Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Not the Louvre

The Louvre has perhaps the finest collection of art in the world … and although that famous collection will never come to Minneapolis, a few pieces have made their way to the second floor gallery of the MIA. It’s a small show—only four rooms in all—and when we consider that the first room is entirely devoted to a bronze statue of a ferocious lion by Antoine-Louis Barye (who?) that leaves even less space for the rest of the exhibit.

The show’s theme—What makes a masterpiece?—necessitates the inclusion of a number of pieces that are fakes (though some of them look pretty good to me) and a few others that were once considered masterworks but have since fallen from favor. The quest for breadth—after all, this is the Louvre—may perhaps underlie the inclusion of unusual artifacts such as a simple urn from Egypt made of basalt, three Turkish bowls, a number of sketches by Pisanello, and a garish illustration of Paradise Lost that anticipates the computer-generated battle scenes of modern film epics. Considered all in all, it’s a terrible hodge-podge, and far too heavily weighted toward statuary and decorative arts. All the same, it makes for a stimulating ramble, and there are plenty of oddities to compensate for the relative dearth of genuine masterpieces.

Typical of the of pieces that were included merely to advance the “masterpiece” theme is Lorenzo Lotto’s painting of "Christ Carrying the Cross" (1526). This work was spotted by a collector gathering dust in the attic of a nunnery in Paris in the mid-twentieth century (if I remember the text correctly) and purchased for a very modest sum. Now it’s considered one of Lotto’s finest works, and valued in the millions.

Yes, but is it any good? I think not. The gestures are exaggerated, the colors are “stock” Mannerist reds and blues, and the tears on Jesus’s face are not that far removed from renderings of Elvis on velvet. The painting may not be a fake, but the nuns were right to relegate it to the attic. It’s utterly contrived and insincere. (Come on, people. Take another look.)

On the other hand, the show contains a few remarkable works that I could gaze at for hours. These include a drapery study by Leonardo circa 1479, Georges de La Tour’s famous "The Card-Sharp with Ace of Diamonds," and the show’s central attraction, Johannes Vermeer’s "The Astronomer" (1668). The extraordinary appeal of Vermeer’s work is obvious to nearly everyone nowadays—the perfect light, the perfect postures, the balance, the sheer thoughtfulness of both the composition and the subject matter. And the Institute has assembled a bunch of astronomical books, maps and globes in a room on the third floor to enhance our appreciation of the painting. This work alone is worth the price of admission.

The surprise of the show, for me, was a painting called “Portrait of a Woman Holding a Book” by Guillaume Voiriot, an artist I’d never heard of. The portrait is a straightforward society affair, with little of the depth or nuance we find in Vermeer’s study, but Voiriot has captured the character of the subject faithfully—her flesh, her beauty, her insecurity. There is nothing coy or vain about the woman, and as we look at the painting, we feel we are getting to know her.

Voiriot is one of those middling painters who have never made much of a splash in the history books. He became an associate member of the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1757 and two years later was elected to full membership, which gained him the right to participate in the biennial Salons. By 1785 he had achieved the rank of 'conseiller' in the Royal Academy. At any rate, that’s what the internet experts tell us.I could not find a digital image of the painting on line. If I had, I’d paste it here. I guess you’ll just have to go see it for yourself.

If you do, you'll also see a number of other curiosities, including some Sumerian seals the size of a candy bar and a statue of a woman dating to 640 B.C.E. that served for many years as a doorstop in the small town of Auxerre. Is it great art? Is it a masterpiece? Perhaps not. But it certainly is different.

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