14 September 2016

Alexander Benois: The Philosopher's Admonition


















In this watercolor by Alexander Benois we see two men strolling in the sunlit  gardens at Versailles, one a courtier and the other a philosopher.  The philosopher is  dressed in turquerie, an imitation fo Turkish style that first became popular in western Europe during the 16th century; the fad is now part of what we call Orientalism, pastiche of Ottoman culture.   From their attire we can infer that the monarch in residence at the Royal Court was named Louis, whatever his number.


I thought of Benois as I read the poem “Comic Opera” by the late W.G, Sebald.   Unlike most of Sebald’s extensively annotated poems (often the notes run to more words than the poems themselves) this one came into English with no notes at all.    But it does read as though Sebald might have seen The Last Promenades of Louis XIV (1897).   The “newly lapsed century” Sebald writes is the time when Benois made the drawings in what I like to think of as his Rococo-revivalist style.   Whether or not the erudite German knew the Russian’s work, it seems likely that Benois the art historian knew that among the Sun King’s mistresses was one Marquise de La Valliere, a student of philosophy who loved the works of Aristotle and Descartes.


Alexandre Benois was fascinated by Versailles, judging by the six hundred plus drawings, watercolors, pastels, etc. that he devoted to the subject during the decade between 1897 and 1907.   Benois visited Versailles for the first time in 1897, painting a series of watercolors The Last Promenades of Louis XIV. When Diaghilev saw the Promenades  drawings at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow later that year, he sensed the theatrical possibilities in this 19th century Russian interpretation of 17th century France.  But it was not until ten years later that the two staged their first theatrical collaboration, the ballet Le Pavilion d'Armide with a libretto by Benois that drew on his pictures of Versailles.


The program enlists the turqueries
of a newly lapsed century
a potpourri of bells and symbols
orchestrated obscenities
Masked players swell
the plot in a green theater
their true faces overwritten
Rather than greater virtue
the happy ending proposes
more trivial vies
The hedges rustle with applause
and the bygone ladies
of the court return
below the lawns
Back to reading
cubist
novels
 - "Comic Opera" Across The Land And Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 by W.G. Sebald,  New York, Random House: 2011.

Benois had arrived in France in 1896, having graduated three years earlier with a law degree in St. Petersburg.   He  was now busily engaged in avoiding its practice by trying out the life of a painter in Paris.  Increasing political unrest among the Russian peasantry had been  left behind but it, and Benois's knowledge of the events of 1789, cast a shadow over his  Versailles.    Below, a frail Louis XIV is being wheeled out to view his gardens and fountains;  over the Sun King's head, the clouds are overtaking the sun.










What was at the root of this infatuation with Versailles?  Did the sweeping parterres, the gilded statuary, and the empty royal chateau remind him of the vast Palace Square in St. Petersburg?   Did  tales of Peter the Great building his royal city over a  swamp offer a mirror image of the Sun King building his  waterborne court in a town where water had to be pumped in rather than drained out?   Maybe something like a stage was what Benois needed to unleash his imagination.  After all, his grandfather had been the architect who designed the great Russian theaters, the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky.  And Louis XIV, assuredly a man who made no small plans, had intended  Versailles to be the stage for a continuing pageant, its subject the splendor of his reignAround almost any corner along an allee, the royal gardens provided spectacles of statues and fountains (sometimes both a once)  depicting scenes from  Greek and Roman mythology for the entertainment  of visitors.  Everything at Versailles was staged  but it was the audience rather than the players who moved about. From the palace terrace, Versailles, Paris, and ultimately all of France was  a stage for the King's power.

For both Benois and Diaghilev, the attraction to all things Euuropean was strong; for his part. Diaghilev denounced contemporary Russian art as "one big slap in the face of Apollo."  So they founded the magazine  Mir Istkusska (World of Art) in St. Petersburg to promote the new.  From its first issue in November 1898, the magazine caused a sensation.  A frequent contributor to the magazine was Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva, about whom there is more here. After the Russian Revolution Benois served as curator of paintings at the Hermitage Museum but in 1927 he settled permanently in Paris where he died in 1960. 
As for those cubist novels I haven't a clue what Sebald had in mind.   I'm curious if anyone has any thoughts about this.
Images:
Alexander Benois – The Philosopher's Admonition,  1907, Pompidou Center, Paris. 
       Alexander Benois  - The King’s Promenade, no date given,  Pompidou Center, Paris.

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