Art News Roundup: Second Act Edition

We’re all aware that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous observation, “There are no second acts in American lives,” doesn’t reflect reality for many people. The lives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Ronald Reagan, Tina Turner, Robert Downey, Jr., Johnny Cash, Grace Kelly, and countless other Americans demonstrate that, if anything, the second or even the third act in the play of one’s life can be just as interesting as the first: sometimes even more so. In fact, the more you study history, the more you become aware of examples of prominent people reinventing themselves in the later parts of their lives, sometimes achieving levels of success that they could never have obtained had they stuck to the script that life seemed to hand them at birth.

Case in point, the Palace of Versailles has just opened its first-ever exhibition on the life of Madame de Maintenon (1635-1719), who was for all intents and purposes an uncrowned Queen of France. Born Françoise d’Aubigné, Mme. de Maintenon had a rather chaotic childhood, from her birth in a debtor’s prison, to her subsequent move with her family to the island of Martinique, to her being passed around like an unwanted burden from relative to relative upon her return to France. She was eventually married to an older cad of a fellow, saying she preferred to become his wife rather than enter a convent, and at his death became a widow at the young age of 25.

Thanks to her prominent albeit unsavory connections at the (equally unsavory) court of Louis XIV (1638-1715), Mme. de Maintenon eventually became governess to several of the King’s illegitimate children, and as a result of royal appreciation for her discretion and reserve, she was eventually made a marquise. Two months after the death of Queen Maria Teresa in July 1683, the King married de Maintenon in a private ceremony at Versailles, but because she was not of royal blood she was never crowned. The next 32 years of their marriage marked a shift in the royal outlook, with Louis becoming increasingly pious and less profligate than he had been in the first part of his reign, even though he found his new wife somewhat more prim and proper than he was.

Yet if the sun did not shine quite as brilliantly under the former governess’ influence as it had previously, this does not mean that Versailles was turned into a Trappist monastery: far from it. In fact, the official transfer of the court from Paris to Versailles only took place in 1682, the year before de Maintenon’s marriage to Louis XIV, meaning that wonders such as the famous Hall of Mirrors were virtually brand-new at the time she became the châtelaine of the principal royal residence. Work on the King’s never-ending vanity project continued throughout their marriage, including the reconstruction of the present Grand Trianon within the grounds, as well as the creation of the spectacular Royal Chapel within the Palace itself.

As the centerpiece of the Palace’s exhibition marking the 300th anniversary of the death of Mme. de Maintenon, her former private apartments within Versailles have been recreated, hung with reproductions of the silk wall hangings that originally occupied the rooms, and filled with works of art and objects which she owned, knew, or that are related to her life and times. Because Versailles has been redecorated, looted, and repurposed many times over the last 3 centuries, today most of the building’s interiors look nothing like they would have done during the 17th century. This makes the present exhibition a particularly rare and unique experience, since it allows visitors to get a sense of what these rooms would have looked like when they were first completed.

If you knew nothing about her, and had only read the first act of a play about Mme. de Maintenon’s life, you might have quite reasonably concluded that she ended up living an unhappy, short existence filled with hunger and desperation. Even if you had read the second act, where she supported the egos of her philandering husband, and later that of the Queen’s own philandering husband, you probably would not have predicted a particularly brilliant future for someone who spent most of her time covering up for other people’s mistakes and looking the other way. The fact that in the third act, she ended up becoming the most powerful woman in France, and enjoying the luxuries of the most lavish royal residence ever constructed, just goes to show you that none of us really knows what the future holds, no matter what our personal circumstances. “Madame de Maintenon: In the Corridors of Power” runs through July 21st.


Meanwhile, here are some art stories that caught my eye over the past week; as it happens, all three of these happen to further disprove Fitzgerald’s maxim.

Duchamp’s Denouement

Perhaps no other artist of the 20th century – including Picasso – successfully reinvented himself so many times as did Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). You’re probably familiar with works such as his Cubist painting, “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” (1912); “Fountain” (1917), which consists of a urinal with some writing on it; or “L.H.O.O.Q.” (1919), in which he drew a mustache on a postcard of the Mona Lisa. What you may not be aware of is that, like Picasso, Duchamp knew how to paint beautiful things – like this, or this, or this – he just didn’t want to. The exhibition “The Essential Duchamp”, which opened recently at the Gallery of New South Wales and continues through August 11th, features Duchamp’s most infamous works, but it also includes earlier pieces demonstrating these changes, such as “The Chess Game” (1910), showing his youthful interest in both observation of figurative line and in saturation of color.


Barnes’ Blossoming

Ernie Barnes (1938-2009) was an artist whose name is probably not familiar to most of my readers – well, at least not to me. Yet I suspect that many or most of you will immediately recognize his most famous painting, “The Sugar Shack”, shown below, which featured both on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album “I Want You”, as well as on the popular television show “Good Times”. The late Mr. Barnes, who started his working career as a professional football player in the NFL before leaving to take up the paintbrush, is now the subject of a major retrospective at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles; selfishly, I hope that at some point his work gets the same treatment on the East Coast sometime in the near future, as I would love to see more of it. His style is often described as Neo-Mannerist, and one can certainly see relationships with the work of 16th century artists such as Bronzino and El Greco in his figures, but to me it’s perhaps much closer to Regionalist/WPA art from the New Deal era. “Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective” is at the California African American Museum through September 8th.


Cano’s Canvases 

Back in the day, José María Cano was a member of Mecano, one of the biggest Spanish pop-rock bands of the 1980’s and ‘90’s. After leaving the group, Cano turned his attention to art, and first began exhibiting in the early aughts. Now, in tandem with its upcoming exhibition on Spanish Imperial art, the San Diego Museum of Art will be holding an exhibition of 12 large, dramatic works by Cano, collectively titled “Apostolate”. The paintings are intense, dramatic male portraits representing each of the 12 Apostles, such as “St. Andrew” shown below, and are executed in the highly challenging medium known as encaustic painting. This labor-intensive process, invented by the Ancient Greeks, has the artist build up layers of pigmented wax on a surface, and then finish off the piece by sealing it using a heat source. The heating element allows the artist to add, enhance, or eliminate brushwork effects, as well as the opportunity to create hard, polished surfaces that sparkle under light. “Apostolate” opens on May 18th.


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