December 24, 2009 | Keeping winter doldrums at bay during Europe's darkest days, the Sun King lights up London and Versailles; the Magi gleam with baroque opulence in Basel; the stars illuminate the Vatican; and Dionysian ecstasies fire up Berlin.
A sumptuous Cucci cabinet on offer at Christie's creates a splashy finale to the auction season.
As 2009 draws to a close, the indisputable star of December's European decorative arts sales in London is the so-called Cucci cabinet that was sold by the March family at Christie's on December 10. This tour de force of 1665 to 1675, attributed to the Italian-born ébéniste Domenico Cucci and the French Gobelins workshops, first commands the eye with the bold sculptural figures representing the seasons (attributed to Cucci's cousin Philippe Caffieri the elder) that support its stand. Closer inspection reveals the exquisite craftsmanship of its execution throughout: colorful pietre dure panels by the grand-ducal workshops in Florence, marquetry in rich veneers and engraved pewter, deftly rendered internal compartments, and refined gilt-bronze mounts surmounting it. One of only three cabinets now known by or attributed to the master, its appearance in a public sale is significant.
Five Hundred Years: Decorative Arts Europe · Christie's, King Street, London · viewing December 5-10; sale December 10 · www.christies.com
Image: Cabinet-on-stand attributed to Domenico Cucci (1635-1704) and the Gobelins workshop, c. 1665-1675. Carved, ebonized, and parcel-gilded ash with pietra dura and tortoiseshell panels and gilt-bronze mounts; height 97½, width 60½, depth 26 (cabinet) and 30½ (stand) inches. Photograph by courtesy of Christie's, London.
Louis XIV's palace examines the man and the king behind its creation.
Christie's sale of a Cucci cabinet coincides with a major exhibition devoted to the Sun King at the château de Versailles, where another of the ébéniste's surviving cabinets-that owned by the Duke of Northumberland, which appeared in the Victoria and Albert Museum's Baroque Splendor 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence this past spring—will be among the three hundred works from international collections on display. Paintings, sculpture, furniture, and objets d'art, including many that have not been seen in France since the Revolution, are brought together to form "a cultural portrait of the king."
Co-curators Nicolas Milovanovic and Alexandre Maral cite Gian Lorenzo Bernini's famed 1665 marble bust of Louis XIV as the overarching symbol of their exhibition. This and other renderings of the king—sometimes in the guises of Alexander, Hercules, Saint Augustus, or Saint Louis, in addition to the ubiquitous Apollo—show the many public faces of this most absolute of absolute monarchs, whose reign spanned fifty-four years. It is, however, Antoine Benoist's recently restored wax relief portrait shown here that, in spite of discoloration, because of its startling realism, presumed to be the result of several impressions of the monarch's face, best encapsulates the show's intent to look at the man behind the public mask. Toward this end, the exhibition carefully explores the vast range of Louis's arts patronage, a special challenge due to the rarity of surviving objects. Gems, precious stones, and miniature bronzes, which he collected on a grand scale, are displayed on the surfaces of larger pieces in the manner that he is known to have preferred. The show also looks at the music, ballets, and spectacles commissioned by the king as well as the architecture and gardens created to contain them.
A massive catalogue, a concert series, and a special symposium organized by the Centre de recherché du château de Versailles, to be held from January 21 to 23, accompany this monumental reexamination of Louis XIV housed in the château and gardens he created.
Louis XIV: The Man and the King · Château de Versailles, France · to February 7, 2010 · www.chateauversailles.fr
Image: Louis XIV [r. 1643-1718] by Antoine Benoist (1632-1717), c. 1705. Oil on wax, 20 1⁄2 by 16 1⁄2 inches. Musée National des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, France; photograph by Jean-Marc Manai.
The Kunstmuseum Basel unveils its newly restored Adoration of the Magi by Frans Francken II in time for Advent.
The Kunstmuseum Basel celebrates Christmas with a jewellike exhibition of works by Frans Francken II, the best-known member of the Flemish painting dynasty, showcasing his 1632 Adoration of the Magi. Bequeathed to the museum in 2004, the painting has undergone a lengthy restoration. For its unveiling, the museum's curator of old masters, Bodo Brinkmann, has borrowed a dozen other important but rarely seen paintings by the artist, almost exclusively drawn from private collections. A master of the effects of light and smoke and, as revealed in a newly discovered panel of King Belshazzar's Feast, of night scenes as well, Francken excelled in inventive baroque detail. His exotic animals, luxuriant silverware and textiles, and opulent peacock- and rabbit-shaped pies offer up a banquet of visual delight.
Frans II Francken: The Adoration of the Magi and Other Discoveries · Kunstmuseum Basel · to February 28, 2010 · www.kunstmuseumbasel.ch
Image: The Adoration of the Magi by Frans Francken II (1581-1642), 1632. Oil on wood. Kunstmuseum Basel.
The Vatican Museums honor the fourth centenary of the introduction of astronomic observation.
This display of approximately 130 objects features rare scientific instruments from the eleventh through the twentieth century, on loan from the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF), along with paintings, celestial and earth globes, and other objects from the Vatican's and private Italian collections. Highlights include Galileo Galilei's handwritten notes documenting his observations of the moon and his 1610 publication, Starry Messenger.
AStrum 2009: Astronomy and Instruments · Vatican Museums (Sala Polifunzionale), Vatican City · to January 16, 2010 · mv.vatican.va
The Pergamonmuseum honors Dionysus and his myriad, often contradictory, guises.
God of wine, music, and dance, and as a mysterious foreigner—associated with metamorphosis, disguise, and theater—Dionysus today retains his reputation for inspiring unrestrained revelry. If the ancient ecstatic rites honoring him—at which celebrants ripped apart the flesh of a living goat to eat the flesh of the god and drink his blood–are more closely linked by date and symbolism to Easter, they approximate the unfettered exuberance of Saturnalia, the popularity of which inspired the fixed date of Christmas. The Pergamonmuseum, parts of which are still being restored, showcases notable evocations of the Greek deity from its staggering collection of classical antiquities. This is an adjunct to its proud display The Return of the Gods: Berlin's Hidden Olympus, which runs to April 11, and features objects returned from the Soviet Union in 1958 that remained in storage for half a century because of restoration concerns. Berlin's Museum of Decorative Arts has contributed objects that reveal Dionysus's more recent incarnations, and a German-language catalogue has been published in tandem with the Dionysus exhibition.
Dionysus: Metamorphosis and Ecstasy · Pergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin · to January 31, 2010 · www.smb.museum.