Saturday, July 18, 2009

"Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Titian’s Venus with a Mirror, c.1555 (Click on an image to enlarge it.)
Veronese's Venus with a Mirror, Mid-1580's
This is one of the best exhibitions of the year, and is well worth a trip to Boston. There aren’t many great large Titians in this country, and one of them is in Boston anyway -- The Rape of Europa at the Gardener Museum, just a few blocks from the MFA. Getting to see 19 major Titians, and seeing them in the context of the two other great Venetian painters, Veronese and Tintoretto, is an experience you won’t want to forgo.

It’s a huge show, 57 paintings all together, 14 brought over from Italy. You probably don’t have to buy tickets in advance anymore (I walked right in), but you should hurry -- the show closes August 16th.

Seen by themselves Tintoretto and Veronese blow me away. I am dazzled by the bravura of their brushwork, especially Tintoretto’s, and the ambitiousness and complexity of their compositions. Then there is Titian -- the true master. He does all that with apparent effortlessness, a virtuosity that never intrudes on his subject. Tintoretto and Veronese, on the other hand, have a self-conscious affectedness, a desire to please and sometimes show off, to the detriment of their subject.

This can be seen in a comparison of two paintings in the exhibition: Titian’s and Veroneses's Venus with a Mirror. Veronese’s Venus is a staged pose, an impossible Exorcist-like turn of the head, whereas Titian’s Venus is serene and naturalistic, if idealized. Veronese’s Venus overtly looks at the viewer in the mirror whereas Titian is more subtle about it, as is his Venus’s reaction to the intrusion of someone entering the room (Titian? The viewer?). One gets the feeling Veronese is more interested in the play of undulating lines and the sensual textures of the drapery than capturing the erotic and tender moment. (Titian cared so much for this painting that it stayed in his studio until his death -- I’m not surprised.)

And speaking of erotic, Titian’s Danae, c.1544-46, has to be one of the greatest paintings ever made in that respect. It depicts the moment in the Greek myth when Zeus came to Danae in the form of golden rain, and impregnated her. Titian brilliantly captures Danae’s awe and receptivity to what’s happening to her. (It would be interesting to compare the way this subject is handled to depictions of the Visitation -- the Virgin Mary would never be allowed to relax and enjoy it.)
Throughout the exhibition I was aware of the relationship of the viewer (me) to the painting, or more precisely, to the subjects in the painting. In the case of Titian’s Danae I am a witness, a pure voyeur, not in any way involved. With the paintings Venus with a Mirror I’m caught in the act of seeing and have had an impact on the subject in a way reminiscent of Edouard Manet’s, Bar at the Follies Bergere. And the staged quality of Veronese and Tintoretto’s art in itself implies an audience. I think this is something these painters were consciously aware of and played with.
A particularly striking example of this is Tintoretto’s Susanna and the Elders, c.1555-56. The story is from the Book of Daniel and is about two lecherous old men who secretly watch Susanna as she bathes. The creeps threaten to blackmail her unless she has sex with them. She refuses and Daniel comes to the rescue proving they lied about her. The interesting thing about this painting is the old men aren’t looking at her. She’s looking at herself in the mirror, and we are looking at her. Is Tintoretto making a statement about our (the viewer’s) prurient interest? Or am I projecting?

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