I only celebrate the birth of artists who, through the utterly sublime value of their work, make me think of  them as being still alive at the other end of the reader-writer wire, continuing infinitely to transmit a message, an idea, an aesthetic truth beyond a tomb’s earthly limit. Really. And dear boy Oscar Wilde’s just the persona to illustrate my idea of immortal writer.

His “Picture of Dorian Gray”, a flabbergasting compilation of epigrams brilliantly woven with the actual plot, was the object of my first genuine literary infatuation after finishing Homer’s heavy Iliad and has continued inciting my imagination ever since. Needless to confess I can’t eschew reading it least once a year and am actually unable to expel it from my frequent-comparison-terms list (together with David’s Michelangelo and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando).  Its amaranthine aspects keep exerting a seemingly imperishable fascination which I always invariably bite. The wit, the beauty, the whole philosophy of dandyism and vanity in a decadent age: my pronounced affinity for them all has rendered my senses, well, sensible to Oscar’s only novel although I’m perfectly aware plenty other books surpass it in their overall value. Alas (or perhaps not), I am a voluntary victim of Dorian Gray’s witchery.

But enough about the creation: I say happy birthday to the marvelous wordsmith Wilde perfectly embodied and especially to the shrewd observer, the keen intellectual, the lobster-walker, the astute social animal and incorrigible fop coexisting within his fleshly borders. So incredible a man as he deserves the most bona fide greeting on these anniversary days despite being, physically, a mere pile of bones devoid of the possibility of hearing them. However, I wouldn’t refrain from wishing the man a formally expressed “happy birthday” before his tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery (an occasion I’ve simply missed the last time I’ve been to Paris). There’s something very captivating in paying your compliments to a beloved author before their grave and I’m planning on capturing a drop of the respective feeling with the post you’re currently reading.

To commemorate Wilde I’m dedicating today to watching all the ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’ movies ever made and contriving a top of related subjects I could write about here. Nothing grand or equally off-the-wall to his deeds, unfortunately, but rather a good, valid excuse to do what I’ve been yearning to for a while now. What can I say: nice justification, a dead man’s 158th birthday… 🙂

Ah, and furthermore exploiting the occasion, I’d like heading what’s (if any) your relationship with the defunct yet still lively Oscar; associations, opinions, life stories, practically all you’re kind enough to share.

Voltaire’s Nude

July 6, 2013

Voltaire by Jean Baptiste Pigalle, Louvre

“There was a statue made not long since of Voltaire, which the sculptor, not having that respect for the prejudices of mankind which he ought to have, has made entirely naked and as meagre and emaciated as the original is said to be. The consequence is what might be expected; it has remained in the sculptor’s shop, though it was intended as a public ornament and a public honor to Voltaire, as it was procured at the expense of his contemporary wits and admirers.”

(Reynolds, “Seven Discourses on Art“)

Fortunately, since Pigalle’s Voltaire now neighbors Michelangelo’s Slaves in the Louvre with the blessing of a reputed curator, Reynold’s valuation of the peace doesn’t prove equitable enough to concur immediately. Indeed, the great philosopher’s nude realistically depicts the atrophied, skeletal physique of a septuagenarian crooked by age, secular and spiritual difficulties to an admirably small degree. No attempt to idealization being made, François-Marie Arouet‘s body appears feeble, humane in what may seem a depreciating way, as the English portraitist put it. Besides these features of decay, though, one can find that the sagacious expression on his face, together with a dynamic pose, redeem the decrepit members so as to convey the “triumph of mind over matter”.

And it was this victory Jean Baptiste Pigalle wanted to illustrate when “a literary society whose members included Diderot and d’Alembert (the authors of the Encyclopédie) decided to pay tribute to Voltaire” by commissioning a “marble statue in his likeness”.

Drawing inspiration from the majestic masterpieces of Greek and Roman art, Pigalle’s idea was to sculpt his model “entirely naked except for the flowing drapery that crosses his left shoulder and covers his loins. Such a portrayal, unprecedented in the modern period, caused a scandal and prompted a multitude of sarcastic comments, King Gustavus III of Sweden offering to contribute to the cost of a coat. Fearing ridicule, Voltaire attempted to dissuade the sculptor, but finally agreed to his project in the name of artistic freedom.”

But there’s no surprise such an “overly naturalist portrayal of the patriarch philosopher prompted unanimous disgust and rejection” since only “Jean-Antoine Houdon approach to the problem with a statue of Voltaire Seated, his whole body wrapped in swathes of timeless cloth”  met with general approval and was finally displayed in the foyer of  the Comédie Française.

It remained with the notorious sitter who eventually “bequeathed the work to his grand-nephew”, reaching the Louvre due to a donation at the beginning of the 19th century.

(Incidentally, the Louvre has an extended version of this article on its public site, from which descend all quotes here employed, plus a few more.)

So, what’s your personal opinion of it?

Mere tasteless representation of an old Voltaire or an image that rightfully invites to ponder on the triumph of mind over matter?

A Gallery of Beauties

June 17, 2013

Everybody at a certain point harbors the desire or curiosity or simple, sheer interest to gather a collection of various things in diverse quantities, some parameters more eccentric than others. Empress Elisabeth of Austria, commonly nicknamed “Sissi“, a character to whom Madame has dedicated a plethora of posts, had her own phenomenal assortment which put together a considerable number of photos immortalizing the most beauteous women of the age. But I already wrote about it here. Yet what I didn’t know at the time when that account of her oddities was given and subsequently learned to be a crucial factor in explaining her peculiar idea of a collection refers to the strikingly similar propensity for putting together images of beautiful ladies which dominated the life of  Sissi’s uncle, King Ludwig I o Bavaria. No longer content with getting most of the pulchritudinous grand dames of the time in his bed for fleeting moments of passion, the monarch who is (in)famous for abdicating the throne following a tempestuous scandal involving his mistress, Lola Montez, determined to forever own the marvelous physical charm of these resplendent females. And thus took shape the Gallery of Beauties, the original inspiration for Empress Elisabeth’s identically themed albums.

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This chamber, wholly dedicated to the celebration of corporal attractiveness, exhibits a selection of 36 portraits ordered by Ludwig between 1827 and 1850. They were all commissioned to have the same size so as to perfectly fit in the allocated space and all feature the enchanting profiles of mid 19th century women coming from sundry social backgrounds like the German aristocracy or the European middle-class. This way, characters who otherwise never spoke in real life were forced by circumstance to keep each other company while hanging on the walls of the King’s gallery of visual splendor inside Nymphenburg Palace. So Ludwig’s sister, Sophie (between brackets: the mother of Emperor Franz of Austria, Sissi’s husband), rested alongside such notorious figures as English aristocrat Jane Digby, actress Charlotte von Hagn (a former concubine to Franz Liszt) and, inevitably, Lola Montez, quite an outrageous arrangement, given the epoch. Sort of like compelling Whistler’s Mother to face Courbet’s “Origin of the World” non-stop.

Don’t you just fancy having a place resembling this?

Love triangles and promiscuity seldom flourished so exquisitely than at the Papal Court in Rome up to about 3-400 years ago. As some “The Borgias” fans might’ve already noticed, Vatican city was quite a den of lavish sins back in the days of Michelangelo and didn’t stop being one until long after Bernini’s days, which is why the following episode of his life should not come as a surprise.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the preeminent protege of the Popes Urban VIII and Alexander VII, like all reputed artists, had some apprentices to do his less important commissions in exchange for advice and guidance. And these anonymous apprentices, emphasizing one in particular, had wives. Female presences to whose charms the great sculptor could not frequently resist.

One such ravishing woman by law reserved for a single husband, was Constanza Piccolomini Bonarelli, spouse of Matteo Bonarelli and licentious lover of Bernini.

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So much was he enamored with her that, to fully convey his passionate sentiments, Gian Lorenzo produces the above bust, a Constanza he could caress in marble, the immortal, unwithering variant of his beloved. It was the zenith of their affection.

And soon they’d reach their nadir… one terrible way too.

Since Constanza was unfaithful to her hubby, cheating came natural to her and not long after her storming affair with Bernini commenced, she found herself involved with a second paramour, none other than Gian Lorenzo’s younger brother, Luigi.

Alas, a naturally suspicious Bernini soon felt her betrayal and thought a most basic scheme to catch the two in flagrant delicto: he simply announced his going to the countryside to tend to some business, insidiously expecting the couple to make a wrong move… which didn’t let itself waited.

Luigi, unconscious of any danger, immediately visited a lonely Constanza yearning for consolation to be “welcomed” by a furious Bernini who almost beat him to death.

Amusingly (or tragically, depending on your point of view), this telenovela-like story didn’t stop here, but to continue it and learn the climax of the whole affair, I recommend the following documentary:

leo

  Between the myriad other occupations Leonardo was engaged in across his lengthy life, one of the lesser known (albeit as valuable as the “Annunciation”) are his absolutely riveting fables about an extensive range of subjects cunningly related. Being the epitome of the Renaissance man, it was merely natural for a genius painter, sculptor, architect, musician, inventor, mathematician et cetera to skilfully master the ancient art of fabricating moral stories that could effortlessly equal Aesop’s, whose work had barely been rediscovered and fairly accredited only decades before.

I was familiar with da Vinci’s literary products from a tender age thanks to a book of his I stumbled upon in the family library at age about 9. Then and now, one of my all time favorites from the polymath is a peculiar anecdote mockingly describing why Muhammad prohibited alcoholic drinks:

The Wine and Muhammad

Wine, the holy liquor of the grape, once rested in a gilded cup on Muhammad’s table, honor of which he was extremely proud. But an adverse thought troubled him instantly:

What am I doing? Why am I feeling so overjoyed? Is it that I fail to realize my death is approaching and soon I’ll have to leave this golden sanctuary for the abominable, fetid caves of the human body? Do I not anticipate the dreary moment when my perfumed liquid will turn into disgusting urine?’

The Wine cried out for the gods to hear, beseeching revenge for such unjust a faith and implored the Providence to put an end to so much humiliation. He asked that, since in his country grew the juiciest grapes, least these be spared the shame he was experiencing.

Then almighty Jupiter made the Wine Muhammad drank get to his head and influence his judgment so as to lose his mind. Thus the prophet committed a number of mistakes that grave that when he finally came to his senses, he banned all sorts of alcohol.

Hence the vineyards were abandoned with their fruits intact.

Terse and witty as one would expect of Leonardo but still quite hilarious in context, don’t you think?

Hardly a few years passed since the Moors lost their last Spanish stronghold in Granada to the Catholic Kings and the Europeans began mocking them persistently!

The pas week has been a hectic ping-pong with several events I had to squeeze in my program and diligently prepare, though I cannot complain for taking part in any of them since they are direct fruits of either my work or my resolute desires across the last few years.

I’ve been invited to make a visit to the town residence of the Royal House of Romania and been (briefly) received by Princess Marguerite, I’ve had to pull through an essay meant to be my entry for quite a promising contest then finish the editing of my novel novella (“Vicious“) to be able to publish it in time and handled its launch concomitantly with that of my author blog. This, plus a couple of other troubles.

No wonder the “Parties of the Past Century” series has yet to be completed.

However, here’s the next roaring social gathering which brought together most of the era’s elite:

Le Bal du Siecle

Ball of the Century

The Mexican multimillionaire Charles Beistegui, a professed eccentric also known as the modern “Count of Monte Cristo”, was the host to the most lavish, flamboyant and altogether magnificent masked ball ever given in honor of the old aristocratic times. His Venice Palazzo Labia, a splendid 17th century residence, was put to its use glamorously and costly decorated to fit the magnitude of the event Charles promised to be the assembly of the century.

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Luxurious rococo gowns of rich materials were displayed with a profusion of jewels and thus the elegantly adorned guests could only be distinguished from the likewise decor by the mere barrier of movement. Famed names such as Orson Welles, the Aga Khan, Barbara Hutton, Dali, Gene Tierny or Jacqueline de Ribes relished the extraordinary parade of refinement, the presence of exotic black people with their peculiar animals (camels included), the amazing atmosphere.

It was an evening of perpetual wonder, the sort wars exclusively can impel one to organize just for the most humane need of forgetting one’s misery.

One could never guess what genuinely amusing event devoid of any anticipation turned Wagner’s  Tannhäuser  première in a complete fiasco. It is the prerogative of the haughty19th century Parisian aristocracy to surprise both poor Richard, the contemporary and modern auditory with a reaction that changed the faith of an opera now considered one of Wagner’s best.

Facts are comically of an elementary character.

On this very day, 13 March 1861, the Salle Le Peletier was meant to host the first representation of Tannhäuser in France after exhausting months spent with a consuming number of over 160 thorough  rehearsals  which Wagner never failed to attend given that he was exceedingly keen to impress the public. A public composed from such characters as Emperor Napoleon III and Pauline von Metternich one cannot simply afford to disappoint.

And with the dozens of preparations undertaken, it shouldn’t have been the case . In fact, everything was arranged  for Wagner to repute a success.

But what actually happened?

Here’s the account almighty Wikipedia gives:

Wagner had originally hoped the Parisian première would take place at the Théâtre Lyrique. However, the première was at the Paris Opéra, so the composer had to insert a ballet into the score, according to the traditions of the house. Wagner agreed to this condition since he believed that a success at the Opéra represented his most significant opportunity to re-establish himself following his exile from Germany. Yet rather than put the ballet in its usual place in Act II, he chose to place it in Act I, where it could at least make some dramatic sense by representing the sensual world of Venus’s realm.

This midget alteration of the custom gave way to a veritable disaster.

There was a serious planned assault on the opera’s reception by members of the wealthy and aristocratic Jockey Club. Their habit was to arrive at the Opéra only in time for the Act II ballet, after previously dining, and, as often as not, to leave when the ballet was over. They objected to the ballet coming in Act I, since this meant they would have to be present from the beginning of the opera. Furthermore, they disliked Princess von Metternich, who had arranged the performance, and her native country of Austria.’ [any recall of the French revolution, anybody? any analogy to the way they treated Marie Antoinette? or perhaps your mind  goes back to the Vienna Congress in 1815?]

Club members led barracking from the audience with whistles and cat-calls. At the third performance on 24 March, this uproar caused several interruptions of up to fifteen minutes at a time. As a consequence, Wagner withdrew the opera after the third performance.This marked the end to Wagner’s hopes of establishing himself in Paris, at that time the center of the operatic world.

In a nutshell, this is the story of how a genius was ruined by frivolous manners.

Le Bal du Palais d’Hiver

It just so happened that I stumbled across an incredibly posh and surprisingly well composed series of five episodes on the most exquisite XXth century parties I’m going to use as a main support for my own sequence, just to baffle a bit the monotony this blog has, alas, succumbed to.

So without further (and obviously unnecessary) introductory lines, behold the first sample.

As if anticipating the ensuing horrors of the Russian Revolution, Tzar Nicholas II, knowingly the last Romanov ever to sit on his rightful throne, and Empress Alexandra, whose demeanor, like her mother in law,  I’ve always disapproved of, threw the most dazzling party at the Palais d’Hiver.

The Surrealist Ball

How splendiferously eccentric can a mid-late 20th century ball get?

baron

Apparently, the Rothschilds forward their answer through a flamboyant surrealist party of oddities galore, as anticipated in the picture above, which gives gives an accurate account of just what unusual looks they could conceive. The Rothschilds being the banker family that honorably took over Croesus’ reputation in modern days. Surrealism- the inter-bellum artistic current prizing the chaotic, fantastical  absurd. Think Dali (who not coincidentally was a guest).

Now, another participant at the mentioned gathering, Baron Alexis de Redé, extensively describes all one would love to know about the whole ‘a tad ludicrous’  event:

On 12 December 1972, Marie-Hélène gave her Surrealist Ball at Ferriéres. This time the guests were asked to come in black tie and long dresses with Surrealist heads.[ The year before, 1971, the Rothschilds were hosts to a glorious Proust Ball assembling more than half the international elite] The invitation was printed with reversed writing on a blue and cloudy sky, inspired by a painting by Magritte. To decipher the card, it had to be held to a mirror.

invitation

‘For the evening the chateau was floodlit with moving orange lights to give the impression that it was on fire. The staircase inside was lined by footmen dressed as cats that appeared to have fallen asleep in a variety of staged poses.’

baron

Guests had to pass throught a kind of labyrinth of Hell, made of black ribbons to look like cobwebs. The occasional cat appeared to rescue the guests and lead them to the tapestry salon. Here they were greeted by Guy with a hat to resemble a still-life on a platter, and by Marie-Hélène wearing the head of a giant weeping tears made of diamonds.

baron

Marie Hélène proved that she had the flare and imagination to create something unique and worthwhile. None of this was created by charm alone. It needed a degree of ruthless determination. She attended to every minute detail of style in her life and also in her entertaining. She was a great hostess with all the qualities. She loved parties and people. She was forever in quest of new talent and new figures to entertain from the world of the arts, literature, dance and haute couture. She mixed them with the more established set of Paris society. Everyone was intrigued. Marie-Hélène’s parties took on such importance that one social figure threatened to commit suicide unless she was invited…

baron

It is not possible to repeat such things now for many reasons. But it is fascinanting to look back and to remember these occasions, which dominated our thoughts and plans to such an extent for so many months. I am happy that I took part in so many, and happy that I gave some myself.

baron

And with this verdict, reminiscent of Proust although much less highfalutin,  ends our attendee’s account of the soiree which, lush and exuberant in spirit, inaugurates a “Parties of the Past Century” series.

baronlu

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Beauty is omnipotent. Beauty, striking or delicate (or both), lissom and cunning and sinuous in the conquering of hearts, is thus quite a stimulus for the visual senses whose function, when by its appearance employed, seems to reduce itself to that of a mere messenger of titillations. Beauty is that which can impress the most obtuse perceptiveness and with these being said, I should conclude my introductory definition, sliding to the subject: Joanna Lloyd, picture above. (Between brackets, pure serendipity lead me to her as,though of yore acquainted with Joshua Reynold’s aristocratic portraits depicting haughty dames and gents of the London Season scene,it was not until I read the “House of mirth” that I met his beauteous Mrs. Lloyd. And ironically enough, I wouldn’t have ever saw the lady in question if it weren’t for Wharton’s laudatory description within the novel…)

Now, she might not be considered exactly a stunner after today’s standards but the woman undoubtedly had a gorgeous profile and overall a certain charm about her gracious self. She’s highly refined.

Needless to add I, hunter of all things beautiful, just had to comply with my impulse and dig up her life. Surely I couldn’t refrain  making use of such fine a serendipitous ‘discovery’ . Plus, don’t you have a greater experience of a thing’s immortalized  fairness once you learn, explicitly, there was blood flowing under that epidermis?I tend to think people are getting too impersonal (from reasons I won’t take time enumerating) and the sort of insertion into one’s life I’m proposing could bring back some warm, colorful interest. Canvas is one enduring substitute of flesh, how about this?

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Anyway, returning to the topic, the following are the disappointingly few facts I managed to gather (believe it or not, if you haven’t heard of Joanna Lloyd, Google almost hasn’t either):

-she was the third daughter and coheir of John Leigh Esq. of Northcote House, Isle of Wight…

-who married, at a thin age, a Richard Bennett Lloyd from an important American family…

-moving together on the other side of the Ocean, in Maryland (there’s actually a Maryland Historical Magazine which gives a plentiful account of her life there yet cannot be found online).

-shortly before embarking for the U.S. (1775-6), she had her portrait painted by the fashionable Reynolds, who allegedly praised her attractiveness (also much appreciated, albeit not without scorn, at the Lloyds’ new home). This is the exquisite work Wharton’s character in the “House of mirth” replicates.

-the spring of the 1788’s saw her widowed and promptly remarried to a handsome  Francis Love Beckford (1764-1838), (announced by the 3rd edition of “New Lady’s Magazine  or Polite and Entertaining Companion for the fair sex”).

-naturally, she returned to British soil and from this part any information reminiscent of her earthly life passed out of my reach.

The Reynolds remains, though. Does it intrigue you as it appears to intrigue me? Why yes, why no?

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