High on Luxury
I was recently invited to Denmark to visit the High on Luxury exhibition at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptoteket.
The show is largely made up of objects discovered in 1830 by French farmer Prosper Taurin in North West France. The items were originally held in a locally important religious complex to Mercury. They were kept in a carefully concealed cyst and may have been hidden until needed at special occasions. Eight of the objects were dedicated by one man, Quintus Domitius Titus, a Roman citizen possibly of local consequence. Several of the items are objects used in feasts such as plates, cups, spoons. The feast, or meal, is a symbolic and communal act and can mean several things in different contexts.
The show’s title does not really do justice to the exhibition. It implies that the show will focus on luxury living, however the objects on display are largely votive offerings from a single temple in Roman Gaul. I would have been more interested in examining the items from this angle, but I can understand why calling the show High on Luxury would lure in more punters.
The Roman Empire loved luxury objects of all sorts – exotic foods, Chinese silks, Indian gems, Scandinavian Amber, artworks. Although these objects do not always survive. Luxury is more than objects however and would include intangible goods such as education and leisure. A trip to Pompeii will remind us that luxury would also include things such as gardens and exotic pets.
Above all, of course, luxury was built on slavery. Slavery produced the goods and the riches needs to purchase these goods by a select group. It created the surplus of labour which allowed some to do nothing. Slaves were also themselves luxury goods.
The exhibition brings this to the foreground through a breathless audio play of Trimalchio’s Feast from Petronius. Petronius was, likely, a courtier under Nero, famed for his elegant taste and luxurious mode of life. His single work, Satyricon (from which Trimalchio’s feast is an episode) is fragmented but reveals a sharp and satiric artist picking apart the mores of his time. Part of this, is that the rich ex-slave Trimalchio shows his ‘low breeding’ and vulgarity through tasteless displays of wealth and an inability to pronounce Ancient Greek correctly. Personally I sometimes have more sympathy for the brash Trimalchio, than I do for his boorish, grasping and snobbish guests.
The exhibition was great and well worth a visit. The Museum UX was outstanding, as is to be expected from a Design Powerhouse like Denmark. The captions were well designed and the multimedia was thoughtful. However the Glyptoteket really needs to consider more around accessibility. It’s an old beautiful building but more can be done to make it easier to navigate.
The cafe is excellent and is set in the gorgeous winter garden at the heart of the museum. The winter garden is a covered courtyard set with trees and fish pound, similar to London’s Barbican Conservatory.
Whilst in Copenhagen, I also had a chance to visit Louisiana to visit the Picasso Ceramics exhibition. Produced in his more mature years, the ceramics are a playful and fun examination of a new medium. This is a rare opportunity to see several of them all together. I was particularly drawn to the items inspired by classical forms, although the whole show was brilliant.
Louisiana is a little outside Copenhagen central but has great views of the sea and has a beautiful sculpture garden.
Overall, well worth a trip.