Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Trifles and Trinkets and Creative Time-Travel


In a time of economic depression or recession, the acquisition of small luxury items, and especially those that have absolutely no practical use, may appear insane. Yet, there are those, including myself, who are drawn towards such objects far more when a general air of privation or gloom pervades the atmosphere.

I find that I enjoy catalogues of such items more when I cannot afford them than during periods when I could have bought them. Sometimes, when my physical pain is almost insupportable, I escape it a little by visiting a site that deals in exquisite antiques, cameos or trinket boxes. I love them always, but they acquire more potency in my psyche when they become temporary shields againt pain. And yes, I probably would buy one now if I could!

One of the simplest of declarations made in a poem, and yet one that is so basic that it never becomes outmoded is:

'A thing of beauty is a joy forever.'

Are some of us born with a keen appreciation of beauty and exquisite art or is a matter of education and training? I know that, as a child, I was surrounded by people who possessed a refined sense of artistic appreciation and indeed, was educated to recognise fine china, silver and paintings at a very young age. On our first trip to the Continent, each night, my sister's godfather commanded us to write about one painting or building that was had seen that day. For most children, that would have been onerous enough. He further dictated that we write our impressions in the form of a perfect sonnet, either in the format of Petrarch or Shakespeare. We grumbled but we did not refuse.

When we returned home, looking back upon that trip, I felt we had been in the clutches of an insane old dictatorial man. Much later, I actually was deeply grateful to him for the experience and even the burdens of being forced to write those awful sonnets.

The appreciation of classical poetry is deepened by the act of creating classical verse, however poor the results. The appreciation of art is based partly upon the knowledge of its foundations and the thread that ties it to history. John's favourite painter was Piero della Francesca. His obsession with the artist led me to a personal dislike of Piero, alas, but at the same time, showed me how an entire trip can become more interesting and a richer experience when it has a theme. When I became an adult, in a similar fashion, I made a 'pilgrimage' to every site with some connection to Ludwig II in Bavaria. In France, I followed the steps of Napolean and of Jean Cocteau (not simultaneously).

A theme gives a plot to a journey and can transform it into an interactive novel. Although any exploration of the unknown or strange is fascinating, when it is connected to a specific historical or even fictional character, it becomes even more enjoyable. Furthermore, it gives one the ability to travel through time to some extent. One begins to perceive contemporary objects through the eyes of some one visiting the future. The landscape that would have been contemporary with the subject of the pilgrimage is viewed differently as well. Changing perspective is one of the great secrets of living without ever become bored.

This, however, has little to do with trinkets or trifles except in one small respect. A luxury item, especially one with some history, brings the world into the home in a small way. A Limoges box, for example, can bring the entire history of the Limoges industry in France as well as its significance in the lives of the French Court into the palm of my hand. One admires the intrinsic beauty of the object but beyond that, one feels a sense of continuity with all those who have patronised the art.

19th century British cameos have drawn my interest only in the past couple of years, after a visit to Pompeii, where cameo factories continue to thrive. Like many people, I had disregarded them previously simply as jewelry beloved of old people. After being almost forced to take a tour of one such factory, although I recognised the items produced by that factory as designed primarily for the tourist trade as well as being over-priced, I began to study antique cameos. I realised that they represented the re-flowering of Northern European fascination with the Classics and therefore a synthesis of Victorian romanticism and the Classical world. The use of natural organic materials such as coral, jet and shell infuses them with additional power. A shell, exquisitely carved with the image of a Roman deity using ancient techniques, then set in a precious metal such as gold, combines the power of Classical mythology with natural beauty and often, the aesthetic appeal that a certain degree of artistic excess can generate. The marvelous Etruscan revival combined with Victorian love of intricate design both lend their styles to cameo art of the 19th century.

The cameo shown here is an example of another Victorian tradition in that it holds the hair of a deceased love one. Macabre perhaps, but what makes it particularly interesting is the design that has been created with the hair itself. It has been fashioned into the form of a feather.

Feathers traditionally represent the freedom of the soul liberated from transient flesh and therefore are a symbol of immortalilty. The flight of a bird is a symbol of human longing for the divine. The obverse of this pin depicts a Bacchante, a follower of Dionysus. Dionysus was the central figure in a Roman mystery religion that resembled Christianity in many respects as a god who was sacrificed and then reborn. The Christian communion ritual of bread and wine was part of the Dionysian traditional as well and indeed, Dionysus was considered the original inventor of wine. The Bacchantes were women who threw off the restraints of civilisation to surrender entirely to the god, running through forests and fields in utter abandon and ecstacy. Their rituals were savage, often terrifying and wholly dedicated to the god. In artistic terms, they are symbols of the naked power of Nature, both creative and destructive and entirely potent beyond any shackles that humanity can devise for Her.

The trinket boxes created by Halcyon Days represent a revival of an 18th century art of enamel on copper. The art was revived in the 1970s by Halcyon Days, with the use of the expertise of Bilston & Battersea Enamels. Having proved quite popular with consumers, the art form was embraced by other British firms such as Crummles. While Crummles focused on storybook scenes, Halcyon Days specialised in limited editions for special occasions, historical places and anniversaries. The box shown above was created for the Metropolitan Opera of New York and depicts the swan of Lohengrin. It therefore has particular significance for lovers of the Metropolitan Opera, of Wagner and specifically of Lohengrin. Incidentally, the Swan had great personal significance to Ludwig and the influence of Wagner permeated much of his life.

Swans in ancient Northern mythology were a form taken by the Valkyrie who were known as 'swan-maidens'. They were the agents of Odhinn, his daughters in fact by mortal women, half-human and half-divine, the choosers of the slain, guides to the chosen heroes. In this, they resemble Mercury or Hermes who also guided the souls of the dead on the road to the afterlife.

Trinket boxes have a particular attraction for me, as they originally did have a practical use in the 18th century, holding patches, snuff and other luxury items for the aristocracy. For me, therefore, a small porcelain or enamel trinket box evokes such dashing heroes as the Scarlet Pimpernel. The charm of the Scarlet Pimpernel was the combination of an outward appearance of total insouciance and moral decadance with the reality of secret moral and ethical resolve and honour. One without the other would not have been half as dynamic or attractive. The fact that he could act the role of fop perfectly while dedicating his life to heroic action was what made him irresistable and memorable in my eyes, even if he WAS on the wrong side politically! It was a little difficult to reconcile my love of Napoleon with my admiration for the Scarlet Pimpernel, albeit one could do so by recognising one as historical fact and the other as a delightful fiction.

I never have viewed any object in monetary terms. Collecting to me always was extremely personal and emotional. When I sold dolls, I was rather appalled by the customers who perceived them as investments, and indeed, the collapse of THAT market was inevitable, given the false expectations that expanded it far beyond its natural radius.

To me, a doll was a link with childhood, whether it was my own childhood, my mother's childhood or a great-grandmother's childhood or simply an intellectual and emotional response to something in the actual doll.

There are strict Muslims who refuse to have dolls or plush toys in their homes because they consider them to be 'idols' and therefore prohibited by religion. I always rather liked 'idols'. Indeed, I do not see them as an impediment to spirituality but an offering to the Divine. 'A thing of beauty is a joy forever' once again... Whenever one sees beauty anywhere, whether it is tangible or intangible, a work of art or an extraordinary concept or exquisite phrase, it is a signpost that directs us towards the Divine. One does not worship Idols. They simply exist to remind us of the ultimate Beauty that is a very small part of the Infinite Divine Being.

Limoges Boxes seldom represent 'great art', but they can be exquisite and to me, they resonate with the entire mood of the 18th century and the French Court. It may be slightly contrary of me to admire both the artistic excesses of the Royalist 18th century partrons of the arts and the French Revolution that created Napoleon but I do. Although politically I always have been and continue to be a revolutionary, some of the greatest art exists only through the patronage of a corrupt aristocracy. Through most of history, it has been the rich ordinarily who have possessed the financial means and the freedom to commission art. Sometimes, it is an organised religion or government but the most creative artists may not have flourished without the patronage of individuals who appreciated or shared in their visions.

Does great art trump political or religious principles? That is a question that has filled tomes and fueled controversy since the dawn of civilisation. I firmly believe that it does. Whatever my religious or political beliefs, they never extend to agreement with the destruction of ANY great expression of human creativity in art. Even where it is art that does not resonate with my own soul, I recognise the validity of it and support the demand of the historian to preserve it for the future. It is not creativity alone that gives art its right to be protected from destruction but its place in history.

My grandfather was an artist and I remember, as a child, his tendency to set up little displays that almost resembled temporary shrines. A few objects in a particular configuration would spark his creativity or remind him of some artistic project or goal. My great-aunt was a talented pianist but beyond that, she was one of the most eccentric and spiritually-enlightened individuals it has been my privilege to know. Her house, before she became a victim of senility, was immaculate and every object has its own place and significance. In her dining room were shelves displaying pieces of china that had particular meaning to her, including three miniature teacups. Those teacups fascinated me as a child. I love anything that is smaller than life, anything that points to another magical reality. They could have been fairy cups, used in magical tea parties, or the tea service of the Borrowers or a group of sentient, civilised animals from 'Wind in the Willows' or a tale by Beatrix Potter.

My mother gave me those tiny cups after my great-aunt died. They hold a position of honour in my cabinet. It is only recently that I have recognised how much Aunt Mimi influenced my own character. As children, we are impatient sometimes of the wisdom of the elderly. Even as a child, however, I always felt that the song that Aunt Mimi would write for me on my birthday was one of the best gifts any child could receive. It made me feel loved and important. It made me feel like a Princess to have songs dedicated to me each year.

My great-aunt always lived 'comfortably'. She was not extremely rich but she certainly wanted for nothing. She lived a fairly modest life in her old age, but she lived in the house commissioned and built for her, probably partly to her own design. In other words, she created her own corner in the universe to her precise specifications and then happily occupied it almost to the moment of her death. The greatest tragedy was senility, when the significance of much that had been important to her was lost or flickered only intermittently in her consciousness. Yet, even to the end, she retained the ability to appreciate moments of beauty in the flight of a bird across the garden and the pattern its movements created with surrounding objects. She had an almost Etruscan sensibility where such matters were concerned.
I recall that she loved to make tea 'properly' because of the patterns found in the tea leaves at the bottom of her cup. She 'read' them, but no so much for any ability to predict the future but as transient images with artistic significance. She was a wonderful woman and I miss her greatly sometimes, even though it was extremely frustrating to care for her when senility made her illogical and difficult.

As usual, my thoughts have wandered far from my initial premise but weblogs excuse even extol the values of such wanderings.

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