It is impossible to meaningfully engage with western culture without some knowledge of classicism. In making sense of the arts, in particular, it is critical.
Acquiring this knowledge isn’t just a matter of Googling to find out why Apollo screwed Cassandra’s chances of being a successful prophesier. It includes a solid grasp of the various A-list deities and their very very complicated lives, their equally complicated relationships with demi-gods and mortals and their political affiliations. Lots of cross benchers and dual citizens in that lot.
Add to this the intriguing history of how visual artists in particular, stole, adopted, adapted and exploited classical subjects and lofty ideals for their own purposes. Central to this has been the configuration of the human figure as an expression of ideal beauty.
Attributed to Giovanni Benzoni Workshop (Italy 1809-1873), Diana hunting, c.1859
David Roche, from whose collection Madness of the Gods has been largely drawn, was inspired by the Greco-Roman world but had no interest in collecting antiquities. The items in this exhibition are ‘Grand Tour’ objects from the 18th and 19th centuries in marble and bronze of Greek and Roman gods: Zeus, Cupid, Mars, Mercury, Apollo, Bacchus; and goddesses: Athena, Diana, Venus and Ceres. Also the semi-divines: Hercules, Achilles, Perseus, Ariadne, as well as Bacchants and Nymphs. As such they offer a window into mindsets of an era that looked to classicism (as largely filtered through Roman then Renaissance and Baroque imaginations) as the indisputable measure of authority and taste in the fine arts.
To this end, young wealthy men and women toured continental Europe as a rite of passage taking in the cultural highlights. Retail therapy was involved, from high-end souvenirs to serious items destined for prominent positions in country piles.
Bust of Pallas Athena, c.1820, Italy, breche violette marble, H. 74.0 cm
The history of ‘Grand Tour’ shopping makes an interesting subtext for this exhibition, particularly from an English perspective. By the early 18th century, classical art was the only sort that English polite society would buy. The artist William Hogarth had his own take on this. “Picture jobbers are … continually importing shiploads of dead Christs, Holy Families, Madonna’s and other dismal dark objects, neither entertaining nor ornamental; on which they scrawl the terrible cramp names of some Italian masters, and fix on us poor Englishmen the character of universal dupes.”
Some works in Madness, such as the mid-19th century Giovanni Benzoni workshop sculpture, Diana hunting, were production line items for the cultural tourism trade. Production line — yes, but look at the finish — definitely high-end. Similar comments can be made about other workshop sculptures in Madness. David Roche had a sharp eye for quality as evidenced in the superb interplay of surface qualities, from highpolish to fine abrasions and tooth chisel detailing in the marble busts of Perseus and Eros Centocelle.
Paris Porcelain Manufactories (France 1770-1850), Pair of Napoleonic cameo and swan vases, c.1805
How larger-than-life marble busts or a pair of French Empire vases made it home intact is a story in itself. These vases may not be to everyone’s taste but their craftsmanship and condition are formidable.
The cameo-like heads of Dionysius and Ariadne sashay with Photoshop-drop shadow cool. The seduction of such images lies in the flawlessness of their surfaces. Materials including glass paste, enamel, ivory, porcelain, gilt, ormolu, bronze, basalt, marble and thinly applied oil paint, all present in this exhibition, favour subtle modulations of form and tone with the result that figures and associated ornamentation work as one within a seamless skin of appearances.
And so they must because the intent is to seduce the viewer into going on a journey in the imagination to another world where order and synthetic beauty (and the male gaze) reign. This explains the way in which quite disparate objects from snuff boxes and panel paintings to busts and free-standing figures sit in easy conversation with each other.
Frederic, Lord Leighton (Britain 1830-1896), The Cymbalist (from Dance of The Cymbalists panels), c.1869
A shared grammar of compositional design, motifs and surface polish ensured that a host of objects could sit sensibly within domestic (albeit rather large) interiors. The most spectacular example in this exhibition of these principles at work is Frederick Leighton’s The Cymbalist, commissioned by the art collector, Percy Wyndham for his London home.
The flat decorative qualities of this image are clues to its visual affiliations within a specific space. In this busy but orderly exhibition reserve time for a close encounter with the 1820 Bust of Pallas Athena. It’s got the lot — hybridity (Pallas goddess of wisdom and war) with a bronze helmet on her head and an aegis (protective garment) of scaly snake skin with linked serpents and a Gorgon’s head (Medusa), and an audacious combination of different marbles. To a contemporary imagination it might appear to be 14 shades of weird. But that’s what makes the whole La La Land classical road show so enigmatic. You have to be a bit mad to appreciate it.
The Madness of the Gods: Love, War and Transgression
David Roche Foundation House Museum
Until February 2018
Header image: Robert Jacques Francois Lefevre (France 1755-1830), Psyche and Cupid (detail.), c.1800
All images courtesy of The David Roche Foundation, Adelaide
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