Run, don’t walk, to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for this exhibition.
It’s been on view since March 15, and it ends quite soon — August 16.
My wife, an artist, has been five times since the opening, but she only got around to taking me on one of our rare and wonderful date nights this last Thursday.
I’m going back this week, and probably at least once, maybe more, after that. The show is that good. If you live in/around Boston you have no excuse. If you don’t, seriously think about making a trip for this one. I’ve been going to this sort of mega-exhibitions since 1972 (that I can recall). That one was the legendary Treasures of Tutankhamen exhibition in London, often referrred to as the first of the blockbusters, and ever since I’ve toured my share of “must see” aggregations of theme/artist/commercially sexy gatherings of works from all over.
This one is different from almost all of the rest: it’s smart, it’s intellectually as rich as it is aesthetically, and while big, it is not so overstuffed with work as to defeat the whole idea of a synoptic exhibition in the first place. You can take it in through a single visit — though without doubt it rewards returns.
The basic idea is so obvious you wonder why this hasn’t been done before. Titian, the oldest of the three artists exhibited, and his younger rivals, dominated Venetian painting in their time. Titian was the master, at least IMHO, and after the exhibition I almost pitied the other two for having been such great artists and yet always forced to contend with such an extraordinary senior rival.
The only other artist with a work in the show is Bellini, Titian’s own teacher, and, his one (or maybe two — I’m trying to recall) works are there to illustrate the technical and aesthetic revolution achieved by the three central actors here.
(The technical issue, by the way, comes through the transition from painting on panel (or fresco) to canvas, and from tempera to oil, a move that gave Bellini’s successors a much larger range of textural control than was previously possible, among other things. You see the results of that shift throughout the show.)
There is a lot that could/has been said about this exhibition, and I’m not one for much artspeak so I won’t blather much here, except to say that the work itself is as beautiful, demanding, occasionally terrifying, and exciting as you could hope — but what makes this a successful exhibition, rather than just a collection of great pictures, is the way the three artists speak to each other and speak of their time and place. The Venice theme of the show is not just a conceit. These works do provide a window into that distant country, the past, in great detail. You get a sense of the place and the time in both the documentary paintings (portraits, for example) and the mythical or religious ones.
And it captures something more. What got me by show’s end was the sense of human experience, of emotion, loss, dread, love, lust (it’s a very sexy show, by the way) as felt by individual, breathing, living people.
One of nice tricks of the show comes with the juxtaposition of works by each of the three artists on the same subject: there is a “Supper at Emmaeus” troika, and an extremely powerful “St. Jerome” trifecta as well.
These men are competitive, ambitious, enormously emotionally charged, commercial, young, then old…all the stuff of life, captured in truly great art.
As I say, run, don’t walk.
(Also, I suppose I don’t need to say, but this exhibition is yet one more reminder why the real world still matters. The physical qualities of these painting, the textures of the canvas, the flickering back and forth between perceptions of strokes of paint and whole images, the juxtaposition of the work, the frames, all of it, just don’t happen in the metaverse. I’ve just entered Second Life — I’m giving a talk at Nature‘s Elucian Island on Tuesday; proper notice will follow, but y’all come) and one of the first places I visited was a Stanford exhibition of Japanese art. Great stuff, work I hadn’t seen before, but the experience was purely that of gathering information, of registering what these pieces contained as a reference for any encounter with the real stuff. Or just look above, and you see pallid simulacra of work that in the flesh can make you cry. This is hardly a revelation, I know, but I spend most of my waking hours surgically attached to a 15 inch screen. It is good to be forced to look up and out.)
Images: Titian, Venus and Adonis, 1553
Titian, Portrait of Ranuccio Farnese, 1542.
Tintoretto, Baptism of Christ, after 1550.
Titian, Danae, 1564
Veronese, Christ at Emmaus, mid 16th century