Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Two Favorites

If I had to single out two paintings to save from destruction at London's National Gallery, I suppose I would say Tiepolo's Allegory of Venus and Time, and Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus.  I won't for a moment pretend that they are "the best" in this collection or any other; they are just the two I want to sit and stare at, or to go back to time after time.

Superficially, they're not at all alike, although there are more similarities than you might notice at first glance.  They're both Italian, for one thing, and within a century of each other.  They both take conventional, often stylized, themes and give them a startling immediacy. 

Tiepolo did his best and most characteristic work in fresco on ceilings--he seems to have spent most of his life thirty feet off the floor.  Venus is not a frescoed ceiling, but it is more like a Tiepolo ceiling than any non-ceiling I know.  You get the startling blue sky, almost infinite in expanse.  You get the figures that seem to float--really, genuinely float--in space (can any other painter achieve that effect, ever?).  And you get the subtly arresting female face--yes, face--that seems to harbor agency and an independent sensibility amid all the apparent grandeur.  I wonder, do people understand how good Tiepolo is with women--how often they seem to be, if not entirely modern, still an advance in individuality over almost everything that his gone before.

The Venus is wonderfully set off by several other Tiepolos, and by items from Giovanni Battista's son Gian Domenico Tiepolo--perhaps not as grand as his father, but a daring and original painter in his own right.  Some have said that Papa Tiepolo is a looser, more relaxed advance on Veronese; if so maybe the son is a comparably looser, more relaxed advance on the father.

The Caravaggio, however different in detail, offers the same startling immediacy at the center--Jesus looking is human and indeed ordinary as any Jesus you've ever seen (how often in life do we meet The Great Man and find that he looks pretty much like anyone else?).  He is flanked by three of those figures who seem to have come right off the Roman street-perhaps because they did come right off the human street, to help Caravaggio establish the human particularity of the moment.

The guidebooks say that the Supper is a transitional item, on the cusp between the early Caravaggios like the androgynous Boy with the Lizard just beside the Supper--a group which, as a whole, I've always found discomfiting--and the later Caravaggio, all "religious" but religious in a manner achieved by nobody before or since.

Those are my keepers, and I'm not at all sure which, if any, I would assign to third place (well, the Rokeby Venus certainly deserves a thought).  For a moment I was going to say I wanted to take them home with me, but no; I think they are well suited to their environment, and I'd rather leave them there to share with the rest of you.  I'm just happy to entertain the thought that I might get to come back and see them again and again.

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