Just before Christmas we opened the exhibition ‘Beauty and Virtue: 18th century English collecting of classical art’ at the National Museum of Anthropology – the largest and most visited museum in Mexico City. It’s taken two years of careful planning and has involved the work of different NML teams and an ongoing collaboration with our Mexican colleagues from INAH. Showcasing the diversity and richness of our collections, the core of the exhibition is from the sculpture collections of Henry Blundell, alongside paintings from the Walker’s and Lady Lever Art Gallery’s collections, including works on papers and Wedgwood material. They serve well to introduce the theme of 18th century Grand Tour and also help demonstrate the influence classical antiquity had on artists’ education and training, and the new ways artists reimagined the ancient classical world.
The exhibition marks the first time so many of the works from Blundell’s collection have been exhibited together. Henry Blundell and his friend Charles Townley – who introduced Blundell to collecting antiquities – were well connected with 18th century artists such as Bartolomeo Cavaceppi and Carlo Albacini, and excavators and dealers such as Thomas Jenkins, operating in Italy at the time. The exhibition sets the broader context for Blundell’s collecting practices and addresses issues of taste and what was considered worth collecting. The exhibition also explores restoration practices and even radical “corrections and interventions” as in the case of the Hermaphrodite.
Sections of the exhibition include an amazing array of Roman gods, a group of works inspired by the god of wine and celebration Dionysus, the erotised Venus torso – much adored by 18th century collectors – and a combination of idealised and realistic male and female portraits. The interpretation of the exhibition is rich with explanatory panels in English, and includes an introductory video on the theme of 18th century Grand Tour and a video on the Polykleitan canon. There are also explanatory panels in braille and videos with sign language interpretation. Much of the impact of the exhibition relies on the way the works are staged and the dramatic use of light that sheds new ways of experiencing the works.
Escape the winter and head to sunny Mexico to explore where some of our ideas of the perfect body arise from, the power and politics of Imperial Roman portraits and statues and the impact of classical antiquity on 18th century England. And beyond the walls of the museum you can experience the influence of classical antiquity in many of the city’s public sculptures, including La Diana Cazadora, Monumento a los Niños Héroes, the Fountain of Cybeles, the Angel of Independence.
‘Belleze y Virtud’ is on at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico city until the 28th April 2019.
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