properties and collections in Great Britain and France. Exhibitions in Arles and Barcelona explore intercultural exchange with profundity and elegance.

Secrets of Great Britain
Savvy travelers to Great Britain can visit nearly six thousand objects and works of art of outstanding historical or aesthetic interest as well as numerous buildings, estates, and parklands that remain in private hands. The owners of these rarified places and items have been granted a "conditional exemption" from paying inheritance taxes by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs office (HMRC) in return for offering interested members of the public access to them upon request.

Despite this legal requirement, the list of items with a "conditional exemption" was, until recently, notoriously difficult to obtain-relegated, one imagined, to a dusty drawer in a back office of the Victoria and Albert Museum, of which the public at large had no knowledge.

Times have changed. The HMRC Web site now offers the entire roster on a database with multiple search options, allowing enthusiasts of antiques, architecture, and fine art to research particular artists and craftsmen, periods, or mediums, as well as entire estates and collections by region. Owners who refuse to respond to visitation requests in a timely manner can lose the exemption on some or all of their property. Under the newly strict enforcement of this policy, fourteen have done so since January 2005.

The list of objects and properties that may be visited by this means dazzles. Although some, such as the magnificent Palladian palace Holkham Hall, have opened their doors regularly, many stunning, if lesser known, stately houses and collections did so rarely, if ever. For example, the Waldegrave Estate's collection, kept at Priory Farm in Chewton Mendip, Somerset, which covers three centuries of portraits of the Waldegrave family, including works by Angelica Kauffmann, Thomas Gainsborough, and Allan Ramsay, as well as English and continental furniture with links to Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill, normally goes on view only for English Heritage Days (which in 2009 fall on September 12 and 13). Similarly, in 2009 Lord and Lady Dalhousie opened Brechin Castle in Angus County in northeastern Scotland with their collection of English and Scottish furniture, silver, medals, and portraits only from May 30 to June 28, and will not open it again until next summer. Despite this, a brief letter or phone call suffices to gain entry at other times agreed to by mutual arrangement. Even such a venue as accessible as Holkam Hall holds exquisite works that are not on display, such as its extensive drawings collection and fine examples of English furniture; but with an advance arrangement, those interested may see them.
www.hmrc.gov.uk/heritage/terms.htm

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Summer Fare

July 27, 2009  |  London salerooms buzz through July with a frezy of activity. A more leisurely pace governs the rest of Europe at a string of exhibitions: Robert Adam landscapes in Edinburgh, medieval and Renaissance beauty in Paris, intercultural exchange in Vienna, and Böttger stoneware in Dresden.

London sales
When salerooms in the United States and on the Continent turn silent, London auction houses heat up for a seasonal finale of important sales of Western manuscripts and miniatures, old master paintings, nineteenth-century art, and European furniture. This July Sothe­by’s features the sale of Barbara Piasecka Johnson’s extraordinary collection. Rich in Renaissance and baroque paintings and sculpture, including Jusepe de Ribera’s Prometheus, this staggering auction includes furniture and tapestries of the same periods.

Christie’s, at its sale of important European furniture, offers three pieces by the famed ébéniste André-Charles Boulle, whose tour-de-force marquetry—incorporating metal, tortoiseshell, and other exotic materials—and ormulu mounts defined taste in the latter part of Louis XIV’s reign. The Louis XIV cabinet-on-stand of about 1680 at right (estimate £700,000–1,000,000) and pair of Louis XIV coffres en tombeaux of about 1688 (estimate £2,500,000–4,000,000) have lived in Wrotham Park, Hertfordshire, since their purchase by the noted regency collector George Byng in the early nineteenth century. Sumptuous in both scale and design, these previously unpublished pieces enhance our understanding of Boulle’s oeuvre, particularly as he hit his mature stride in the 1680s.
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The London season

June 2, 2009  |  As the sun comes out of hiding, London's season gets into full swing. Amidst the social swirl of Royal Ascot, the Chelsea Flower Show, and Wimbledon, the venerable Grosvenor House Art and Antiques Fair remains a perennial highlight. Olympia, the daughter of that seminal show, has now matured into a formidable event of its own.  As always, this year a number of other exhibitions will also vie for attention. The Queen's Gallery display of Sèvres from the Royal Collection will hold special appeal for porcelain aficionados even as, more broadly, it illustrates that English collecting has long extended to objects produced beyond the confines of the British Isles.

Olympia
Thirty-six years ago, the Olympia International Art and  Antiques Fair began as a means for younger, less established dealers, who were excluded from the select ranks of Grosvenor House, to showcase their wares in the week prior to and overlapping with the latter fair. Retired dealer of Chinese works of art Odile Kern (wife of Robin Kern, former director of Hotspur, the eminent English furniture gallery, which closed last summer) recalls the early years of Olympia as being "fun and energetic." Over time, its importance and quality have increased—although some, including Odile Kern, regret that in its efforts to compete with the Grosvenor House fair, Olympia has lost some of the light-heartedness of earlier years.
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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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