Bathed in golden sunlight, the architecture of Rome in its historic prime has never looked better than under the discerning eye of the great JMW Turner. As with so many objects of beauty, however, the true rewards only come after longer, deeper observation. For example, that orb in the brilliant azure sky is, in fact, the moon in daytime. A subtle yet telling message that all is not quite as it seems in this Roman landscape.
To take an object out of context can be discomforting. Yet, by another measure, it can lift art from the confines of the gallery, granting it freedom in the wider world. As in nature, beauty must be unchained and granted total expression. This was the thinking of Jeff Koons when he selected Turner’s masterpiece to be one of the lead images in his Louis Vuitton collaboration. Ancient Rome is featured in eight different formats of the widely acclaimed Masters Collection. The Speedy, Neverfull, Pochette Metis, Clutch, Sarah wallet and Néonoé are all embraced by the concept of drawing truly great art out into the wider world.
It takes the skill of a great artist – not to mention prodigious courage – to reproduce a series of undisputed Masters on a grander scale than ever. To then adorn a series of bags and accessories, however impeccably crafted, with the resulting images could be seen as downright provocative. So much the better. For as Koons and the caretakers of Louis Vuitton will attest, art is meaningless without human interaction – the more the better.
“I worked with Turner’s Ancient Rome because of its reference to ancient history and beautiful use of ephemeral light,” is Koons’ simple assessment. “It is one of the most seductive, joyous images that I know of.” Beneath the surface, of course, it is so much more. For Turner, a hugely successful figure in his own lifetime, it was as much a commentary on the British Empire as a work of beauty in its own right. It is a tragic scene, the moon’s appearance in daytime portending the fall of Imperial Rome. And while Turner’s native Britain was riding high at the time, a quarter of the way through what historians refer to as her “Imperial century”, he was all too aware that no empires last for ever.
For all his subtle political commentary, Turner was also a masterful painter, known as the Painter of Light. His massive influence touched impressionist, post-impressionist and even abstract painting styles to come. And in the most modern context of all, the great Jeff Koons himself. Yet for all his undoubted skill at capturing the sheer beauty of nature on canvas, Turner’s dynamic compositions and then-unconventional colour choices shocked the critics of his day. Small wonder Koons, who has spent his glittering 40-year career confounding expectation, picks Turner out as a collaborator across the centuries. Turner himself was contemptuous of those who sought to understand him through his work, inferring that the art spoke for itself alone.
“My business is to paint what I see, not what I know is there,” he famously opined. In Koons‘ case, the message is just as simple: Masters are for everyone, not just the crowds tramping through the Tate gallery in London, where Ancient Rome is housed. “I hope people understand my ideas,” he says of the Louis Vuitton collaboration. “I hope they embrace them as a continuation of my effort to erase the hierarchy attached to fine art and Old Masters.” A laudable goal shared by artist and House alike, brought thrillingly to life in the Masters series.