Art History as SpectacleJohn Haber
in New York City
Fine art today has the air of a spectacle. Brushstrokes might once have evoked secret agonies for private contemplation. Now they stand as traditional gestures in a public performance. Videos create breathtaking fantasies, tearing through walls as they confront their audience. Museums draw crowds unattainable by real theaters, but public need not always mean inclusive. Not while galleries struggle ostentatiously, if a bit half-heartedly, with their aura of at once fashion runway and comic theater, upscale boutique and sacred institution. They leave Soho (or global museum empires) but take everything with them.
Giambattista Tiepolo might well be the most public artist who has ever lived. Although born in 1696, his paintings disturbingly recall every one of those familiar strategies. His displays, once designed for bearers of wealth and power, make an extravagant carnival ride now. Could they seem esoteric, decorative, and shallow too? Welcome to the art world.
Fittingly, Tiepolo has a splendidly hung, sympathetic retrospective at America's most established museum, the Metropolitan. It makes for an enjoyable, maybe even fashionable, visit.
This art's public spirit begins with its original setting. The show's fancy title speaks of Tiepolo's Venice. There and elsewhere in Europe, his immense paintings filled entire walls and ceilings of churches and mansions. The rooms themselves often provided ornamental frames, as though the paintings only complete the decoration. If art back in the Renaissance had to aspire to sculpture, here it claims to be architecture.
In the Renaissance and Baroque too, perspective carved out an appearance of deep space. Tiepolo devises less an illusion than a vision. One sees busy scenes, where the actors float across plenty of open sky or reach grandly out of their frames.
He exaggerates the foreshortening of his busy figures, already a painter's stock vocabulary rather than a new discovery. Still, adjacent figures can seem to lack enough room to stand side by side, and their receding diagonals refuse to suggest an arena for action. Those bold lines hardly coincide with a viewer's line of sight. They rarely pick up the shape of the flimsy buildings within the painting.
Tiepolo's compositions make sense as high drama once one steps back—way back. Lines reach across into the room, playing on symmetries from work to work. Renaissance masters molded a self-contained space within the art, not these hallucinations. Video art now or postmodern abstractions that look like technicolor film have nothing on them.
Like the foreshortening, the musculature shouts power rather than sculptural solidity. The quick brushstrokes, like those of the French Rococo, summon up substance—and just as rapidly dissolve it. Examined closely, hands resemble jellyfish more than muscle. Yet Isaac, threatened with human sacrifice, does not even suffer the indignity of being tied down. He has a maturity not often seen in paintings of him, plus biceps more than bulging enough to have knocked his father's knife clean away. One can forget Abraham's crisis of faith.
Loyal to his status as an art institution, Tiepolo knew his predecessors cold. One can spot echos of everyone from the Renaissance to Rembrandt. True to his Venetian roots, he most often quotes Veronese or Titian—but with a difference. Titian's followers composed a world of gods, of events beyond ordinary human perception. Tiepolo has taken his place wholly in this world, but he has ennobled it. The very real institutions that he served, the church and nobility, saw themselves as similarly fervid and triumphant.
In Madonna of the Rosary by Caravaggio, painted a good century earlier, the Virgin Mary appears miraculously. The portrayal transformed every living artist, such as the Gentileschis, and many more to come. She has stepped suddenly from behind a curtain, as if from entirely another eternity. Tiepolo paints her as a statue coming alive on its pedestal. She might have been there always, like everyday reality, only not appreciated in all her majesty and vitality.
Tiepolo's secular subjects have the same obsession with the grandeur of this world, above all ancient and modern Italy. A discomforting number are military heros. They carry out brave, exemplary acts—such as holding one hand to live coals—as they gesture off into space. Most often, that means into the viewer's space.
These figures need do little more than point and pose. In all the pomp and circumstance, their bodies overlap almost chaotically, but they hardly get around to doing all that much. Their wide, innocent stares carry up and past us. The eyes of even obsessed lovers fail to meet.
Historians often compare perspective to a modern theater set, and the drawings of the artist's son, Domenico Tiepolo, may suggest with eighteenth-century opera. This drama, however, takes place in a very different kind of theater. It stresses idealized, conventional gesture rather than any realistic action. It defines a notion of decorum—quite as much as the quieter, more secular theater in Chardin, his French contemporary.
Is Europa going to be raped by Jupiter? Perched on a tame-looking bull indeed, she looks somewhere between drugged and stupid. For paintings after Tasso's epic poetry, scholars are still arguing over just who and what Tiepolo portrayed. He may not always have cared about the pretext for his scenes himself. I think again of the modern gallery as fashion show.
Tiepolo and Tiepolo's Met
The Metropolitan makes a more than game try at uncovering each facet of this public personality. It begins with early works, but mostly it sticks to his better-known, later years. One does not get to paint entire palaces, after all, until one has had a chance to join the establishment.
From that point on the curator, Keith Christiansen, groups works by subject. First comes Tiepolo's sincere commitment to religion and country. Later on one sees his frequent indifference to action rather than decoration. The retrospective also pulls together a fair number of works that relate architecturally. Not just the many freshly cleaned oils, but a series of frescos too surely has not looked as good in this century.
Obviously the show cannot dismantle palaces and recreate their ceilings. So it substitutes modellos, or preliminary oil sketches, wherever it can. Frequently it pairs a sketch with the larger painting it became. A room near the end adds Tiepolo's facility as an etcher. The Lehman wing of the Metropolitan separately displays smaller works by his son Domenico. Additional prints and drawings of the time make up a show downtown at the Morgan Library.
The efforts mostly pay off. A large retrospective does not grow tiring, and it is reaching a following. I cannot promise that my personal experience counts as firm statistical evidence. Still, I venture to guess that he has found a larger audience at the Met than Corot. Who ever thought that the eighteenth century could outdraw so consoling a landscape painter?
Several paintings defeat the Met, particularly those that should cover a ceiling. The show has to hang them on the wall, and I had to find my own way to look up at them. (Talk about art turning one's head.) Sometimes, too, the Met must know better. Bright lights point down, dead vertically, making things way too hard to see. Too bad others around me kept trying, at least the people constantly stepping on my feet.
Wall labels, for each and every painting, are even more annoying. As so often at the Met, they spend more time complimenting the work emptily than helping a newcomer see it. One reads the word moving a few times too often for art of such facility, and one turns away. The labels do note when Tiepolo rings changes on an earlier artist, but they misleadingly suggest similar aims for both.
Despite the exhibition's title, the commentary gives at best only token attention to cultural context. When the artist painted The Immaculate Conception, for instance, Mary's own supposed virgin birth was still a pointed ideological debate within the Catholic Church. The label could at least have explained the term. Besides, talk of "Tiepolo's Venice" notwithstanding, some projects took the work outside Italy altogether.
And then—I may as well come around to admitting it—then there is the painting. The parallels to a modern sensibility can only accentuate how foreign it still is. The Met did wonders for helping me understand it better and seeing links to the present. But could the exhibition also make me comfortable with it? Should it have?
Tiepolo in Soho
I have not been disguising my resistance all that well, have I? I could not easily attune myself to all this glib admiration for sexism and power. I have pretty much the same difficulty with François Boucher, Tiepolo's almost exact contemporary in France. Both remind me of the distance from Veronese that I mentioned. Their far lighter drawing style, pastel colors, and worldly narratives derive ultimately from a far greater artist, Antoine Watteau and the creator of the Rococo. Both turn Watteau's private pathos into public decoration.
Knowing the art that influenced him, I had a hard time not seeing a less competent variant. Rubens's factory certainly would not have left a man with feet halfway vanishing into the ground. Poussin would have given these saints stronger bodies and tortured them a little. Watteau himself cared too much about appearances to leave smoke that I could mistake at first glance for wood. (Talk about wooden gestures!) He would also have touched his mythical lovers with a convincing sadness.
I also kept seeing the Romanticism that Tiepolo no doubt helped spawn. I felt a shallow, reactionary version of its compressed spaces and rapid drawing. J. M. W. Turner or John Constable would not have left such perfunctory landscapes, bathed in a uniform yellow-blue glow. Or at least Constable would have reworked his ideas endlessly. I should have held my breath at the last-minute rescue of Isaac. Instead, I felt the Italian's lack of psychological awareness.
And I thought again of my own decade. Much of art now buys into the status quo too—or else mocks it too casually to be trusted. Its glib pageantry brings Tiepolo to mind eerily. If I distrust one, what am I to make of the other?
A critic's job is to understand. No art measures up to standards other than its own. With historical art, as with art now, explaining its value in its own terms pays off. Dismissals practically never do. I think of Adam Gopnik's attack on Picasso in The New Yorker, not to mention right-wing assaults on the morality of the arts. This kind of criticism skips the necessary steps of looking, learning, waiting, interpreting, and understanding. But what if understanding still does not lead to conversion?
Of course, Tiepolo makes no sense as a Renaissance painter or Romantic. How could I imagine otherwise? The art scene of the '90s is not going to bring back the isolated Soho of the past either. Nonetheless, can some decades, maybe even some whole centuries, have been lows? I buy the higher demand for college survey courses in the Renaissance than in the Rococo. Hey, those were interesting times.
I have been banking my writing that I can make sense of art's carnival after Modernism in the light of art history. I have been gambling my intellect that its chaos and excitement tell me about my times—and about me. But what if I am wrong? I shall keep everyone posted.
"Tiepolo and Tiepolo's Venice" ran through April 27, 1997, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.