Dr. David Cowan
I don’t know if it is Brexit, Trump’s increasingly offensive remarks, the Jupiter-like power of Macron or just something in the water, but there is a bit a thing going on with power and art just now. London has two exhibitions opening: Charles I: King and Collector at the Royal Academy and Charles II: Art and Power in the Royal Collections. Paris has had two significant exhibits spanning the new year, with one of them just ending yesterday. In Spring there will be Birth of a Nation: Italian Art from Post-war Reconstruction to 1968 at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. That exhibit will be a representation of people and power in the art, politics and society of Italy from the 1950s to the protest years of the late ‘60s. Last year, I reviewed Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites for the Burlington Magazine, an exhibition that showed the Jacobites pretension to power. These exhibitions explore power differently, from the pomp and circumstance of the London and Paris displays, through to the different historic protests of the Edinburgh and Florence exhibitions.
Power and art have always been in relationship of course, with the former often financing and commissioning the latter to enhance the enigma and allure of power. Power, as the Florence exhibit highlights, is also a matter of protest. It is a good thing that we learn more about these interrelationships; it will surely help us understand the dynamics of power in our own time. The desire to airbrush people and events out of history is to misdiagnose the role of art. We need to understand what power was and its uses, and be reminded of how we got to where we are.
What we understand as abuse of power now is different from how abuse was understood in past times. People in the eras of the London and Paris displays would no doubt look in wonder at how we use and abuse power today. In more recent times, the 1960s culture wars have been turned on their head with all the #MeToo accusations, which can be traced back to how people behaved then and what they tolerated. Art educates, which is why organizations in search of power like the so-called Islamic State destroy art and heritage. They want to destroy cultural memory.
For the record, Rubens: Portraits Princiers closed at the Musée du Luxembourg on Sunday, having run since 4 October. Among the portraits on display were those of Philippe IV, Louis XIII and Marie de’ Medici and other royal figures by the artist and some of his famous contemporaries, including Pourbus, Champaigne, Velázquez and Van Dyck. The visitor was introduced to the power and stately riches of 17th century European courtly life. A far cry from the power politics of today, though perhaps what we may have think of as regal back then maybe struck contemporaries as just as Trumpian in the 17th century.
Happily, the wonderful Théâtre du Pouvoir at the Louvre runs until 2nd July. This exhibit takes visitors from antiquity up to the present day, featuring forty works from the Musée du Louvre, the Musée National du Château de Pau, the Château de Versailles and the Musée des Beaux-arts de la Ville de Paris. The displays give us an impressive sweep of power through history using art and artefacts, a much broader remit than the slivers of time at the Musée du Luxembourg and London exhibitions.
We are take on a journey showing us the codification, representation and follies of political power. The exhibition is divided into four sections:
If you go to the London exhibitions and want more, I highly recommend you hop on the Eurostar to the Louvre. I’ll look in a future blog at the Florence exhibit, and there will surely be more power and art themes explored as our power politics evolves. It appears to me we are in a period of paradigmatic change, which itself will one today be an historical exhibit.