Sunday, March 27, 2011

Quick Winter Getaway: Venice

Stepping into the exhibit of Venetian masters at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts I felt like I was back in Europe again, where the museums are chock-full of glowing canvases. And who better than the Venetian painters of the Renaissance to help us forget the extremities of the season for an hour or two.

There may be no more than two dozen paintings in the show, augmented by a few drawings, etchings, and period maps, but that’s just about right when nearly all of them are masterpieces of one kind or another. The “progress” of Venetian painting from the dignified if somewhat stiff works of the Bellini brothers to the fluid realism of Titian’s early maturity, and on to the robust group scenes of Veronese and the often shallow hyper-dynamic distortions of Tintoretto, may be taken as a model of how a school of art can “develop” while leaving some of its best qualities behind in the process.

I love the early stuff. In fact, I have a (smallish) reproduction of Giovanni Bellini’s “Madonna with Trees” (1487) hanging on the wall right here in the house. Lorenzo Lottos’s “Madonna and Child with Saints,” (1505) which hangs in the current show (see above) is an outstanding example of the genre. The faces have both beauty and gravity, the colors glisten, and the two guys in the background chopping down trees are an added bonus.

Hanging kitty-corner to the left of the Lotto Madonna is Titian’s “The Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist and an Unidentified Saint,” c. 1515–20. It’s no less compelling, but much more active and also more realistically modeled. The Madonna’s sleeve is so elaborate it almost looks ridiculous. Though hardly 2 x 3 feet in size, it’s a visual feast, sending the eye back and forth across the canvas in an unceasing motion. Our attention is drawn this was and that by the pattern of limbs and glances, the arrangement of forms, the depth of field. The red and blue are drawn from that standard palette of the time that may strike us as a bit generic, but the individuals represented have moved beyond the vaguely hieratic sobriety of that earlier period, so that however standard the themes and poses may be, they appear to us as thinking, feeling people occupying a landscape.

Jacopo Bassano’s “Adoration of the Magi” (ca. 1540) dominates the second room of the show. It’s twelve feel tall and full of life and color. The draftsmanship is impeccable, as far as I can see, excepting the contorted rendering of the architectural ruins required to properly separate the Holy Family from the newly-arrived kings and the curiosity-seekers beyond. Across the way, Veronese’s “Mars, Venus and Cupid” (ca 1580) attracts us…but doesn’t really hold us.

Titian’s nearby “Venus Rising from the Sea,” (1520) which was used as the promo image for the Minneapolis show, once again mesmerizes us, though not at first glance. The “beauty” is a little homely and the flesh is over-ripe, but the figure has an inner glow that reminds us how much depth can be brought to a “simple” rendering by the use of delicate glazes and a perfect sense of proportion. Even the greens in the misty sea roundabout are magnificent.

The two “Diana” painting that have received the most press, and were considered among Titian’s supreme masterpieces in his own life, are well worth a look, but few will walk away from the show, I think, hold them as favorites. The balance and motion are complex, and no part of the canvas fails to interest us, but the flesh reminds me of spaghetti that’s been too long in the soup. And let’s face it, it’s almost impossible to render a moment of surprise in a static work of art.

On the other hand, although Titian is working here on the highest level of “official” government art, the work remains solidly rendered and humanly expressive. He has not succumbed to the garish lighting and slapdash techniques of his younger contemporary Tintoretto, who also painted his share of masterpieces along the way, I guess--though they fall into that dreadful "Mannerist" category and are not represented in this show.

We walked out into the bright light of a late-winter Minneapolis morning, almost shocked at being reminded how expressive painting can be. Titian's painting doesn't tell us about Titian, so much as it re-acquaints us with the human spirit, exploring sensuality and eroticism but moving beyond them to a more subtle realm...

Hardly knowing what to do with ourselves, we had lunch at the sunny restaurant Blackbird at 38th and Nicollet(recommended). Then we rode the elevator to the top of the Foshay Tower downtown for a look out over the city. It ain’t Venice, and it ain’t New York. Breezy. No peregrines in sight. But it’s beautiful, and it’s fun.

Gee, you can see all the way to St. Paul!

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