Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is exhibiting "Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice." Although the show closes August 16, I was eager to see at as soon as possible. I am most acquainted with the Titian and Veronese paintings on permanent display the Met in New York. I've always guessed the Veronese works there as damaged by fading color. My mind's eye holds Veronese as a master of color and this was upheld by the beautifully preserved and restored paintings at the MFA. Tintoretto was the relative unknown to me as I've always been a bit shy of reproductions that lead me to connect him with an overwhelming amount of visual information and an overt display of perspectival acrobatics.

As usual, a show offer this a chance to change perceptions and witness work that would otherwise stay in Venice, or that long been separated from its native context. On example is a very sweet double family portrait by Veronese that is normal split between two distant museum connections. Past the introductory salon, the exhibition illustrates the rivalry of the three masters in separate galleries organized into galleries of sacred themes, female nudes, portraiture, and each artist's last work. Evidence of technical innovation, or theft, are shown by juxtaposition. About in the middle, a curiosity piece from Tintoretto is featured in its own corridor. A literal Frankenstein's monster, the painting is a sewn together mishmash of bits reworked by different artists and the curators invite the audience to participate in how this puzzle is put together in an interactive display. It is mentioned that much of the Ventian style was never intended to be seen so close, certainly not at the nose to canvas distance I prefer, as broken brushwork and Veronese's optical color mixtures really only come together at a distance. In this sense, each painting at the show offers the viewer to play scholar or archivist and see how the paintings are constructed.

As expected, I did make some personal discoveries. Tintoretto work really only makes sense in person. At a reduced scale, his work rivals the intensity of some contemporary graphic novels, a dense overload for the information age. When the figures are larger than life, they provide a restful axis for all the activity and multiple layers of depth in the painting. David Hockney posits in Hockney on Art that Northern Renaissance painting encourages a longer read of a painting across multiple levels of space like his photo collages, while later Baroque painting strove to create a single, frozen moment like modern-day snapshots. Tintoretto's Tarquin and Lucretia would seemingly prove this point, as a broken string of pearls is frozen in midair. However at the roughly 70x60 inch scale, the eye is drawn to one pearl and then the other, following them to the floor where you can all but hear them dropping. Like Northern Ren. paintings, there is simple too much high-focus detail going on in so many areas of the painting to absorb at once, encouraging the viewer to sit back and soak it in slowly like a suspense film. Of the three, Tintoretto seems be the most visually innovative in large scenes. His Susannah and the Elders is downright weird and utterly fantastic. Less interesting observations include Titian use of dark red undertones to flesh, with only yellow and white making up the flesh. I could not see any cool tones in his nudes, something I never noticed and markedly different from my own use of color.

In summary, if you can make it to Boston this summer, see the show. The show only enhanced my regret that I squandered too much of my one day in Venice roaming the 1995 Biennale. If you make it to Venice, I suggest you first admire the city and the sea, then see every Ventian painting you can. The MFA show is actually showing the tiny, portable, stuff by comparison.

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