Thursday, August 6, 2009
Farewell to Venice
Titian's Danaë: the orgasm as blessing.
I confess it was with a heavy heart that I made a final pilgrimage to Titian Tintoretto Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice at the MFA last night. And indeed, my partner had to almost pull me bodily out of the gallery to get me to leave. I'm off to Scotland tonight, and so yesterday was my last chance to revisit the show (you still have a few opportunities, however, as it closes August 16), and so the pleasure I've gotten from these images was undercut by the melancholy realization that I will never see most of them again in my life.
If you're like me (and I know you're not), great pictures like Titian's Flora, at left, seem to you like both performances and talismans: you know you have to see them "live" to truly experience them, and yet they exist continuously somewhere, like beacons, or perhaps even charms, forever sending out their humanizing signals. After a lifetime of travel, you know where your favorites are in the major cities, and it's hard, if you're nearby, not to just duck in for a moment and make contact, however briefly. (This is why the popularity of tourist meccas like the new MOMA are such a disaster for people like me - this kind of drop-in communion has become almost impossible.)
Thus I won't feel the way I've felt at the MFA the last few months until I'm in Paris again, or Venice - although, actually, I'd also have to be in Rotterdam, Madrid, Naples and a dozen other cities, because the show cast such a wide international net. So, no, I will never feel this way again - I'll never see anything quite like the central, scarlet-draped room in this show, which faced off Titian's Danaë (above), Venus and Adonis, and Venus with a Mirror with Tintoretto's Susannah and the Elders. The only exhibition I've ever seen which equaled this experience was the famous Vermeer show in D.C. back in the 90's - where The Lacemaker, Girl with a Pearl Earring, and Girl with a Red Hat all eyed each other from opposing walls.
Titian's Madonna and Child with St. Catherine and a Rabbit.
Yesterday's melancholy was at least somewhat alleviated by my finally getting a chance to hear curator Frederick Ilchmann, the exhibit's true begetter, discuss his triumph. Mr. Ilchmann proved insightful and brilliantly articulate, and was justifiably, yet charmingly, proud of the many coups he'd pulled off in his installation (that orgasmic "red room" was just one of many gambits). Ilchmann was coy about how, exactly, he'd managed to pull off the greatest Old Master show in our city's history - although it was clear that for years he'd been compiling a "little list" in his head of the secondary Titians and Tintorettos in Venice (and elsewhere) that he might someday be able to borrow - and then, when the MFA returned a group of antiquities of uncertain provenance to the Italian government, he made his move in an attempt to take advantage of the resulting good will. Eventually snagging the Louvre as a producing partner helped no end, of course (that's where one of my favorite Titians, the Giorgione-esque Madonna of the Rabbit, above, usually resides). But it was clear that this show, like all artistic triumphs, derived from an intersection of preparation, talent, and opportunity. And it was also clear someone should write Mr. Ilchmann a blank check for his next show immediately.
Of course any exhibit organized in the "Three Tenors" manner of Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese is open to the criticism that its format limits our exposure to the full range of each artist. I suppose that's true, but who cares? Since we hardly ever see works of this quality by these artists (okay, there's one at this level in the Gardner), the criticism is essentially moot. Yet it's worth pointing out that the show simply could not evoke Veronese's true monumentality (you have to go to Italy for that), and could only give a partial sense of Tintoretto's truly bizarre range. (Although works like St. Louis, St. George, and the Princess, above right, with its dead ringer for Tintoretto revealing a beauty astride a very phallic dragon - while gazing at her own reflection in the artist's armor - gives you some idea of his sexual-mystical turmoil.)
Then again, maybe the early self-portrait at left could have given you another hint - the sense of raw sexuality, the woundedness, the sheer intelligence, it's all there in those louring, red-rimmed eyes. Seeing all that drain away in the show's final image, a second Tintoretto self-portrait (below right) done after the deaths of his rivals, was Ilchmann's most poignant gambit. All exhibitions are a kind of journey through an artist's life, but few give that impression as forcefully as Titian Tintoretto Veronese does. And that sense of mortality is hard to come by in today's art world, I think - perhaps because only age can understand it. Which is one reason why contemporary artists seem so superficial compared to the Old Masters.