Gulbenkian

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.

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Set of Maki-e Boxes, Gulbenkian

Japanese, 19th century.

The maki-e decoration technique consists in applying multiple thin layers of Japanese black lacquer, drying it in an oven, then polishing it to high gloss, then applying the next layer — usually, about 30 times or so to get the right smoothness and gloss. For decoration gold dust of various sizes, and sometimes gold leaf, is applied to a layer, then painted over, then polished until it becomes visible again.

Gulbenkian owns what is probably the world’s best collection of these marvels.

Each of the two boxes in this set is approximately 15 cm long, 12 cm tall and 8 cm wide. Each is completely covered with landscape decoration, including the sides of the miniature drawers.


Some Kashan pottery at the Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon

Seljuk Period, 12th-13th century.


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.


Some details of the Gulbenkian “animals fighting” carpet

Perhaps the most storied of Gulbenkian’s carpets, “the animal’s fighting”
.