«Les Créateurs... veulent l’Éternel. Ils disent: pierre sois éternelle...» Artists... Desire immortality. They say: ‘Stone, May you live forever...’ —Rainer Maria Rilke, Le livre du pèlerinage (my translation)
A quick and dirty video postcard from your humble servant, currently on tour in the bristlingly cold Canberra. It’s the first time that your Melbourne Flâneur has visited our nation’s capital, and as always, for as voracious and avaricious an aficionado of art as I, a flânerie through the National Gallery of Australia was in urgent order.
True to what I have rapidly (and disconcertingly) discovered to be Canberran form, there’s not a lot going on there.
Apart from Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (1952), the coup de scandale of the Whitlam Government, most of the international collection is jungled up.
But I did encounter a familiar face—albeit at a distance. Behind the velvet rope in a salle being prepared for a future display, I espied Jean-Antoine Houdon’s Buste de jeune fille (1791), which had been passing several seasons in Melbourne, on loan to the NGV.
That delightful demoiselle was one of the first femmes de Melbourne I met when I decamped down there, and she has always remained one of my favourite dames at the NGV, so much so that I photographed her gracious gorge in situ when she was living in our second city.
I think it’s one of my best photographs: a very shallow depth of field and a reasonably tight aperture at a reasonably fast shutter speed gives the little angel the look of swimming in a starry night. You can just see the ghost of her left profile reflected in miniature—hardly more than a memory—on the inside of the glass cage which was this little bird’s home in Melbourne.
So I was surprised to see ma p’tite chérie out of her box and out of the NGV;—surprised, a little saddened to know I would no longer be able to pay an occasional call on her at her hôtel in St Kilda Road, the Faubourg St-Germain of Melbourne, but also happy to see her free and proud as a figurehead on her new plinth, with a pair of Monets off to one side in her new boudoir, and a beautiful Japanese screen by Mochizuki Gyokusen at her back, draped round her bare shoulders like an exquisite kimono.
I’ve always loved this little girl because, like that glimmering ghost of her double profile mirrored in the glass, she is a link for me with the distant dream of Paris, where I first came to appreciate M. Houdon, one of the great French neo-classical sculptors of the eighteenth century. He was one of those aristocrats of talent, a favourite of both the ancien régime and the enlightened philosophes, who was able—narrowly—to keep his head pendant la Terreur.
He served, in fact, the court of Louis XVI, the cause of the Revolution, the Directory of the First Republic, and the First Empire of the Corsican Gentleman, the immortal Lui. Not a bad bit of politicking for an artist in days when being a priest du Beau was not protection enough to keep one’s head and neck together.
Heads and necks, perhaps unsurprisingly, figure beaucoup in this sculptor’s œuvre.
M. Houdon’s best-known for his busts and statues of the grand personages of the Siècle des Lumières, from Catherine the Great to George Washington. He was particularly well-disposed towards literary gentlemen, and his marble portrait of a seated Voltaire is still enthroned in the library of the Comédie-Française to this day, presiding over that section of la Maison de Molière.
The work is entirely characteristic of M. Houdon, who is almost like a photographer in marble: there is an extraordinary vivacity to all the sculptor’s portraits, which are distinguished by their extreme netteté, a precision of line, a sharpness of definition that puts one in mind of a candid snapshot.
The author of Candide is set before us with sparkling modesty, flirtatiously informal as he sits sans perruque in that work, one of several that M. Houdon made from the subject. There is, in fact, a beautiful small bronze bust of M. Voltaire by M. Houdon in the collection of the NGV which testifies to the great satirist’s generosity of spirit. His crooked, close-lipped smile and benevolent, shining eyes make him almost as great an object in my affection as the Buste de jeune fille.
She is indicative of another significant strain in M. Houdon’s œuvre; for in addition to being a lively and reliable recorder des grands hommes, there is another, more domestic side to this sculptor very much in demand and en vogue through successive French political fashions.
Rather like his late contemporary M. Ingres, M. Houdon was not above putting his precious materials and skills to use in making society portraits, including études of the children of his wealthy patrons which are numbered among his greatest works.
Even more beautiful than the Buste de jeune fille is the darling little portrait in terra cotta of Louise Brongniart, the daughter of an architect, which is one of the treasures of the musée du Louvre. There are nearly 40 photos of the bust on the official website of the Louvre showing the terra cotta study of Louise (who would then have been about five years old) from every angle, and which reveal an alertness, a quiet intelligence, and a sense of character which is truly exquisite in a head small enough to fit into your hand.
The Louvre also possesses a similar, though much later portrait of Louise’s brother Alexandre Brongniart, as well as busts in marble M. Houdon made of his own wife and children, but the bust of Louise Brongniart in the Louvre is justifiably known throughout the world as one of his masterpieces, despite the modesty of scale and materials.
All the art of Jean-Antoine Houdon, that vivacité et netteté I spoke of, is contained in that charming little head, the surviving shadow of which I see, on this side of the world, in my little friend, the Buste de jeune fille.
Having finally seen ‘the Bush Capital’, Canberra’s not a place I have any burning desire to revisit, and it’s hardly a place worthy of a perky Parisienne. So I may not see her again any more than I may see la petite Louise, or my best-belovèd, le grand Paris, in this life.
So it was good to take a final video souvenir of her ensconced in her permanent home, a shaky shadow of the bright bust I had more accurately captured on film.
Alors, au revoir, mon amour…