Closure of the Alma-Tadema project

Last weekend, the exhibition Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity closed at the London based Leighton House, former home to the artist and contemporary of Alma-Tadema: Sir Frederick Leighton. After the modern styled Fries Museum in Leeuwarden in 2016-17 and the spacious baroque Belvedere Museum in Vienna last Spring, the exhibition reached its third and final venue in London last June.

Each exhibition had its own definite character. The Dutch exhibit had a special narrative on Tadema’s houses and its interrelationships with the paintings, while a second important plotline was that of the connections with cinema, from early French and Italian cinema via the classical Hollywood of Cecil B. deMille to Ridley Scott’s post-classical Gladiator. I still think the design for the combination of film and art in the final room was a master stroke of designer Paul Toornend and Studio Louter, the company that made the slowed down film clips projected on top of the paintings (instead of on the side, as is common but often not working well). By consequence, you could decide for yourself whether you wanted to make the crossmedial connections or not. In the light of innovative ideas within museum and exhibition studies of offering the visitors multiple options to experience an exhibition, this perfectly fell in line. On the other hand, in earlier, smaller rooms, the amount of paintings was perhaps a bit large and some pictures may have been high up to see.

Instead, in Vienna all paintings were at eye level, which was convenient for people, especially the elderly. Some paintings by Tadema’s family was added. Indeed, the curators and all three venues made clear that the contributions of Tadema’s second wife Laura and his daughter Anna were well worth showing too. Vienna, though, drastically reduced both the relationship with the house and with cinema. Moreover, the giant walls of the former monumental stables building of the Belvedere seemed to dwarf even the few giant paintings by Tadema, such as The Finding of Moses. The film clips were shown separately from the paintings at the end of the exhibition, in a kind of double screen projection with digital versions of the paintings, and this at a kind of dead end where you were forced to return and walk back to the entrance. In addition, the originally tinted film clips were quite a-historically turned into black and white. One wonders what would have happened, had the museum given the paintings a colour make over. What was also a pity, is that both at the opening and in the accompanying book ties between Tadema and Gustav Klimt, the Belvedere’s hero, were accentuated, but this element lacked in the exhibition. One had to walk to the main palace where the Klimts were hanging, and make a virtual connection. Finally, while Leeuwarden had a clear narrative, even accentuated by the colour scheme on the walls, Vienna had a quite loose narrative, thus presenting a more classical exhibition in which the art works speak for themselves.

The London exhibition was very different from the other two, as it was presented in a former private villa in South-West Kensington, which was practically cleared from the permanent collection on display to make room for this exhibition, the biggest ever held at Leighton House, and the largest in London since his memorial exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1913. The art works perfectly matched the atmosphere of the late 19th century rich British artist home and studio. While the Arab Hall in the entrance with its little fountain made you lower your voice, the squeaking old staircase to the first floor confirmed your physical experience of walking around in somebody’s home. The At Home in the title therefore did not only relate to the art works but also to the venue. Film here was again separated from the paintings, but less so than in Vienna, as you still had to visit the grand finale room with The Finding of Moses and The Roses of Heliogabalus. The connection with cinema was well picked up in the press too, such as The Telegraph, Studio International, and Apollo, I understood. I put in my five cents myself by an article on Tadema and film in Art Quarterly, the magazine of the British Art Fund. Finally, the film connection also worked out well in a promo film, in which Gladiator costume designer Janty Yates confirmed the ties with Tadema (see the film above).

Two weeks ago, I attended what was for me the symbolical closure of the project: a three day symposium at the Paul Mellon Foundation and the Birkbeck University, both in Bloomsbury, near the British Museum. Co-organized by my fellow co-curators Peter Trippi and Elizbeth Prettejohn, we first had a kind of speed dating at the Paul Mellon Foundation on Tadema & artists houses, with a series of five minute presentations, followed by ample space for discussion. The format worked surprisingly well. In the evening we all visited the Tadema exhibition at Leighton House once more (and for some speakers for the first time). The second day, again at the Paul Mellon Foundation, we had various lectures on artists houses in general. In between I had to skip a few talks, as I was finally able to meet Janty Yates in person, after I had interviewed her over the phone last year. Yates is constantly employed, often by Scott, and travels the whole world, but had a relative quiet time last month and is based in London, so I was lucky. She once more confirmed the Tadema-Gladiator ties, but also for Exodus, and generously explained me her working methods. Of course I heard details about present and upcoming films by Scott, but those things are always ‘for your eyes/ears only’. The last day we shifted to Birkbeck University’s cinema auditorium, where Ian Christie (Birkbeck), Maria Wyke (UCL) and I had organised a programme going from Tadema and theatre, Tadema and tableau vivant, Tadema and Pompeii films, to art direction with Enrico Guazzoni and Ridley Scott, the divine status of Hollywood stars, and Gabriel Pascal’s Caesar and Cleopatra as a kind of anti-Tadema film. In the end we showed four short Antiquity films (1908-1911) from the Desmet Collection of EYE, live accompanied on piano. All in all, we had three intense but very inspiring days, with lots of new and refreshing research coming up.

The Alma-Tadema project has been an immense learning project for me, in the research and preparation, in the team work, in the pluriformity of the three exhibitions, and in the contacts with the media. Of course, the cherry on the cake was that last month we heard that the Alma-Tadema exhibition at the Fries Museum/Belvedere/Leighton House has been nominated for the Global Fine Arts Awards, a kind of Oscars in the arts world. The finalists will be announced in January 2018.

Ivo Blom

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