Issue Number: 93
As the Comtesse de la Châtre looks up from her book, the world around her is turning upside down. True, we wouldn’t know it to look at Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s portrait of her on the front cover. She appears gracious and unruffled and, despite peering ever so slightly down at us, she has presented herself as a model citoyenne à la 1789 in her austere white muslin dress and straw hat.
But the ribbons give her away. Neither she nor the artist can resist the luxurious satin bows that wrap around her waist and loop over her hat, turning it into an exquisite confection and pointing subtly back to an age when more was more. This frivolous, elegant detail belongs entirely to the Ancien Régime. As it ripples across her luminous gown, the Countess’s ribbon sets off one era from the next – and it would have signed her death warrant, despite her pro-Revolutionary sentiments, had she not emigrated to England.
The RA’s exhibition ‘Citizens and Kings’ looks at the art of this watershed moment, when the Age of Reason spilled into revolution, neoclassicism gave way to romanticism, Mozart’s Figaro to Beethoven’s Eroica. In visual art, portraiture was the main vehicle for the debates of the day, as Dorinda Outram explains. Artists such as David, Goya and Ingres focused on the individuality of their sitters as they immortalised the heroes of the emerging meritocratic world, from Marat to Napoleon to the newspaper baron Bertin. To illustrate how the Enlightenment influenced this shift, RA commissioned artist Adam Dant to draw an Encyclopédie-style chart of its leading lights, while philosopher A.C. Grayling explains its key concepts. We also asked director Sofia Coppola to describe her fascination with another icon of that age, Marie Antoinette, the subject of her latest film.
Hindu philosophy might not view the age of revolution as one of debate and division, but instead as part of an endless circle of destruction and rebirth enacted by Shiva Nataraja – lord of the dance. The most revered god of the Cholas, Shiva dances in a ring of flames on the edge of the cosmos, heralding the end of one age and the beginning of the next. He resolves all opposites – love and hate, good and evil, war and peace – into an eternal cycle.
Michael Wood describes the remarkable medieval dynasty from Southern India, celebrated in the RA’s exhibition, ‘Chola: Sacred Bronzes’. The Chola, he points out, are often compared to the ancient Greeks for their brilliant artistic achievements and they built temple pyramids that inspired Marco Polo’s description of Tamil Nadu as ‘the most splendid country in the world’.
On a recent journey to Tamil Nadu, I was struck by this lush, lively world where ancient and modern, sensual and sacred coexist and create a powerful sense of connection. Differences are resolved, rather than reinforced. You don’t have to worship Shiva to believe that is good karma.
Sarah Greenberg, Editor
© RA Magazine
Editorial enquiries: 020 7300 5820
Advertising rates and enquiries: 0207 300 5661
Magazine subscriptions: 0800 634 6341 (9.30am-5.00pm Mon-Fri)
Press office (for syndication of articles only): 0207 300 5615