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  • Writer's pictureScott M Williamson

The “three-way game” of Art

Updated: Feb 23, 2020

"Great art has dreadful manners." So begins Simon Schama's Art (Vintage). "The hushed reverence of the gallery can fool you... Merciless and wily, the greatest paintings grab you in a headlock, rough up your composure and then proceed in short order to rearrange your sense of reality." Indeed.

(The images below were taken on my "retro" iPhone SE during a too-brief tour of the European Galleries at the Romanian National Museum in Bucharest, while in the capital for Fulbright activities with my awesome colleagues this week).

(Giordano: Hercules Fighting the Centaur Nessus)

Under the difficult-to-ignore influence of Caravaggio, that master of chiaroscuro (lit. "light-dark"), Giordano's dramatic canvas grips the viewer as tightly as the demigod grasps his expression-obscuring club. And as Schama observes about Caravaggio, these genre paintings depicting action-in-progress are even more effective for leaving the viewer to imagine the eminent outcome.

Seeing Hercules about to bludgeon Nessus makes us even more grateful that Firenze was able to best Umbridge in HP5 (= Harry Potter: Order of the Phoenix, which was playing in our Bucharest hotel TVs this week).

Art "is a three-way game" for a trio of players: the painter, the models-as-subjects, and us, the viewer-as-participant.

(Padovanino: Susanna and the Elders)

(Assignment: Discuss various depictions of "Susanna and the Elders" across periods and media, and among other relevancies, connect to the #MeToo movement).

For today, imagine the conversation between the animated Cupid and the assaulted heroine. What might they be saying to each other in Padovanino's twist on this oft-depicted genre painting? The "three-way" dialogue in counterpoint: 16th c. painting developing parallel to music's increasing richness of texture with more voices in play, questioning and answering, overlapping, intertwining and enriching the harmonic palette...

(Tintoretto: The Annunciation)

I can't believe this painting is consigned to a dim corner. Here's a casual Haiku for that Venetian master of self-agency:

TINTORETTO y'all / Signature halos, heady / stuff. Wait, there's a cat?

And that is one way to interpret this masterpiece of the Italian high Renaissance.

"The power of art is the power of unsettling surprise," Schama trenchantly observes. The surprises in Vasari's "Holy Family" are focused on the exaggerated ("mannerist") features of the profiled elder kneeling before Mary. Schama's work as an art historian is among the most engaging recent entries in a tradition which can be traced back to Vasari (1511-1574), known more today for his prototypical art criticism than the Italian Mannerist painting style he exemplified.

(Vasari: The Holy Family)

"Even when it seems imitative, art doesn't so much duplicate the familiarity of the seen world as replace it with a reality all of its own," Schama continues. "Its mission, beyond the delivery of beauty is the disruption of the banal." I find nothing banal in Bronzino's striking version of an oft-copied Michelangelo canvas (below). Great painting "generates an alternative kind of vision: a dramatised kind of seeing... It's as though our sensory equipment has been reset," he concludes.

This "alternate reality" hangs Cupid's bow on a theatrical "art box" crowned with a palette, featuring a miniature "Wizard of Oz" puppeteer behind the "masked" curtains. (Notice the "devilish" smile of the goat-bearded mask in the foreground). Venus's right index finger is pointing, not unlike Michelangelo's most famous painting, that of God and Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

(But wait, is she pointing towards the illusory masks of the theatre, or is she in the middle of grabbing one of her son's arrows, her fingers separated by the intervening object while Love's sharp-angled leg parts those of his mother, as the two engage in an apparently incestuous kiss...)

(Bronzino: Venus and Cupid)

(Amigoni: Portrait of Carlo Broschi, called Farinelli)

Had there been helpful curatorial notes accompanying any of the works on display, viewers could learn more about this portrait's subject, Carlo Broschi, AKA: Farinelli. Il primo divo was the most celebrated castrato in Europe, if not ever, and one of G. F. Handel's favourite singers (and, for inquiring minds, Farinelli is the title subject of a juicy 1994 cinematic costume drama inventive enough to ruffle the feathers of purists on both sides of the Atlantic. Harrumph...)

(Rubens: Giovanna Spinola Pavese)

Speaking of ruffles, a side gallery upstairs houses the collection's most impressive portrait (above).

It's one of two exceptional Rubens (the second is below and depicts the scene where Hercules wins the Lion fur hat which crowns him in the Giordano painting at the top of this post).

(Rubens: Hercules and the Nemean Lion)

While I am sad to miss my home schul's Purim spiel this year, I was glad to spend a few minutes in Rembrandt's shadow. You can be sure this Haman ain't singing any Motown to save his hateful anti-Semitic soul.

(Though an uncomfortable number of European artists have not been able to separate faith-based racism from their world-views, Rembrandt seems not to have been among them. Thank you to all the "philo-Semites" and non-Haters out there).

(Rembrandt & his studio: Haman before Esther)

Speaking of faith and art, what are we to make of Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better known as "El Greco" (below)? Holy curves, Batman! Do our costumes make our legs look that good? Seriously, how can you not stare?

To circle back to where we started with Simon Schama, "isn't there something unsettling" going on here? "You can't help but go on staring, feeling accosted, implicated," and "uh-oh, something starts to happen, and not just in your eyeballs." Obviously, he's talking about the stirring of the soul which happens when looking at a (#thicc) Titian nude, or such rapt devotional scenes as El Greco's.

(El Greco: The Martyrdom of Maurice)

These paintings are just a few of what Schama calls "contact paintings," whose subjects, actions and events "burst right through the canvas, obliterating the protective threshold of distance," behind which it's too easy to hide. Easy because familiar, safe, even when uncomfortable. But art beckons us to come out and see, to experience via the imagination. To open all the senses, to identify with strangers and others, victims and assailants.

In so doing, we may more fully experience meaning and understand the passions, subjects, and histories which connect us as humans. Paradoxically, by engaging directly and intentionally with such an "unreal" medium we may better know ourselves and our world.

And if you get tired of thinking or feeling, you can always take an arty selfie and create your own counterpoint (with a Rodin sculpture or whatever tickles your fancy). Art's rules, such as they remain, are meant to be adapted, bent, broken and put to new use...

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