Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A History of the World in 100 Objects

The British Museum is as tremendous as ever, and I was really happy to catch the special exhibit 'Picasso Prints: The Vollard Suite' as it was in its final days. Avant-garde Paris art dealer and print publisher Ambroise Vollard was savvy enough to give Picasso his first exhibition in 1901. Picasso wrote of Vollard that "the most beautiful woman who ever lived never had her portrait painted, drawn, or engraved [more often] than Vollard -- by Cezanne, Renoir, Roualt, Bonnard, Forain, almost everybody...He had the vanity of a woman, that man." The prints that make up the Vollard Suite were commissioned by Vollard when he asked Picasso to produce 100 etchings between 1930 and 1937 in exchange for some pictures. Vollard died in a car crash before the prints were distributed, and the outbreak of World War II delayed their release further still. Dealer Henri Petiet purchased most of the prints from the Vollard estate, and the set acquired by the British Museum comes directly from the heirs of Petiet and has never been shown in public before and is in pristine condition. It was a wonderful show!

Almost just as good as visiting the museum in person is A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor (an edition with a slightly different cover than the one shown above was published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2011). I bought this book last year, before it started to receive some attention here in the States (the article 'A History of New York in 50 Objects' by Sam Roberts, The New York Times, 2 September, 2012 is one of the most recent examples inspired by the book). Based on a BBC Radio 4 series, HOTW is just the kind of book (or project) I am crazy about -- it's very similar in spirit, after all, to my A to Z Miscellany in each of my books. MacGregor notes in his Preface that telling history through things is what museums are for, "and because the British Museum has for over 250 years been collecting things from all round the globe, it is not a bad place to start if you want to use objects to tell a history of the world." He also wisely notes that if the history you want to tell doesn't unduly favor one part of humanity, you can't use texts alone because "only some of the world has ever had texts, while most of the world, for most of the time, has not. Writing is one of humanity's later achievements, and until fairly recently even many literate societies recorded their concerns and aspirations not only in writing but in things."

While I do think it's optimal to read this book through as is, one can open it up to any page and easily get lost for an hour. Every single object presented is incredibly fascinating, whether it's an Olduvai stone chopping tool, the standard of Ur, a gold coin of Croesus minted in western Turkey, a Hebrew astrolabe probably from Spain, a Mexican codex map, a Russian Revolutionary plate, or a credit card issued in the United Arab Emirates in 2009 (since they were introduced in the 1950s, credit cards have become a major part of modern life). And to think that all of these are in the permanent collection of the BM is a reminder that this is one of the world's most stellar museums. (And in case you're wondering, the Parthenon sculpture of Centaur and Lapith -- better known as the Elgin Marbles -- is included in these 100 objects; MacGregor doesn't share his view on the matter of whether the Marbles should be returned to Greece or remain in London, but as readers of my book on Athens, the Peloponnese, and the Aegean Islands know, I believe the time has come for them to be on display in Athens.)

Neil MacGregor has been Director of the BM since 2002, and he was previously Director of the National Gallery in London. His book is a masterpiece, and it would also make a great holiday gift.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Apsley House, London

I am stunned that so many weeks have gone by since my last post, and there's no point in apologizing: everyone's busy, everyone has life maintenance, and no one is sitting around eating bons bons.  Certainly not here in New York anyway, where we are still coming to terms with Hurricane Sandy (and will be for a long time to come).  If we constantly apologized for being late, no conversations of substance would ever happen.  So, I'm returning to my last few posts about my trip to England without further ado:

"If you want to understand the history of England, there's no better way than to visit the homes of those who wrote it."  -- English Heritage 

Another highlight in London was Apsley House in London.  Known also as 'No. 1 London,' Apsley House [149 Piccadilly, Hyde Park Corner] was the home of the Duke of Wellington.  I admit my main reason for going there was to see a particular painting, 'The Waterseller of Seville,' painted by Diego Velazquez in 1620-22.  My Mom brought this painting to my attention after reading about it in The Wall Street Journal ('The Compassionate Scoundrel' by Mary Tompkins Lewis, 18 June, 2011).  The painting is magnificent, but Lewis's article really gives the work even more depth.  The painting was the last of Velazquez's bodegones, "an early series of genre scenes from Seville of humble figures engaged in the rituals of food and drink."  Lewis notes that a waterseller -- an aguador -- was a familiar and welcome sight on the dusty streets of 17th century Seville, and he was also "a stock character in picaresque Spanish literature, plays and popular imagery, routinely rendered as a scoundrel or pathetic peddler who operated on the fringes of urban society and hawked his often dubious wares to an unsuspecting public."  

This painting alone is worthy of a journey to Apsley House, but as it happens the mansion is filled with several hundred of the finest works in London (including military memorabilia, a statue of Napoleon by Italian sculptor Canova, a grand 'Battle of Waterloo' painted in 1843 by Sir William Allan, the Saxon Service and Prussian Service porcelain sets, an original pair of Wellington boots, and a pair of candelabra and a silver-gilt shield given to Wellington to celebrate the victory at Waterloo).  'The Waterseller of Seville' is from a group of canvases referred to as the Spanish Royal Collection, which were discovered after the Battle of Vitoria in 1813 in the abandoned baggage carriage of Joseph Bonaparte, who was at that time king of Spain.  The works were given to Wellington as rolled-up canvases by King Ferdinand VII of Spain in 1816.  Another stunning painting in the Collection is 'The Agony in the Garden' by Correggio -- according to the official guidebook, Benjamin West, President of the Royal Academy, thought this was "worth fighting a battle for, and that it should be framed in diamonds."

Wellington -- who became known as the Iron Duke -- passed away in 1852 as a national hero.  Some 200,000 people lined up to view his body lying in state, and he was buried at St. Paul's Cathedral.

The Statue of Achilles (raised in honor of Wellington and funded entirely by British women), Wellington Arch, and Wellington Statue are very near Apsley House in the Hyde Park Corner traffic island, making this a veritable Wellington neighborhood.  So I thought it was a little odd when, I was a little turned around after I came out of the Underground, I asked a few passersby where Apsley House was located.  "Come again?" and "What?" were the replies I received.  Even when I said, "Wellington's house" they didn't seem to know which way to direct me.   No matter -- it actually only took walking a few steps toward the giant Arch to find my way; but Aplsey House deserves to be better known, and I encourage visitors bound for London to find a place for it on their itineraries.