Wednesday, 25 May 2011

A Step Backwards, or a New Trend? Kunstkammer in Mougins

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Mougins Museum of Art (MMoCA) "is a unique museum which displays the art of the ancient world alongside paintings and sculpture from the Renaissance to the present day". It is also a private collection emulating the Universal Museum concept. Over on the SAFE blog on the basis of an enthusiastic Guardian article (the Museum is not open yet), Marni Walter asks: Good Guy-Bad Guy? On the basis of what their website showcases, I personally would ask Good-Taste-Guy or Bad-Taste-Guy? Take a look at the website. Look for example at what it says of MMoCA’s Egyptian gallery:
‘The Crypt’, is evocative of the Egyptian underworld and appropriately subterranean in the manner of a tomb to accommodate artefacts of special association with the afterlife. These include a splendid range of tomb reliefs, funerary masks and panels, smaller gods and goddesses in bronze and wood, culminating in a spectacular painted wooden sarcophagus. The material represents the complete span of Egyptology (sic), from the Old Kingdom (2686 BC – 2181 BC) to the Ptolemaic period (332 – 330 BC), complemented thematically by the more recent paintings of Alexander Calder, Jean Cocteau, and Hubert Robert.
I do not see much evidence of any egyptology in the presentation, nor the idea that Egyptian culture can be represented only by the funerary evidence. Click on the video (at your peril) - is that naff or what? Indiana Jones meets Frank Miller. Yuk.

And what is this? Fifth dynasty microcephalic brachiating apemen? There is no mention on the website where this object came from, how it got the 'musket-ball impact hole' in it or where the present owner bought it, but I've seen some similar stuff in a "Yahoo Ancient Artifacts" New York dealer's offerings on eBay. An atrocious piece. Where did the Third Intermediate Period sarcophagus "surface"? The granite statue from Karnak? (The "mummy mask" depicted on the website is clearly not a mask as such but - as the three dowel-holes show a fragment of a sarcophagus frequently the only bit that looters kept - the other bits being bulky and not so attractive to collectors).

So if this is about "Classical Art" and "connections", why does the Museum's website not attempt to explain why there is an Egyptian (but not, for example, Indian) gallery here at all? Egypt only became part of the Greek world (like Bactria which gets no mention) well after the formation of the Classical Greek tradition, and numerous elements of Ptolemaic Egypt never made it into the post-Classical Classicising tradition until Napoleon came along and kick-started interest in it as something "mysterious". It was only then, as a result of "Egyptomania" that it began contributing to European culture - which is not at all the way Roman traditions affected Medieval and Renaissance Europe.

In the Greek section is (Egypt again!) a “Marble Head of a Ptolemaic Queen” depicted with asymmetric eyes after she’s just come out of the shower which allegedly “is of special interest as its striking similarity to Cleopatra may make it be one of few sculpted portraits of the enigmatic queen in existence”. That’s the Cleopatra on the coins? Hmmm. In fact, this bust probably also "looks like" any of several thousand first century BC noblewomen with rather atypical hairstyles from whatever region it actually comes from. [UPDATE: It's nice to see that Dorothy King, initially very favourably disposed to the gallery now questions both the origins and attribution of this bust - among others - more closely].

The Roman Gallery “shares the same gallery space as Greece and presents every aspect of life and death in the Roman Empire with a world class display”. That seems an extravagant claim for such a small exhibition space, depicting "every aspect of life" in the whole Empire in a single display would be difficult to achieve. (What's the actual dating evidence for that rather distinctive "third century" mosaic depicted, and where did it come from?). The Museum's creators claim that this gallery contains “many novel arrangements in museology” (sic). That is not true, there is nothing “novel” about the jumbled "cabinet of curiosities"/ Kunstkammer approach – it was applied by the earliest antiquaries such as Ole Worm and is applied in other media – such as (note the name) the arts (?) magazine “Cabinet” . The museum's website portrays the Mougins Museum of Classical Art as less an "encyclopaedic" museum than a private Kunstkammer put on display for the proles to gawp at and be impressed - so a bit like British museums' current movement away from being places of learning towards an emphasis on supplying easily digestible entertainment and especially as showcases of glittery treasures.

UPDATE 20th June 2011: Since this was written the museum has been opened and visitors can make their own mind up. The opening ceremony is pictured and involved speeches, fireworks and guys dressed as Spartacus involved in a mock gladiator fight. Note the naff entrance gate.

UPDATE2, 10th July 2011: Dorothy King with her name-dropping "collectors' friend" hat on considers the recently opened museum a "hot topic" and remarks that in her circle of acquaintances, "everyone I know that has seen the Museum has been enthusiastic about the project".

By placing the collection on display, Levett cannot be accused of hiding dodgy antiquities out of sight like a pimp hiding his whores for the benefit and abuse of his close friends. My understanding is that they have a strict policy of 20 to 25 years' provenance for lesser items and 40+ years' provenance for more important antiquities. I suspect that some of these provenances will in due course turn out to have been figments of the dealers' imagination, but other items have secure provenances going back to the 18th century[...] The Mougins Museum of Classical Art is a genuine attempt to create a kosher collection of antiquities with good collecting histories and to share those antiquities with the public. For that reason I feel we should fully support I[t].
Well, if that is so, a good start would be making sure those secure provenances and collecting histories are given on the website to bring that point home to the public they want to encourage to visit. It is worth noting that this collecting policy is not mentioned at all on the website, suggesting that the website creators do not consider this as important as the naff video and "wotta-lotta-good-stuff-we've-got" aspects. So it is difficult to say how "kosher" any of this is. A collecting provenance of 25 years of course takes you back only to 1986, which is certainly no guarantee whatsoever that an item has not been illicitly obtained, is it?

[I'm a bit puzzled by the PhDivan comparison with a pimp and his girls, surely the evils of pimping are not related in any way to the size of the clientele].


Vignette: Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra by Eric Digger, you can buy your own on eBay and start your own classically-themed Kunstkammer.

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