Thought-Pourri: Possessive Edition

For those of you in the DC area, don’t forget that tonight from 6:00-8:00 pm the Catholic Information Center, located at 1501 K Street NW, will be hosting its annual Christmas Poetry Party, in conjunction with the Thomas More Society of America. I will be one of the presenters, and if that doesn’t entirely put you off, drop by and say hello! There will be refreshments and plenty of good cheer on offer, and the event is absolutely free.

Meanwhile, this morning I’m currently participating as an absentee bidder in a live auction taking place elsewhere, for a painting that I’m very interested in adding to my collection, so fingers x’ed…

And with that, it’s time for some headlines:

The King’s Pictures

After Charles I was overthrown and executed in 1649 during the English Civil War, much of the substantial art collection which he and his ancestors had accumulated was sold off and scattered to the winds. When his son Charles II ascended the throne at the Restoration in 1660, the Stuarts had a great deal of work to do to restore the prestige of the monarchy. Through a variety of means, the new king managed to start over, acquiring a number of works of art which are featured in an exhibition this month at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. Among the items featured in “Charles II: Art & Power” is one of Lorenzo Lotto’s (1480-1557) best paintings, his portrait of the Venetian art dealer Andrea Odoni sitting in his shop, surrounded by statues and casts of classical sculpture. I particularly like how the dramatically foreshortened right arm and hand are shown holding out a small classical sculpture, as if Odoni is offering it to us for sale, and the mixture of charcoal and dove grays, mossy green, and caramel browns create a surprisingly rich color palette.


Vienna’s Virtu

The shortlived Wiener Werkstätte (“Vienna Workshop”), from the beginning of the previous century, had a major impact on Modern art, architecture, and design, thanks in part to its espousal of innovative design methods, which it disseminated globally through the creation of satellite workshops in Germany, Switzerland, and New York. Now a major new exhibition in the latter city, at the Neue Galerie for German and Austrian art, is bringing together a wide range of objects created by the Austrian artistic collective, from furniture and ceramics to jewels and decorative objects. Among the beautiful items displayed in the “Wiener Werkstätte 1903-1932: The Luxury of Beauty” show is this astonishing jewelry box, which in the art trade is known as an “objet de vertu” or “vertu” for short. These were items that often had no practical purpose, or were so luxurious as to be somewhat impractical, but which nevertheless featured an incredibly detailed and painstaking level of craftsmanship.


Hoving’s Hordes

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when art museums were fairly hushed, quiet spaces, where there were rarely large crowds of people. That all changed forever, at least at the world’s larger museums, with the blockbuster 1978 exhibition, “Treasures of Tutankhamun” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a fascinating piece from this month’s Vulture/New York Magazine, Boris Kachka explains how one man, former Met director Thomas Hoving, took a gamble on making an art exhibition a must-see event for Americans – like the Super Bowl or the final episode of “Cheers” – and succeeded so far beyond expectations that eventually everyone else in the museum world followed suit. A healthy debate could be had over whether Hoving’s hordes of exhibition visitors have improved or ruined the experience of visiting an exhibition, or indeed a cultural institution focused primarily on visitor numbers.


Degas’ Development

Those of my readers who happen to be in the Denver area between February and May of next year will want to check out the newly-announced exhibition, “Degas: A Passion for Perfection”, which will be held at the Denver Art Museum. Covering over fifty years of the work of French Impressionist Edgar Degas (1834-1917), the show will feature over 100 examples of Degas’ varied output and artistic development, including paintings, pastels, drawings, and sculptures, alongside the work of some of his contemporaries and friends. Of particular interest is this rather early picture by Degas, painted in around 1865 and now in the collection of the Orsay in Paris, which shows a group of men on horseback shooting at and trampling over a group of nude women, while a city burns in the background. It’s such a strange picture, and so not what springs to mind when one things of the work of Degas, that I don’t quite know what to make of it – but it’s definitely piqued my interest.



Celebrities Are Not Our Rulers

We are all guilty, at times, of being lazy in our terminology, making statements that upon further analysis cannot possibly be true.  These can take the form of perfectly innocent, if exaggerated, turns of phrase, such as saying that I “hate” chili peppers, when the truth is that of course I cannot possibly hate a plant.  However sometimes these exaggerations provide us with an opportunity to take a step back, question what is being said, and further question the person who is making such an exaggeration as to whether they are worthy of our time, attention, and trust.

Yesterday for example, I read a newspaper article reporting that actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are now engaged to be married.  The article quoted a Hollywood gossip columnist, who breathlessly declared that this wedding was going to be a “state occasion”, the equivalent of the marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton last year in the UK.  While it is plainly obvious that this is not the case, it is worth taking apart this rather idiotic observation to see what we can learn from it.

A marriage between two movie stars, however glamorous they may be, is not a state occasion.  This is an incontrovertible fact, for the simple reason that they are not sitting heads of state, nor the offspring of sitting heads of state who are themselves in line to rule someday.  Referring to the impending nuptials of entertainers as a “state occasion” betrays either a profound ignorance of what exactly a “state occasion” is, or demonstrates an intellectual and social laziness that should be corrected.  It is similar to the way that the press often refers to a popular starlet as a “princess”, when in truth she looks more like a member of another profession which starts with the same letter.

The hyperbolic ignorance of much of the so-called mainstream media when it comes to anything beyond a basic reporting of facts, and sometimes not even then, would be laughable if it did not so often cheapen us all.  Anyone who is a fellow Catholic for example, knows how appallingly bad the coverage of the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI was on virtually every news network.  It became clear very early on that most of the reporters covering the news, as well as the commentators called to share their opinions about what was taking place, had absolutely no idea what they were talking about.

A “state occasion” is something far more important than a social event, such as a wedding between two celebrities, and even if the wedding is a state occasion, whether in the case of last year’s royal wedding, or that of Prince Ranier and Grace Kelly, and so on.  It has to do with both the present personification and the future preservation of a country, in a way which has legal, political and diplomatic importance.  It is understandable that among people who do not remember their history or civics classes in high school that there may be some forgetfulness as to what various terms having to do with forms of government actually mean.  However the press, which holds itself out to be so much better-educated and sophisticated than most mere mortals, ought to avoid making or repeating pronouncements which not only betray ignorance, but provide a false impression to the public.

There is no question that we have always had a kind of organic aristocracy in this country, such as the Virginia planter families in the 17th and 18th centuries, or the New York robber barons in the 19th and early 20th.  However, these are not titled people who are always going to be entitled to some deference because of who their ancestors are.  Otherwise journalist Anderson Cooper, who is a Vanderbilt, would not be interviewing cast members from “The Real Housewives” train wrecks.  Yet these people are not heads of state, simply because they are well-known, or wealthy, or what have you.

The head of state serves as the visible representative of a country, whatever form its government happens to take, and exercises functions on behalf of that country.  While something of a generalization, admittedly, for the purpose of a brief blog post, there is a symbolic importance to the actions of a head of state as acting on behalf of all of the people.  Remember that unlike in the Mother Country, in the United States we do not separate the functions of head of state and head of the government.  In this country, the President of the United States serves both functions; in Britain, the Queen and the Prime Minister have different responsibilities.

In Britain, Prince William is the grandson of the present head of state, and will someday be the head of state himself, according to the laws of that country. His wedding was, therefore, a state occasion.  Mr. Pitt and Ms. Jolie may be interesting, even powerful people, but they do not represent the United States in any official, constitutional capacity  – and thank goodness for that, if it is not too misanthropic of me to say so.  While it may appear something of a tempest in a teapot to get worked up about the marriage of “Brangelina” – [shudder] – being referred to as a “state occasion”, the truth is that these things do matter.  When we bandy about words in a casual fashion, we not only cheapen the language as a whole, but we also cheapen the meaning of those specific words we are using incorrectly, as well.

What is particularly interesting about the characterization of the Pitt-Jolie nuptials, innocent as such a characterization may ultimately be, as something approaching the dynastic and legal significance of a British royal wedding, is what it tells us about ourselves.  It displays a rather disturbing attitude toward celebrity which has already brought us quite low as a culture, and seeks to diminish us even further unless we push back against it.   We should all be happy that, after years of cohabitation, this influential and popular pair has decided to formally tie the knot.  Yet however momentous that occasion is for them and for their family and friends, holding it up as being an event of national importance is but another sign that our society needs to refocus its cultural priorities away from the flashy, and toward the substantial.

“State Opening of Parliament with Queen Victoria” by Joseph Nash (1851)
Houses of Parliament, London

Faces of the Past: Vanity in Medieval Catalonia

At the magnificent 12th century Cistercian monastery of Santes Creus outside of the city of Tarragona, where centuries of Catalan monarchs are buried, researchers have announced some interesting finds following the exhumation of several of the bodies interred there.  It turns out that not only did women wear makeup in the Middle Ages, as was already known, but apparently men and women of the ruling classes were not shy about using hair dye to keep the grays from taking over.  It is further proof, if needed, that the pursuit of vanity is as old as human civilization itself.

Among the remains which were examined, scientists looked at those of  two of Medieval Catalonia’s most important historical figures: King Pere (“Peter”) II, known as “The Great”, and Queen Blanca (“Blanche”) de Anjou.  Pere II (1239-1285) was one of the greatest of the Catalan monarchs who, among other things, conquered Sicily in 1282 and added it to his family’s possessions.  Blanca (1280-1310) was his daughter-in-law, married to Pere’s son King Jaume (“James”) II (1267-1327), known as “The Just”, who added Sardinia and Corsica to the Catalan empire in 1297 upon his marriage to Blanca.

Contemporary descriptions of Pere depicted him as an unusually tall, handsome man, with blonde hair that shone like spun gold.  In examining his body researchers concluded that he was five feet ten inches tall, which in the Middle Ages was about a head taller than the average male height.  Whether Pere was handsome can be judged from his facial reconstruction, though of course one should keep in mind that this is the image of a man in the year of his death.  At that time Pere was in his mid-40s, suffering from tuberculosis and other maladies, and had been fighting wars all over Europe for years.  He was no doubt exhausted from his battles, and his face shows it.

To their surprise, in the strands of hair remaining where his beard had been, scientists found that Pere was using a natural blonde hair dye obtained from the broom plant.  The dye was known to be used by women during the Middle Ages to lighten their hair, but to find it in the hair of a king was surprising.  Perhaps Pere, who had to show he was still the tough, military man that could not only control his kingdom but add to it, felt the need to look younger as his hair started to go gray, in order to keep up with the men who might be eying his throne for themselves.

This same type of hair dye found in Pere’s beard was also found in the hair remaining on his daughter-in-law Blanca, who died at the age of 27 while giving birth to her 10th child.  Scientists found traces of makeup on Blanca’s face, including rouge on her cheeks.  The facial reconstruction from her skull shows us a young woman who looks strikingly modern, to my mind a bit like Kate Moss.  The forensic artist portrayed the young Queen both with and without makeup, speculating from the chemical evidence on her skin as to how she might have used the products available to her.

Because of the power of things such as official portraiture, in the centuries before the invention of photography, the way we think of important people in pre-modern times is often characterized by a perception of stiffness or remoteness.  In reality, these people were flawed human beings just as we are, and just as prone to concern themselves with vanity.  The difference is that they have done some rather terribly interesting things in their lives.

Psychologically, there is not much difference between the 40-something male executive using “Just For Men” to get rid of the gray so that he can compete with the young bucks in his office, and a king who is trying to keep the gray from taking over his face.  Similarly, young women have always enjoyed using powders, dyes and lotions to try to keep their face up to date with fashion and trends in clothing, whether the “look” is heavy makeup, no makeup, or something inbetween.  Thus, studies like these connect us to our ancestors in some fundamental and very human respects, and show us that they were not so very different from ourselves.

Forensic facial reconstructions of King Pere II (L), Queen Blanca de Anjou without makeup (C), and the Queen with makeup (R)