12th century French ivory carvers developed this pose — a kind of left-twisting of the body of Christ. Some say the object was to create a sense of three dimensional depth; I say, it was simply discovered to be especially graceful.
No other French left-twisted ivory crucifixion which I have seen is as graceful as this one. Which is, of course, why it is the only one unmarked — legendless! — in the Gulbenkian collection. This is always the fate of things I like: my favorite paintings are not reproduced; my favorite movies are never screened (or sold, or fileshared); my favorite books are untranslated, long out of print, not to be found anywhere.
And, I am sure, what would have been my greatest favorites, of course, are not even published, which is why I am doomed not to even know them.
At the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum locates a traumatic event about four years ago, when, obliged by the terms of a car-rental agreement, I went into a car-wash, my first ever. It is hard for me to imagine a less aesthetically pleasing experience: noise, ugly interior, ugly exterior composed of shaved lawn, cement and a large soft-drink hoarding, twenty minutes of my time wasted in agony so that someone else’s ugly car could emerge spotlessly shining. I peeled away from the establishment with a screech of tires, as if chased by a banshee. Behind me there was a long line of cars waiting their turn at beautification.
My first encounter with Michel de Montaigne was a breathtaking infatuation: I picked up the Screech translation — quite accidentally — and was instantly, completely and wholly taken in by the prose: the rhythm, the scansion, the alliteration; the easy, torrentious flow of words and thoughts, tossed off like precious gems into the boiling foam of the sea. By accident, the encounter took place the day before I set off on my travels and I have traveled ever since. I have traveled these eleven years almost incessantly — and my travels have distracted me: I have never managed to lay my hands on the Screech again. (Love, it seems to us — what a folly — can always wait while we set about getting the more important stuff out of the way).
At times, I remembered to look for Montaigne, but could never easily find Screech. Others — Cotton, Frame and all the others failed to reproduce the first love-making experience. Now Sarah Bakewell’s book explains why: as she discovers him to us, Montaigne seems a thoroughly dull and boring fellow, his insights perfectly ordinary, his life-lessons not much worth reading about.
It’s all in the style, you see, the style and nothing else: it does not matter what you do, really, but — how.
This time, when I return home, I will get Screech. Perhaps try Montaigne in the original, too. As soon as I get this, more important stuff, out of the way.
Ladies’ writing table, made by Martin Carlin, cabinet-maker, ca. 1772, in Paris; with Sevres porcelain plaque signed “Dodin 1771” which reproduces an engraving by Rene Gaillard La Diseuse de Bonne Aventure Russienne, which itself reproduced a painting by Jean-Baptiste Le Prince (1734-1781), now lost. At the Gulbenkian, Lisbon.
The fashion for the genre of “fortune teller” — perhaps initiated by Caravaggio — has produced — over its 200 years or so — a great number of works with the theme; this is a late-bloom which, for originality, sought to revive the stale theme with exotic elements, in this case not Russian but Polish (Lithuanian?) setting. The ladies are all dressed in European fashion, but, to sit (or, rather, stand) for the painting, the gentleman of the house decided to pose a la polonaise: complete with makowka hair-style, saber, kontusz and szarawary, and, most striking of all, that other Sarmatian cultural weapon, the mace. It’s hard to imagine a more useless weapon than a footman’s mace in late 18th century Poland, but what sacrifices must one not bear in order to honor his ancestry? The mace it is, then.
The greatest discovery of this trip were probably Urbino maiolicas — sure, I had seen a few nice ones during my travels, here and there — enough to notice the colors and the name. But they are rare everywhere else — even in North Italy — the Faenza museum of ceramics has at most half a dozen on display. But in London they are — a dime a dozen! (Really, how many meters would you like?)
Another art form in plentiful supply here — and rarely glimpsed elsewhere — are Limoges enamels. It seems that the British Museum has more Limoges enamels than the Louvre! (Why?)
Here is an interesting set of Limoges: the twelve Sibyls, signed “LL” for “Leonard Limousin” (1505-1575), the most celebrated enamel painter at the court of Francis I. The plaques are about 15 cm x 15 cm.
Sibyls are usually coupled with the twelve prophets. Is there a set of twelve prophets somewhere still waiting to be discovered?