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Titian and the Perils of International Exhibition

Of course museums have also been among the beneficiaries of the vast and growing exhibitions culture which have now generated a powerful momentum of their own, but the role of museums seems rather incidental to the main functioning of the process. Underpaid and overworked curators are given opportunities to make frequent, brief, but very pleasant journeys to prohibitively expensive foreign cities (such as Venice) by acting as couriers for the pictures under their care—but critics lucky enough to have articles commissioned by magazines enjoy similar advantages. Restoration departments are shamed into cleaning pictures out of fear that they would otherwise look shabby when hung next to those from other institutions—but disruption of long-established plans that had been laid in the interests of the museum as a whole is by no means always welcome or desirable.

Museum directors, compelled more and more to scrounge financial support for the institutions under their authority, are photographed giving press conferences and escorting royalty and government ministers around the exhibitions they have helped to organize—but the attention and admiration they receive from such activities merely forces them to start the whole business all over again as soon as the current show has been completed. Meanwhile publishers find rich and comparatively assured markets for the production of fully illustrated art books (described, with varying degrees of accuracy, as exhibition catalogs) which might otherwise have involved considerable financial risks: nearly 400,000 copies of the catalog of the Velázquez exhibition in Madrid have so far been sold. Art historians fly around the world to attend colloquia, congresses, round tables, and so on in the great cities of Europe and the United States. Commercial sponsors receive wide publicity of the most sympathetic and attractive kind, and in those fortunate countries where support for cultural enterprises wins, rather than loses, votes, local politicians are only too anxious to give ostentatious support to all the activities I have mentioned.

The appeal of exhibitions is real and obvious. Thanks to Bush and Gorbachev, Agnelli and Unilever, it has become possible for Malraux’s “Musée Imaginaire” to assume physical reality, as inconceivably magnificent, but almost as short-lived, as Cinderella’s truncated night at the ball. Even now it is not all that easy to travel to Leningrad: at the Venice exhibition one can see two splendid Titians from the Hermitage—indeed a glance at the art press gives one the impression that splendid pictures from the Hermitage are now to be seen in just about every city in the world except Leningrad.

Cinderella was found by her prince and lived happily ever after; but do exhibitions survive the dizzying months during which they are displayed? And does anything of lasting significance help to compensate for risks that are too painful to contemplate and for energies and financial commitments that must seem desperately misplaced to anyone who believes that it is the duty of public collections not only to make their possessions known and understood, but also to care for them with the skill and devotion that are now under increasing threat throughout the world?

It is true that moments of revelation can sometimes be transformed into values that are durable. One should perhaps mention the exhibition of Dutch art held in Paris in 1921, for the inclusion in it of Vermeer’s View of Delft inspired Proust, by now desperately ill, to visit the Jeu de Paume to see once again a picture that had first aroused his enthusiasm nearly twenty years earlier—and his visit gave rise to one of the most celebrated scenes in European literature.

More to the point in the present situation are exhibitions that have helped to change the public’s perception about certain artists or that have made accessible major pictures which cannot be otherwise seen. Many art historians would agree that among the most rewarding Old Masters shows held since the war were those organized in Bologna by the late Cesare Gnudi and devoted to the principal Bolognese painters of the seventeenth century. These had once been considered among the greatest of all artists, but their reputations had begun to suffer at the end of the eighteenth century and had been dealt a series of devastating blows by Ruskin and his followers. Beginning with an exhibition of Guido Reni in 1954—which was visited with mixed feelings by Bernard Berenson, then aged eighty-nine—and continuing in subsequent years with the Carracci, Guercino, and other painters, these bold ventures in Bologna have in retrospect been granted the status of heroic, almost superhuman, myth (as can be seen by consulting the catalogs of their more recent successors).

But this somewhat falsifies their true significance. For a revival of interest in these artists was already under way among specialist connoisseurs and scholars—their catalogs were of the highest standards—and the effect of bringing together a large number of works by them was not only to clarify problems of attribution, chronology, and so on, but also to convince a far wider public, among whom were some imaginative museum directors, trustees, and collectors, that hostility and neglect were wholly misguided. In this respect these exhibitions were entirely successful.

Poussin never suffered as much contempt as Guido Reni, but the Paris exhibition devoted to him in 1960 was the first to demonstrate the full stature of a painter who had hitherto been somewhat distantly admired rather than genuinely appreciated. And alongside such displays of major artists there has grown up, especially in Italy, a most rewarding tradition of devoting regional exhibitions to artists with local associations who are of the utmost distinction but do not enjoy the overwhelming fame so beloved of the more powerful international exhibiting bodies and their sponsors. Thus the excellent exhibition of pictures by Girolamo Savoldo which was held at his native town of Brescia earlier this year revealed the exquisite poetry so often to be found in the works of this provincial contemporary of Titian, and the sensitive choice of Italian views of Bernardo Bellotto currently to be seen at the Museo di Castelvecchio in Verona shows that he was capable of producing some of the most marvelous landscapes (as well as townscapes) of the eighteenth century.4

Mantegna hardly belongs to this category, but the exhibition devoted to him in 1961 by Mantua, the city where he spent most of his working life, deserves to be recorded here partly because tradition maintains—surprisingly but correctly, I believe—that this was the first Old Master exhibition since the war in Italy (and perhaps in Europe) to attract the enormous crowds that we have now come to take for granted, and partly because the catalog appears to be heavier than any that had been published before that date, though it is light by later standards.

Many other exhibitions besides those I have mentioned have proved to be as enlightening in the long term as they were attractive during their brief periods of existence—I am thinking, for instance, of those held in London, Paris, and elsewhere that were devoted to German and Danish painters of the early nineteenth century—because they have brought to our notice whole schools of paintings which were relatively unfamiliar or difficult of access, and in so doing they have fundamentally altered our perception of the art of the past.

On the other hand, with the exception of some works by the great portrait painters (which often still belong to the families for whom they were painted) and of a sizable proportion of the output of the Impressionists and later artists (who constitute an exception to almost everything that I have so far written) it is now more and more rare for the really major works by the really major artists not to be in the possession of public or semipublic institutions, and hence visible only on the occasion of special exhibitions, if then. One exception springs immediately to mind. Fragonard’s so-called La Fête à Saint-Cloud, which seems to me to be of a quality far superior to anything else ever painted by him, belongs to the Banque de France, where it hangs in the governor’s office. Anyone who has ever tried to infiltrate that far will agree that this can by no stretch of the imagination be described as a public or semipublic institution, and the only way that it has been possible to admire this wonderful picture, one of the great masterpieces of the eighteenth century, has been at occasional exhibitions held in London, Paris, Berlin, and New York.

For the exhibition entitled The Genius of Venice, which was held in London in 1983, the organizers managed to borrow a painting by Titian of The Flaying of Marsyas which belongs to the archbishop’s palace at Kromeriz (formerly Kremsier) in Czechoslovakia. It was perfectly easy to see it there, but Kromeriz was not then—though I suspect that it may be more so now—on the itinerary of many visitors to Central Europe, and the picture was very little known at first hand. At the Royal Academy in Burlington House its combination of refined and lingering cruelty, rapt ecstasy and brooding melancholy, rendered in the subdued colors and sketchy but fluent brushstrokes characteristic of Titian’s “late style” (or uncompleted pictures?) caused a sensation—among contemporary artists as much as among art lovers and scholars. No other work of art seemed to penetrate so deeply into the mysterious and barbarous world of early pagan myth, and yet none seemed to speak so directly to our own terrible century. If any recent exhibition is remembered in years to come, I am inclined to believe that it will be The Genius of Venice for this one picture.

The Flaying of Marsyas is currently on view in the Palazzo Ducale—rather badly shown toward the very end of the exhibition. Those who have seen it in London (or Kromeriz) will, I believe, find it as impressive as ever, but—to judge from the reactions of the public—it has not made anything like such an impact on people seeing it for the first time. No little groups stand mesmerized in front of it as they did at Burlington House, and (unless my own visits to the exhibition took place during a very uncharacteristic period) this comparative lack of response raises once again the question of how far so universal a painter as Titian evokes different responses from different people at different times.

What struck me as the most wonderful picture on view in the Palazzo Ducale—more wonderful in fact than the Marsyas—was the huge altarpiece of The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence from the church of the Gesuiti. It is, of course, well known and it has been exhibited before in recent years, but it is not easily seen where it usually hangs and the impact that it makes in the exhibition is overwhelming. The variety of its lighting effects—from the flash of lightning which breaks through the black skies, from the flaming torches of the soldiers, from the brazier below the saint’s grill—have added to its fame, or notoriety, but the effect of the painting itself (as distinct from the colored illustration in the catalog) is as far removed from an empty display of virtuosity as can be imagined, and though it is sometimes described as mannerist, it conveys a far greater sense of reality than does, for instance, Caravaggio’s fearful, but somehow contrived, Beheading of John the Baptist in Malta. In fact nowhere in art can I recall a more moving and more terrifying, but less melodramatic, depiction of the crushing of a frail body by sheer, brute force—a dark and sinister crime in which the raised hand of the saint who writhes under the torture seems to be both calling for human help which will never come and at the same time acknowledging the divine intervention symbolized by the opening of the skies. It has become a cliché (though it is an apt one) to compare Titian with Shakespeare, and this picture belongs with King Lear among the great tragic epics of the Renaissance.

Titian’s glorification of the sensuality of the human body—as opposed to his understanding of its suffering—is represented at its finest only by the great Danäe from Naples, the picture that impressed (but perhaps also disturbed) Michelangelo. But the strength of the exhibition lies above all in the religious paintings (mainly from Venice and often recently restored) and in the portraits. We are thus presented with a Titian who would have been far more familiar to most of his contemporaries than the painter of the Marsyas or of the “poesie” for Alfonso of Ferrara and Philip II.

There is a startling moment when we walk from the room containing the portrait of a member of the Mosti family and the famous Man with a Glove from the Louvre—gentle, sensitive, withdrawn—and suddenly find ourselves confronted by the (spectacularly cleaned) portraits of Francesco Maria della Rovere and his wife—hard, ruthless, and impersonal: exactly what was wanted, to judge from most of the remaining portraits, by a hard and ruthless society. For us today something valuable seems to have vanished and I found myself thinking of the chapter in Berenson’s monograph on Lorenzo Lotto, in which he movingly compares the sensitivity and feeling for inner life and human weakness shown by that artist with Titian’s exclusive concentration on “prosperity, beauty and health—men on parade, as it were.” And yet this is a false conclusion, and even in the exhibition itself moments of delicate sympathy return, while if we look at the whole corpus of his surviving portraits we can see how broad was Titian’s emotional range when he was given the chance to express it.

Yet even so astonishingly vivid a portraitist as Titian presents us with extreme difficulties of interpretation. In one of the introductory essays to the catalog we are told—yet again!—of the triple portrait in Naples of Paul III and his grandsons Alessandro and Ottavio (not shown in the exhibition) that it “throws more and better light on the personality of that Pope and the politics of the Holy See in the middle of the 1590s than can the archives and the reports of contemporary ambassadors,” and that it is “perhaps the most extraordinary political document that has been left to us by modern western painting.” Fortunately, however, the matter is left there, where we can accept it as meaningless but well-meant hyperbole, instead of being invited to accept the notion of a Titian determined to divine and record the hidden secrets of a tormented family. Gestures and even facial expressions change their significance over the centuries, and though the general intention of Titian’s representations is rarely in doubt, it is usually pointless to try to ask even so great a painter to give us something he had no intention of looking for. Berenson puts it well:

The interest he himself arouses in the world he painted makes us eager to know more of these people than he tells us: to know them more intimately, in their own homes, if possible, subject to the wear and tear of ordinary existence. We long to know how they take life, what they think and, above all, what they feel; Titian tells us none of these things….

The Venice exhibition—which is taking place now because of the convenient but wildly uncertain assumption that Titian was born in 1490—presents many marvelous paintings by this most marvelous of painters. It includes few that are not known—for there is only a limited stock of lendable pictures—though the amazing full-length portrait of an officer in a pink and blue hunting costume with at his feet a hound and a Cupid fingering his elaborate helmet has very rarely been seen outside Kassel. It also contains few that are of doubtful attribution or second-rate quality.

The catalog has plentiful illustrations and introductory essays of varying value, but the entries have been left, for the most part, to the lending institutions so that there is no coordinating, overall view, no decision about what sort of information (such as provenances) should be included, and—it need hardly be said—very stern rebukes for anyone who disagrees with the official line on the pictures lent. It is definitely not a catalog to be read by anyone who still believes that questions of attribution and chronology concerning even the most studied of artists can be happily settled by consensus.

It is being said, and will be said again and again, that this is a unique exhibition, that nothing like it will ever be seen again. That is not true: for better or for worse plenty of exhibitions like it will be organized for years to come, and the air routes of the world will soon be jammed once again by jets carrying their cargoes of Rembrandts and Rubenses, Poussins and Goyas. Minor damage will be repaired without publicity, and a failure to care for paintings that stay behind will not be connected with the pressure to attend to those that travel. But one day a major accident will occur and the current priorities of some of the world’s greatest museums will be exposed as grossly irresponsible.

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    The fact that my name is included in the catalog among those on the “scientific committee” of this exhibition should not (alas) mislead anyone into thinking that I played even the smallest part in its selection and organization and that I should therefore feel inhibited in praising its excellence. It is, however, true that I have been involved in one of the other exhibitions referred to in these pages—The Genius of Venice, held in London in 1983—and must therefore share the opprobrium, or the praise, which I have distributed to others engaged in similar enterprises.

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