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Raphael, Gauguin, Dead Egyptians Parade Across Europe: Preview

"The Riva Degli Schiavoni, Looking West" by Canaletto. The work is in the exhibition "Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals" at the National Gallery, London from Oct. 13 to Jan. 16. Source: National Gallery via Bloomberg

Whether there’s a double-dip recession or not, London’s autumn exhibitions indicate a return to a confident, blockbuster mode. The first to open is small, though it may well be thrilling.

To mark Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain in September, the Vatican Museums are lending four tapestries designed by Raphael to the Victoria & Albert Museum (Sept. 8-Oct. 17). This will be the first time that the textiles will have hung side by side with the survivors of Raphael’s original designs -- or cartoons -- which belong to Queen Elizabeth II, and have been displayed in the V&A since the 19th century.

That might not sound too exciting, yet artistically and historically it’s a big deal. Raphael’s tapestries were intended as one of the glories of the Sistine Chapel. They were commissioned by Pope Leo X shortly after Michelangelo completed painting the ceiling in 1512. These works were Raphael’s opportunity to compete with his great, and bitter, rival.

They were also a chance for Pope Leo, who was a Medici, to put his mark on a building that had been constructed and decorated by pontiffs from the Della Rovere family. It was expensive. Because of the labor and threads of silver and gold that went into them, the tapestries cost roughly five times as much as Michelangelo was paid for his work on the ceiling.

Gauguin the Sinner

Surprisingly, there’s a tenuous connection between this papal art and the autumn exhibition with the greatest wow factor: “Gauguin” at Tate Modern (Sept. 30-Jan. 16, 2011). Gauguin was the sort of lapsed Catholic who couldn’t quite get the faith out of his system. Even when he was living in Polynesia, much of the imagery in his art was Christian -- Eve, the Fall, the Nativity. He painted himself once with a halo on his head, but the serpent from Eden was like a cigarette between his fingers.

On the whole, posterity has put down Gauguin as a sinner, unlike his old housemate Van Gogh, who’s definitely a saint. There’s going to be huge interest in this exhibition -- billed as the most significant British Gauguin show in 50 years -- though perhaps not as much as there was in the spring over St. Vincent, his letters, and the show at the Royal Academy.

Third of the big European art events of the season is “Claude Monet (1840-1926)” at the Grand Palais, Paris, (Sept. 22-Jan. 24, 2011). You may feel there have been an awful lot of Monet shows, and there have. This one, which is a whole-career retrospective, will be special for a simple reason. It will include his very large works, early and late, that are usually considered too big to be loaned. It’s a unique chance to see the full range of this great and popular artist’s work.

Mad Gentlemen

There’s nothing as stellar on the menu elsewhere. The National Gallery in London has “Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals” (Oct. 13-Jan. 16, 2011), a show that may throw light on the mania of 18th-century British gentlemen for buying views of La Serenissima. At the National Portrait Gallery is an attempt to reassess Thomas Lawrence in “Regency Power and Brilliance” (Oct. 21-Jan. 23, 2011). Lawrence mainly devoted his talents to making early 19th-century Britons, including the obese and corseted George IV, look more glamorous than they were. Does that prevent him from being a great artist? We shall see.

The British Museum has “Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead” (Nov. 4-March 6, 2011), which is not a major loan show -- many of the exhibits come from the museum’s own collection -- yet may be fascinating. The Courtauld Gallery has one of those niche shows it does well, this time devoted to Cezanne’s Card Players (Oct. 21-Jan. 16, 2011).

On the photography front, there is Eadweard Muybridge at Tate Britain (Sept. 8-Jan. 16, 2011). Another Briton who presented himself as more glamorous than he was -- real name: Edward Muggeridge -- Muybridge emigrated to the U.S., where he took up photography. His greatest fame comes from the pioneering sequences he took of human and animal movement, which were immediate precursors of cinema.

In animated versions of these we see horses and naked contemporaries of Van Gogh and Gauguin come jerkily and briefly to life. Muybridge also shot his wife’s lover dead in 1874, but was found innocent on grounds of justifiable homicide by a jury in Napa County, California, for which fans of photography, if not of justice, can be grateful.


(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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