On Tiepolo’s Banquet of Cleopatra
Any frayed waiting room copy of Who
could catch this scene: flash Eurotrash
surveys a sulky round faced
überBabe who’s got the lot—what else
could this painting mean, except that
superstars can will their luck, or
just how little raw envy’s hidden by
contempt, so words like ‘Wow! Great
Tits!’ or ‘Comic Opera Wop’ sum up
the observer, not Anthony and Cleopatra,
attached to pets & entourages—our
contemporaries minus coke & sunglasses.
What’s that pearl without price she’s
dropping in her glass? A mirror of
their self-regard, replaced by each
others’ glances. Still, it glows, blue
& blank at the centre like their hearts,
flanked by idlers on balconies leering
& placing bets. But if they suggest Eros,
what role does Agape play in this--
downstairs & screaming, being shown The
Instruments? You wish, voyeur, you wish.
The Australian poet John Forbes (1950-1998) took an active interest in the Australian contemporary art scene. Professional artists were among Forbes’ closest friends, and he wrote catalogues for many of them, including Ken Searle, Bill Henson, and long-time girlfriend, Nicole Ellis. He even featured as a work of art himself, adorning the Adelaide Fringe Festival as a round-the-clock art installation, entitled Ask me anything about John Forbes. But his interest in art extended beyond the local and contemporary scene, and he was a keen reader of art history.
The scene painted by the eighteenth-century Venetian artists Giovanni Battista Tiepolo potrays a wager over who could give the most lavish banquet. Antony looks to have the upper hand, until Cleopatra dissolves a priceless pearl in vinegar and drinks it. The impressive 2.5 x 3.5 metre canvas hangs prominently in the National Gallery of Victoria, in Melbourne, the city which Forbes made his home for the last decade of his life. Tiepolo was widely praised as a decorative painter, his work was famous for its luminosity, and his vast canvasses and tableaux were commissioned to fill spaces in stately homes and palaces. Forbes’ friend, the poet and art critic Ken Bolton, has compared Tiepolo to a smoke machine at a disco. Such a rococo triumph of style over perceived substance would have appealed to Forbes, and what the painting is said by the speaker to “mean” is not without a knowing irony.
Tiepolo’s painting featured on the cover of Forbes’ final book of poems, Damaged Glamour, when it was published posthumously. Indeed, Forbes thought highly enough of the poem to have originally titled this volume The Banquet of Cleopatra and other poems. The title Damaged Glamour could equally apply to the central figures in the painting, who are well into middle-age, and will soon die at the hands of one of Rome’s new men, the much younger, Octavius.
Typical of Forbes’ late work, the poem is formally – almost classically – restrained, while remaining chatty. Forbes moved with great agility between the worlds of high art and pop culture, and this poem, in particular, seems the perfect fusion of the two, exposing this trashy banquet for what it is.
We, the viewers, like the bit-players in the painting, are cast in the role of voyeur, but there’s a darker underside to our gaze. If this is erotic love, what part, the speaker asks, is played by agape, the love of God and man and our more charitable instincts? Do we, the suggested voyeur, enjoy the relegation of such qualities to the dungeon, or do we simply want to consume an indiscriminate act of torture. Both scenarios seem, in the realm of popular entertainment, to be on the same plane, maybe even more so today than when the poem was written.
Aidan Coleman is an Adelaide-based writer, who has published two collections of poetry. He is currently writing a biography of the poet John Forbes with the assistance of the Australia Council.
The Ekphrastic Review
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