WickedEye's Quotient

9/14/2007 at 11:38

Travels of an Average-Looking American, Missive 5: Self-Discovery a la Museé, or, Art and Opinion in European Museums

Alte Pinakothek
1) I don’t like Rubens. Not only do I find his nudes unappealing- no muscle or tone, and flat, doughy faces- his scenes and compositions look cluttered, undertinted, and boring to me. (Do NOT say this out loud in Germany. You’ll get nasty looks and museum guards will become belligerent. Really.)

2) Albrecht Durer was a major, major, major babe. Take a look at his self-portrait; he looks like the Wild Hunter just before he sheds his cloak to cry the avaunt, or like Aragorn Elessar on the morning before he was crowned. Breathtaking. Standing in front of the portrait was an unnerving exercise in convincing myself that I couldn’t really be mesmerized by a daub of paint. (I never did succeed.)

3) Brueghel’s paintings could outsell the “Where’s Waldo” series, and for the same reason. No matter how long you stand in front of one of those small, pied canvases, you’re never going to take in everything he’s hidden- whether it’s a boy stealing apples in the background of a Nativity scene or a squirrel stealing seeds from a bird in the foreground of a winter skating scene. The feathery brushwork, the deliberately muted hues, are deceptive; the life of the paintings is in the detail which crowds towards you when you stop to observe.

4) Static figures and compositions don’t interest me. I want a sense of movement, of some form of thought or emotion, in a painting. Or in a sculpture, come to think of it.

5) All sculpture looks better when standing in an enormous 13th century medieval fortress. Not an intuitive piece of information, but you live and learn.

6) Cellini was in love with, or at least lusted after, Cosimo de’Medici. He had to be. Nobody produces a bust that looks like this without having some sexual feeling for its subject. The damned thing is hotter than a posed pinup- how in hell did he do that? It’s bronze, for crying out loud. (And considering the number of times Cellini literally got away with murder under that particular Grand Duke of Tuscany, the feeling might have been mutual.)

7) Donatello’s David is beautiful, but disturbing- this boy can’t have been more than 12, and he’s clearly sexualized (whether by the sculptor or on his own is indeterminate). His is also a more classical saint’s pose- the serenity of his face and feature, coupled with the enormous head at his feet, is slightly unnerving.

8) I actually like Alessandro Botticelli, weak-minded idiot follower of Savonarola that he was (what other denomination can be used for an artist stupid enough to burn his own paintings at the behest of that killed-too-late fanatic? –though as my colleague James observed, having Savonarola burned to death was, if poetically just, perhaps a bit excessive). I was tired of the Venus- and her pale, pastel palette- before I got there, but the wealth and complexity of allegorical imagery in Botticelli’s paintings is as involving and fascinating as his glorious, luxuriant tints. His Pallas and the Centaur in particular, with its frighteningly implacable, serenely murderous goddess, is arresting; Botticelli’s paintings- except, again, for the Venus- almost burst off the walls, pulsing with exacting detail and a pagan riot of color.

9) I could have made mad money if I’d majored in art authentication and become an expert on Domenicos Theotokopoulos. I can, apparently, spot an El Greco painting a mile and a half away. (This was a consistent theme in the Alte Pinakothek as well, but it was confirmed in the Uffizi.)

10) Similarly, I can actually tell a Perugino from a Vasari (without looking at the label). And I actually like Perugino. And no, I’m not talking about the chocolates (meh).

11) My congenital lack of a sense of direction doesn’t apply in museums. I- the woman who not five years ago got herself lost in the neighborhood in which she grew up- can, with no map and never having been there before, find my way through the most winding and labyrinthine of layouts in order to return to the precise spot of a single painting in a room containing dozens on a floor which holds hundreds.

12) I don’t like Leonardo da Vinci’s painting. (Gasp! Horror! Oh, bloody shut up.) It is the single most unimpressive oeuvre of a spectacularly talented man; static, placid, attenuated and overposed, it reeks of the late-Gothic sensibility that the artist repeatedly wrote that he deplored. I love da Vinci’s engineering, writing, and philosophy. But not his painting.

13) I have, apparently, no problem with standing in front of a painting in a major museum and laughing. As I’ve previously written, I’d discovered before I got to the Uffizi that seeing a work of art in person is very different from seeing reproductions in books; and I’ve also written that the differences in Michelangelo’s sensibilities, his portrayals of real human beings, were a shock to me. As was his Doni Tondo: a portrait of the Holy Family, in which Christ is being handed to a seated Mary, over her shoulder, by Joseph. And Christ? He’s doing what all babies do in that position, though you won’t see it until you’re close to the painting- he’s pulling Mary’s hair. (Blasphemy! Do you blame me for bursting into laughter?)

14) I have a quirk of character that forces me to go all girly over busts of my favorite Roman emperors. (This is especially true of Octavian, later called Augustus, calculating and impenetrable manipulator that he was. But it’s true for others too.) Warriors, thinkers: it doesn’t matter. I stand and stare like a starstruck fangirl.

15) Even if it’s the only thing I have that day, $6.00 for a doppio espresso macchiato is cheap to me- if it comes with a view of the Campanile ringing evensong at sunset against the soft gold of the Duomo, the rough and battlemented turret of the Palazzo Vecchio looming over the small balcony, close enough to touch in the growing dark.

Museo dell’Opera del Santa Maria Fiore
16) Michelangelo’s final Pieta SHOULD have stood on his grave, unfinished or not. The gorgeous anguish of the pose, the broken, gleaming body of Christ is beautiful in a way that surpasses ‘disturbing’ and goes straight to ‘awestruck’.

17) Donatello’s Magdalen far surpasses his David. Her suffering is palpable, a blow in the face to those expecting beauty, and her battered, pleading figure produces equal parts pity and horror- both a desire to turn away and hide from her pain and a complete inability to do so.

18) Donatello, like Titian (see below) displays a sympathy for his female subjects that, given his sex and time period, is startling. His portrayal of The Creation of Eve, the bewilderment and terror on her face, her weakness as she sags into the stiff shoulder of the god before her, clutching at a father who will not hold her back, evokes as much compassion as it does admiration.

19) The original panels from the Porta del Paradiso are worth seeing, but mainly for the understanding of what nearly 500 years of wear and weather will do even to bronze. The replicas at the Battistero are far more beautiful.

Kunsthistoriches and Museo Correr
20) Italian sculpture in the presence of other art has a strange effect on my senses. Antonio Canova’s neoclassical marbles, static and passionless as they are, bored the hell out of me all through Florence and Venice- but were suddenly so much more fascinating once I was in Vienna and by contrast with the larger, emotionally abstract statues there. Then again, it may also have been a question of scale and period- everything in Vienna, everything, is enormous, and reflects a gothic or baroque sensitivity. Canova’s sculptures are too sparely rendered to fit stylistically, but in terms of size and spirit- large, opulent, showy, but with little delicacy- they fit right in.

21) The Venetian Renaissance painters have no peer when it comes to use of color. For the few paintings that have been restored (far, far too few), the colors which push off the canvas are truer than life, so vivid that I wondered how the human eye was capable of seeing them at all, much less recreating them on canvas. But after glancing out the window of the Correr across the Adriatic on a sunny morning, those colors are less mysterious, though no less arresting.

22) I’m capable of a frightening level of avarice when it comes to books. When I see an illuminated manuscript I want it, with an instant and unreasoning passion. Not in order to say I own it: but to take it out and look at it, turn the pages, gaze at the words and images, feel the binding in my hands, as often and for as long as I want.

23) Ancient sculpture fascinates me intellectually but doesn’t involve me emotionally. Greek, Roman, Egyptian- the works produce awe at the age of the pieces, astonishment at the accomplishments of artists working under the technological constraints the ancients faced, but very little in the way of visceral response. I could gaze at them for hours, but I can’t get emotionally involved with them.

24) Titian’s reds fascinate me and always have- colors which glow off the canvas even through the centuries of accumulated grime- but his sympathy for his female subjects fascinates me even more. He shows a tenderness and understanding rare in that chauvinist time- indeed, rare anywhere- and his women are imbued with values far surpassing beauty and grace. His Lucretia and her Consort is radiant, but not because she’s lovely; her resolve and courage shine in her face. Her heroic gaze- uplifted, thoughtful, nearly joyful- make the man at her side and the blade in her hand almost irrelevant. Of all the portraits of saints and martyrs I’ve seen, Titian’s pagan queen comes closest to capturing perfectly the ideal of conscious and exalting, exulting self-sacrifice.

His Venus of Urbino was even more of a shock. Commissioned by a wealthy merchant as an “instruction” for a new bride who was a third of his age, his courtesan is provocative, yes; her beautiful body and the drape of her hands and hair are seductive. But there is challenge in her eyes; her gaze is as cool as it is hot, and the question of whether or not her lover is worthy to approach her, capable of satisfying her, gleams in her intelligent look. The artist’s sympathies lie palpably with the woman displayed for perusal, not with the observer, and his compassion is as skillfully rendered as it is astonishing.

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