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Anyone For Venice?


Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting
National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., June 18–Sept. 17, 2006
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, October 17, 2006–January 7, 2007
By Joseph Phelan
 
 
                    


Giorgione: Three Philosophers Anyone for Venice this summer? Don't have time to stay for a whole week, or even a long weekend? Don't want to do it all anyway? Only into paintings? Just the high points? What would you say to a morning or afternoon in the company of some of the best work?

That's the idea behind Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting, the smart new blockbuster exhibit at Washington's National Gallery. It assembles a few, well really sixty, luminous works from the early decades of the 16th century, when Venetian painters developed the ability to render the wonderful textures of flesh and fabric, to capture the magical effects of light and atmosphere over the landscape, and to create the luminous colors of human life which would forever be associated with Venice's contribution to the history of art.

This is a new kind of blockbuster, without the kind of "backbreaking" coverage that exhausts the viewer's enthusiasm or patience before he or she is half-finished. The show consists entirely of paintings, providing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see displayed in one place some of the most resonant masterpieces of Western art -- such as Titian's Pastoral Concert, Noli Me Tangere and The Man With the Glove, Giorgione's Laura and Three Philosophers, and Bellini's Virgin with the Blessing Child.

The early years of the 16th century were a grave and fateful period for the Venetian empire as it battled the Ottoman Turks for supremacy of the Mediterranean, suffered repeated outbreaks of the plague, and fought a disastrous war with the Holy Roman Emperor and the Papacy for dominance in the Italian peninsula. Despite their loss of important trading posts and the checking of their ambitions on the mainland, the city's great wealth, public spirited citizens, and republican constitution allowed it to rebound.

During these troubled times, the demand for large altarpieces and small devotional paintings was so strong that the old master Giovanni Bellini, who was considered even by foreigners such as the German Albrecht Dürer to be the best of the Venetian painters, kept a workshop which served as the training ground for a number of major painters: Sebastiano del Piombo, Palma Vecchio, Lorenzo Lotto, the mysterious Giorgione and the greatest Venetian painter of them all, Titian.

Not only did the fine arts flourish during this period, but artists responded in innovative ways. Bellini changed the format of his altarpieces on the theme of the Virgin and Infant from vertical to horizontal, permitting an unprecedented landscape view behind the Holy Figures. Moreover, Bellini made the landscape a full participant in the spirit of the narrative, expressive and capable of mirroring the world in subtle ways.

Curators David Allan Brown and his associates have wisely decided to focus on the intensely human side of these artists' endeavors. The old master Bellini soon found himself rivaled by the younger men Giorgione and Titian, who began to contest his title as the foremost painter of the Venetian republic.

Giorgione transformed what he learned from Bellini about using the landscape as a reflection of human feeling. In The Adoration of the Shepherds, he pushes his Holy Figures to one side, allowing his viewers unprecedented vistas of surpassing beauty. For the Venetian painters were nostalgic for the landscape of the mainland, investing it with an evocative power which was unique in the history of art.

The poetic beauty and serenity that Giorgione put into in his landscapes were further developed by Titian in his Pastoral Concert (Concert Champêtre), in which a gentleman poet and a rustic relax with two muses in a woodland setting filled with light and color. The meaning of this informal concert is by no means clear. The Venetian called such works poésies for the subtle, unspecific associations they evoked.

Another innovation, and a more daring one in the intensely religious context of the early 16th century, is the erotic nude. For it emerges from the exhibit that while few portraits of specific Venetian women survive from this era, artists introduced a new kind of imaginary poetic image of the "beautiful young woman". Giorgione's Laura or Titian's Flora embodied the erotic dreams of the Venetians, and forever after have taken their place in the Western imagination.

There is another kind of portrait that emerges during this period, through the agency of Titian. If you look at a painting like The Man with a Glove, you notice both the dreamy quality of the man's stare as well as the greater realism. He seems simultaneously both real and ideal.

One of the fruits of this show, and one of its delights, is discovering through x-ray analyses the extent to which Titian worked out his compositions directly on canvas. Especially revealing in this respect is the Noli Me Tangere. The Latin title (literally "Do not touch me") refers to Christ's first miraculous appearance after his resurrection, when he reveals himself to Mary Magdalene. As she recognizes him and reaches out saying "Master" He replies "Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father" [John 20:17]. No artist before Titian had developed the dynamic (and erotic) potential of this dramatic moment

The show is accompanied by a sumptuously illustrated exhibition catalogue that offers a full range of scholarly essays on the rise of secular subjects and the transformation of religious ones, as well as detailed entries on some of the most renowned pictures of sixteenth-century Italy, including revealing technical information. A 12-page preview of the catalogue in PDF format is available.

As usual the National Gallery's has developed a complete exhibition website, including a Flash presentation, the exhibition brochure and many other features.

During the run of the exhibit at the National Gallery, visitors will have a refreshingly exotic (at least for Washington D.C.) option. The Garden Café on the ground floor is offering a special "Summer in Venice" buffet menu, which includes Zucchini Frittata, Grilled Calamari, Arugula Salad, Grilled Polenta, and Liver Pate on Crostini, Roasted Guinea Hens and Strawberries with Mascarpone Cheese.


Artists mentioned in the text:
   Giovanni Bellini
   Giorgio da Castelfranco (Giorgione)
   Tiziano Vecellio (Titian)
   Albrecht Dürer
   Sebastiano del Piombo
   Jacopo Negretti the elder (Palma Vecchio)
   Lorenzo Lotto
 

Image credit: Three Philosophers by Giorgione, courtesy National Gallery of Art




 

Past Articles

2006
      The Legends of Leonardo, by Joseph Phelan
      Hey, "Dada"-Dude, Where's the Rest of Me?, by K. Kimberly King
      Cézanne in Provence, by Joseph Phelan
      Angels in America: Fra Angelico in New York, by Joseph Phelan

2005
      Notes on New York (NoNY), by Joseph Phelan
      The Greatest Painting in Britain
      French Drawings and Their Passionate Collectors, by Joseph Phelan
      Missing the Picture: Desperate Housewives Do Art History, by Joseph Phelan
      The Salvador Dalí Show, by Joseph Phelan

2004
      Boston Marathon, by Joseph Phelan
      Philadelphia is for Art Lovers, by Joseph Phelan
      Featured on the Web: Understanding Islamic Art and its Influence, by Joseph Phelan
      Independence Day: Sanford R. Gifford and the Hudson River School, by Joseph Phelan
      The "Look" of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, by Joseph Phelan
      The Importance of Being Odd: Nerdrum's Challenge to Modernism, by Paul A. Cantor

2003
      Advent Calendar 2003, narrated by Joseph Phelan
      If Paintings Could Talk: Paul Johnson's Art: A New History, by Joseph Phelan
      Mad Max [Max Beckmann], by Joseph Phelan
      Marsden Hartley: The Return of the Native, by Joseph Phelan
      Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sculptor of the Enlightenment, by Joseph Phelan
      Frederic Remington's Nocturnes, by Joseph Phelan
      Magnificenza! Titian and Michelangelo, Manet and Velazquez, by Joseph Phelan
      Masterful Leonardo and Graphic Dürer, by Joseph Phelan
      Favorite Online Art Museum Features, by Joseph Phelan
      Studies for Masterpieces, by John Malyon

2002
      Portrait of the Artist as a Serial Killer, by Joseph Phelan
      Renoir's Travelling, Bonnard's "At Home", by Joseph Phelan
      The Philosopher as Hero: Raphael's The School of Athens, by Joseph Phelan
      The Greatest Works of Art of Western Civilization
      Celebrating Heroes; Celebrating Benjamin West, by Joseph Phelan
      Chasing the Red Deer into the American Sublime (Education and the Art Museum, Part II), by Joseph Phelan
      Planning Your Summer Vacation, by Joseph Phelan
      Education and the Art Museum, Part I, by Joseph Phelan
      Unsung Griots of American Painting, by Joseph Phelan
      The British Museum COMPASS Project, interview by Joseph Phelan
      Robert Hughes, Time Magazine Art Critic: Biography and Writings

2001
      Software review: Le Louvre: The Virtual Visit on DVD-ROM, by Joseph Phelan
      Tragedy and Triumph at Arles: Van Gogh and Gauguin, by Joseph Phelan
      Her Last Bow: Sister Wendy in America, by Joseph Phelan
      Love, Death and Resurrection: The Paintings of Stanley Spencer, by Joseph Phelan
      Who is Rodin's Thinker?, by Joseph Phelan
      Celebrations North and South, by Joseph Phelan
      Rubens and his Age, by Joseph Phelan
      Great Reproductions of Great Paintings
      The Passion of Christ, by Joseph Phelan
      Edouard Manet: Public Spaces, Private Dreams, by Joseph Phelan
      Henry Moore and the British Museum: The Great Conversation, by Joseph Phelan

2000
      Notorious Portraits, Part II, by John Malyon
      Notorious Portraits, Part I, by John Malyon
      The Other Michelangelo, by Joseph Phelan
      The Art of Drawing, by Joseph Phelan
      Poussin and the Heroic Landscape, by Joseph Phelan
      Great Art Museums Online, by Joseph Phelan
      Venetian Painting and the Rise of Landscape, by Joseph Phelan
      Forbidden Visions: Mythology in Art, by Joseph Phelan
      Themes in Art: The Passion of Christ, by Joseph Phelan
      Web site review: Christus Rex
      Web site review: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., by Joseph Phelan
      Online exhibit review: Inuit Art: The World Around Me, by John Malyon
      Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Results)
      Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part II)

1999
      Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part I)
      Spotlight on The Louvre Museum
      Spotlight on Impressionism
      Spotlight on Optical Art
      Spotlight on Animals in Art
      Spotlight on Surrealism
      Spotlight on Sculpture
      Spotlight on Women in the Arts
      Spotlight on The Golden Age of Illustration
      Spotlight on Vincent van Gogh
      Spotlight on Great Art


 
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