Casanova. Even 300 years after his life, the name evokes a certain frisson. But why? The 342-page catalogue accompanying an exhibit about him has this to say.
“Tall, olive-skinned, and muscular, Casanova exuded mesmeric charm, beguiling men and women alike with traits that would be repellent in others. The daughter of an Englishman living in Venice called him vain, unbearable, and, as soon as he began to speak, irresistible.”
While I just said the exhibit is about Casanova, that is not strictly the case. The intent of the directors from the three host museums (Museum of Fine Arts [Boston], Kimbell Art Museum [Fort Worth] and Fine Arts Museum [San Francisco] was “to create- through bringing together paintings, sculpture, works on paper, silver, ceramics, furniture and costume- the context within which Casanova expressed his values and views on life and culture.”
Those viewing the exhibit, which opens in San Francisco on Feb. 10 following its recent run at the Kimbell, will find it difficult to capture the essence of Casanova. I spoke to a long-time viewer of art exhibits who said she found the exhibit very beautiful, but ultimately unsatisfying. For those who have the time, I recommend a careful reading of the excellent catalogue before seeing the exhibit, as it provides a lot of texture showing how the various displays weave the story of his life.
One thing the catalogue does not illustrate are the most arresting for the viewer to the exhibit: a series of tableaus depicting life in the 18th century. The one shown here evokes a raucous card game. The player seated is a professional swindler who has been caught with a card up his sleeve. The gentleman who has been swindled is shown rising so abruptly that his chair is flung backwards.
Understanding what this has to do with Casanova is an example of how the museum patron has to study the descriptions and make connections. When Casanova arrived in London he went to see Teresa Cornelys. He believed her daughter to also be his daughter. Teresa had a notorious mansion, Carlisle House, which was THE society venue for masked balls and gambling. Casanova claimed he met all the royalty and nobility of England at Carlisle House, except for King George, his wife, and the Princess of Wales.
The staging of masked balls there and in Venice, where Casanova spent several years, also explains the appearance of several paintings depicting masked people. Among these is a delightful pair by Giovanni Tiepolo, The Minuet and The Charlatan, both from 1756. Like the card game tableau, these represent something akin to what Casanova saw, but there is no direct link.
The closest one comes to the real Casanova is in the form of books he wrote, including a science fiction novel, described in the exhibit as nearly unreadable. I was expecting to learn more about it from the catalogue, but neither this nor any of his other textual works are depicted. This emphasizes all the more the necessity to closely study both the catalogue and the exhibit to get the full benefit of the collaboration: dozens of museums from Canada, the United States and Europe have lent items, and this alone makes it worth seeing. I was especially pleased to see a portrait of King George III that I have not seen despite many trips to London. It is on loan from the Bank of England Museum, which curiously is not listed in the catalogue as a lender. Likewise, the painting does not appear in the catalogue.
This portrait occupies a place in the exhibits' final room, which offers sculptures and portraits of some of the most famous people Cananova met. These include Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Pope Benedict XIV, and Rousseau. A spectacular way to end a complex and fascinating glimpse into an 18th century life of grand excess.
Next on display at the Kimbell in Forth Worth is a collection of 400 artworks from Asia, collected by Sam and Myrna Myers. It opens March 4, 2018. Visit the website for details: kimbellart.org.