Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The End of Opulence

It's not at all an American thing to say. In fact it's something I've been criticized most of my life for mentioning I'm attracted to, so I've been trained to qualify any spoken appreciation of it, against my nature. But as with all politically correct restraints, I do long for the day when I can simply marvel openly at the opulence and pageantry of royalty without someone clearing their throat, like some withered crone of a history teacher, nudging me on to mention that, of course, I don't like what they represent in a political sense.

Where's all this coming from? There's
a review in The New York Times today by Alan Riding of an exhibition in London that catalogs a major shift in Western history (from the last days of kings to the rise of citizen authority) via an exhibition of portraits:

Exhibitions of pre-20th-century art invariably focus on the art, which seems logical enough. The paintings might once have had political, religious or allegorical significance, but generations later it is the talent and technique of the artists themselves that matter most.

The new show at the Royal Academy of Arts here, “Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760-1830,” can certainly be seen through this prism: it is not every day that oils by Ingres, David, Goya, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Géricault and Delacroix are brought together to be admired.

Yet this exhibition’s purpose is radically different: it is to dwell on the message, not the medium. Rather than celebrating the artists as such, it presents them as witnesses to the social and political convulsions of their times. It shows them recording a crucial moment of history as it unfolded.
And while it was gratifying to read one of my own ideas about political art articulated so clearly (i.e., political messages come and go, the "art" had better be universal if the work is going to stand up), I was disheartened to see juxtaposed the two Ingres that flank the rest of the exhibition:

Two portraits by Ingres — one opening the show, the other closing it — illustrate this metamorphosis. Painted in 1806, “Napoleon on the Imperial Throne” presents that French ruler as the personification of absolute power. Then, just 26 years later, in “Louis-François Bertin,” it is an influential newspaper editor who exudes self-confident authority.

Both are, of course, magnificently painted, and there's no doubt about how masterfully Ingres captured Bertin, in all his horrific glory, but look at them! Which of those men would you rather dress up like? Seriously? Not Napoleon? Really? hmmm....Maybe it's just a gay thing.

OK, so I have a point beyond mere fashion fantasies. Looking at those two images together (yes, history teacher, I know that the emperor's loss was everyone else's gain...got it...can I have my gold star and continue here?), I can't help but sense there's also something lost, to everyone, via the downfall of kings. Think about it. We'll trek to visit the Hermitage, and marvel at its splendor, but to find that kind of opulence in a contemporary space you have to travel to Las Vegas, and there it's all so tacky and fake. Royalty was real.

You have to allow for varying tastes, I understand, but anyone not impressed with Napoleon's finery on some level, isn't being honest, IMO. As I survey the spread of democracy (and, truly, I do prefer it, don't turn me in to Homeland Security), and I see how dreary its accompanying costume and set designs are, though, I can't help but sigh, a little. Not that I would have ever been emperor. But who knows, maybe I could have worked in the imperial dry cleaners, and tried on those robes when no one else was looking.

Labels: ,


Blogger Mark said...

A contemporary to the Napolean finery seems to be thug rappers, with diamonds and grills and Benzes... Whenever I have toured places like Versailles, the Biltmore or Newport, I get a bad feeling, guilt maybe, the servants quarters always impress me more, by their simplicity.

3/06/2007 09:12:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I don't feel guilt. On the contrary, I feel pride. I know who built those palaces, and it was generally someone who's standard of living was lower than that of the palace servants.

3/06/2007 09:24:00 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

"generally someone who's standard of living was lower than that of the palace servants."

True, and you definately will realize why there was a revolution in France.

3/06/2007 09:30:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

See, this is the tricky thing for me though. Had I been in France then, I'd undoubtedly have joined the revolutionaries at the barricades. But when we stormed the palace, I would have been the one arguing against trampling all over the imperial trappings. Perhaps it's too dangerous to spare the royals themselves, but the imperial treasures, which were generally made by the people, at that point then belong to the people, and yet too often during revolutions they're destroyed either because of the chaos or, regrettably, because of confusion on that point.

3/06/2007 09:40:00 AM  
Blogger George said...


Do you pay attention to haute couture?
Flamboyance is alive and well.

3/06/2007 09:51:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Do you pay attention to haute couture?

I can hear Bambino laughing from here. No, I don't pay any attention to fashion at all, as anyone who's seen me in person can attest.

Opulence is not something I want in any daily sense, as much as something I want access to on occassion (and which I fear we're no longer achieving on such a grand scale as a species).

Personally, I couldn't live in a palace (I like intimate surroundings, and our home furnishings are rather tastefully modest), but looking at those ermines and sceptors, especially next to that drab bankers suit and vest, it's hard for me not to feel a loss. The bling and silks of rappers can't hold a candle. It's the unimaginable excess that I find so fascinating. How long does it take to put all that on? And how much does it all weigh? It's so wonderfully absurd.

3/06/2007 10:04:00 AM  
Blogger Sunil said...

Unfortunately a lot of art that was created to serve as political mouthpieces at its time could have lost their original intent over the din of history marching its course. It would be useful if people spend some more time delving into some of the political and social ramifications bought forth by artistic statements portrayed through paintings (which sadly tends to get looked at by the ‘art technique' eye nowadays – as you rightly mention in your post).
On the other hand, in today’s world we face a surfeit of so much information and political statements (from blogs, wikis, forums and discussion groups etc.) that artists who tend to make political statements through their art could get drowned out in the digital clangor...

3/06/2007 10:11:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

LOL, my how does? was...

Can you imagine him trying to get into a limo?
"Where do I put my stick" (whatever that sign of power is called) How do I get dog sh*t off my ermine?

Haute couture, is interesting.

3/06/2007 10:23:00 AM  
Blogger ondine-nyc said...

someone needs a trip to the Versace store :)

Versailles is hideously over the top and the people who revel in those places and those who wear full length ermine and usually the least deserving.

I've had enough of the McMansion set for 2 lifetimes and the uber-royalty of the Bush Administration set and their need to be pampered at spa's just for waking up in the morning sickens me.

The pursuit of opulence is a virus that we have now transferred to the Chinese who all want their own cars and suburban houses. It will be the death of the planet.

Love those Ingres though!

3/06/2007 10:24:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

We're not that far apart Ondine. I don't want opulence on a daily basis. But I like the idea of it being there to visit. You love the Ingres, but without the first one, would the second one have been conceivable?

3/06/2007 10:29:00 AM  
Anonymous ml said...

Austerity came into fashion with the Reformation. The Protestants turned it into a sign of godliness. And opulence blossomed with the Reformation too - the Catholics used it as their form of shock and awe.

I personally am tired of austerity. Visual anorexia. Purity. A mix is healthier.

3/06/2007 10:41:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Curiously, I just finished the chapter on Andy Warhol in the book I'm reading, Art Since 1940 by Jonathan Fineberg. The author quotes Andy on this very subject:

What's great about this country is America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.

3/06/2007 10:54:00 AM  
Anonymous oriane said...

One of the great benefits of royalty and its obscene opulence is that it preserves history. I tend to be more impressed by ancient architectural wonders than paintings/clothing/jewels from the last couple hundred years. I was in China in December and went to the Qing tombs (similar to the Ming tombs near Beijing, but out in the middle of nowhere, so very few tourists, especially in December). If there hadn't been emperors with vast wealth and power and appetites over-the-top monuments to themselves, we wouldn't be able to see this stuff now. Of course politically the disparity of wealth (along with the disparity of things like life expectancy) demonstrated is horrendous, but we do get to see these incredible treasures from thousands of years ago. That's pretty great. I've never seen the pyramids in Egypt, but I imagine it's a similar experience.

3/06/2007 11:25:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

Which of those men would you rather dress up like? Seriously? Not Napoleon? Really? hmmm....Maybe it's just a gay thing.

EW, it must be, because I'd much rather dress like Bertin. If I didn't know the portrait on the left was Napoleon, I'd think it was a 12-year-old girl wrapped up in the livingroom curtains. She's even holding the curtain rods :)

3/06/2007 11:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought I should mention the portrait artist Kehinde Wiley did of Ice-T where the rapper chose his own pose and chose that exact Ingres painting compared to Ice-T who chose a Rockefeller portrait similar in pose to the Bertin. You can see them here....


3/06/2007 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Oriane sez:
Of course politically the disparity of wealth (along with the disparity of things like life expectancy) demonstrated is horrendous, but we do get to see these incredible treasures from thousands of years ago.

You're right! Nothing says "opulence of bygone days" like a pile of human skulls!

Is it the right time to quote the entirety of Shelley's Ozymandias or do I have to wait a bit longer?

3/06/2007 11:53:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it the right time to quote the entirety of Shelley's Ozymandias or do I have to wait a bit longer?

You'll need to coordinate with Cedric :)

3/06/2007 11:56:00 AM  
Blogger ondine-nyc said...

Chris, i love that Warhol quote! Thanks for that.

Edward, as far as needing the first one as opposed to the 2nd one i don't know. Nature offers so many over the top things to capture that you can juxtapose a Cherry blossom tree in full regalia and post it next to an oak and get the same effect or a painting of Niagra Falls next to a stream.

If Rembrandt or Vermeer painted Bertin they might have suggested a white shirt and made the painting less funereal and might have given Napolean a run for his money.

3/06/2007 12:05:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Off topic

Libby found guilty

3/06/2007 01:00:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Too bad they won't go after his boss.

3/06/2007 01:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Personally, with all the jews getting back their paintings years after the war, I wonder sometimes how I could get back some of the pre-stalin ownings of my grandparents, cos, well, they sort of lived in palaces. In fact those place are public ownings as of today.

I'm a bastard child of post-wealth, here. Even got some blue-blood from a few centuries back (though that's sort of common where I came from).

My opinion on big wealthy families is that there was usually one fantastic guy that did it all in the beginnings, and the rest, the heirs and "descendants" were all lazy suckers spending their times being served and giving their opinions on various subjects. I am afraid I have not been able to do better. :-) (at a much lower scale of living, mind you)

This said in east and central europa, wealthy families lasted much longer than they did in France and England.

One thing I can tell you is that when you are rich from ways of inheritance, when you didn't make it on your own, you are very easily hated, so you learn to be on your own. Rich people do meet in between but they know who made it out of work and who didn't, and this is judged a lot. If you're Paris Hilton you HAVE to try a career in arts or be involved in charity or you are simply being contantly laughed out or talked in your back.

So if you touch opulence, good for you, but you got to be prepared to be on your own, or know what to do with the money, how to make it circulate to show that you're still active (and generating goods for the people, who-hee).


Cedric Caspesyan

3/06/2007 02:21:00 PM  
Blogger Molly Stevens said...

I agree with Cedric. When you're in the money, you have to prove yourself, unless you just decide to flaunt it.

I can't help but think there's a certain un-self-awareness in opulence. Although, sure, fur can look good.

3/06/2007 02:51:00 PM  
Blogger John Holdway said...

The great thing about art is not just the beautiful object but the story that it contains. It is a part of history and inspires a story.
History really tells more about the history writers than the events that inspired them.

3/06/2007 03:57:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

Darling, I regard this as carte blanche to wear the blue velvet/purple silk princess dress to your next opening, with the baroque silk pashmina shawl and several of the flashiest pieces of jewelry inherited from my aunt. If it is chilly I shall wear the fur as well. Very much looking forward!

3/06/2007 05:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

If you like emperor bling, you'll love Putin's plane.

3/06/2007 07:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Which of those men would you rather dress up like? Seriously? Not Napoleon? Really? hmmm....Maybe it's just a gay thing.

I so prefer the handsome duds on Bertin that I had to read the above a few times before I understood what the hell you were talking about. To me, Napoleon just looks like a girl here. Whereas Bertin looks like he could give you excellent advice on everything from finance to brandy.

3/06/2007 07:47:00 PM  
Blogger Cooky Blaha said...

I'd go for Bertin's...He's obviously wearing hedi slimane rtw 04,while Napoleon's got on some reject versace from 93...Galliano would have handled that cape much better. The Bertin is so much more powerful as well of course

3/07/2007 01:09:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

No, no, no, a thousand times no!

Napoleon's got it all over that sour-looking Bertin. With his pret-a-porter tastes, "I'm too pudgy for my shirt" tailoring, and that more-than-slightly freakish "all I need is a monicle to play the Penguin" thing going on, he's clearly been out-dressed.

3/07/2007 08:04:00 AM  
Blogger George said...


Jean Baudrillard died yesterday in Paris at 77

3/07/2007 08:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

will places like Abu Dhabi with all its museums be more like Vegas or Versailles?

3/07/2007 01:55:00 PM  
Blogger rb said...

maybe it's just me but i think both these portraits would be more interesting if they were nudes

but of course they were painted as symbols of power and you need costumes for that

3/07/2007 03:37:00 PM  
Blogger Susan Constanse said...

I know that I'm coming to this late, but it's not just the loss of kings but the loss of heroes that is a tragedy. The base is revered while heroism is overlooked.

There is little mose base than rampant consumerism.

3/07/2007 09:09:00 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home