Art History as Spectacle

John Haber
in New York City

Tiepolo's Venice

Art today is in every way a spectacle. Was it ever that way before?

Brushstrokes might once have evoked secret agonies for private contemplation. Now they stand as traditional gestures in a public performance. Images create breathtaking fantasies, tearing through walls as they confront their audience. Giambattista Tiepolo's St. James the Greater (Szémpuvézeti Museum, Budapest, 1749)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. Not in Tiepolo's Venice.

Born in 1696, Giambattista Tiepolo might well be the most public artist who has ever lived. His paintings, once designed for bearers of wealth and power, make an extravagant carnival ride even now. Fittingly, Tiepolo has a retrospective at America's most established museum, the Met. It makes for an enjoyable, maybe even fashionable, visit—and so more than fifteen years later do drawings from Tiepolo's Venice at the Morgan Library. Could they seem esoteric, decorative, and shallow, too? Welcome to the art world.

Power play

This art's public spirit begins with its original setting, in Venice. There and elsewhere in Europe (or even with Cristóbal de Villalpando in Mexico), immense paintings filled entire walls and ceilings of churches and mansions. Doorways often provided ornamental frames quite apart from the paintings. If Renaissance painting aspired to sculpture, here it lays claim to architecture. Lines reach across the room, playing on symmetries from work to work. Yet Tiepolo devises less an illusion than a vision.

Renaissance masters molded a self-contained space within the art, not these hallucinations. Tiepolo's compositions make sense as high drama once one steps back—way back. Video art now or postmodern abstractions that look like Technicolor have nothing on them. His bold lines hardly coincide with a viewer's line of sight, and they rarely pick up the shape of the flimsy buildings within the painting. Actors float across plenty of open sky or reach grandly out of their frames. They can seem to lack enough room to stand side by side, and their receding diagonals refuse to suggest an arena for action.

Tiepolo exaggerates the foreshortening of his busy figures, already a painter's stock vocabulary rather than a fresh discovery. Their musculature shouts power rather than sculptural solidity—and just as rapidly dissolves it. Examined closely, hands resemble jellyfish more than muscle, but who is looking closely? 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 links to everyone from the Renaissance to Rembrandt. True to his Venetian roots, he most often quotes Paolo Veronese or Titian—but with a difference. They composed a world of gods, beyond ordinary human perception. Tiepolo has taken his place wholly in this world, while ennobling 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, the Virgin Mary appears miraculously. The portrayal transformed every living artist, such as Artemisia Gentileschi, and many more to come. Caravaggio's Mary has stepped from behind a curtain, as if from eternity. A century later, 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. Her wide, innocent stare carries up and past the viewer.

Tiepolo's secular subjects have the same obsession with the grandeur of this world. Above all, it is the grandeur of ancient and modern Italy. A discomforting number are military heroes. They carry out brave, exemplary acts—such as holding one hand to live coals—as they gesture off into space. And that means into the viewer's space. The eyes of even obsessed lovers fail to meet, but they have wider aspirations.

From palaces to fashion show

The Met touches on each facet of this public art. It begins with early works, but mostly it sticks to Tiepolo's 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 brings together works that relate architecturally. 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 painting it became. A room near the end adds Tiepolo's facility as an etcher. The Lehman wing of the Metropolitan displays smaller works by his son Domenico.

The efforts mostly pay off. The many freshly cleaned oils have not looked as good in this century. A large retrospective does not grow tiring. I cannot promise that my personal experience counts as firm statistical evidence. Still, I venture to guess that Tiepolo has found a larger audience than Camille Corot at the Met. Who ever thought that the he could outdraw so consoling a landscape painter?

Giambattista Tiepolo's Psyche Transported to Olympus (Morgan Library, early 1740s)Several paintings defeat the Met, particularly those that should cover a ceiling. The show hangs them on the wall, and one has to find one's 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 people keep trying, at least the people constantly stepping on my feet.

Wall labels for each and every painting are even more annoying. One reads the word moving way too often for art of such facility. When Tiepolo rings changes on an earlier artist, they misleadingly suggest similar aims for both. Despite the exhibition's title, the commentary also gives at best only token attention to cultural context. When the artist painted The Immaculate Conception, for instance, Mary's supposed virgin birth was a pointed ideological debate within the Catholic Church. The label could at least have explained the term.

And then—I may as well come around to admitting it—then there is the painting. I think again of the modern gallery as fashion show. Yet the parallels to a modern sensibility can only accentuate how foreign it still is. The Met did wonders for helping me understand it. But could the exhibition also make me comfortable with it? Should it have?

Tiepolo in Chelsea

I have not been disguising my resistance all that well, have I? I cannot 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. Their far lighter drawing style, pastel colors, and worldly narratives derive ultimately from a far greater artist, Jean Antoine Watteau. Both turn Watteau's private pathos into public decoration. They are a longer way still Titian's Venice.

Historians often compare perspective to a modern theater set. Tiepolo also parallels the development of eighteenth-century opera. His drama, however, takes place in a different kind of theater. It stresses idealized, conventional gesture rather than action. It defines a notion of decorum—quite as much as the quieter, more secular theater of Chardin in France. "Tiepolo's Venice" notwithstanding, his projects did carry him further, but does it matter?

Knowing the art that influenced him, I kept seeing a less competent variant. Peter Paul Rubens would not have left a man with feet halfway vanishing into the ground. Nicolas Poussin would have given his saints stronger bodies and tortured them a little. Watteau would not have painted smoke that I could mistake at first glance for wood. (Talk about wooden gestures!) He would also have given his mythical lovers a convincing sadness.

In all the pomp and circumstance, bodies overlap chaotically, but they hardly get around to doing all that much. They need do little more than point and pose. Is Europa going to be raped by Jupiter? Perched on a tame-looking bull, she looks somewhere between drugged and stupid. For paintings after Torquato 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 also kept seeing the Romanticism that Tiepolo 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 then I thought again of today. 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. I have been banking that I can make sense of art's carnival in the light of art history. I have been gambling that its chaos and excitement tell me about my times—and about me. But what if I am wrong?

A postscript: so many angels

Who knew that heaven has so many angels? Not that eighteenth-century Venice needed an accounting, least of all from the Bible. Its drawings at the Morgan Library show a time of growing secularization and unbounded belief. Not that it needed either much of an excuse to fill the skies. Venice had not regained political ascendancy, although it loved to celebrate its naval victories and its annual procession along the Grand Canal. Still, a growing patronage for the arts, tourists included, demanded more extravagant architecture, altars, and illusions

If Giambattista Tiepolo was to undertake one of those painted ceilings seemingly open to the sky, with foreshortened deities and whoever else happened to be flying by, he had to find a way to fit them in. He went through sheet after sheet of paired figures gazing upward, outlined in curlicues, flares, and washes as fast as ink can hit paper. They are not built one on another as in the High Renaissance, intertwined or distended as in Mannerism, or caught in a single sweep as in the early Baroque. Rather, he thinks in terms of groupings and their possibilities, where the operative word is triumph. A Madonna and child sit atop a globe, with (of course) an angel beside them and skulls below, as an obvious parable, but it hardly matters whether the globe stands for the earth or the celestial sphere. Tiepolo has an eye for faces, whether in portraits or a poignant Holy Family, but subject matter seems almost beside the point.

"Tiepolo, Guardi, and Their World" has in mind less themes or chronology than an era, and as usual that means artists rather than a cultural history. This museum can afford over a hundred drawings from its collection, focused on a handful of leading artists with as much as a wall or more apiece. They wanted a return to a previous golden age, in Veronese and Renaissance Venice. They were also aware of the froth of Rococo France and the roots of the Enlightenment. When Francesco Guardi sketches an actual balloon ascent in 1783, one could call it a victory for science or the imagination. Besides, the balloon gets lost in the background.

The urge to reconcile anecdote and the "grand manner" starts with Sebastiano Ricci, who allows an angel to drift past Venus and Cupid at an altar, looking oddly dutiful for the emblems of passion. Also early on, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta solves the problem by giving a full sheet of eyes, ears, and lips the same animation as his usual big boobs, big cloaks, and big gestures. When Tiepolo sketches Hercules, he takes Piazzetta's more relaxed anatomy and ups the ante. He has one study for a full ceiling, but drawings here can precede a print, a better idea, or nothing at all. The era ends when Domenico Tiepolo updates his father's work for law courts and drawing rooms, in greater close-up, a greater naturalism, clearer plots, and a more evident point of view. Where the older man drew Punchinello stretched out drunk, the younger man lends Punchinello an entire circus, elephant included—and the hero on his back has reached the end of a tragic comedy.

In between lies Venice itself, in vedutismo or "view painting." Guardi and his brothers give it a concise notation, approaching dots and small circles, while Canaletto applies the squiggles to the texture of stone and vegetation on solid walls. They also give the countryside some inhabitants and some history, which Pietro Longhi then brings closer to the swagger of contemporary life. Landscape also look ahead to Romantic gardens, in Canaletto's "caprices" and the brushier forests and ruins of Marco Ricci, Sebastiano's nephew. One may remember Giovanni Battista Piranesi as sheer architectural fantasy, but he comes off the sanest of the bunch. He also applies the same crossing diagonals as in his walls running every which way to the assassination of Julius Caesar.

This art has its high contrasts and angels, but little in the way of emotions and human drama. Even landscape shows the clear influence of set design. As Domenico in the 1790s moves from the life of Saint Peter to stockinged aristocrats, it gets hard to tell one from the other. People carry on disputes before Venetian magistrates, but no one gets all that worked up about them. When Jesus has his agony in the garden, he looks simply resplendent (although, in all fairness, a drawing on loan to the Frick in 2007 had Jesus in tatters, cut off by a fallen tree from the foreground and from hope). For Tiepolo's Venice, the only torment is to lie alone.

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"Tiepolo and Tiepolo's Venice" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through April 27, 1997, "Tiepolo, Guardi, and Their World" at The Morgan Library through January 5, 2014.


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