Exquisite Antonio Susini Mother and Child sells for £480,000

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This stunning bronze group of the Virgin and Child, c.1610-20, sold at Christie’s yesterday for over £480,000. Previously undocumented, it is one of four examples of this composition which are believed to be the work of Antonio Susini (died 1624). Susini is better known as a technical assistant and caster to the great master Giambalogna (1529-1608) than as a sculptor in his own right, and it is fascinating to see here a work that he conceived and executed by himself. Although Susini’s work remained under the influence of his master, even after he left to establish his own workshop in 1600, there is nothing derivative or reductive about his pieces. Indeed, works such as this one prove him to be an accomplished sculptor, deserving of his own recognition. The piece shows great technical ability in the detail of the casting, for example in the finely modelled faces and carefully articulated curls of the Virgin and Child. However, Susini was not merely a talented technician, and details such as the drapery, which moves from the heavy, sweeping folds of the over skirt, to the gently fluttering, delicate material around the Virgin’s feet, suggest a real confidence and mastery of the medium. Particularly charming is the contrast between the monumental solemnity of the Virgin, and the vitality of her son, who seems almost about to wriggle from her arms. Such liveliness emphasises the humanity of the Christ child, an idea also alluded to here by the careful depiction of his fleshy, childish physiognomy.

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Vasa Museum, Stockholm

I’m in Stockholm this week, a beautiful city set across a series of small islands. One of these, Djurgarden, is home to many of the city’s museums, from Skansen, a historical village and zoo, to the Waldermarsudde, the former resident of the painting and art collecting Prince Eugens. Perhaps the most extraordinary of these is the Vasa Museum, an institution dedicated to an enormous warship, sunk in Stockholm harbour on its maiden voyage in 1628, now salvaged and on display in the central hall of the museum.

The Vasa was commissioned by Gustav II Adolf, King of Sweden, at the height of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), and was meant to be the most powerful warship ever built. Designed with two gun decks, and loaded with heavy artillery, it would have been a formidable force had it ever made it out to open water. Unfortunately Gustav’s plans proved over ambitious, and the ship only travelled 1300 metres before capsizing due to a lack of ballast.

Entering the museum now, the great, hulking body of the ship makes an incredible impression of size and grandeur. It is encrusted in elaborate allegorical carvings, which would once have been brightly painted and even gilded. Soaked in sea water for centuries, these sculptures have been mottled and darkened, lending an air of decay and otherworldliness to the vast ship. The gruesome visages and grimacing lions were once meant to signify the supreme power of the Swedish King; now they seem only to speak of his fatal folly.

A Model of a Guillotine by a Napoleonic Prisoner of War

A Model of a Guillotine by a Napoleonic Prisoner of War

This incredible mini guillotine was carved out of bone by a French prisoner of war, living in the UK during the Napoleonic wars. These men had a lot of spare time, and would fashion objects out of whatever materials they could find, in this case bone. This is a particularly fine example, and was probably made by a man named Cruchet, who after the war went on to design enormous automata for the Paris Opera House.

The morbid subject matter was a favourite with British buyers, who were still fascinated by the bloodiness of the French Revolution. The tiny soldiers, with their menacing swords, surround a decapitated figure on the chopping block – originally his head would have sat in a tiny basket. There’s something particularly macabre about seeing such a gruesome scene acted out by these toy-like figures.

 

Christie’s Antiquities Sale

Yesterday I went to have a look at the items on offer in Christie’s forthcoming antiquities sale (Thursday 25 October). I was lucky enough to be shown around by the lovely Ruth Allen, administrator to the sale who showed me some of her personal highlights, including this stunning statue of Isis, valued at £400,000 to £600,000. Isis was the universal mother figure of the Egyptian gods, who resurrected Osiris, her husband and brother, after he was dismembered and scattered along the Nile by the jealous Seth. A Marian figure, she is often depicted breast feeding her son Horus, and here she has a certain monumental serenity redolent of the enthroned Virgin. Indeed, her name signifies ‘throne,’ and as the embodiment of regal power she was a popular deity among the ruling elite; this statue once stood in the tomb of the Royal Acquaintance Ptahirdis.

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They also had some exquisite antique jewellery, much of which could still be worn today. However, my favourite piece was perhaps a little too chunky to wear – an enormous carnelian cameo ring, carved with a bust of Zeus. No matter, the carving is of such fabulous quality that I’d be happy simply to sit and contemplate it.

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Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde

The Pre-Raphaelites were a rebellious bunch, valiantly and self-consciously breaking away from the staid artistic traditions of the mid-nineteenth century to form the first modern British art movement. At least, that’s what this exhibition promises to illustrate, establishing the PRB as an early example of the avant-garde. Victorian avant-garde? The phrase sounds like an oxymoron to a contemporary audience, acclimatised to the shock of the new, and more used to thinking of the Victorians as grey faced and sexually repressed.

Certainly, there is nothing grey or repressed about these paintings. The bright, jewel-like colours at times border on the psychedelic, particularly in the works of William Holman Hunt. In The Triumph of the Innocents, 1876-87, gaudy, glowing putti, bedecked in garlands like flower children at a music festival, lead the Holy Family through the desert. Even more bizarre is The Scapegoat, 1854-56, an image of a dying goat faltering beneath a yellow sky, in an eerie, empty landscape, surrounded with animal bones and framed by violet hills. Despite the intensely religious nature of the work (the scapegoat was a prefigurement of Christ, sent in to the desert to atone for the sins of the ancient Israelites) it is easy to see, in the symbolism and sense of foreboding, a precursor to the Surrealist landscapes of Salvador Dalí and Yves Tanguy.

The Pre-Raphaelites were likewise precocious in their treatment of (female) sexuality, a theme that went on to have great resonance in twentieth century art. In a room entitled ‘Beauty,’ the viewer is confronted by a veritable bevy of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s muses, from elegant Alexa Wilding, shown here as the haughty Monna Vanna, 1866, to the voluptuous Fanny Cornforth, unleashing her luxuriant tresses as Lady Lilith, 1866-68. Perhaps most powerful are the paintings of Rosetti’s wife Elizabeth Siddal, who as a bride in The Beloved, 1865-66, returns the viewer’s gaze with a startling directness, suggesting a certain sexual independence. The sway that she held over Rossetti is also poignantly referred to in Beata Beatrix, a posthumous portrait of Siddal as Dante’s great love. She is absent and ethereal, seeming to melt into the haze of Rossetti’s brushstrokes, although, unlike Dante’s Beatrice, she is not passive but an agent of her own destruction, here alluded to by the white poppy, symbolic of the laudanum overdose that lead to her death.

The Pre-Raphaelites were also innovative in their production techniques, executing paintings en plein air from 1851 onwards, a full decade before the Impressionist movement got underway in Paris. This allowed them to study nature in the most minute detail, replicating every crumpled leaf or blade of grass. At times this is used to great effect, as in John Everett Millais’ great masterpiece Ophelia, 1851, where the densely textured background envelops the drama, making it at once historical and timeless, like a medieval tapestry that has sprung to life. Elsewhere, it is less successful, as in Millais’ The Huguenot, 1852, where the close replication of a mossy wall detracts from the beauty and power of the couple in the foreground, illustrating exactly why artists had been neglecting background detail for hundreds of years.

Such detail may be innovative, but is it really modern? This, perhaps, is where the exhibition begins to unravel a little. It is certainly true that the Pre-Raphaelites were pushing the boundaries of Victorian art and society, moving away from the academic aesthetic and exploring sexuality and socialism. However, in many ways their work still seems retrogressive rather than modern – they may be looking further back, to the Italian primitives, but the conscious weight of Western art history still looms over their work, making a clean break impossible. In this way it is hard to see them as precursors to modernity in the same way as the Impressionists, for example. Despite all this, the idea of the Pre-Raphaelites as avant-garde is an interesting one, if only because it challenges the traditional, linear view of twentieth century art history, a narrative that all too often focuses on Paris at the expense of other artistic centres.

Altogether, the exhibition is thought provoking and well put together, offering insight into this often maligned group of artists. If nothing else, it captures the essence of the works, showing the viewer at once what the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to achieve, but also why this didn’t always lead to the most attractive paintings. As the unveiling of a modern art movement it is questionable, but as a celebration of a weird and wonderful, totally idiosyncratic slice of Victorian culture it works. Say goodbye to good taste, prepare yourself for some seriously ‘out there’ paintings, and you’ll have a great time.