Gilded Dramas

Functional objects, vessels for light and fragrance, tables, clocks and other household accessories for the rich and powerful, gilt bronze status symbols that are also neoclassical sculptures of the finest art, piercing the soft darkness with their golden fluidity, making your jaded heart sing – I never understood ormolu before I saw The Wallace Collection’s current exhibition Gilded Interiors: French Masterpieces of Gilt bronze.

Video Gilded Interiors © The Wallace Collection 2017

And, in The Wallace Collection’s tradition for 117 years, entry to temporary exhibitions as well as to the permanent galleries is and always will be free. Liberty, Egality, Fraternity still exist in an Anglo-French union in Manchester Square,  London W1.

It is a small exhibition, the pieces liberated by the curator from glass cases and cluttered rooms, out of the crude glare of museum electric lighting into simulated candlelight. The atmosphere is seductive. It is a tiny piece of gilded theatre. Continue reading

Advertisements

Pretty and Powerful in Pink

Philippe de Champaigne, 1602 - 1674 Cardinal de Richelieu 1633-40 Oil on canvas, 259.5 x 178.5 cm Presented by Charles Butler, 1895 NG1449 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1449

ABSOLUTE POWER: Cardinal de Richelieu, oil on canvas, 1633-40 by Philippe de Champaigne.
Image: © Copyright The National Gallery, London 2015
“I have the consolation of leaving your kingdom in the highest degree of glory and of reputation”, the dying Richelieu wrote to Louis XVIII, father of Louis XIV. The foundations of French gloire in the reign of the Sun King were laid by Richelieu. He wears Cardinal’s Robes of pink, the liturgical colour of rejoicing in God.

gainsboroughcountesshoweREAL ESTATE, SEX AND FASHION POWER in one woman: Mary, Countess Howe by Gainsborough, oil on canvas, 1764.
Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood House, London. Image: WGA
This exquisite incarnation of 18th century elegance and aristocracy was the wife of a gouty admiral. She had been born into a wealthy, landowning family and was co-heiress with her sister of their father’s substantial property; her marriage brought her into the aristocracy when her husband inherited the title of Viscount.
She is pretty and formidable, sensually alluring and untouchable. The love with which Gainsborough imbues her portrait and the poetically moody sky is thought by art historians to not be an entire illusion, as he was known to become sexually attracted to his good-looking female sitters, a professional hazard for many portraitists of all epochs.

In the same year Gainsborough painted Mary Howe, on the other side of the Channel, the woman who had redefined, owned and commercialized pink, the king’s mistress and unofficial cultural minister of France, Madame de Pompadour, died.

pompadourboucher

Madame de Pompadour by Boucher, 1759. Wallace Collection, London. Image: WGA
SELF-MADE POWER: elegant, gentle, carnal yet intangible, suggestible but not forceful – this is the quintessentially feminine power of influence crafted by the woman herself.

Such a soft, shell-like pink reminiscent of idealized human flesh tones, is flattering next to a middle-aged woman’s skin, but it is also suggestive of the colour of the sky when the sun rises and sets, and, in the iconography of her relationship with Louis XV, the sun god was the symbol of her lover and master, the king. Her favourite portraitist Boucher, was the genius and pander of pink.

MarilynpinkCELEBRATION OF PINK POWER: Marilyn Monroe singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in the pink satin dress designed by Travilla, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953. Image: Wikipedia
Blatant materialism and feminine predatory sexuality find absolution in pure, sweet, shocking pink celebration of being alive.
Marilyn is the girl whose faults we all forgive.

Pink is the colour of joy.

Angel in a pink dress under a pink glass ceiling (2)

“I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart! …I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal — as we are!”

If the first dear readers of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre had known the writer was a woman they would have smirked over Jane’s cry for freedom. Oh, poor, plain, chatty Jane! How embarrassing for her. An hysterical woman screaming for attention. Love me love me Mr Rochester even though I’m poor and not pretty.

Under the impression that a man was communicating to them through an imaginary female body, the reader thinks – oh, if HE says so, perhaps there’s a point to all this spiritual and sexual equality thing after all.

And collusion with prejudice, having to play along with patriarchy, was the reason Charlotte wasn’t happy pretending to be a masculine writer. But, traditionally, this was how women had achieved enormous power over sexes and nations.

mariatheresa ghent

Martin van Meytens, Empress Maria Theresa, Town Hall Ghent. Image: WGA
A Serious Woman in a Pink Dress
Like the dress choices of Elizabeth I, and, intriguingly, the present Duchess of Cambridge, everything the great Habsburg empress and European matriarch wore in public was laden with political and diplomatic significance.
The pink dress she wears is covered in Flemish lace, a gift from the states of Flanders. She presented this formal portrait to them as a reciprocal gift, and it still hangs in Stadhuis Ghent.
She was an able, pragmatic and hardworking statesman, who passed many reforms though deeply conservative in her convictions and a devout Roman Catholic instinctively intolerant of religious diversity.
Though she held the real power, she only bore the title Empress by virtue of being married to the elected Holy Roman Emperor, because no woman could be a candidate, and after his death, as co-ruler with her son Joseph II. In her domestic life, too, she observed the glass ceiling: she was an obedient wife who had sixteen children by her faithless husband.
Like many strong-minded women who achieve power on their own merits she was not interested in the cause of female emancipation in general.
It is easy to understand why Elizabeth I never married.

Prejudice is resilient. It is ancient as the time when Eve replaced Lilith – and which of them wore pink, then? Every time the ceiling cracks, it is quickly repaired, by as many women as men, afraid of their shade of pink, the eternal feminine, being subverted by female literary terrorists.

Once upon a time, the most powerful of angelic messengers wore pink when they brought good news.

pink

Fra Angelico Annunciation 1433-34 Tempera on wood, Museo Diocesano, Cortona. Image: WGA
The announcing angel Gabriel is wearing a pink dress and an expensive gold leaf androgynous haircut.
Rose-pink is the liturgical colour of rejoicing.

Pink should not need an apology. There are many shades of pink. I’m not going to give it up; it is a misunderstood colour reclaimed by women writers every day. The best things in life are ambivalent.

Irony is pink.

Yes, dear reader, you can be a woman, wear lipstick, high heels and a pink dress, and be a feminist. You might even grow up to be a writer one day.

Pink. It’s a mistake not to take it seriously.

Angel in a pink dress under a pink glass ceiling

“You may try, but you cannot imagine what it is to have a man’s force of genius in you, and to suffer the slavery of being a girl.” George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, 1876

There are two glass ceilings for female writers and artists, arranged one on top of the other, a crystal palace of prejudice and illusion. There’s the transparent political and economic one, the barrier to equality of status and pay.

The other, under that, or above, I can’t see that far, I don’t understand technical details ’cause I’m a girl, and the light refracts so prettily, I wonder if I should buy that pink hat, is a rose-pink coloured barrier to having your work taken seriously.

This one, the pink one, was smashed in the 19th century by the Brontë sisters and Marian Evans, but they knew they could only break through if their ideas were camouflaged under male names.

They were not worried about commercial failure, or shocking people; they were worried about not being taken seriously.

Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, and George Eliot, would have sold their books under their own feminine names and been admired for their romance and intelligence, for the local colour and dialects of their novels, their compassion for underdogs and their understanding of children and servants, for provocative scandals and the delicacy of their sentiments and morals. Pink.

Compassion, but not passion; feelings but not reasons; intelligence but not intellect; morals but not politics; wit but not humour; nurturing not building; melodrama not abstract symbolism; social satire but not revolution.

Even today, as in her own time, there are readers who attribute the philosophical and scientific principles driving Mary Shelley’s Gothic fiction Frankenstein to her husband.

Writing under male names was not female writers’ modesty, it was a covert declaration of war: “J’accuse”.

Shocking_Pink_SchiaparelliThe 20th century’s rediscovered PINK through Elsa Schiaparelli’s use of textiles dyed in “Shocking Pink” in the 1930s . Image: Wikipedia

Readers still expect women to write pink books, and make pink films, and there’s an awful lot of those, and literary agents and publishers are looking for boy-blue to flag the earth-moving big ideas.

Pink. Tender as baby’s flesh, innocent as the blush on a maiden’s cheek, the scent of rose petals and the sweetness of strawberries with cream, a poetic dream of love, the silken negligée strewn on the candle-lit bed, the colour of a coquettish tongue, the suggestion of sex without the mess.

From the softest bloom of dawn to the blazing glory of sunset, pink is our rescue from darkness, the wistful yearning to touch something greater and better than ourselves, and nostalgia for the people we might have been if experience and temptation hadn’t got in the way. That shade of pink is the colour of creation.

There’s another shade of pink which still giggles and trills and simpers more tea, vicar? Don’t the children look sweet? Look at that baby! A posy for your wife. And it’s charitable, too, a badge of Empathy and Do-Gooding.

Oh, bring me a devil dressed in pink, quick.

Gentle, caring, feminine, innocuous, virginal – wait! Pink can be powerful, depending on the woman wearing it.

195_24434_1 3x 001

Martin van Meytens, Portrait of a young woman said to be Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria, later Holy Roman Empress and Queen of Hungary and Bohemia. She had to fight a major European War to win acceptance of her right to rule, as a woman, the hereditary Habsburg territories. Image: Wikipedia

I, declares the Female Author, might wear pink, look pink, have been born pink, but I write with blood and iron. Dressed in a pink dress, with a garland of pink roses in my hair, I wield a sceptre of fire and hold the scales of justice. I am a woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a writer.

The most successful tragedienne of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the only actor of either sex who fused the two dominant cultural ideologies of the age, Neoclassicism and Romanticism, was rare in having her work taken seriously, but she herself was not. Though she was acknowledged by many to be  a better actor than her male contemporaries, she was not given equal status to them.

And she was furious: Perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this.” (Sarah Siddons.)

Soon after publication of the Bells’ first novels, and a decade later of George Eliot’s, everyone knew or at least suspected that the authors were female, just as Robert Galbraith’s cover was quickly blown in 2013. But the books had shouted so loud that they had already shaken the glass ceiling until it smashed.

END OF PART ONE

Continue reading

A Post of Their Own

The more I see of Mankind, the more I prefer my dog.” Pascal

Portraits of Three of Madame de Pompadour’s Dogs

pompadourspaniel1

detail from Boucher’s 1756 portrait of la Marquise de Pompadour

pompadour3(Alte Pinakothek, Munich; image source: Wikipedia)

pompadourspaniel2

detail from Boucher’s 1759 portrait

pompadourboucher

(François Boucher Madame de Pompadour 1759 oil on canvas © The Wallace Collection)

dog.
Detail of Drouais’ 1763-64 portrait, the last one made of her, completed after her death from cancer, and heartbreaking because the most famous mistress of 18th century taste is so prematurely aged and dumpy. She is determined to smile and say “I’m still here”, and welcome the visitor into her private apartment. The fabric of the dress she wears, and the surrounding furnishings, are stupendous. This isn’t vanity, it’s public relations, and apologia. This is what I believe in, she says. This is what I leave you. I am childless, people are faithless, but the beauty of artifacts, and the love of dogs, are joys for ever.

library3(National Gallery, image source: WGA)

The more I see of Mankind, the more I prefer my dog.” Pascal

Foreshades of Grey (12)

or, The Power of Pink: She’s a Girl, get over it

 

Portrait of Marquise de Pompadour by Boucher, 1759. Oil on canvas © The Wallace Collection, London

So here, at last, it couldn’t be resisted, the most familiar and most delectable of all the images of Madame de Pompadour that enchanted my childhood is posted here for DvP, like everything else that matters in life.

It is not just the story of a dress, though what a dress, which can transform a woman into a rose, it is the story of the balance of feminine power between personal ambition and love for another person. She sacrificed peace of mind for ambition, and then fell in love, first with a king, then a man, then a country, and finally a civilization which she made universal.

Notorious as the quintessential courtesan, sneered at by the court for being bourgeois, called “putain” by the king’s sour doughball of a son, reviled by the public, viewed ambivalently today as a well-dressed figurehead of a rotting totalitarian system, there was nothing vulgar, tarty or heartless about her. The illegitimate daughter of a financier showed the world how a cultural leader and benevolent queen should behave.

She was not a parasite; she graced the ancien regime, she gave it lustre and refinement, and it is to Louis XV’s credit that he recognized her contribution to French culture, beyond her private services to him. She transcended the official position of royal mistress through her own accomplishments and charm, of which sex was the smallest part.

If you examine her portrait closely, with the same forensic intensity we study photo-shopped celebrities for flaws today, you might be thinking, by this time, 1758, she was in her late thirties, her looks deteriorated prematurely by anxiety, poor health and rich food, she wanted to hide her ageing neck and chin with that chic ruffle round her neck, then, yes, you are right, of course she did, and let her alone, for heavens’ sake; she lived to please; one person’s vanity is beauty’s gift of happiness to everyone with eyes to see, and shame to you who evil thinks.

She lived beautifully, and showed the rest of us how to do it, too. She united femininity with power, without concessions to coarseness or snobbery. She was a talented actress who knew how to put on a good show with complete sincerity. That is not a contradiction; good acting is about unpeeling layers to the truth underneath, however you are feeling. No-one has ever achieved and exercised power in quite the way she did, in such elegant style, on such a grand scale, and being nice to everyone along the way.

She is leaning on Pigalle’s statue of ‘L’Amour embrassant l’Amitié’, Love embracing Friendship, which she had commissioned in 1754 to aggrandize her new relationship with the king. They agreed they would not sleep with each other more, but that she would keep her job, because Versailles and French civilization were better with her, and he needed her, he couldn’t rule or live without her, and promiscuous lover though he was, he would be the most faithful of friends.

A lot of us can’t live without her, either. She’s one of the most enduring and likeable of icons, a woman for all seasons. We love her for the beautiful display, and the vulnerability. Continue reading

Foreshades of Grey (11)

 or, Behind the Rococo Clock Face

detaildetail of Boucher’s 1756 portrait of Madame de Pompadour

Among the learned books in Madame de Pompadour’s library, there was a unique volume about the rivers of France which had been written, and some of it printed, many years before by a diligent and inquisitive eight year old boy, based on his lessons in geography and typography.

Louis XV’s Cours des principaux fleuves et rivières de l’Europe (Courses of the Principal Rivers and Streams of Europe), written in 1718, which the adult man gave to his mistress as a token of the conscientious king that the playboy of Versailles had once wanted to be, survives in the Bibliothèque nationale.

The little print shop, which was built for Louis XV in the Tuileries nearly sixty-five years before Marie Antoinette’s fantasy-farm was installed at Le Petit Trianon, had a serious educative purpose to instill appreciation of crafts and machinery in a cultured king whose interests and personal accomplishments should reflect the nation’s glorious achievements.

Louis ‘the well-beloved’ grew up to enjoy his cultural responsibilities as king and patron of the arts and sciences. He enjoyed music, ballet and theatre; he supported scientific and botanical expeditions. He was fascinated by scientific invention and experiments, including some of the earliest in electricity. He collected timepieces, filling Versailles with all sorts of clocks and astronomical and navigational precision instruments.

Fashionable society followed his lead and the manufacture of technically advanced and high end luxury products in France boomed as a result. They included an exquisite and ingenious wind-up ring-watch, with a white face against a blue and gold background, set in diamonds, made in 1755 by Caron for Madame de Pompadour, which nowadays might operate as a cellphone and computer as well as tell the time, a smart-ring for people who have everything.

Stop the clock. The pendulum has swung so far to the right, that if one’s not careful, one might be seduced. This was the same middle-aged roué who neglected to reform the government and economy, whose foreign policy brought shameful defeat on the European battlefield, lost France her colonial empire, and nearly bankrupted the State, who died hated by the impoverished people for betraying them to famine and aristocratic oppression.

He died in agony, his once handsome face covered in black smallpox scabs, from a virulent strain of the disease which made his corpse decompose so quickly that it could not be embalmed, and its stench came through the coffin. This is the horror that always lay behind the pink and gold, the scalloped ormolu and arch pastoral, the self-mocking prettiness and smiling insouciance, the high comedy of Rococo.

It was the ancien régime’s stage-set breakwater against the tidal wave, which the king and Madame de Pompadour and anybody of sense knew was coming, at a time which no-one could rewind or stop.

PenduleastronomiquedePassemantAstronomical clock designed by the engineer Passemant in Louis XV’s clock room at Versailles, presented to the king in 1750. Image: Wikipedia.
A king’s obsession with devices measuring time and space compensates for inability to rule his country; the ornate gilded decoration successfully disguises serious technological invention and precision.

His grandson, Louis XVI, had ten scientific laboratories at Versailles as well as his locksmith’s forge and carpentry workshop. He was like any other man in his home, doing DIY, relaxing by mending things, solving practical problems with his tools as therapy for being unable to control the vast, insoluble world outside his cave.

If Louis XVI had been politically adept, and time hadn’t run out for the Bourbon brand of absolutism founded by the terrifying despot Louis XIV, his wholesome hobbies would have endeared him to the people, instead of demonstrating how unfit he was to be king during economic austerity and social revolution.

Louis XVI had a library of 8000 books, so wins the Versailles bibliophiles’ contest for sheer quantity.

Madame de Pompadour enjoyed reading comedies and novels. She died in 1764, so the popular plays and the novel that define sex and power in 18th century French society most vividly for posterity were not in her collection. Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, was published in 1782; Beaumarchais’ satirical comedy Le Barbier de Séville was first performed in 1775; the first public reading at Versailles of Le Mariage de Figaro was in 1781.

Her library included historical romances written by women. Much as she enjoyed a laugh, there is no record that she read vapid fantasies of sexual obsession and female degradation. She had quite enough trouble avoiding that at home with Louis XV.

clock