Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Not quite bald yet

Having an hour or two to kill in storm-lashed Montpellier yesterday morning I went to the Musée Fabre, the very fine city art gallery. I've been several times before, but always in company or with limited time, both of which affect one's ability to wander at will. The woman on the ticket counter was one of those thankfully rare French people who, as soon as they hear the slightest trace of a foreign accent, speak very very slowly in a sort of moronic pidgin-French amplified by infantile gestures, talking to a colleague the while about something else. In these circumstances I'm reminded of the immortal poem
See the happy moron,
He doesn't give a damn.
I wish I was a moron...
My god! Perhaps I am?

Nicolaes van Verendael (1640-1691): Vase of flowers, 1674

Anyway I bought my ticket and went in. I spent a good hour hour going Dutch, absorbing all that the Musée Fabre could throw at me from their giant collection of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish masters. From all the peasant scenes, portraits of plump burghers with crazily goffered ruffs, land- and seascapes, I chose a flower painting, itself a minor genre from the period, from the souvenir postcards in the gallery shop.

I expect you too can find an ant, a bee, a looper caterpillar, a Red Admiral, a snail attacking a peach, a fritillary, along with a fat watch and its key on a ribbon. I expect it needs winding up, because time seems to have stopped, if it allows a season in which brambles (bottom right) and tulips are prominent together. Tulips in Dutch paintings are always significant because they point to the wealth accruing from a busy and lucrative overseas trade which England was wrenching away from them even as this painting was drying on its easel. Tulip bulbs, originating in the Near East (the words 'tulip' and 'turban' are etymologically close) commanded high prices, especially flowers as striking as these. But however magnificent the flower, in time it withers and dies. I think the whole painting is an unwitting commentary on the decline of Dutch commercial primacy. I expect this is completely fanciful.

I moved on to a special exhibition the gallery was holding of the work of the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, a specialist in portraits. Among other people prominent in Paris in the 1770s and 80s (Benjamin Franklin, Christoph Willibald Gluck) he sculpted the philosopher Voltaire, who had recently been allowed back to France as an old man after years in exile in Switzerland. When he died in 1778, a month or two after Houdon had finished his portrait, he was greatly mourned in certain circles because of his outspoken criticism of pre-Revolution France. The demand for memorials grew, and Houdon found his order book filling with demands for Voltaires, even though his subject was cold in the grave. The need for speed of execution grew too, and we find Houdon moving from marble to the much speedier terra cotta and plaster.
Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828): Voltaire seated, c. 1780-90

This is one of the many posthumous portraits, a quarter-life-size portrait of Voltaire, and I do like the way Houdon has captured the wit, the fine intelligence, the humanity and dignity of this first-thing-in-the-morning old man in his dressing-gown, his few remaining wisps of hair held in a band (I wonder why?) and his attitude of quiet, smiling, even smug, satisfaction. But you never know with Voltaire, always a man to spring surprises. It's just possible that his attitude may be due to the effectiveness of his laxative.
Finally I couldn't resist this magnificent bat in (I think) sand-blasted bronze. The French for bat (that's to say flittermouse, pipistrelle, etc.) is chauve-souris, bald mouse. That's how I feel sometimes, too, especially when Sarah forgets to pretend not to notice it.

Germaine Richier (1902-1959): Bat, 1946

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