By Carter B. Horsley
Giambattista Tiepolo is the most ascendant
Old Master painter, literally.
His ceiling frescos, and in particular his
masterpiece, "The Four Continents" over the staircase
at the Residence in Würzburg, commissioned by prince-bishop
Carl Philipp von Greiffenclau, are the most glorious manifestation
of heavenly levitation in Western art.
His magical compositions for often very complex
architectural forms are mind-boggling, a vertiginous imposition
of dizzying virtuosity with multiple perspectives.
A theatric, Tiepolo (1696-1770), as one might
say, was over the top.
The large and impressive show on him at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art is almost overwhelming, but it doesn't
quite capture his majestic artistry. That is not a valid criticism,
of course, since it would mean moving a few major churches, residences
and palaces from Europe and rebuilding much of the Metropolitan.
What is on view, however, is a mixed bag of
bad paintings, small jewels, a few surprises, and a few masterpieces.
Fortunately, the large and not inexpensive catalogue ($45 paperback)
reproduces many of the more spectacular unmovable masterpieces
and its essays give appropriate and enthusiastic perspective on
his oeuvre. To the museum's great credit, its bookstore also carries
another paperback that only sells for $27.50 that reproduces even
more of the unmovables and is a wonderful, and necessary, complement
to its own catalogue.
The museum also deserves great credit for its
policy of placing large reading rooms in the center of its "blockbuster"
exhibitions, such as this, with many copies of the hardcover exhibition
catalogues. This practice is very, very helpful as it permits
leisurely perusal of the catalogues in a nice surrounding while
the originals are still fresh in the memory and reapproachable.
It is especially nice for those museum visitors whose budget barely
covers the "suggested" admission fees to the museum.
It still is not the equal of Washington's National Gallery of
Art's practice of providing free sheets of information on each
painting in each gallery, but it is equally laudable.
The catalogue argues, reasonably, that Tiepolo
was the greatest painter of 18th Century Venice and he laid claim
to being the last great master of the Renaissance legacy of "the
sublime union of real architectural space and the space of pictorial
fiction," according to Keith Christiansen, Jayne Wrightsman
curator of the Metropolitan's Department of European Paintings.
Some art critics have lamented the academic
stretches of some curators and art historians who sometimes seem
desperate to find contemporary relevance, or just plain old controversy,
in their ruminations over older art. Hilton Kramer of The New
York Observer, for example, was not particularly impressed with
this show and probably would have gagged somewhat over the following
catalogue remarks by Christiansen:
"There is something of De Chirico in the
way Tiepolo generates a feeling of malaise and enigma with his
arbitrary combinations of costume and juxtapositions of seemingly
disconnected elements in a composition. And there is something
of Matisse in his serious pursuit of the pleasurable. A willful
ambivalence characterizes much of his work."
Ambivalence is hardly the word for Tiepolo.
He was a pyrotechnical genius of perspective with a facile painterliness
and fertile imagination.
there is no doubt that his costumes,
reinventions of cinquecento and Oriental models that always feature
some touch of eccentricity - those brocades, those cascades of
silk and satin draped over lovely limbs and billowing in midair
and in light - are a fundamental ingredient of Tiepolo's spectacle
and part of his charm (they conform, moreover, to a manner peculiar
to the Venetian school, with precedents in Carpaccio and Veronese),"
observes Adriano Mariuz in his catalogue essay.
Spectacle, charm, yes, but also color and composition
and drama. After Rubens, Tiepolo is perhaps the most successful
old master at combining these elements with vivacity and elan.
These two masters are virtuoso lovers of the feminine form, yet
their ideal beauties are very different: Rubens's heroines are
robust, voluptuous, alluring; Tiepolo's are taciturn and rather
sullen and uncommitted.
Indeed, Mariuz notes that despite Tiepolo's
sensual enchantment "one cannot help but notice that smiles
are almost entirely absent from this apparently festive universe,
whereas there is often a flicker of irony and at times even a
hint of mockery and the grotesque."
Tiepolo is more about posturing than subtle
characterization and one senses that he is a bit bored with such
niceties and eager to move on, yet his style does not have the
dash, verve and energy of a Magnasco, or Guardi, or Monticelli,
or Goya. Despite his bravura displays, there is a static, frozen
quality to many of his painted works. In vivid contrast, his drawings
and watercolors are the exact opposite and supremely fleet and
adept. Sadly, not enough are included in this show.
Some of the most fascinating works on display,
however, are his oil studies for some of his major works, several
of which are included. One is tempted to rate them higher than
the finished compositions, with the exception, of course, of the
major ceiling frescos, which must rate with the incomparable creations
of all time.
Among the major works not included in the New
York show, in addition, of course to "The Four Continents,"
are "The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew" at S. State,
Venice, "The Apotheosis of Saint Catherine" at S. Maria
di Nazareth (the Scalzi), Venice, "Saint Dominic in Glory"
at the Accademia in Venice, "Madonna of Mount Carmel"
at the Brera in Milan, "The Triumph of Eloquence" at
the Palazzo Sandi in Venice, all, thankfully, illustrated in the
The best small paintings in the show that any
connoisseur would love to possess are "Appeles Painting Campaspe,"
a relatively small painting from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts,
"Danaë and Jupiter" from Stockholm University,
"The Agony in the Garden" from the Kunsthalle in Hamburg,
"Venus and Vulcan" from the John G. Johnson Collection
at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and "The Immaculate Conception"
from the Courtauld Institute Galleries in London, "The Madonna
of the Rosary" from a private collection, and "The Annunciation"
from Duquesa de Villahermosa in Pedrola.
The best large paintings in the show that any
museum would covet are "The Triumph of Zephyr and Flora,"
a huge elliptical painting from the Ca' Rezzonico in Venice whose
dragonfly wings startle with their luminosity, the Tasso cycle
from the Art Institute in Chicago, "Time Uncovering Truth"
from the Museo Civico in Vicenza, the Metropolitan's own "The
Glorification of the Barbaro Family" from the set of decorations
for Ca'Barbaro in Venice, "Saint James of Compostella"
from the Szépmüvészeti Museum in Budapest,
and, best of all, "Neptune Offering Gifts to Venice"
from the Ducal Palace in Venice.
The latter is atypical of the signature Tiepolo
style and highly evocative of Veronese. It's just a smashing knock-out
of a regal lady reclining on a lion and accepting trinkets from
a fit, older man in an elongated composition of intense color.
(Sadly, the catalog spreads this reproduction over two pages,
a practice that should never be allowed by publishers. Sometimes,
smaller is more manageable.)
There are a surprising number of paintings
included in the exhibition that are puzzling, to say the least,
and that many connoisseurs would most likely shy away from, or
demur about questionable quality: the portraits of Giovanni Corner
II and Marca Corner from a private collection; "Hercules
and Antaeus" and "Apollo and Marsyas," decorations
for the Palazzo Sandi from a private collection in Vicenza; and
"The Betrothal of Alexander and Roxanne or Latino Offering
His Daughter Lavinia to Aeneas in Matrimony" from the Statens
Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, part of the decorations for Ca'Barbaro
Inconsistency and diversity, of course, are
not alien to artists and it is always refreshing to not always
concentrate on the formulaic.
Tiepolo at his best conveys a grandeur that
is ennobling and awesome and there is enough here to inspire.