Of French ivories and car-washes

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.

Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

It does not matter what you do, really, but how

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.

Polish knight spotted in Lisbon (again)

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 British Museum: The Limoges Sybils by Leonard Limousin

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?

Unidentified Polish Objects (U.P.O.)

This painting by Willem Kalf (1619-1693), now located in Musée de Tessé, Le Mans, may have been painted in Paris, ca. 1643-45, for René II de Froulay (1597-1671), father of the more famous Renee III.

René Père was a military man of sorts himself, having held the office of lieutenant general du roi, which, we are told, “gave him military powers to represent the king in the province of Main” (The Presence of Things, 2010).

This may explain the painting’s martial pretensions: the breastplate, the helmet and the saber.

It does not explain why they should be Polish weapons — which is what they are.


If the dating of the painting is correct, we are still some years before the famed battle of Beresteczko (1651) which will cover Poland with military gloria and make her manhood the universal object of worship and emulation of Western knighthood (ever so briefly — until the 1683 Charge at the Battle of Vienna, anyway).

Nor do René Père’s dates allow for him to have been engaged somehow in Henri III’s failed Polish adventure.

A mystery, then:  why was René II, of Le Mans, flaunting the classic armor of Polish heavy hussars in 1643?

Could it be because the heavy hussars were the last military formation in Europe to use the traditional manly tactic of mounted frontal assault?  Wearing heavy breastplate and armed with special long lances (4.5-5 meters), they fought in small units — a banner usually numbered about 150 men; they charged on horseback, at first in a wide arc (to evade gunfire) but then closed ranks as they built up speed until, right before ramming the enemy, they closed in and rode stirrup-to-stirrup.  This battering-ram technique worked wonders against much larger forces — as in the battle of Kirholm (1605) in which 1,750 hussars defeated 12,000 Swedish infantry and at Chocim (1621), when a force of mere 56o broke up 10,000 strong Turkish formation.  Most importantly — from the PR man’s point of view — it was not just effective but also — hot.  No projectile weapons for the heavy hussars, no woos stuff like shooting from an entrenched position at an exposed enemy.  Certainly no everlasting sieges of the western wars of the time.


Manly chest-to-chest instead.

The old school.

Surely, René, lieutenant general du roi, not heroically gifted enough to deserve an entry in the French wikipedia, would have liked the association.

What is interesting is that Polish heavy hussar weapons were included in this painting without further reference or commentary to the particular military formation.  Did René expect every viewer to identify them as what they were?  And if so, were Polish heavy hussars that well known in France?  Or was it a private reference?  Had René served in Poland in his youth — as many unemployed French aristocrats had done?


Of some relevance here may be the figure of Stefano Della Bella, a Florentine engraver who worked in Paris 1642-1649 at the invitation of Richelieu and who produced several prints with Polish subjects, including this Polish horseman, and a representation of the Ossolinski’s Embassy’s entrance into Rome in 1633.  If, as seems likely, he was in Rome during that phenomenal pageant — Ossolinski’s companions had hoofed their horses in gold — but loosely so that some hooves may be wantonly dropped in the street in order to impress the unwashed — he may have gone on nursing a strong impression of Polish knighthood for the rest of his life; and may have infected poor Kalf with it.


1.  Check out this gallery of Kalf’s work.  Small size, but relatively good quality.

2.  There has been some interest in husaria (the heavy hussars) lately, both sides of the Atlantic — mainly with the historical reenactment crowd.  Much of husaria’s appeal is centered around the idea of winged horsemen (cf. here):  the fact that the hussars may have had wings. But while it is true that several surviving sets of husaria armor do sport wings, we do not have any record as to how these wings may have been used.  Their purpose has long been subject of discussion: were they intended to make a racket and thus frighten the enemy (or their horses)?  Were they intended to protect the rider against Tartar lassos?

It seems, neither:  the wings are an aerodynamic disaster:  in gallop, they often unseat the horseman, or else — flip his horse altogether.  The wings may have been items of display on ceremonial occasions only, just as the feather crowns of the Lakota.  (Which is a thing about combat:  it ain’t pretty).  Yet, this image remains firmly locked in the Polish mind.  Which is an interesting thing:  the image was created by a foreign occupying power (Austria-Hungary) to lure Polish youth into Austrian army during WWI.  It presented a husarz the way he never looked in combat, and the way he never fought.  In fact, no artistic representation of the husaria — neither subversive — such as one might consider an Austrian propaganda use — nor orthodox — i.e. nationalist in origin — shows them in the one feat that made them great:  the feat of galloping (headlong into the enemy) stirrup-to-stirrup.

Which is another illustration of the fact that most of what laymen think they know about history is… not worth knowing.

Art view

You are of course religiously reading art.view, are you not?  Articles like this one, concerning the heated nationalist debate between the English and the Germans regarding who was the first one in Europe to reproduce (copy? monkey? knock-off?  — do we really want to be proud of this?) Chinese porcelain.

(Before the clever chemists of Augustus the Strong, King of Poland (hold the ovation, thank you), there was apparently a certain Lord Buckingham in England, an avowed alchemist…)

Or this one, about the Chinese provincial nouveaux riches going out in force to buy back Chinese art treasures now in the West — which has had a phenomenal inflationary impact on prices.  The treasures are great, no doubt about it, but should this beautiful jade brush washer really fetch $900K?

$900K?  Holy cow, you could have had this thing for maybe $20K at most only two Decembers ago!  Good grief am I glad to have locked in some Ming cloisonne when the going was still cheap (ish)!  And — what difference does 24 months make! (About 4500% to be precise).

Or this article, about the incredible revelations and twists of fate at the Maastricht fair, to which I have been vainly trying to invite our own Chris Miller for what seems like years and years?  There you could have oggled this, if not exactly picked it up (it went, again, for $900K):

a panorama of a visit by Louis XIV to the chateau of Juissy, which a dealer found and bought at a provincial auction for $70K, grimy with soot, only to restore it, re-attribute it and — flip it for a 1200% profit.

My, my.  Hardly ever anything as exciting on the financial pages, you know.  Smart operators who went into Ford debt at 14 cents 18 months ago only made 600%.  And how often does that happen?  And when it happens, is there even a quarter as much pleasure in it?  Or even a tenth?

Preljocaj’s Siddharta

Why are there not 50,000 large size photos of this production all over the internet as a matter of simple promotional tool?  Why are there not hundreds of youtube video snippets for the same reason?  All I can find on internet there are these two:  the photo above (hardly representative of anything) and this video snippet.  (I do not embed it here on account of youtube’s penchant for shoving LSO cookies into your browser and not even telling you about it. If you use Firefox, read here on how you can protect yourself against these little monsters).  Yet, youtube’s nefarious LSO cooking doings should not stop you from watching the snippet:  it’s a good one.  (It comes from a tableau intended, I suppose, to represent Siddharta’s struggle against himself — two very similar guys dancing now together now against each other, etc.)

Le Monde pans Siddharta.  Too heavy handed, it says, too gimmicky, too predictable (by which, I think, they mean, transparent:  the French like their symbols to be “intelligent”, i.e. demanding).  Le Figaro is more nuanced, yet it also complains:  not surprising; and too pretty.

It’s true:  there is a lot of just plain pretty here:  the Bayadere-like prancing school of long-legged lithe girls in flimsy muslin on a shiny floor is well… absolutely…  gratuitous pleasure; and though I can see how using a beautiful woman as a symbol for Awakening (yawn) can be seen as somewhat hackneyed, shall we blame Aurélie Dupont for being so very beautiful? Is, after all, the whole point here not — looking at beautiful bodies moving beautifully? One can say the same about the snippet above — Siddharta’s struggle against himself:  the tableau topic and imagery is hackneyed, no doubt, but the dance — well, the dance is very good, is it not?

I suppose I could say that I have found the performance enjoyable mainly because I did not try to understand what each tableau represented.  After all, what is the meaning of a flower? Besides, why assume a choreographer may have anything interesting to say about anything? Certainly the Carlson documentary showed that choreographers can sound like complete morons when they attempt to speak.

I suppose the stage sets were a little gimmicky, and at times it all seemed a bit frenetic, but the chereography and the dance were great.  No, I did not go to Paris for it.  I saw it on Mezzo.  When will your cable distributor finally carry it?