Thursday, April 12, 2007

Religious Art: Once More with Feeling

Just as the poor Neanderthal deserves some paleo-historic love, even if it turned out to be an evolutionary dead end, it's good to stop and give Tintoretto--who led to no one and barely left his Venice--an artsy cheer. I was reading the latest issue (subscription required) of The Nation last night and Arthur Danto praises Tintoretto and a curent retrospective in Spain he called a "beautiful and unforgettable show, and a reason to visit Madrid this spring, in case you needed a reason." I've never been to Madrid, but his encomium made me want to book a flight pronto.

Then again, it's hard to imagine any traveling Tintoretto show topping his show-stopper "installation"--the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice. It's not necessarily the first thing people think of when they consider the city that is as wonderful and romantic as you might imagine, without any Disneyfication (knowing the city is all at best wearing away, at worst slowly sinking into the lagoons knocks flat any cheap sentiment). I mean there's St. Mark's--the square and the basillica and the dueling coffee shop orchestras and the campanile a bit askew and St. Theodore astride his crocodile (you have to know your Pound for that one)--, and the canals, and the Doge's Palace, and the Bridge of Sighs, and Harry's (most expensive cocktails I've ever had), and Murano (gee, why does every demo end with the audience in the salesroom?), and for relief from the "old stuff" there's the Guggenheim. San Rocco can seem like an afterthought's afterthought.

But to tell the truth, it was perhaps the place I found most inspiring in all of Italy (ok, we only visited Florence and Venice, but...). The danger with any such trip is at a certain point you're about ready to scream if you see one more blasted cherub. Enough with the damn religious subjects. But Tintoretto must have felt that too, and you learn very quickly why he earned the nickname "Il Furioso." I've drifted much from the church, but looking at a Tintoretto you get gobsmaked by this artist's faith--it's living, and so are his paintings. Things are seen anew, over and over; one simple example is while every other Last Supper has the table square (rectangular?) in the frame, Tintoretto runs his at a diagonal. Different just to be different? Well, yes and no--the unique perspective makes the event seem possible, animated, and Jesus and his disciples quite possibly actually people. And if we get moved to believe that, then the story gets really interesting.

Danto quotes John Ruskin's response in a letter to Ruskin's father:

I have had a draught of pictures today enough to drown me. I never was so utterly crushed to the earth before any human intellect as I was today, before Tintoret [that's the Anglicized version of his name, which is thanks to his father, a dyer or tintore: he's the little dyer]. Just be so good as to take my list of painters, & put him in the school of Art at the top, top, top of everything, with a great big black line underneath him to stop him off from everybody--and put him in the school of Intellect, next after Michael Angelo. He took it so entirely out of me today that I could do nothing at last but lie on a bench & laugh.... M Angelo himself cannot hurl figures into space as he does, nor did M Angelo ever paint space itself which would not look like a nutshell beside Tintoret's.

San Rocco's walls and ceilings attest to Tintoretto's genius--52 paintings in all, with ones you have to view in a mirror on the ceilings. That crucifixion at the top of this entry (just trying to play catch up with Good Friday, I guess) isn't just a painting, it's practically CinemaScope with dimensions of 17 1/2 feet by 40 feet. It's ten years this summer I saw these works and they still seem vivid to me. Whenever anyone wants to think art is purely an intellectual exercise, I want to ship 'em to Venice and make 'em tremble before that.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous amy said...

I think art is purely an intellectual exercise! when are you shipping me to Venice?

2:48 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

I like religious art, even though I hate religion. Maybe it's the passion and inspiration that comes out of the works. The again, maybe it's that the church was the numero uno patron, and only the very best artists got to do the top-notch church projects.

Either way, I can't get enough of the seriously liturgical art you see in Europe.

By the way, George, Madrid is great. Not the medieval city like Venice or Barcelona, but it's still fantastic . . . even though like every other city on earth, it gets a tad more homogenized with every passing year.

5:41 AM  

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