The cockerel's new nest.
Do you remember that blue cockerel on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square a few years ago? Well it has just landed on the roof terrace of the newly restored and rearranged East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington DC, where I had the privilege yesterday of getting up closer than was possible in London, and (as you see) of gazing right up his bum. He gazes off the terrace, more or less in the direction of the Capitol -- as if, we couldn't help thinking, he was making a comment on the current political scene. Come on Washington DC, wake up!
But fun as it was, I wasn't actually in the United States for the modern art (though I must put in a plug for Alexander Calder again, and recommend the stunning new room devoted to him in the new hang). I was doing some revision for my emperors' project, both in the National Gallery and at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.
The Walters has some extraordinary painting and classical antiquities, and also a great new display on its top floor (including a very good mock up of how Mr Walters himself displayed the pictures that are the nucleus of the collection in the late nineteenth century). And, like the National Gallery, it is free. But I have to confess that it felt in some way a rather "anxious" museum (not quite sure how better to put it) -- and I'm not just saying that because the only form of refreshment they offered was a vending machine. I feel a bit old these days to do a good museum session without a cup of coffee.
Anyway, the eye-opener for me was Alma Tadema's "Claudius" above, a famous nineteenth-century scene I had looked at and talked about often before. But this time I really made sure to take a good look (which is always easier when you are in front of the actual object, than when you are flipping through a book).
I hadn't quite noticed before how dynastic the scene is. The main incident is, of course, the murder of Caligula and the revelation of Claudius found behind the curtain, about to be hailed emperor almost by accident. But the statue behind is recognisably Augustus, the founder of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
And the picture at the back, largely out of sight, is given the clear title "Actium": that is, it depicted the battle between Octavian (Augustus) and Antony and Cleopatra, which gave Augustus the power in the first place.
But just to underline the sinister side, the mosaic on the floor displays the phrase "Genius huius loci", or "the spirit of this place". It is a common phrase in Roman culture and religion, referring to the "religious essence" of any particular place. So the question is, Alma Tadema asks, what is the religious essence of the Roman palace? Answer: murder.