On two excellent exhibitions

A brief post after yet more Waterloo action this week following the photography at Somerset House I mentioned before. With an hour to spare after finishing in the library I thought I’d catch the Joseph Cornell at the Royal Academy before it closes in a couple of weeks time. My wife not wanting to see it for some reason (and she’s the one with the membership card!) it was an opportune moment to see it while she was out of the country.

Cornell first caught my attention when reading Phaidon’s book on Surrealism while I was training to be a guide, part of which involved getting under the skin of a selection of works in Tate Modern. I’d never heard of him but as I remember (and memory is fickle isn’t it? I’ve just been reading a thesis using oral history sources where that point was brought home to me once more) there was an illustration of one of his pharmacy cabinets where I thought, ‘That’s Damien Hirst’. And of course Cornell was there first, Hirst as is his wont appropriated his idea and turned it to a more sinister end.

After that I forgot about Cornell. A brief search didn’t turn up anywhere that I could see more of his work in the flesh rather than on the page and he went to the back of my head as ‘the cabinet guy’ who I could reference when doing a bit of one-upmanship about the origins of vitrines, taxonomies, stuff of that sort (which a lot of contemporary art seems to ‘play’ with).

So to see not just an individual work but 5 or 6 rooms of his pieces was too good an opportunity to turn down given that I’m unlikely to go to the States any time soon (which reminds me of how grateful I am to the clout that London’s museums and galleries have in being able to assemble agglomerations of the best of what the rest of the world has to offer and put it in one building for a three month stretch). And he’s unlikely to make a return journey for a generation.

One reason for this may be that the works are so delicate. Collages and clippings of paper, boxes and cases of fragile intricacy that make you wonder at the imagination of a man who built fabulous stories that traverse the world without leaving his home state. All of it is superbly impractical, of an illusory reality. Objects allude to games with no rules, journeys without destination, biographies without substance. Often you come across something that transports you to your own past. Such as this parrot.

Cornell parrot
Cornell parrot
I once had a parrot. Go there and see what you once possessed or imagined amid the marché de puces of Cornell’s objects.

But after that descend the stairs (or take the lift) to Daniel Maclise’s cartoon for the fresco of the Battle of Waterloo that was made in preparation for a site in the Palace of Westminster. You can see the finished article on a tour of Parliament, opposite a similar piece describing the Battle of Trafalgar. But of course this is the bicentenary of Wellington’s and Blücher’s great victory so London is full of Wellingtonia for a year, or at least even more that it is normally. Prior to this exhibition I knew nothing of Maclise, his cartoon or the fresco. Walking in public buildings such as the PoW it’s easy to be blind to the individual artworks, often monumental, that contribute to the grandeur of the whole. This exhibition is welcome in that it forces you to focus on just one of those pieces and reflect on what it is saying.

For myself I was surprised at the lack of triumphalism in the work. This is no celebration of a great victory won, or at least it’s not a revelling in the event. True, Wellington and Blücher form the central figures with a band trumpeting their meeting to one side. But this picture portraying a moment of world history from fifty years ago would surely have come across to contemporaries as a portrait of something far closer to their own lives.

There is national pride in the painting but more strongly resonant is a sense of pity for the fallen. Not maudlin pity but that classical pity and stoic acceptance that the price of victory is paid in the blood of the common man. Each fallen French soldier resembled a portrait of Napoleon in my mind, as if to comment on the fact that so much of the slaughter was a consequence of the actions of one man. The lack of blood only adds to the austere nature of the sorrow. It was drafted only a few years after the end of the Crimean War. Isn’t it a portrait of that futile conflict?

Looking at the cartoon I was reminded of seeing captured French eagles at an exhibition of Napoleonic prints that was on at the British Museum over the summer. The eagles (there were two of them) feature in Maclise’s cartoon and are in the collection of Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner (the seat of the Dukes to this day and open to the public – recommended). I’ve been to Apsley House many times but in amongst the brilliant collection I never noticed the eagles. In a sea of pencil and ink in the drawings gallery of the BM they stood out as physical objects in the world and formed a powerful link with the events of that day in Belgium.

I was reminded of this history coming alive when looking at the small collection of prints by French artists alongside the cartoon at the RA. One, by C. de Last. shows the Affaire d’Astorga en Gallice in which a French soldier, while holding a captured English soldier aloft, is stopped in his tracks by a bullet amidst hand to hand fighting. The pose of two struggling men, through accident or design I don’t know, exactly replicates the pose of a struggling Lapith and Centaur to be found in the Parthenon Sculptures at the British Museum. And it reminded me of how little has changed in three millennia of warfare even to the present day. It should be the historian’s job, and the artist of war, to remind us that nothing that we see nowadays is uniquely horrific; neither is it insurmountable. Hirst and his chums the Chapmans play at dealing with death. Maclise treats it with respect.

Art Exhibitions Guiding History Museums

f1insburyparker View All →

Blue Badge guide to London and academic specialising in early twentieth century history. Blogging on history, academia, and food and culture in the capital (and occasionally elsewhere).

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