Iridescence

pearl pendantNatural pearl and diamond pendant, 18th century;
set with an oval diamond supporting a diamond bow motif
and a baroque drop-shaped natural pearl measuring approximately 16 × 18 × 26mm.

A natural pearl and diamond jewel of delicately wrought beauty once belonged to history’s most glamorous scapegoats for the abuses and injustices of autocracy, the victim of nationalism and misogyny, reviled by women and men, the hated l’autrichienne, the Austrian bitch, Maria-Antonia von Habsburg-Lothringin, known as Marie Antoinette, queen of France.

Political assassination is arguably justified, character assassination is not. Of all the offensive insults thrust at her, the most hurtful, far worse than all the salacious sexual slurs, the one that cut deepest, more humiliating than being deprived of shoes and false teeth in prison, more painful than beheading, was the Tribunal’s allegation of incest with her son.

“If I have not replied it is because Nature itself refuses to answer such a charge laid against a mother. I appeal to all mothers here present – is it true?”

Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine, drawn by David, 16 October 1793. Image: Wikipedia.
She was 37 years old. Usually, press reports about celebrity women degrade them by mentioning their age, but in this case the vulgar habit of prejudging by numbers is justified by the shock of
this woman’s premature ageing due to suffering

She, who was brought up to be a dynastic pawn, a bride and mother of kings, became the Eternal Feminine demonized. She was never expected to have control of her identity; her often derided play-acting at being a fashionably Romantic shepherdess in a pastoral idyll was her attempt at self-emancipation.

The modern perception of Marie Antoinette has shifted away from the inverted fairy story heroine, the romanticized narrative of an over-privileged but misunderstood star of the diamond-studded, blood-stained Versailles reality show, to the universal figure in women’s history of wronged mother and foreigner.

Marie-Antoinette and her children by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1787

While she was imprisoned, she was separated from her children. As she prepared for death, her chief anxiety was about their fate. An 18th century princess endured the kind of degradation and psychological torture that tyranny in the modern world still inflicts on female immigrants and their families.

And there’s the jewel itself, the progeny of animals and human skill, that natural pearl of iridescence beyond price, a man-made thing lovely enough to be the symbol of our atonement for our sins against nature and each other, sold for silly money, £25 million that should be spent on environmental conservation and humanitarian missions to reunite migrant families and release political prisoners.

Heroine of the eleventh hour

A BRIGHTER FUTURE FOR THE UK
proposed by Gina Miller in a new campaign to save UK from political chaos, social injustice and economic decline

sibyl
Ghirlandaio Sibyl (Agrippina) 1483-85 Fresco. Santa Trinita. Image: WGA

“The vote for Brexit shone a light on problems that successive Governments have consistently failed to address – communities left behind, inequality, the immigration system, economic stagnation, stretched public services, crisis in housing and social care.

“Britain is one of the most unequal societies in Europe, where success increasingly depends on where you live, which school or university you went to, who your parents are, and who they know.

“With 42% of UK wealth owned by 10% of households, it is no wonder there is a breakdown of trust in our institutions and politicians.

“But is Brexit the solution?” Gina Miller, Remain Plus for a Brighter Future

“What we have ended up with is division, anxiety and unhappiness. The options facing
us are so poorly defined that clarity is desperately and urgently needed. There must be a better way.

“Time is running out, but it is not too late. It is only right, morally and democratically, that the people of the UK are given a vote on a future we will have to face together.

“We believe this is the only way to clear away the confusion, draw a line under Brexit and get back to dealing with the issues facing our country.  The only way to end the chaos.”
Extract from Gina Miller’s mission statement on the new website End the Chaos

The full text of Gina Miller’s clear and constructive programme for reform, following A People’s Vote on Brexit, is available to read here: Remain Plus for a Brighter Future

Four Sibyls
Ghirlandaio Four Sibyls Vaulting of the Sassetti Chapel c. 1485.
Fresco. Santa Trinita, Florence. Image: WGA

END THE CHAOS

Over one million people have signed the Independent’s Petition for a Final Say

Over 300,000 people have signed the Petition for a People’s Vote

700,000 people marched to save the future of our country on 20 October 2018

Brexit is not inevitable.
We have more information now about the consequences.
The Brexit for which people voted is not deliverable. End the Chaos. Stop Brexit.

 

“Darling! The set was wonderful.”

via “Darling! The set was wonderful.”

It’s one of those site-specific shows in which the lead actress, in the title role of “Sweet Melancholy”, is upstaged by a live, cooing, flying prop; the play is in blank verse, and the director, after blaming everyone else at the Tech Rehearsal, has lost the plot; but the set design is wonderful….

Joseph-Marie_Vien_Sweet_Melancholy_(1756)
Joseph-Marie Vien Sweet Melancholy 1756.
Cleveland Museum of Art. Image: Wikipedia

Melancholy, as you know it, was never this sweet. This looks more like Wistful Posing, though maybe you have missed the point about contemporary self-consciousness. Mid-drama, she, Melancholy, looking as pretty as possible, rearranges her drapery and takes a selfie.

You would be at a loss for words when you congratulate your friend afterwards, if it wasn’t for Vien’s sophisticated colour scheme, daring to put Melancholy’s acid yellow dress against a dark grey background, and his dedication to historical detail in the props and furniture, pioneering a fashion in neoclassical home interiors.

The smoke from the antique brazier is scented, sending the front rows, especially the critics, into drowsy raptures. That might explain the liminal moment when you thought you heard the dove speak.

You travelled far to get here, to a disused temple in an inaccessible part of the old City, where no buses dare to stop. You took three wrong turns on your way from the station. You are dismayed by the thought of missing connections on the long journey home, and arriving tired and dispirited in the lonely night.

You imagine yourself slumped unprettily on a chair, holding your head in your hands, mourning your losses, knowing that bad as the day has been, there is always hope tomorrow will be worse.

You promise yourself that if you can ever afford it – ach, if only you’d got that film job the other day – you will buy a neoclassical upholstered chair and incense-burner, and recline elegantly in a full-length, yellow silk gown, to sweeten your own melancholy.

You are not lying when you reassure Sweet Melancholy that, “You looked like a goddess on that set, and deserve awards just for acting with that pigeon.”

Summer fires

All in the golden afternoon
….
In such an hour,
Beneath such dreamy weather,
To beg a tale…
“There will be nonsense in it!”‘
Lewis Carroll, preface to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865

gainsboroughwoodedlandscapeThomas Gainsborough Landscape with a Woodcutter and Milkmaid 1755
Oil on canvas

“Nostalgia is denial. Denial of the painful present.
The name for this denial is Golden Age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”
Midnight in Paris, 2011, film written and directed by Woody Allen

“Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this.”
Ecclesiastes, Chapter 7, Verse 10, King James Bible, 1611

constablebrightonJohn Constable (1776-1837) Coast Scene at Brighton: Evening, oil painting, ca. 1828
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

      “….colours from the sunset take:
From something of material sublime
Rather than shadow our own soul’s day-time
In the dark void of night.”
(Keats, Epistle to John Hamilton Reynolds)

“Set yourself on fire with passion and people will come for miles to watch you burn”
attributed to John Wesley (1703-1791)

marsdenmoorfire1

“The people who started the moorlands fires are responsible for a catastrophe that has endangered an enormous number of people. People are having to evacuate their homes, livestock has been lost and natural beauty spots have been ravaged. Resources have been sent from fire and rescue services all across the country.” Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack speaking of the wildfires on Saddleworth Moor, Lancashire, England, which spread for 2 weeks during the heatwave of late June and July, 2018

“They never reached a golden age, or found El Dorado. ‘The journey, not the destination matters’, Rachael incanted, out of habit,
while they could see there was nothing left that glittered through the smoke ahead,
and the smell of burnt dirt did not stop rising from the ashes.
Philippa was in too sour a mood to stomach either irony or elegy and she snapped back:
‘Catch on fire and people will come for miles to see you burn’.”
Noëlle Mackay Human Rites 

gainsboroughevening3Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) Wooded Landscape with Herdsman and Cattle

‘And now the tale is done,
And home we steer, a merry crew,
Beneath the setting sun.’
Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), preface to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865

Battle and Booty

Unknown Woman with Spear by Antoine Trouvain, French engraving late 17th Century
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

 

Dagger of Henry IV of France c. 1599 on permanent display at The Wallace Collection and one of the ancient global artifacts displayed in Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector, gleaming in an atmospheric new exhibition space which is like a sacred temple of riches, just off tacky Oxford Street. Entry is free, because Sir Richard wasn’t just a rich collector in the Imperial British tradition, or schmoozing art dealer eyeing his chance, he was a cosmopolitan Europhile philanthropist, whose legacy was bequeathed to the nation by his French wife. Photo © Martin Hübscher Photography

 

Running the Gauntlet of the Arts London, 2018

Flaming June

Flaming June by Frederic Leighton, 1895.

“Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul
When hot for certainties in this our life!”
George Meredith, Modern Love, 1891

Here is art for art’s sake, feminine beauty celebrated for aesthetics, not individual rights; sensual delight enjoyed at the expense of reason; a revelling in red and yellow, the apotheosis of orange; amoral, superficial, cheesy and good enough to eat; the taste of strawberries and cream or the touch of hot sun on your neck while you drowse on a hot summer’s day. All that, and a picture that will immortalize her, but not enough to make her happy. When she wakes up, the world will disappoint her.

The Autonomous Woman

I’m still looking at her. I lied in the previous post about ambivalence. I know very well that she is informed, not defined, by other people’s abuse.  This post is too long for comfort, but if you want to see Artemisia Gentileschi meet Jane Austen, read on.

marymagdaleneArtemesiaG The Penitent Mary Magdalen 1620-25
Oil on canvas, Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence. Image: WGA

“Till this moment I never knew myself”
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 1813

Of all women, why should the Magdalene repent? As a composite of erotic and spiritual love, a triumphant victim of patriarchy who earned her own living, became a player in global religion, and a legendary heroine of romance, we should be honest enough to celebrate, not patronize her.

Whatever the true source of her anguish, the distraught Magdalen is looking into the darkest shadows of her psyche. She is examining her own actions, thoughts and feelings, holding herself to account. We are looking at her at the moment she knows herself.

Gentileschi also cast Mary Magdalene, the sinning woman, as the personification of  Melancholy, an ambivalent attribute.

ArtemisiaGentileschiMaryMagdaleneMelancholy

Artemisia Gentileschi, Maria Maddalena come la Malinconia 1621 -25.
Oil on canvas. Museo del Soumaya, Mexico City. Image: Wikipedia.

The Renaissance began the modern cultivation of melancholy, or predisposition to depression, as a desirable creative condition, on the dubious premise that the more you suffer, the better your art. This has been proved true only in cases where there is pre-existing talent and a strong technique. Intensity of feeling alone never wrote a good book or painted a great picture. greatest struggle is to transmute personal experience into art

Gentileschi’s interpretation of a passive Temperament is characteristically unromantic: the sensual, dishevelled Magdalene is slumped in her chair, looking like a lethargic and sulky teenager, the opposite of her usually dynamic heroines.

Gentileschi (the daughter, not the father, the overshadowed Orazio, a dutiful father and fine painter in his own right) is a colussus straddling art and gender history. Continue reading

Ambivalence

Artemisia Gentileschi Susanna and the Elders 1610 Oil on canvas Schloss Weissenstein, Pommersfelden.
Image: WGA
The first known work of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – c. 1653) is a classic study of sexual harassment. Other painters often portrayed Susanna looking coy, sometimes willing, a starlet enjoying the attention of producers at the pool.
This Susanna is unambivalently saying NO

Some male painters visualized Susanna leading her old, fat, powerful voyeurs on to commit a completely consensual act of physical contact.

  Alessandro Allori Susanna and The Elders 1561 Oil on canvas, Musée Magnin, Dijon. Image: WGA.
No ambiguity here, jusr a compliant girl and a cute dog in a male abuser’s fantasy.

“I have been bullied by men and women, but the first to bully me were women.” Noelle Mackay #NotMeToo

hecate or the three fates blakeHecate or the Three Fates by William Blake, c. 1795. Tate Gallery London.
Image source: WGA

Hecate, sometimes on her own, sometimes three-headed, a triple deity, incarnates the ambivalence of all female power, from witchcraft to motherhood.

Artemisia Gentileschi The Penitent Mary Magdalen 1620-25
Oil on canvas, Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence. Image: WGA

Of all women, why should the Magdalen repent? As a composite of erotic and spiritual love, a victim of patriarchy who earned her own living and became a player in global religion, we should be honest enough to celebrate, not punish her.

Whatever the true source of her anguish, the distraught Magdalen is looking into the darkest shadows of her psyche. She is examining her own actions, thoughts and feelings, holding herself to account.

In 1611, when she was about 21, Artemisia Gentileschi was raped by her art teacher (Tassi). She and her father were not afraid of disclosure. During the trial, as part of checks on her virginity, Artemisia was tortured.

The abused women in her mature paintings are strong, introspective, assertive, independent.

Nothing frivolous intrudes on the monumental composition of her paintings, where a constant battle for light and dark is played out with unforgiving realism.

She painted women in moments of terrifying self-knowledge, finding reserves of violent, sometimes murderous, passion they had never guessed before. Her subjects are not victims or martyrs, projecting self-pity or self-promotion. They take responsibility for their actions and emotions. They are heroines, avengers and fighters for justice; they are autonomous women.

“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”
Jane Austen Mansfield Park 1814

 

 

Virgin Huntress

The case that Charles II, the most priapic and charming of English kings, only practised consensual sex with women is supported by his treatment of the teenage Frances Stewart, later Duchess of Richmond, a tall, slim, blue-eyed dark blonde, who turned him down repeatedly, except for kissing in corners, in full view of non-paying voyeurs like Samuel Pepys.

Frances Stuart, later Duchess of Richmond, by Sir Peter Lely, before 1662. Royal Collection. Image: Wikipedia
La Belle Stuart is portrayed in the character of the virginal huntress, Diana.
She looks like a golden sugared plum, a dainty dish to set before the king,
which is how she was treated in reality.

The royal chase lasted four years. Charles II wanted this splendid specimen in his harem. She preferred to elope with a duke than be the king’s whore. Rather than sulk or threaten to destroy her career, as a lesser man or misogynist might have done, the king, once he got over his resentment and was back in his usual good humour, made her famous for ever by using her as the model for Britannia on the national coinage, with her consent.

That is the story, anyway – Pepys’ story, of course. The influence that one man’s gossip has had over English history is unfathomably pernicious. Why trust a diary, anyway? It is not a reliable testament, any more than the average blog; a diary is for re-writing history before anyone else can, score-settling, wish-fulfillment, slavering over sex fantasies with the royal mistresses, confessions of groping women in church, a whitewashing of days to make the diarist sleep better at night.

Whether the Britannia anecdote is true or not, Pepys helped make Frances famous for centuries after her death, and the figure on the coin sexier.


The 1672 copper farthing, showing Britannia, supposedly based on a likeness of Frances Stewart, Duchess of Richmond (1674 – 1702), seated on a rock, holding a spear and an olive branch in either hand. The figure and pose were inspired by Roman coins. Frances was celebrated for her Roman profile, and tall, graceful figure,
so it is plausible that she was the model.

And how do we know who slept with whom? Who cares? What moral lesson do we learn? What archetype are we recognizing or longing for?

Whether or not Frances ever had sex with the King, it suited both of them to perpetuate the charming myth of her virginal resistance. Charles, according to the letters he wrote to his sister Minette, had genuinely deep feelings – “tenderness” – for Frances and was hurt by her behaviour – “as bad as breach of friendship and faith can make it”. Whether their relationship was sexually consummated or not, she was supposed to be his trophy, part of his collection.

After her husband the Duke of Richmond died, in 1672, the King granted the widow an annuity of £1000. He was generous to all his mistresses, even the one that said no. He stayed friends with them. It seems that the “easiest King and best-bred man alive” during cared about women as people, not objects.

Rochester in his Satyr on King Charles II also described the “merry monarch” as so “Restless he rolls about from whore to whore”. We – I mean me – are still charmed by King Charles, contemptuous of Mr Pepys.

They were both predators, in an era of unmitigated sexual harassment, and if either of them touched me, in controlled holographic conditions, I’d tell them to stop – but I’d flirt with one and slap a Court order on the other #metoo. Frances Stewart must have felt the same.

Like a Virgin

After the Restoration of the Stuart Monarchy, the fashionable ruling class no longer wanted to be portrayed in an elevated spiritual sphere where they knew they didn’t belong. The reward they claimed for going to hell and back was instant gratification, not introspection. Some of them were still secretly very religious, but knowing how short and brutal life could be, waited till their deathbeds for their conversions.

They had lived through Civil War and exile, and they didn’t want to look other-worldly like the previous generation. Nothing was sacred, except survival. A new generation of court painter was happy to oblige with contemporary takes on traditional allegory in a flashier, worldly-wise presentation. The studied nonchalance of Van Dyck’s figures, inspired by Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, crumpled into the straight out of bed look.

On the great consensual casting couch of the Restoration Court, Charles II‘s mistresses competed to make him laugh as much as get into his bed, and one of Lady Castlemaine’s jokes was to have herself painted as the Virgin Mary with her eldest bastard son by the king playing baby Jesus.

Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland with her son, Charles FitzRoy, as the Virgin and Child
by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1664. National Portrait Gallery. Image: Wikipedia
Like a modern supermodel, but without make-up, she set the look of the day. Lely used her sensuous features, the heavy-lidded eyes and full lips, as the template for all his portraits of high society beauties, so there were complaints (from Pepys, for instance, and Rochester when he saw the portrait of his wife) that nobody else looked anything like themselves.

She was a sex-addict with a terrible temper and a gambling addiction. Today, she’d be diagnosed with a personality disorder. If she was a man, we’d be terrified of her, and prosecute her for harassment. Instead, we find her entertaining, titillating, challenging, ultimately pathetic.

Barbara is famous for being the most promiscuous, and unfaithful, of Charles II‘s mistresses, portrayed as the nymphomaniac Fuckadilla in a contemporary pornographic satire. Her list of lovers, including Jacob Hall the tight-rope dancer, John Churchill, later Duke of Marlborough, England’s most victorious general, and the playwright William Wycherley, shows she picked talent. She also paid them generously.

She was a life-force, and could be great fun. She enjoyed the thrill of power, or its illusion, and exerting political influence whenever she could, but for purely selfish reasons, to settle personal scores. She acted from the heart, not the head. She was unsentimental, and sometimes compassionate, an important distinction that we have lost sight of.

She was shocking to the country outside the King’s circle, the incarnation of the immorality and waste at Court, a curse on the country, a scapegoat for all the frustration and disappointment with the restored monarchy.

She was politically useful, that way.

She was not popular, like the People’s Choice among the King’s Ladies, Nell Gwyn; she was the Bad Girl, the Dirty Girl, the Bunny Boiler, the Alien Succubus, the space vampire played by Mathilda May in Lifeforce; she was X-rated, HBO, not terrestrial TV.

She was culturally essential, that way.

Barbara Palmer (née Villiers) as The Penitent Magdalene by Sir Peter Lely.
Image: Wikipedia

There was one gender injustice she could not defy, the plight of the older but still sexual woman. Barbara was forty-five when her protector, the King, died, and everything started going wrong. She got desperate and stopped discriminating. The once gorgeous predator became the prey of bad actors and con-men. She made a disastrous second marriage when she was sixty-five to a bigamist who was after her money.

The last years of her life read like the moralists’ revenge. It is documented in the DNB that in her final illness a dropsy “swelled her gradually to a monstrous bulk”, exactly the kind of private detail about our own or our beloveds’ deaths that we would want kept quiet.

There is a very sad ghost story about Barbara, Duchess of Cleveland as an old woman lamenting her lost beauty as she walks in her high heeled shoes tapping on the wood floor to stare out of the windows of her house on Chiswick Mall.

Good plastic surgery might have prevented that.

The woman while she lived was not penitent. She seized her moment, enjoying the sexual, and bi-sexual, liberation of the Restoration Court as much as any man. Her appetites, or addictions, and her temperament were entirely suited to her time.

The female libertine did not see herself as objectified or victimized, and we should not judge her differently.