There’s something very pure and fundamental about the art of Safavid Iran, which is given perhaps its fullest-yet exploration in an extensive exhibition at the Louvre.
This comes, I’d suggest, from its primary art form – the one from which the others drew their inspiration and idiom, which was small-scale paintings on paper. There’s nothing purer than a simple brush stroke – it leaves an artist nowhere to hide sloppy technique or inadequate composition.
The exhibition begins with the stunning “Banquet of Letters in the Garden”, an early 17th-century tile mosaic in rich greens, blues and yellows. Two poets write as two attendants wait. It is a picture of courtly, civilised life in a garden in which each leaf has its place.
For behind the centrality of manuscript painting was artists who were trying to depict characters with features matching those of the ideal beauty that was sung in poetry. The sky is painted in gold, turquoise or lapis blue and the grass emerald green. Patterns on bronze vessels and painted on pottery translate literary images that are symbols of the “celestial vault” that is the universe.
But that doesn’t prevent genuine, close exploration of the real world. One of the highlights, right at the start of the exhibition, is a joyous 15th-century blue and white ware vessel shaped in the form of a fowl. This is a bird that has just glorious ruffled up its feathers and with a full crop is about to settle down for a nice sun bath. There’s something right about that, since the text explains that this tradition of such wine vessels dates back to the start of the first millennium, when the Zorostrian practice of blood sacrifice was replaced by libations of wine, which would have flowed from this bird’s beak.
What makes a great work of art? There are many answers to that question, but mine is simple: “depth”. There must be many meanings, many emotions, many possible reactions contained within it, and each time you look at it, you should be able to find something new. On that count, if you compare the two great women’s portraits of today’s Paris, the Mona Lisa (La Joconde) and the “Lady and the Unicorn” (La Dame à la licorne) tapestries, there’s no doubt in my mind which comes out as the greater piece of art.
Leonardo De Vinci’s is a fine piece of workmanship, and its artistic framework is closer to that of our own time and traditional ideas of “beautiful art” (as attested by 1,000s of placemats and cheap prints it has spawned all around the world). But see it once, contemplate the really-not-so-mysterious smile, and you feel that you’ve looked at an icon, not a work of art that will repay multiple visits and further study, unless you’re very into arcane details of Renaissance symbolism.The 19th-century Symbolists might have found in this image of Lisa del Giocondo their ideal of “perfect womanhood”, but it is a rather empty, shallow ideal – fitting perhaps that in common parlance she has lost her own name and become a mere symbol.
“The Lady and the Unicorn”, but contrast, is in its medieval sensibilities, far more foreign to our eye, far less immediately accesible, but visit it, and visit again, and you’ll find depths, feelings for everyone and every time. On my latest visit, in the great dark vault at the Cluny Museum (Musée du Moyen-Age) it was the, of the six tapestries depicting different senses, “Touch” that spoke to me most – I saw in it a woman facing a great and difficult choice, a challenge, a Joan of Arc who foresees a tragic end to the path she’s taking but has decided to follow that destiny anyway.
Before you decide to visit the Annette Messager retrospective now at the Pompidou, you should be warned: you won’t have seen such a menacing collection of stuffed animals since you woke in your nursery at age three after a nightmare.
At the heart, physical and conceptual, of this exhibition is “Articulated-disarticulated”, from 2001-2002. These are not, mostly, bodies but the struggling almost dead. A disarticulated acrobat winds floppily around his bar, a rabbit hopelessly kicks its feet, a body that is just torso and arm tries feebly to raise itself.
Around the walls are strange makeshift totem poles, symbols perhaps of the god to whom this slaughter is dedicated. Outside you can hear the carrion birds squabbling, waiting for the waste. What is contolling this, the wires, the pulleys, the counterweight, are all clearly visible – the hands of fate, which somehow only makes it more spooky.
Impressions of the life of Jews in medieval Europe often circulate around thoughts of persecution, or expulsion, or worse: it was a community under pressure. And on one level, an exhibition at the Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris reflects that. It contains items buried in the ancient quarter of Erfurt, in what is now Germany, and also Colmar, south of Strasbourg, in the 14th-century, when the arrival of the Black Death led to a wave of persecution.
But these are items of wealth, of an established community – Jewish communities are visible in the historical record in Alsace and Thuringe from the 12th century, where they were already known for their commercial activities, at the core of urban economies.
There is a small but spectacular collection of wedding rings, amaxingly intricate masterpieces of the jeweller’s art in the shape of domed building suggestive of the Temple of Jerusalem, and previous metal, or metal-decorated fine belts, a traditional love gift. Judging by a couple of handy statues of the Virgin of the period they were worn high; just under the breasts.
Weapons and beauty are not two words commonly linked together, but no other adjective could be applied to a ceremonial 18th-century Mughal mace, rightly highlighted in The Knights of the Arab World exhibition in a case of its own. There’s all of the wealth of that great empire in its rich gold inlay, but there’s pure, perfect design in its form: an antelope gently resting its head on the handle, its back a perfect curve forming the head of the axe, its spiral horns balancing and contrasting in their perfect straight extension. Yet look again at that perfect piece of design and note the still razor-sharp edge of the beast’s back, and the sharp point of those horns, and realise that it could even today cleave through a human skull with ridiculous ease.
After a while, in this parade of swords and sabres, lances and daggers, I could not but wonder how many lives the weapons in the exhibition had taken, imagined each of the weapons dripping with blood in proportion. For there’s few pieces here still, even those many centuries old, for which you could not be arrested for carrying an offensive weapon were you to step outside with them.
Many of the older weapons here might well have been directed against the Crusaders, yet the first thing I learnt from this exhibition was that the two sides in this centuries-long, if spasmodic struggle for what both called the Holy Land were curiously alike – for the Islamic world had a tradition of knighthood astonishingly like that of the West – the knight had a solemn code of behaviour and code only be granted that status by a king or noble in a solemn investiture ceremony at which he would receive his sword.
Many of the tales of knightly derring-do seem also to have had much in common – a fine small painting from Qazwin in 16th-century Iran shows a mounted knight doing combat against a fire-breathing dragon. It might be an English St George, except that the dragon has a distinctly Chinese cast’ it was not so long ago, after all, that the Mongol hordes had been through, burning all before them.
The “decorative arts” – that sounds somehow frivolous, insubstantial, light-weight – utterly unlike the grandeur of the Louvre around the corner, where the much-celebrated (mostly male) figures of the French arts are displayed in all of their glory. Perhaps that why the new Museum of Decorative Arts has been left, in large part, to the women. A focus on the domestic helps to provide the space for them to flower, even take over, as the history of interior life of France, and Europe, is told in a detailed chronology of changing style and lifestyle.
That begins in the first room, as the Middle Ages are turning into the early modern. There’s a lovely 14th-century stone Virgin, holding a serious-looking manuscript. This is a serious, considered, intelligent Virgin, not the vacuous innocent as she’s so often portrayed.
That still feels very medieval, but the lives of women and men were becoming increasingly sophisticated. An armoire dated to 1510 (the time of Louis XII) has linenfold side panels that evoke the Late Gothic but foliate panels and arabesques (showing Italian influence after military campaigns there) on the front and 16 images of men and women in extravagent hats and dress reflect new taste for luxury. This spectacular piece also marks the evolution from the medieva chest, which had been the most important furniture item, used for storage, as a table, a seat and even a bed, to the double-layer armoir, which held much more.
But some things took a while to change – a bed from the end of the 15th century is, to our eyes, very short, and piled high with pillows. That was since people slept sitting up, since lying down was identified with death – as in the depiction of tomb figures. (So when we say of those “they look like they are sleeping”, that’s not what would have been thought back then.)
I’m trying hard, very hard, to be fair to the new Musee du quai Branly. My visit began well enough – a pleasant hot chocolate in the showpiece garden, watching the sun set over the nearby Eiffel Tour. Then it was downhill from there: to reach the actual galleries requires a long trudge over a dimly lit sinuous walkway, and that theme of dramatic spot lighting combined with almost total blackness was to continue throughout the visit*. I’ve never previously thought it was possible to actually “walk into a door”, that alibi for many a black eye, but I managed to do that here – very dim lighting, combined with a reflective black door, combined to make it look like a space.
And then there were the gallery staff. “No, you can’t take notes,” one insisted. When I spluttered “but this is a museum”, he repeated his insistence several times, and it was only after he marched me over to the gallery superviser, who then had to contact her superior by radio, was it established, with great reluctance, that OK, I could take notes.
But when, finally, you can focus on the exhibits (when you aren’t falling over fellow visitors in the gloom) all of the inconvenience and irritation seems worth it. There’s no doubt that here as an amazing, astonishing, spectacular collection of human creation and creativity in all of its forms.
Folowing the less than clear path suggested by the gallery design, the visitor starts in Oceania. The first item to catch my eye was a sensational piece from Papua New Guinea of a woman emerging from an eagle and a crocodile, one of those pieces that makes you feel the artist has found the shapes in the wood rather than created from scratch. An electronic display off to the side, when you find it, reveals that in Sepik River mythology, the crocodile is the creator of the physical world: from its back sprang the earth, from its mouth came the sun, and its upper jaw became the sky. It is also the ancestor of the first animals and men; scarifications on the back giving an appearance of crocodile skin are part of male initiation ceremonies.