Monday, 24 June 2013

Bordeaux Mixture

There mark what Ills the Scholar's Life assail
Toil, Envy, Want, the Garret and the Jail.
See Nations slowly wise and meanly just,
To buried Merit raise the tardy Bust.

From Samuel Johnson's 'The Vanity of Human Wishes'

There's a statue in Bordeaux's Jardin Public that commemorates the life of Alexis Millardet (1838-1902). On the dais teeters a naked young woman proffering a bunch of grapes. The grapes are dangled because Millardet was a professor who specialized in viticulture in the University of Bordeaux's science faculty. Along with Ulysse Gayon (1845-1929), the oenological chemist, he developed the anti-mildew 'Bordeaux Mixture' that's so widely used today.  

The monument was erected in 1914. The original bust was in bronze and was the work of Gaston Leroux (1854-1942). It was melted down during the German occupation.

Photograph taken by W.R. Fisher in 1936

The stone replacement bust was carved by Alexis Call├Ęde in 1953. I don't know who made the young woman. I presume she is naked because she's a muse, or a nymph, or a maniac, although I like to think of her as an absent-minded lab assistant. Despite the interesting alternatives it's most probable she's a muse, or a nymph, as the prof is wearing a toga or some such so as to place the work in a lofty, classical setting and thus render it anodyne viewing for families strolling in the park. Unfortunately it doesn't make it anodyne viewing for me.

It's the layers of artifice I find disturbing. Of course the whole thing is artifice, ceci n'est pas une lab assistant and so forth, but it's not just that, it's doubly that. It's not a sculpture of Millardet, it's a sculpture of a bust of Millardet, I know this because he (i.e. the sculpture of the bust of Millardet) is not acknowledging the kind, or possibly disingenuous, offer of grapes, in fact it would be very weird if he did so as he has no hands to receive them, no stomach to digest them and, incidentally, no loins to be stirred by the bunch’s bearer. Or perhaps he's staring stoically ahead precisely because he has none of these attributes. Or perhaps he's ignoring her because she is a lab assistant and he, as her superior in the work place, doesn't want to be accused of exploiting his supposed droit du seigneur. Not that he could anyway.

Or maybe he's looking away in a fit of pique because the focal point of the ensemble is clearly not his head, but the eye-level haunches of his callipygous minion.

 'Callipygous'; it has the affected air of a Victorian nonce word, the hard 'g' seems out of place in a term for 'fair-buttocked'. 'Fair-buttocked' sounds even worse. The contemporary 'bootylicious' is so much better, it evokes fun and desire; pity I can't bring myself to say it, I'd sound ridiculous if I did, pervy even. I can say 'callipygous', I can hide behind its mock learning, but with 'bootylicious' I'd be all too easily understood.