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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



One of the things that separates your true modernist from your postmodernist (at least when one is talking about contemporary artists and critics of the contemporary scene) is that true modernists go for the best art of the past as much as the best art of the present. The philosophy is that greatness doesn’t age or go out of style.

Your true postmodernist, on the other hand, is apt to dismiss any really good contemporary art that s/he doesn’t like as “old-fashioned,” and, when s/he is dealing with the art of the museums, there is an ever-so-slight hangover from the dadaists of World War I, who felt that museums were only repositories for “dead art,” the next thing to mausoleums, in fact. Any time a contemporary critic, on the NY Times or elsewhere, wants to cast aspersions on the Met, for example, s/he sneers at how it doesn't pay enough attention to contemporary art.

This contrast being duly noted, a show of peerless earlier art is as much an occasion for rejoicing by modernists as a show of peerless contemporary art, and that is why I am so happy to introduce to my readers a simply grand show of Old Masterly art at The Morgan Library and Museum. The show is “Tiepolo, Guardi, and Their World: Eighteenth Century Venetian Drawings” (through January 5).

Principally organized by William M. Griswold, the Morgan’s director, this show unites more than 100 drawings, drawn from the Morgan’s own collection. Normally, when I go to a “drawings” show, I expect to see a range of color, and a surprising amount of watercolor, gouache and so forth—in other words, to see the term “drawings” used pretty much as a synonym for “original works on paper.”

This time, however, the overwhelming proportion of the works here are indeed monochromatic drawings, whether done with charcoal or graphite or ink with brush or pen. Almost all are done on white or beige paper, while the color of the lines upon them is either black or shades of delicate brown (occasionally heightened with white chalk).

Nevertheless, the coloring of the show as a whole is very tastefully done, with the walls of the gallery painted a pale apple green, the frames of the pictures often gold, and the floor and woodwork a rich brown. Infinitely soothing.

To that eminent Victorian, John Ruskin, 18th century Venice was decadent, a maritime republic whose fleet was dwindling, along with its power. He saw it as a haunt for pleasure-loving youth no longer concerned with civic pride or duty. In the 1960s, English Tories were fond of calling his portrait of it applicable to London’s pleasure-loving (aka swinging) youth.

However, before the thousand-year-old republic finally fell victim to Napoleon Bonaparte’s imperial ambitions in 1797, and ceased to exist as an independent state, it enjoyed a rich period of cultural renascence. Wealthy local aristocrats, merchants and clergy vied with visiting gentry from across the Continent to commission and display the fruits of its gifted artists.

In this yeasty environment, Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) gave a new meaning to the word, rococo, with his airy yet steely monumental frescos and paintings of mythological and religious subjects. In this show may be seen many preliminary studies for them, as well as more finished drawings that wound up in the possession of gentlemen who collected drawings. Quite a lot of these drawings show figures flying above the viewer or floating on clouds, and the foreshortened way in which they’re captured, as though seen from below, is a perspectival tour de force.

Giambattista’s son, Domenico Tiepolo (1726?-1804), was also gifted. He differentiated himself from his renowned father not only stylistically but in his choice of subjects. Not only did he chronicle scenes from daily life in a manner that bordered upon satire, but he also executed a series of slightly bizarre scenes featuring Punchinello, the commedia del’arte character.

Another Venetian artist, senior to Giambattista Tiepolo, was Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (1682-1754). He was an influence on Giambattista, and to this show contributes a notable “Portrait of a Girl with a Pear,” showing a young woman in black chalk heightened with white chalk on now faded blue paper (along with other works).

Better known for his etchings of Roman and fictitious “prisons,” Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) was actually a native of Venice; among his works on view here is a large sketch of a gondola, that quintessentially Venetian vessel.

My favorite Venetian artists from this period, however, are the vedutisti, or view painters. They depicted the streets, canals and buildings of the city, largely (though hardly exclusively) for visitors—not least those aristocratic young Englishmen making the Grand Tour of Europe with their tutors to complete their classical educations.

Although the genre of the vedute seems to have originated in Northern Europe, the Venetians made it their own, with its two outstanding practitioners, Francesco Guardi (1712-1793) and Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto (1697-1768).

My preference as a rule is for Canaletto, with his serenity and his almost Augustan dignity; Guardi is the more loquacious, employing a lighter, more feathery touch. But in this show, Guardi is not only represented by more work, but also by what for me is the best picture in it, “’The Bucintoro off San Niccolò al Lido.”

The large panorama depicts an annual rite of the Republic of Venice, when its doge (or ruler) rode a state barge called the “Bucintoro” on Ascension Day, to the lagoon in order to cast a ring in it, symbolizing the marriage of Venice to the Adriatic. With its accompanying flotilla of many littler boats and/or ships, the vista created is of a huge, airy, floating world, suffused in the magic of space and the sea.

Also characterized by its floating, flying trees is Guardi’s “View of Levico in the Valsugana,” where a high wind is obviously blowing. Yet the irony is that while Guardi’s style appears to be more fanciful, to judge from this show, he was the literalist in the crowd, depicting only what he could see.

Meanwhile, Canaletto, with his sedate and seemingly literal style, took liberties with the facts. This can be seen in his “Architectural Capriccio.” Although it appears to be a faithful portrait of a segment of the Venetian skyline, you can’t see this combination of buildings anywhere in Venice, and you couldn’t even in Canaletto’s day.

It’s all spelled out in the label: “The church and adjacent houses on the right are real and survive to this day. The church is San Lorenzo, seen from the Fondamenta di Santa Giustina, looking along Rio di Santa Giustina toward Rio della Pietà. The bell tower resembles those of San Lorenzo and San Moisè, but no tower stood where it does in the drawing, and the bridge and picturesque cluster of buildings on the left are products of the artist’s imagination.” What fun!

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