Not Quite a Young Turk

John Haber
in New York City

Jean-Étienne Liotard and Veronese's Allegories

Even regular visitors to the Frick Collection might not have noticed a modest still-life painting, acquired in 1997. Jean-Étienne Liotard might well have wanted it that way, and an exhibition of the Swiss artist helps understand why.

Liotard knew when to charm and when to deceive, when to show off and when to cover his traces. In service to the capitals of Europe and in his borrowings from Turkey, he makes a surprising study in contrasts. Also at the Frick, four allegories by Paolo Veronese look back to an earlier collision between East and West, as Renaissance Venice took to the seas.

The fifty works by Liotard include miniatures, polished drawings, pastels, and quick preparatory sketches. However, the Frick's own Trompe l'Oeil, in oil on silk, could sum up his career. Jean-Etienne Liotard's Trompe l'Oeil (Frick Collection, 1771)

Four or five works of art

The painting's fragile media already hint at Liotard's refinement, not to mention his aristocratic audience. So does its subject, four small works of art affixed to an imagined panel. The wood's grain provides the only painterly effect, but carefully disguised. These light brown curves also accentuate the smooth lines within each fragment. Liotard does not approve of sharp edges. Buttering bread may sound like the transient moment in a still life by Jean-Siméon Chardin, but when Liotard's son applies his knife in a portrait elsewhere in the exhibition, he appears to be building a yellow monument.

The top two works within the Frick's Trompe l'Oeil, in simulated marble relief, themselves pretend to deceive the eye. They show Venus and Cupid in a playful, bucolic setting. The theme reflects knowledge of the classics, the nude an appropriate subject for delectation and for fine art. Her turn away from the viewer supplies a proper discretion while highlighting a thigh and breast. Liotard, born in 1702, situates himself within academic tradition, the Enlightenment, Rococo pleasures, and, as will appear later, an exotic contrast to them all.

Below these, the artist appears to have pasted two of his own drawings, labeled with the same fictive pen that outlines a woman's cheek and the curls of her hair. These women, in three quarter profile, come from the real world, a world of wealth and taste. The Frick gives much of the exhibition to portrait drawings, including commissions from the court of Vienna in the 1760s. His cast always appears at once reserved and assertive, with due regard for how these play out in terms of gender. Women are occupied with sewing or the arts, but not at the sacrifice of haute couture. Males, even as young children, display the utter self-regard and inside career track of Dilbert's least favorite marketing manager.

Liotard's illusion marries oil, marble, wood, pen, and wash, all within a single painting. Generally his art makes few distinctions among media—although it might go a tad too far to say that he subverts them. His most ambitious pieces lend pastel the bright color, high gloss, and scale more typical of oil on canvas. Broad areas of color, applied to the reverse of paper, intensify drawings as well. Conversely, his oils have a simple scheme, with a relatively narrow range of tones. Again he puts his skill in the service of decorum and tradition.

One of the two women on trompe l'oeil paper has preposterously big hair, what the artist labels her coiffeur Turque. Liotard visited Constantinople in 1738 and fell instantly in love. It brought his art to maturity and to a style that never again varied. It taught him to admire surfaces, and history hardly knows whether to remember his realism or his pageantry. The curator, Colin Bailey of the Frick, stresses his resistance to artifice, but realism means many things—including, for that matter, the optical effects of the heavy brushstrokes that Liotard rejected.

Four years abroad also contributed to a fad and gained him a new market. On his return, sitters delighted in posing in his elaborate costumes. He became known as the Turkish painter, with much the same flair for the exotic that English audiences then found in the horses of George Stubbs. An impressive but somewhat comical self-portrait from 1747 shows him in full beard, which his wife made him shave off. He grew it right back when she died. One sees it again in a still-confident self-portrait at age eighty, where his glasses lean knowingly along his nose.

The Orient before Orientalism

Clearly Liotard loved to please, so long as he also pleased himself. One self-portrait gives him a gap-toothed grin. It makes him seem frank about his own weaknesses, but with the frankness of a master realist. It also identifies him, the Frick notes, with the prototype in art of a skeptical Greek philosopher. At the same time, the broad smile looks as strained and docile as a senior's posing for his yearbook.

He railed against the late Baroque's visible brushwork, as in drawings by Jean-Baptiste Greuze or Domenico Tiepolo, and he shuns its more provocative sexual escapades, like those of François Boucher. Still, he does not really cover his traces. He often starts with a composition in sweeping curves of black chalk on blue paper. At the next stage, as he fills in colors and textures on paper, he takes care to leave each mark discrete. He does not so much deny his art as insist on controlling it. He makes his lack of a signature style into a personal boast.

His career has the same mix of cosmopolitanism and detachment, like tourists in art even today. Born in Switzerland, of protestants who had fled France, he headed quickly for Paris, and he later worked in London as well as Vienna. Still, he and his wife again made Geneva their home.

Maybe his breadth and distance also explains his fascination with the Ottoman Empire. In My Name Is Red, Orhan Pamuk describes Turkish miniaturists around 1600 struggling to resist a style imported from the Venetian Renaissance—and indeed from the very idea of a painter's original style. Perhaps for Liotard the East similarly represented adherence to a dying tradition. Something new, however, was in the air.

For him, the quiet East meant adherence to older tradition in western painting, too. Ironically, it also played to a change in European fashion. Edward W. Said's brilliant polemic on Orientalism never mentions Liotard and notes little of interest before 1750, when few beyond Jesuit missionaries traveled so far. By Liotard's death Napoleon had marched into Egypt, much as Venice had asserted its primacy in the Mediterranean centuries before. Yet the exotic really took on an aura all its own only with Romanticism—or such close precursors as Anne-Louis Girodet.

That may not make Liotard a great artist and innovator, but it does make for a fascinating discovery. It also shows how art goes about its business, regardless of its most well-intentioned control freaks. The Turkish vogue quickly took on the mystique not of a measured past but of a primitive imagination. Ironically, too, it echoed Liotard's own myth of loss, only in terms of lost empires falling before western eyes. Even in a lost cause, the Swiss artist would not lose his composure.

Venice's myths

Hauled before the Inquisition for his epic Last Supper, Veronese represented perfectly the Renaissance style that Pamuk's villains fear. No wonder he had to explain the presence of "buffoons, drunkards, dwarfs, Germans, and similar vulgarities." If charges of hedonism and heresy against art sound awfully familiar, so does his answer: "We painters take the same license poets and jesters take. . . . I paint pictures as I see fit and as well as my talent permits."

As I found in confronting art and censorship this very summer, one should not overlook how modern this remains, especially after art has relinquished its claim to Ground Zero. Certainly it must have seemed novel during the late Renaissance. An artist was stating the right to paint according to his lights, not those of patron, church, or the public. And to others his lights might appear obscure, fantastic, searching, or dripping with sarcasm.

However, the Venetian artist was not appealing simply to poetic license. He makes an unlikely rebel indeed, perhaps not so far from Liotard after all. He does not insist on his sincerity and a higher calling. He sounds nothing like the avant-garde of later centuries. He does not argue that Germans, who influenced his stately contemporary Lorenzo Lotto, make better sacramental wine, because no one would seriously wish to drink German wine for pleasure.

In effect, he says, this must mean something, but do not push me too hard about what. No wonder he was happy to reach an accommodation in the end, retitling the scene as Feast in the House of Levi. Throughout his life, Veronese paints public art on a grand scale His technical and visual marvel pays tribute to Venice's sense of its own virtue, wealth, and power.

The painter, then, makes two claims, the stature of the creative artist and for the limits of allegory. And both represent a decisive break with the past. They also represent conflicting sides of a new secularism—the artist's virtuosity and an art intended to please others. Both come on display with "Veronese's Allegories," a small but clever display.

The Frick unites two large paintings in the collection with a mythological scene from the Met, plus two allegories of navigation—tributes to Venice's sea power from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Another mythological subject could not travel from the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, England, but they may not have formed a series in any event.) Take pleasure in them, they command, and draw due lessons from them. Do not, however, press them too hard, and that offers useful advice for his viewers today, too.

Virtue and vice rewarded

Paolo Veronese wanted it all. He meant his best-known works for the walls and ceilings of great halls. They combine a grand, symmetric design with drastic foreshortening, headlong movements, and a piling on of characters and anecdotes just one step short of anarchy. He sought the rich colors of Titian before him and the muscular grandeur of the High Renaissance in Rome, but none of their anxiety about the future.

Paolo Veronese's Choice Between Virtue and Vice (Frick Collection, c. 1580)All that comes at the price of fast work, of sweeping fabrics and bodies painted broadly and thinly over flat, underlying colors. Seen up close, one navigator rests his spiraling upward movements on what could pass for a club foot. Clouds and trees do little more than fill space. Veronese's style may seem already a throwback, but it can also look ahead, past Mannerism to the late Baroque. Imagine that the chariots of Tiepolo could rest on solid ground.

Allegories like these can look bland and pretentious to modern eyes. They benefit from sharing close quarters, much like his saints, buffoons, and drunkards. I have often passed them by without regret, but I felt his joy in excess when I saw them together. The movement everywhere and nowhere, the quick brushwork, and the displays of private wealth—all these belong very much to Veronese's time, but also to art now.

So does construction of a painting so entirely around its characters and their sometimes arcane dilemmas. When it comes to an allegory, they also make Veronese's sympathies as hard to discern as his religious convictions about the Last Supper.

When wisdom leads strength, convention dictates that the things of this world will lie at her feet. Still, one sees the things of this world first and lingers over them longest. They comport entirely with Minerva's luxuriant figure, and she and Hercules get it on far too well for me to dare question their limits. When a young, self-assured Venetian male flees from vice to virtue, one knows his dilemma from his torn stockings. He finds himself, torn, too, between the healthy blond behind him and the sober brunette awaiting him. Still, he looks quite able to take care of himself.

Besides, I felt sorry both for virtue and for vice. Virtue's less plump face comes nearer to today's fashion. Vice reaches for her man with solicitude rather than violence. How rude of Venice to abandon either of such sweet women. How considerate of Veronese to attend equally to the vulgar comforts of all.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"Jean-Etienne Liotard: Swiss Master" ran at The Frick Collection through September 17, 2006, "Veronese's Allegories: Virtue, Love, and Exploration in Renaissance Venice" through July 16.

 

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