Blockbuster shows in London and Paris

Editorial Staff Exhibitions

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

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 ·

À la turque
The Grand Palais hosts a monumental exhibition on the history of Istanbul.

France, whose long-standing fascination with Turkey began with François I’s alliance with the Ottoman sultan Süleyman the Magnificent in the early sixteenth century, now celebrates the “Season of Turkey in France” through March 2010. The nexus of these festivities is the Grand Palais’s display of well over 300 objects, which explores the history of Istanbul, that centripetal city known as Byzantium and then Constantinople before its capitulation to the Turks in 1453, when it received its current name. This homage to the port on the Bosphorus that connects Europe to Asia begins with the city’s earliest occupation in the Paleolithic era, presenting new evidence discovered in excavations conducted in 2004, and continues through to the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923.

By presenting Byzantium and Constantinople in a context that gives equal weight to the city’s previous and subsequent incarnations, the show distinguishes itself from, and expands upon, other recent evocations of the subject: notably the exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, that closed in late March of this year; but also the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1997 tribute to Byzantine culture. The Grand Palais’s show and its accompanying catalogue emphasize the next chapter of the story: early Istanbul and its interactions with the West. Here, the Fall of Constantinople appears as part of a continuum, rather than as an end.

From Byzantium to Istanbul: One Port for Two Continents · Grand Palais, Paris · October 10 through January 25, 2010 ·

À la française
In bold defiance of an uncertain economy, Benjamin Steinitz, who has taken over the family business from his father Bernard, has launched a 700-square-meter boiserie-lined showroom in a newly restored nineteenth-century hôtel particulier across from the Bristol Hotel, where he will display thematic exhibitions drawn from the Galerie Steinitz’s eclectic inventory of objects and furniture from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century. Steinitz’s well-known premises at 9 rue du Cirque remain open for business too.

Galerie Steinitz, 77 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Paris ·

Images from above: Double-headed serpent, Aztec/Mixtec, Mexico, 1400-1521. Turquoise. ©Trustees of the British Museum; Maharaja Sir Sri Krishnaraja IV Bahadur of My­­­sore by K. Keshavayya, 1906. Oil on canvas. Victo­ria and Albert Museum, London. © V and A Images; Nineteenth-century howdah. Silver and silver gilt on carved wood, velvet and silk brocade. Mehrangarh Museum Trust, Jodhpur, India; photograph by David Dunning; Detail of women musicians by Abdulcelil Levnî (late 17th century-1732). Gouache on card stock, 9 5⁄8 by 6 inches. Topkapi Palace Museum © Topkapi Palace Museum/Hadiye Cangökçe; One of a pair of marble vases depicting allegories of the earth and sea by Eugène Cornu (d. 1875) and Gabriel Viot, c. 1867. Height 45 1⁄16 inches. Galerie Steinitz, Paris.