“Marie Antoinette,” at the Grand Palais in Paris (open to the public until 30
June), is a fascinating exhibition gushing with rich imagery.

Dario and I attended the private, invitation-only, vernissage at the Grand Palais for the fascinating retrospective on Marie Antoinette. 

It opens with a rendition of a pearly-eyed adolescent in a rose-strewn dress dancing in the Austrian palace of her childhood. Married at the ripe age of fourteen and struggling with her burden as witnessed through the letters to/from her domineering and rigid mother. Shortly thereafter, one discovers a young girl, woman, an innocent young mother, a touch of kindness, a yearning for pastoral pleasure (hence the Hamlet at Versailles), and great intellectual curiosity. She is ultimately betrayed by her church and the times to lose everything.  Yet she maintains her dignity to the end.

The exhibit ends in a shattered mirror, a vast, dusky space with remnants of her own and her son’s hair and a wall inscribed with her desparate words.  Marie-Antoinette, doomed reine of France, meets her meticulously planned, yet tragic and bloody end under the guillotine. 

Throughout the exhibition, one goes from pity, to admiration, to wondering if she wasn’t a tad selfish and over-the-top. Then enlightenment – an opportunistic Cardinal cruelly betrayed her to try and save his own hide; rumors and comic-book drawings prescient of Germany in the 1930/40s reviled her with false accusations and innuendo. Marie-Antoinette went into great hardship and suffering. She became the ultimate victim, yet maintained poise and pride throughout until her public execution in her late 30s.

“We should never forget that she was a child – a dauphine at 14 and a queen at 18 – but from a very early stage she was already interested in her image,” says Xavier Salmon, the exhibition’s co-curator. This self-awareness comes through in the portraits that form a celebrity gallery around the blue-of-France walls. (Among the paintings is a table plan of the nuptial dinner in 1770 with Louis XV at the head, and his son Louis-Auguste and new his daughter-in-law seated at his side.)

From the start, omens abound. An ink blot beside the Dauphine’s signature in the marriage ledger. The decorative trunk for a baby’s layette and a happy family portrait after the arrival 10 years into the marriage of a son and heir seem but a brief respite from the carapace of frivolity. Louis XVI (who was not the most virile of kings) was unable to perform and she faced increasingly stern letters from her domineering mother, not to mention the scurrilous gossipers who surrounded her. The lewd and vicious pamphlets of the latter are for fascinating viewing in the final part of the exhibit.

Marie Antoinette was indeed queen of the decorative arts and light things. The Petit Trianon was a recreation of the queen’s sweet folly. Here Robert Carsen, the opera director working for the first time on a museum show, has used his theatrical skills to transport museum visitors to vistas of garden and stone sculptures, with bird song tweeting over the music. It is very impressive.

The most striking moment of the exhibit comes in the stairwell below drawings of towering hairdos, enough to be the delight of any campy 60s fan. Imagine a shattered mirror and a spidery reflection of the broken glass.  Shades of the innuendo, violence, calumny to come..

The aftertaste is metallic and harsh, yet flowery – one of purity and
loss.  Roses or metal?  One tends to prefer the former but can’t get
over the latter.  Her influence lingers.  A glass of champagne and wonderful caramel and rose macarons from Ladurée helped to boist our spirits. Highly recommended.

P.S. Stay tuned for an extraordinary “Six Senses of Marie Antoinette” break in collaboration with a French luxury goods company, to be announced in April…  visit our site

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