Art and film: Alma-Tadema. Classical Charm

The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. deMille, 1956)
The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. deMille, 1956)
The Finding of Moses (Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1904)
The Finding of Moses (Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1904)

Over the past few days a lot of publicity has been generated on the new exhibition Alma-Tadema. Classical Charm at the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden, for which I am co-curator. After two full articles and a big insert in NRC, local articles in papers in the North, and international articles in The Guardian and La Stampa, today the Volkskrant had a two-page spread. We have been also twice on the NOS Dutch national broadcast news, and on various local Frisian channels. In its opening weekend the museum had already over 3000 paying visitors, while the director Kris Callens expects at least 80.000 visitors in total. The opening itself was memorable, with a presentation by Jasper Krabbé (Het Geheim van de Meester), and a Q&A with curator Peter Trippi and Arthur Max, production designer of e.g. Gladiator and Exodus: Gods and Kings by Ridley Scott. Max and Trippi proved to be two New Yorkers, turning this in a merry stand-up act. Of course extra publicity was the rediscovered portrait by Tadema of his engraver Leopold Löwenstam, which was the toast of the BBC programme Antiques Roadshow (the British Tussen Kunst en Kitsch), and which was incorporated in the exhibition while it was built up. The exhibition also holds the most expensive non-avant-garde Victorian painting, The Finding of Moses (1904), auctioned for almost 36 million euros.

The Volkskrant article by Stefan Kuiper deals with Alma-Tadema as a kind of protocinematic artist but also delves into his appropriation by film makers, from the early French and Italian film makers of the 1910s to classics like Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments, to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Indeed, as Kuiper quotes Max from an interview held just before the opening, most people associate Gladiator with Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painted gladiator scene Pollice verso (1872), but apart from the arena scenes in the film, Alma-Tadema was used much more intensely for both the settings and the costumes of the films. Max and his colleague, costume designer Janty Yates (Oscar for the costumes of Gladiator), had already confirmed this to me in interviews, but while in Leeuwarden Max even added more valuable details. In the past many mentioned that Alma-Tadema’s work must have been used by Hollywood and its predecessors but little research was done on the matter, so I did this last year, resulting in an article for the accompanying book, various film clips in the exhibition matching the paintings – delicately presented by exhibition architect Paul Toornend above the paintings as if a frieze, and a full programme at the in-the-house art house Slieker Film.

If you’d like to know more about this, first of all this blogpost contains many hyperlinks (which the system does not automatically highlight, so I coloured them red). Our library ordered the accompanying book – both the Dutch and the English edition – curated by Peter Trippi and Elizabeth Prettejohn, co-curators of the exhibition as well, together with Marlies Stoter (Fries Museum), Frank van der Velden (project manager), and myself. Friday 7 October I’ll introduce (in Dutch) a programme of short Antiquity films from EYE’s Desmet Collection at Slieker Film, while live music accompaniment will be provided using harp, violin and flute. On 15 and 16 October Omroep Friesland will broadcast on NPO2 (national net) a documentary on the Alma-Tadema exhibition, for which I have been interviewed as well (you may see me with Frisian subtitles), together with my co-curators and Arthur Max. On Saturday 26th November I will give a one hour lecture (in Dutch) at the museum on Alma-Tadema’s ties with film, while more lectures can be followed on other Saturdays. On Sunday 18 December at the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam I will introduce the early epic film Quo vadis? (Enrico Guazzoni, 1913), which will be shown with live music. The exhibition itself is on show till 7 February 2017. After that it will travel to the Belvedere Museum in Vienna and the Leighton House in London.

Ivo Blom

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