Saturday, February 11, 2006

Another view on the Catherine the Great exhibition by Jacquline Mabey


Things are starting to creep out of the woodwork...

Art in Montreal: From Russia, With Bedazzled Snuff Boxes by Jacquline Mabey

If I had to describe the current exhibition at the Musėe des Beaux-Art de Montrėal, “Catherine the Great: Art for Empire,” in just three words, dear readers, those three words would be: de-lightful, de-lovely, de-dictatorlicious. And that’s not just because I got a free breakfast out of the press preview. Truly, one can surround one’s self with beautiful things...

when one is a totalitarian sovereign who rules the peasants with a bedazzled iron fist. Don’t get me wrong, folks. I give mad props to any woman who overthrows her creepy and ineffectual husband in a bloody coup and goes onto rock the Kasbah - or, should I say, Crimea - during her rule. I just found it funny, the narrative that the museum presented, about how learned and enlightened Catherine the Great was. Granted, she chilled with Diderot and Grimm, and counted Voltaire as one of her homeboys, and she seemed to have a touch of that neoclassical antiquitiesmania. But all that enlightened thinkin’, all those pretty deep thoughts, never seemed to make it down to her subjects, the people who could have used it the most. But, you know, if you tilt your head to the left a little and squint all those nagging ethical dilemmas seem to disappear.

But first, let’s talk about the press conference. Tuesday morning I splashed on some Channel and tried to make myself look presentable for all the art mucky-mucks and potential benefactors. My hope is that if I start attending the fancy vernissages, not just the ultra hipster hanging-out-under-a-bridge-with-hobos type vernis, that my spunk and intelligence will charm a rich older man/ woman/ transgender who will decry my lack of financial solvency and pay for grad school. Less Anna Nicole, more Dickens… oh, who are we kidding? If some old dude offered to pay off my student loans and finance grad school I would learn to play shuffle board in a heartbeat. They should really work out an equation for how, as one’s student debt increases, one’s moral standing decreases. The MBAM did a really great job filling up the place with, I am assuming, gallery staff grabbed at random from their tasks and ordered to make the press preview look like the new Buona Notte. But really, all smarminess aside, there really is nothing like franglais and free croissants in the morning. It thrills me in a special place. The show itself is the result of the hard work and cooperation of the fine folks at the Hermitage, the AGO, our fair MBAM, and the Canadian Friends of the Hermitage. Or so they think. The Hermitage, like, told me something totally different.

Representatives from each institution were neatly lined up, keen and eager to edify and assert that Canada and Russia are united in spirit because both countries are crappy and cold. Right. Solid foundation to build a whole show on. The Hermitage dude was like the sage, curmudgeonly, vodka chugging grandfather I never had. Example: One reporter questioned him on the many upheavals in Russian history, and dude was all like, “One crisis to the next, you know how we do, son!” Oh, snap! He also made an interesting assertion, that Catherine was “the greatest feminist of many centuries.” Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know that- given the current state of the Russian nation- she’d probably be doing porn now or be a mail order bride and end up in Wisconsin or something. And though I may be just a godless, recalcitrant sensualist, the thought of working at the Hermitage is enough to induce art history-gasam. Totally worth dragging my overtired body to Musėe des Beaux-Art. But the questionable hair style of Dennis Reid, the guy from the AGO, raised a serious and I think important question: why is it that curators, who’s job it is to be arbiters of beauty, so often look like the folks time forgot? Seriously, curators should know better than to sport ponytails! Maybe it’s a low blow, but it is so (seemingly) incongruous a phenomenon that I would contend it requires serious study. But that’s just me.

But back to the dreamy art. The show is a mix of paintings, sculpture, furniture, jewellery, clothes, etc. The first object that you see when you walk up the stairs is the ornate Romanov Coronation Coach. Made from oak, ash, beech, walnut, silver, iron, copper, bronze, steel, glass, leather, silk, cloth and gilding, the coach is rather similar to what most of get around in, and I imagine was once pulled by unicorns. The thing is so darn impressive I almost turned around, for fear that the rest of the show could only be a let down. I think it sets the tone of the show: let your eyes glide down the surface, folks, ‘cause that’s all she wrote. From the gorgeous flesh tones of Meng’s Perseus and Andromeda, to the seductive handling of drapery folds in a portrait by Vigee-Lebrun, to the temporary blindness inducing luminance of the jewel encrusted snuff boxes, the Catherine the Great show dazzles the eye and blinds the mind to significant thoughts other than, “Wow, that’s frigging cool!”

Actually, the show itself is not unlike one of the complimentary films, Russian Ark: the storyline is kind of lame - in the film, I feel employing the whole “Is it a dream?” thing is kind of weak, and this is paralleled in the exhibit with the evasion of Catherine’s crappy record when it came to helping the people- but it’s pretty as hell to look at. So if you take it at face value, I am pretty sure you’ll enjoy it.

But who knows? Maybe you’re more a William of Orange type. We can take this out side if we have to.

And if you'd like to read more about thge exhibit, try these:
  1. Catherine the Great ain't so bad...
  2. Catherine the Great Press thing-y
  3. Compare and Contrast at Catherine the Great
  4. The cool stuff at the Catherine the Great exhibit
  5. Snuff Boxes at Catherine the Great

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