Monday, 24 March 2014

'Constellatio Felix': August the Strong's Festival of the Planets

One of the unexpected highlights of the Royal Palace was the collection of prints drawings and photographs. On the top floor, like the print collection of the British Museum, it has an air of secluded quiet, and requires a visitor to seek out its treasures. The Dresden museum has 500,000 works on paper by over 11,000 artists from eight centuries. Therefore the Kupferstichkabinett (print collection) puts on changing exhibitions, so visitors can have a tiny taste of the material they keep. The exhibition on currently is the 'Constellatio Felix: August the Strong's Festival of the Planets • Thomas Ruff's stellar constellations'.

Constellatio Felix 'fortunate stellar constellation' was the theme of one of the most lavishly ostentatious celebrations of the baroque. Augustus II staged a month long set of events to mark the September 1719 marriage of his son to Frederick Augustus to Archduchess Maria Josepha of Austria. The festivals dedicated to the planets were particularly spectacular, and thankfully for us, Augustus required that the event was fully documented. Images of feasts, dances, parades, meticulously recorded the every detail of day- and night-time extravaganzas. Interspersed throughout the baroque fancies, the curators have placed Ruff's timeless planet pieces; offering balance, colour and serenity to the endless historic, dynastic and political posturing.

As a result, this show is a perfect blend of science and art; space travel, astronomy/astrology, and the early modern association of planets with nature and metal - not to mention the actual merit in the illustrations. Each festival was assigned a room, marked by seven different planets/gods, with their symbol and metal, for example, Venus = copper. Medals issued to commemorate the festivals were also included. Add a mysterious soundscape with dim lighting, and the stage is set for an extremely good show.

Saturn (lead) represented the mineral wealth of Saxony. This emphasised for me the huge importance of mining in the establishment of this Court. Pictures showed the hunt in the rocky landscape, demonstrations of mining processes and the artificial grotto where they held the feast. Where a night scene was shown, the artist used blue paper with white highlights. The modern blue of Ruff's 'Cassini 13' echoed these blue pieces.

Venus followed with a celebration of courtly love, gallantry, beauty, and fertility. It opened with a parade or carousel in the grand garden, with singing and music. Colours of the carriages and the avanturiers des quadrilles were rose/silver blue/gold green/gold lemon/silver. There was ladies' hunting. Evening came with a 'Nature theatre' and 'Opera of the Four Seasons, then dancing in the Temple of Venus. Costumes and decoration appear in the French style. Ruff's 'Stern 2' (1992) shows the night sky, reflecting the romance and joy of Venus's night parade. Looking up, or looking into the man made lake, they would see the stars.

Mars (iron) was inevitably celebrated by a show of might; a military parade in the Alt Markt with mock battles and fireworks. Colour and the dramatically mysterious Martian landscape was provided by Ruff's 'm.A.R.S. 10'. Jupiter (tin) seemed to be the highlight of the celebrations. They used this occasion to formally open the new Zwinger palace. Apparently it was marked by musical comedy and elemental chaos...perhaps this could be attempted in the West End! There was jousting, not warlike as seen for Mars but instead encouraged grace and agility. Horse ballet/Dressage formed pattern out of chaos just like 'Cassini 3's' orderly circles. Elements were paraded; the air was demonstrated by birds; earth was flowers; water was coral, fish, nets; and fire was flames, just like the Lord Mayors show.

The last two were Moon/Diana (silver) and Mercury. The organisers used the Turkish crescent moon to widen the choice of entertainment - a useful changing of the classical iconography to incorporate political ideas and fashionable exotica into the event. After a huge tented feast, there was a river parade, then a massacre of animals down stream of the Jagerhof. Mercury was depicted in his role as the god of trade. The Elector and his wife dressed as innkeepers to welcome the delegation to the Zwinger. Each country was represented by a different table at the feast whilst acrobatic displays entertained. Ruff's contribution here 'JPEG rl02' (2007) shows a pixelated rocket taking off. This serves to remind us space travel depends on international co-operation. The international politics which the Elector was involved in also revolved around an international network of alliances and expedient matches.

I am aware that I have not commented critically on some of the questions raised by these amazing snapshots of this festival - ideas relating to the philosophy of the baroque, state and absolutist propaganda or even the gesamtkunstwerk of baroque theatricals. There is so much to be said. A paper I found stated,

darkness and the night were essential to Baroque attempts to articulate and transcend confessional sources of authority: nocturnal darkness intensified the light that represented the divine or the prince. The new uses of the night show rulers' attempts to strengthen and supplement confessional sources of authority with the 'natural' authority of a 'sun king'.'

This for me goes straight to the heart of the drawings - especially the ones on blue paper. They held a particular interest; after all, do you do record something which happened in the dark with the required detail that comes only from day? This baroque focus on night events highlights the importance of the massive firework displays. Thankfully the ephemeral nature of the fire meant that the planets were not obscured by the light for long - night is when the planets burn most strongly in the sky, and indeed, they were the lucky stars that Augustus was invoking. The sight of planets thrill us even now which is why Ruff's art is so magnetic,  and provide the perfect foil to the baroque festival.

This exhibition runs to June 9 2014.

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