MITO E BELLEZZA (Myth and Beauty) at the Palazzo Ducale in Lucca explores the myth of Napoleon as expressed, about a century and a half later, by the House of Hermès in their beautiful silk “carrés” (scarfs). The exhibit, on display in Lucca until March 7 2010 EXTENDED UNTIL APRIL 11! and later in Rome and Paris, shows 76 scarves and the historical objects that inspired them.
The exhibit features objects that date from the Napoleonic era — Napoleon’s personal belongings, objects related to horses, military and navy apparel, and to daily life of that period. These objects, paintings, cartoons, books, drawings, statues, metal work and the like are displayed in museum cases or on the walls. Nearby, Hermes scarves that have a particular relationship to what is displayed in the cases hang using a fabulous magnetic system that Hermes also sells for home use.
Now, in case you’re wondering why such an exhibit would be held in Lucca, Napoleon’s sister, Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, was the princess of Lucca (from 1805 to 1815). She renovated the Ducal Palace and knocked down many buildings to make the big piazza Napoleone out front and to give greater prestige to the Palace. The show is put on in the context of a larger research project around the influence of Napoleon in Tuscany in preparation for the 200th anniversary of his exile to the Tuscan island of Elba in 1814.
This is a highly specialized exhibit, beautifully displayed but with minimal explanation, and what wall text there is is only in Italian. The catalogue is nicely produced and provides some further information; the essays are of varying quality and comprehensibility to an anglo public (even one well versed in Italian), but the catalogue entries on each scarf are informative and complete.
As none of the information about or at the show is in English, Hermès fans will surely benefit from the following review written by my mom, Audrey Korey, a keen collector of Hermès scarves! Going to this exhibit with her was truly enlightening, and I probably would not have made the effort to understand it as well had it not been for her. Our two hours there was not even torture for Dad, who declares that after seeing this, he has a “much greater appreciation for the art of Hermès” (for which he admittedly cared rather little before).
Review of the exhibit “Mito e Belezza”
Format and thesis
The exhibit takes the form of displays of Napoleonic era objects and art, many from the personal collection of Emile-Maurice Hermes and other private collections and others from important Parisian museums such as la Musee de l’Armee , Musee Nationale de la Marine, and the Louvre, juxtaposed with the Hermes scarves which use those very same objects as part of their design. The comparison is further extended by the fact that both Napoleon and House of Hermes were masters in manipulating their own identities through the use of symbols – hence the Myth of the show’s title. As far as Hermes goes, the Beauty part is self-explanatory but the Napoleonic era, too, was one in which interior design and Parisian high fashion came to the fore so there is connection there as well. Many of the objects on display are of non-French provenance since the late 18th century and the first half of the 19th century were periods of increased foreign travel and trade exchanges.
The show does not quite make clear that the scarves are not contemporary to the objects on display (hard to know when the scarves on the wall are not dated but the objects are), nor does it explain that the Napoleonic era had a particularly lasting influence. Technically, the Napoleonic era stretched from 1799, the year of Napoleon’s coup, to his defeat at Waterloo in 1815. He died in exile in 1821. However, the influence of Napoleon, particularly in clothing, interior design, art, and architecture lasted throughout the 19th century.
Even though this exhibit focuses on Hermes’ manipulation of Napoleonic objects in the design of their scarves, it would be a mistake to conclude that Hermes scarves focus solely on this theme or period. The inspiration for Hermes scarves comes from far and wide and no period, theme, genre or country has exclusivity. The focus of even these carrés which reference the Napoleonic era in some way is aesthetic rather than historic. Oftentimes, therefore, objects are juxtaposed in an anachronistic manner for the sake of style; colours are not true to the objects that inspired the designs or the sequence of objects is manipulated to make the end product more beautiful.
Select scarves and their associated objects
The exhibit is laid out thematically, which we found difficult to understand; for one, there is considerable overlap between sections. That is why I am focussing on only a few scarves and their relation to artefacts and drawings as examples of the detail and research that went into the design of these particular carres. Some of these are scarves that I own; others stood out because I had never seen them before. Others I chose to focus on because I learned something new through the show that has changed of my view of them. If you want to know more about the many scarves displayed in this show, you’ll have to buy the catalogue, thus far only available for purchase at the exhibit and only in Italian. Once the show gets to Paris there will undoubtably be a French edition. Will there will ever be an English version, I wonder? The website is also only in Italian, but has excellent photos for you to browse (click “immagini”).
The most Napoleonic of all Hermes scarves is of course the eponymously titled scarf, Napoleon, designed by Philippe Ledoux and issued for the first time in 1963. I’m going to go into some detail about the objects in this scarf to show how the artefacts were transposed to silk by the Hermes artist Ledoux. The work of two Hermes designers, Hugo Grygkar and Philippe Ledoux, make up the bulk of the scarves displayed at “Mito e Belezza”.
The drawing at the center of Napoleon is based on an engraving shown in a nearby display case. The carriage, the horses, the occupants of the carriage are all the same as in the engraving, which shows Napoleon on his way to his coronation as Emperor in 1804. Around the central drawing is the chain of the Legion d’Honneur, an object also on display. Atop two tri-colour standards we see two eagle flags. One of these gilded bronze eagle flags, symbol of Napoleon’s favourite regiment is shown alongside the scarf. On either side of the central engraving we see uniforms, one red one green. The green one is from the Cavalry Hussars, the same regiment as the golden eagle standard. The red one, seen in the exhibit in a painting by Ingres, is the uniform of the 1st Consul. The four medallions in the corners representing highlights of Napoleon’s life are based on famous 19th-century french paintings. The black felt hat at the bottom center of the scarf is shown in the case by the scarf. Napoleon apparently wore this during his exile at Elba. The scarf itself is a jacquard of bees, along with the eagle, one of the major symbols of Napoleon’s Empire. Seeing the various objects that made up the design of the scarf gave me a much greater appreciation of how these symbols served to tell the story of Napoleon in just a few pictures. I think of it as poetry on silk.
The same subject that was used at the center of Napoleon — Napoleon’s coronation carriage — is revisited by Hugo Grygkar for a scarf that is very special to me because it was my very first Hermes scarf (my dad gave it to me long ago). The name of the scarf is Harnais Francais premier Empire and it was first produced in 1957 (my scarf probably dates from the 1968 reissue). Whereas the Napoleon scarf focuses on the coronation carriage, in Harnais Francais you only see the two magnificently arrayed horses that pulled the carriage. The processional design was entrusted to two architects whose ink and aquarelle designs on the subject are part of the Hermes Museum collection. It is from these that Hugo Grygkar took his design of the horses and particularly of the magnificently ornate harnesses in this carre. On them you can see symbols dear to Napoleon inspired by Imperial Rome, classical Greece, and ancient Egypt.
It was interesting to see the very first scarf produced by Hermes, Jeu des Omnibus et Dames Blanches (1937) next to a copy of the board game upon which it was based, popular in the early 1900′s, from the collection of Emile Hermes. While the game and the scarf has much in common, there are differences, in particular, the humourous saying under the center tableau “a good player never gets angry” which gives the scarf design a satirical effect. Satire, in fact, becomes an important leitmotif in Hermes’s early scarves, which often note the humour in subjects of everyday life. This scarf was a major invention in womens’ fashion, as it adapted a mens’ accessory.
The display showed how men’s printed cotton neck kerchiefs, a typical accessory in the 19th century, gave Emile Maurice Hermes and his son in law Robert Dumas the brilliant idea to produce a high fashion womens’ accessory out of what had been a quintessentially masculine item. The exhibit has several examples of these mens’ “mouchoirs du cou” and they don’t look at all like Hermes scarves. When the first carre burst on the scene, Vogue gushed about it.
A display that really impressed me was the one surrounding the scarf “Etriers” or “Stirrups“, produced in 1964 by Francoise de la Perriere. I didn’t realize that sixteen different types of stirrups are shown in this carre and that’s only a small portion of the stirrups in the Hermes collection. At the center of the scarf, for example, is a really interesting Peruvian stirrup. The one shown in the exhibit is made of embossed wood and coated in silver and dates from the late 18th century. And right below it is a gilded lady’s stirrup, shaped in the form of a shoe and adorned with a flower. Other stirrups shown from the collection are officer’s stirrups from the Napoleonic period, some heavy and highly adorned, others lighter and simpler. It seems that an officer’s stirrups said a lot about his economic status. Who knew? But it’s all there in this scarf about stirrups.
A scarf that is really all about objects is Musée designed by Phillipe Ledoux in 1962. Here the methodology of this exhibit can be seen at it’s most basic level. In the display that accompanies the scarf, for example, we can see a large black boot being used as an umbrella holder, a coach light (also the subject of Feux de Route not shown in this exhibit), and a model of a landau with attached coach lights. I took out my Musee scarf afterwards to check the myriad of items against what I had seen in the exhibit. It’s amazing how many of them I can recall being used in other scarves as well. This scarf also depicts many marine objects housed at the Musee National de la Marine, at which Ledoux was a frequent visitor.
As you might expect, there was a large collection of uniforms including parts of uniforms like epaulettes or military caps and hats. The hats were beautifully represented on the Hermes scarf “Coiffures Militaires” designed by Hugo Grygkar in 1956. This is not a scarf that has a lot of modern appeal but the variety of the hats and helmets is quite impressive! I can now tell a “shako” from a “chapska” :-).
Something I found really interesting was the section on civil life during the Napoleonic era. It was fascinating to me that Hermes designers were able to take scenes from various aspects of ordinary life in that period and translate them into interesting scarves. Here were two scarves I had never seen in any of the Hermes directories: Gardes, an unattributed design from 1939, and Jeux des Petits Militaires (Hugo Grygkar, 1946), one of the few wool carres that Hermes manufactured during and immediately after the war when silk was not available. They join this exhibit’s opening scarf — “Valmy” (Jean Peltier, 1945) as very rare Hermes scarves, unlikely to be seen elsewhere. This scarf is highly unusual in that it is not marked “Hermes” and it looks more like a painting on silk; furthermore I have never heard of the designer. Does anyone out there know more about this scarf? Do let me know in the comments.
I had a hard time choosing just one scarf to discuss from this fascinating section so I chose one that I have and wear often in the winter – Les Plaisirs du Froid (Grygkar, 1955), which I also call the skating scarf, because around the central winter scene on all four sides are interesting illustrations of skaters. When you see the drawings from a book in the Emile Hermes collection alongside it, you realize where all the strange arm movements depicted came from! The central tableau of the scarf is interesting too because it really does emanate a sense of light-heartedness and joy in a scene that is drawn from a description of horse-drawn sleighs on ice in a popular book published in 1800. The rare traveller to Russia in the beginning of the 19th century was dumbfounded by the methods of transportation used there during the long winters. Young aristocrats were captivated by the splendour of St. Petersburg and the Neva river covered in ice. This carre captures an imaginary scene that would probably never be seen in France, where the weather was much more benign. In my opinion the pleasures of the cold are overrated but I like the scarf!
Naturally I wore a Hermes scarf for my visit to this exhibit. It was Couvertures et Tenues deJour (Jaques Eudel, first sold in 1974), an equestrian scarf that shows 10 horses wearing a variety of different horse blankets. This scarf was not a part of the exhibit but, much to my surprise, a plaid horse blanket, exactly like one on my scarf, was there on a children’s toy — an early 20th-c leather and wood miniature horse decked in custom Hermes accessories! In the exhibit, this toy was used as the inspiraration for the scarf Ecuries (Hugo Grygkar, 1947), in which, however, no horse is wearing a plaid blanket.
On exiting the exhibit, there was one more surprise — a temporary Hermes boutique. What a surprise to see both this exhibit and a Hermes boutique in Lucca!
Thanks to my daughter for finding out about this fascinating show and taking me there.
until March 7 2010, open 10-18