Throwback Thursday

As I mentioned I’ve been going through exhibition catalogues. Of course when I say going through I mean I’ve been pulling one off the shelf and then spending the next three hours thumbing through it and reliving the experience. One of the most memorable, of so many memorable, was an exhibition I went through twice at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence: Bronzino – Artist and Poet at the Court of the Medici. As a Throwback Thursday I thought I’d revisit that exhibition again over the next day or two.

On this day in 1897: Dreyfus affair: Émile Zola is brought to trial for libel for publishing J’accuse.

Willy Or Won't He

Despite my constant complaining about their website TrenItalia does make travel within Italy remarkably easy to most of the major cities. With their new Frecce high speed trains Napoli is only 90 minutes from Roma as is Firenze in the other direction. So Sunday it came as no surprise heading back on the 2010 out of Firenze to see a fair number of people in our car clutching – as where my friend Peter and I – programmes from the Maggio Musicale performance of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino and catalogues from the Bronzino exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi.

We had taken a morning train up and arrived – in the pouring rain – at Santa Maria Novella with enough time to catch the exhibition, have a leisurely lunch at Trattoria 4 Leoni and make the late afternoon performance at the Teatro Communale. And we were back home in…

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Exhibition Hopping – Part III

I began writing this post after my second visit to this exhibition in October, 2014, somehow it never got finished and posted.  It ends April 6, 2015 and I think I may just pay another visit.

Douglas Cardinal’s design for the Canadian Museum of History (formerly the Canadian Museum of Civilization) was much criticized when it opened back in 1989, as were what was considered the
Disneyfied exhibits.  It has proven to be the most popular of the museums in the Capital region
with over 1 million visitors a year.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization recently changed its name to The Canadian Museum of History.  Other than the cost of all the changeover – signage et al – and the opportunity for new political appointments I’m not sure what exactly the change accomplished.  The building is still the landmark structure that Douglas Cardinal created in the late 1980s – though strangely the Wikipedia entry for the museum made no mention of the First Nations architect until a week or so ago.

The stunning sweep of the Grand Hall has been home to the largest collection of First Nations’ totem poles in the world.  And it also houses a plaster cast of one of my favourite pieces:  Bill Reid’s The Spirit of Haida Gwaii.

The Grand Hall is an astonishing feat of design and houses an amazing collection of West Coast totems.  At the moment Canada Hall, one of the main exhibition areas has been “closed to make way for the new Canadian History Hall, opening July 1, 2017.”  God only knows what new wonders are in store but given the current government’s attitude to heritage I am afraid – very afraid.  However the rest of the museum is open and they are still staging interesting exhibitions tracing our history including a fascinating exhibition on the sinking of the Empress of Ireland.

Empress of  Ireland, Canada’s Titanic – Canadian Museum of History

A left click on the catalogue cover
will take you to the exhibit website.

For some reason – that well-known Canadian passive-aggressive trait? – the curators felt that it was necessary to add the tag-line “Canada’s Titanic” to the name of the exhibit.  Perhaps because it is an unknown marine disaster even to most Canadians they felt it was needed to draw in the crowds.  Mind you this is not an unusual trick in the art world, I recall an exhibition in Milan that trumpeted  Caravaggio where the angle was not the very posthumously trendy artist but his influence on Northern artists.

And so it was with The Empress of Ireland,  Canada’s Titanic: a passing mention of the White Star liner of iceberg fame, but the focus was on the disaster in 1914 that took the lives of 1032 of the 1477 people on board in the 15 minutes that it took the Canadian Pacific steamship to sink.  On May 28 the Empress left the dock at Quebec City an hour and half after it’s scheduled departure time of 1500; by 0220 on May 29, not twelve hours later, she lay at the bottom of the St Laurent.  A voyage that had begun with music, laughter, no doubt some tears and high expectations ended swiftly and without warning.

One of two Canadian Pacific steamships that plied the Atlantic the Empress of Ireland was launched
on January 27, 1906 and arrived in Quebec City for the first time on July 7th of that year.  Before
that foggy evening in 1914 the liner had made 95 eastbound crossings of the Atlantic.

The exhibition itself begins with music, laughter and dockyard sounds as you approach the  space via a small gangplank.  One of the most striking things about the exhibition (arranged with the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, Halifax) is the sound-scape.   As you progress through the areas the sounds of shipboard life follow you.  The first sound is a Salvation Army Band playing “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” – particularly poignant as 150 members of that religious group lost their lives on that fateful voyage.  As you leave the exhibition it is also the last sound you hear – faintly in the background after having passed a shadow outline of the ship created by the names of all those on board.

A piano – much like the one that graced the Grand Salon of the Empress – is all set appropriate  music
for the first evening out:  The Empress of Ireland Waltz composed in 1906 by Myrtle Wallace.

Between there are the sounds of shipboard life – the ship’s bell ringing the hour,  the genteel sounds of first class and the more earthy sounds of life in third class.  The sight and sound images of the ship that tranquil late spring evening are evoked in small items such as the bugle that called first class passengers to dinner, an ingenuous fold out sink from third class, a Sally Ann sing-song in the music room, the murmur of a late night card game, the eerie sound of the engines in the fog covered night.
As the viewer moves closed to that terrible moment when the fog cleared and both the crews of the Empress and the Swedish collier Storstad became aware of what was about to happen the atmosphere becomes heavy, almost menacing – again an effective piece of design.

Abandon Ship Awakened in the night The icy waters Image Map

Abandon Ship | Awakened in the night | The icy waters | Image Map
A left click on the ship’s bell will enlarge each photo.

As the ship’s bell rings the sounds of panic draw you into the heart of the disaster:  a darkened space with one of those bells dramatically spotlit at it’s centre.  At first glance the surround projections of drownings and people in panic treading the icy water (the currents at Pointe-au-Père are particularly treacherous and the temperature in the river was around 6C) seemed a bit over-the-top and almost cartoonish; but when mixed with the lighting and sound-scape have an overpowering effect.

A page from the exhibition catalogue shows the impact the disaster had on the culture of the region.

Thought the event is at the centre of the exhibition the aftermath is well chronicled.  The impact on the surrounding communities is documented with photographs of the rescue and retrieval efforts. Newspaper headlines blare the local and international magnitude of the tragedy, letters and wires – CP corporate, news service and more touchingly personal – record the desperate attempts of families to get information about passengers.  And the industry built up around the tragedy – souvenirs, first-hand accounts in tabloids, broadsheets, song sheets and books – are displayed and prove that human disaster has always been big business.

Sailors taking the coffins of children – of the 138 children on board only 5 survived
including Grace Hanagan – off the vessel Lady Gray at the pier in Quebec City.

Photograph: Library of Congress

Within days of the disaster the Government had set up a commission of inquiry – an emergency amendment to the Canada Shipping Act was rushed through Parliament to allow this unprecedented move.  The work of the Commission and the subsequent court battle between CP and the Swedish ship again are documented and well-explained for what were complicated and often politically motivated proceedings.  By the time it had been settled by the British Privy Council in 1919 other events had relegated the disaster into the back pages of history.

Passengers posing for a group photo on board The Empress of Ireland as it departs.
The stories of many of them can be found on the commemoration website Empress 2014.

Throughout the exhibition we catch glimpses of passengers: some wealthy and well-known, others known only to family and friends:  Sabina Barbour and her two daughters, Edward and Marian Adie, Egildo and Carolina Braga and their young son Rino and many others.  The passenger list was a diverse one including actor Lawrence Irving (brother of Sir Henry Irving), his wife Mabel Hackney and members of their theatrical troupe, the Salvation Army delegation and 300 immigrant workers who had recently been laid off at the Ford Motor Plant in Detroit.

Amongst the 465 survivors was Grace Hanagan, the seven year old daughter of Salvation Army bandmaster Edward Hanagan.  Both her mother and father died in the tragedy and Grace grew up with the memory of that horrible night.  Towards the end of the exhibition there is a CBC video *of the annual Salvation Army memorial for the members who were lost on the Empress and Grace remembers the events of May 29, 1914.  She died at the age of 87 in 1995, the last remaining survivor.

“God Be With You Till We Meet Again” can be heard faintly in the background as visitors walk by a
silhouette  of the ill-fated Empress made up of the names of her passengers and crew.  A moving
commemoration of the worst marine disaster in our history

*A few of the figures given in this 1986 video differ from what is listed in the exhibit.

February 27 – 1861: Russian troops fire on a crowd in Warsaw protesting against Russian rule over Poland, killing five protesters.

Exhibition Hopping – Part II

Fabulous Fabergé, Jeweller to the Czars – Musee de Beaux-Arts de Montreal  

As I mentioned in a previous post this exhibition, which ends October 5, is a marvel on several levels.  The objects – most from the Lillian Thomas Pratt Collection in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts – are remarkable in both imagination, design and workmanship.  And Hubert Le Gall’s exhibition design is an ingenuous, imaginative and witty evocation of the bibelots and kickshaw of Imperial Russia that doesn’t ignore the darker side of history.

The first room reflects the strong Orthodox believes of Russia and her Imperial Family. Traditional Easter eggs are on display, But what Easter eggs: suspended or cupped miniatures made from or encrusted with gemstones from the semiprecious to diamonds. A golden iconostasis-like wall houses icons, precious both for their religious significance and the artistry in their creation.

This miniature Easter egg pendent is only one of a glorious series in the first room of the exhibition. It was created in the Fabergé workrooms around 1900 using enamel with gold accents.

The Iverskaya Mother of God was particularly venerated in Russia and many legends grew up around the healing powers of the icon. The Virgin has a scar on her cheek inflicted by a soldier sent to destroy the original icon. The Fabergé setting for this copy is mounted on silver gilt and accented withe silver, garnets, sapphires, topaz, zircon, diamonds and pearls.

Citrine, gold, silver, enamel and a circle of diamonds create this extraordinary egg pendant from the Fabergé workshop.

The shadows of the second room evokes the symbols and history of the Romanov dynasty. The cases hold personal items that were meant for everyday use but still intended to show the wealth and standing of the Imperial court. Designer Hubert Le Gall’s concept captured many of the contrasting aspects of Fabergé’s relationship with the Imperial Family and the beau monde of the period.

Today Fabergé is chiefly thought of as the maker of the elaborate Easter Eggs that were presented by the Csar to his wife each Easter from 1885 until 1917.  It was a tradition began by Alexander III who presented Maria Feodorovna with the Imperial Hen Egg in 1885.  After his father’s death Nicholas II  continued the custom and every Easter presented one to his wife Alexandra as well as to his mother the Dowager Empress.  Of the fifty-two Imperial Eggs created by the Fabergé workshop five are in the Lillian Thomas Pratt collection.  Each of the exhibition rooms features one of the five; the most elaborate being the Peter the Great that is displayed in the second room.

The Imperial Peter the Great Easter Egg was presented to Empress Alexandra Feodorovna by Czar Nicholas II in 1903. It was created to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the founding of Saint Petersburg. Workmaster Mikhail Perkhin used gold, platinum, silver gilt, diamonds, rubies, enamel, watercolour, ivory, rock crystal, gilt bronze and sapphires in its creation.

The Egg features watercolour portraits of Peter the Great and Tzar Nicolas II and of the first wooden structure built in Saint Petersburg and the Hermitage – all surrounded by elaborate (and perhaps subconscious) reminders that the city was built on a swamp. When opened a miniature of Falconet’s The Bronze Horseman raises out of the shell – the Thunder Stone is carved from an unfinished sapphire.

The story of how Lillian Thomas Pratt came to acquire this  treasure has become legend and as with many legends it’s a bit difficult to separate the truth from the elaboration.  The story was that she outbid many richer women and then proceeded to pay for it clandestinely out of her household money so her husband wouldn’t find out is colourful if apocryphal.  Mrs Pratt’s wealth was modest when compared with many of the other collectors but her husband John Lee Pratt  supported her passion for Fabergé and Russian objects.  She did indeed outbid several people for the Egg and paid À la Vieille Russie the $108,534.00 it cost in thirty-three monthly installments.  I’m not sure if – as another version has it – she paid for many of her purchases using her Lord and Taylor’s credit card but it is highly possible.

This attractive hare in silver and gold with garnet eyes is a pitcher created in the Fabergé Moscow workshop sometime before 1899.

These remarkable parasol handles were the work of two of Fabergé’s renowned workmasters: Mikhail Perkhin (left) and Erik Kollin (right).

Many households would display sets of demitasse spoons bearing the hallmark of Fabergé; this set in silver, silver gilt and enamel were made between 1908-1917.

I found the silver and gold Kovsh of the Worthy Knights even more remarkable than the Imperial Easter Eggs. The enormous drinking vessel honoured the bogatyri or mythical medieval warriors who founded the first empire of the Csars.

Though the Imperial Easter Eggs may be the most famous pieces it should not be forgotten that Fabergé created all manner of objects – practical and ornamental.  Many of the pieces that came out of his workshop on Bolshaia Morskaia were available to even people with modest incomes.  And the House was famous for its enamels and silverware as well as its work in precious and semi-precious stones.

Meant to reflect the Faberge workrooms the curved tables – modeled on the worktables at the studio – allowed a closer look at some of the trifles created to amuse and astound the Court and impress visitors. A few of the items are from other jewellers but reflect the influence of Carl Fabergé‘s workshop on the art of jewellry making throughout Europe.

What can I say – even if the Romanov’s sometimes when over the top with blinge they had good taste in dogs.  Many of the little knickknacks created for them and their family indicate that the dachshund was a favoured family animal.

This French bell pull was created in the Cartier studios around 1915; crafted in silver, gold, silver gilt, ivory, smoky quartz, enamel, rubies, garnets and pearls it shows the Fabergé influence at work in France.

Made of smokey agate with ruby eyes this little fellow is said to have graced a mantel in the apartments of the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in the Antichkov Palace.

Nose to the ground, tracking a prey this little dachshund is crafted in agate again the eyes being inset rubies. The exact provenance is unknown as the object is unmarked. Despite his questionable pedigree he’s still a very attractive little lad.


The fourth room is the darkest on many levels – it is crowded with memories of the Romanov family: framed portraits, the Red Cross Egg and personal items.  And lurking in the background is the unrest, the poverty, the vast inequalities of life in Csarist Russia.

The Imperial Red Cross Easter Egg was given to the Dowager Empress in 1915 in recognition of her work as president of the Russian Red Cross. It contained portraits of members of her family who served in the Red Cross tending the War wounded and dying in the hospital established by the Empress in the Alexander Palace.

Workmaster Mikhail Perkhin‘s created numerous frames for the Imperial photographs. This star frame in gold, silver, enamel and seed pearls holds a portrait of the second daughter, the Grand Duchess Tatiana. It was taken by the Csar and Empress to Yekaterinburg and is the only thing that is known to have survived the events of 1918.

It has a rather chilling effect after all the light and sparkle of the geegawgery of the previous displays.  However it puts a personal face on the people for who much of these extravagances were created.  It gives the impression of a family that for all their faults and foibles cared for each other.  And it leads to final Fabergé piece in the exhibition: the Star Frame.  This is the only object taken into exile by Nicolas and Alexandra that is known to have survived.

The room in the basement of the Ipatiev House where the Imperial Family was ruthlessly butchered on July 17, 1918. It had become a clandestine pilgrimage site so was demolished in 1977. In July 2003 the Church on the Blood was consecrated on the site.

As you leave the exhibition there is one final image: the room where the family was assassinated in Yekaterinburg. History records that the jewels hidden in the corsets of the Empress and Grand Duchesses acted as body armour with bullets ricocheting but not penetrating; in the end the death squad used bayonets and gun butts.  It is not known as fact but can be assumed that some of the jewellery that prolonged their death agonies came from the workshops of Carl Fabergé.

Many of the photographs I have used in this post come from the catalogue for Fabulous Fabergé, Jeweller to the Czars published by the MBAM and VMFA and from the MBAM members publications.  I suggest looking at their website for more objects and fascinating information on the exhibition.  I am only sorry I wasn’t able to get down for a second look – I know I missed things the first time around.

September 27 – 1777: Lancaster, Pennsylvania is the capital of the United States, for one day.