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31 January 2010


[Tiepolo] decided to copy, as much as he could, the elements used by Veronese in the most imposing version [of the Finding of Moses], which at that time could be seen in the Palazzo Grimani….It is as if Tiepolo made a crafty bet with himself: could he compose a variation that repeated the highest possible number of elements in a picture, while distancing it as far as possible from the original?…But Tiepolo kept faith with his bet and won it in the manner most congenial to him: by making sure no one noticed.

–Roberto Calasso, trans. A. McEwen, Tiepolo Pink, Knopf, 2009, p.47

I am nearing the end of a book the merits of which need to be celebrated far and wide. Roberto Calasso’s Tiepolo Pink is a marvel of lucid and poetic writing of which it seems only Italian intellectuals are capable of in the last few decades (like Eco and Calvino). Best of all, Calasso celebrates the artist who for me was a doorway out of the wasteland of modern painting and back to something at once more illuminating, brilliant, and accomplished. He makes Tiepolo relevant, as he did for the gods in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, in way at once modern and antithetical to modernism. Calasso, like his subject, wears his learning lightly, and while he may stretch the artist’s interests in magic per se (my own take on what is going on in the Scherzi will follow), the magical quality of those paintings and etchings finally get an ekphrasis worthy of them.

If you have any affinity for the last great fresco painter in the Renaissance humanist tradition, this book is a revelation. If you want to know what was right about Tiepolo and the artists who shaped him, and what is wrong with those who followed him, Calasso is a piercing observer.

What Baudelaire was calling up was that all-embracing air no longer present in painting after the French Revolution. And that air had a name: Tiepolo. The entire nineteenth century was branded, like a herd of cattle, by its absence. One day, without realizing it, it had forever lost the sovereign sense of sprezzatura, of facility and fluidity of movement. That grand air, on a measure with the skies, which for the last time had been perceived with Tiepolo and his family. Of whom Baudelaire knew nothing, because he had not come across their works (no other country had been as reluctant to welcome them as France, a jealous guardian of its affectations and feelings of sovereignty). But with visionary precision he called up that negative silhouette, based on what was lacking, of an air no longer breathed in the overloaded Paris of the Second Empire.

Calasso, p.9

23 January 2010

Just back from a day trip to Ariccia....

Gianlorenzo Bernini is a model for emulation as he is for so many other aspects of art and architecture. Take, for example, his relationship with the Pantheon. Since he believed it was without fault, it was a natural default for him when designing a church dedicated to the Assumption of Mary for the Chigi pope, Alexander VII, in Ariccia south of Rome. But he did not copy the Pantheon as a 19th century neo-Classicist would have done; instead, he offers not only a variation on the venerable Roman monument, but what might almost be considered a modest critique, or at least an attempt to improve some of the faults of its context, and maybe more overtly make it Christian rather than pagan.To do this he might have turned to Palladio’s chapel for Villa Barbara at Maser, if not for the apparent lack of evidence of a trip to the Veneto in his life, and the fact that the chapel is not included in the Four Books. In any event, his operation on Maser is no less radical than his transformation of the Pantheon, both of them sponsored in large measure by responding to the context.

Ariccia climbs to the papal palace on the crest of a hill along the ancient Via Appia; while today most people approach it from the west across a rebuilt 19th century viaduct, in Bernini’s day the main road threaded through town from south (toward Rome) to north (toward Naples). So the first view of the church if you were coming from Rome was from below, and behind (since it naturally had to face the papal palace to the north). Bernini takes the small towers Palladio added to his Pantheon (derived from those of the Lateran?), and puts them surprisingly behind the church, calling down to the valley below and framing the approach; but he then wraps the church in apparently symmetrical fabric, leaving a remarkable slot of curving space following the round church. This fabric is his answer to the great defect of the Pantheon in his day, the fact that it was embedded in ramshackle medieval buildings. He not only corrects that, but ennobles the fabric’s main façade with an order that complements the church’s portico, weaving them together in a way that recalls the ancient building’s original context.

This is emulation at work in architecture. It requires clarity of mind, and commitment of ideals. It is rational, rigorous, and inspired. It is not “organic” urbanism as some New Urbanist might want it: it is classical in the best sense. Would that it happened more often today….

12 January 2010

All Art is Derivative

Driving across the Midwest early one morning recently I heard two perky NPR pundits critique a hit song and a movie as “derivative.” People, people: All Art is Derivative! Criticizing any work of art as derivative is just too facile, even naïve, a label deployed by people sadly subjected too early in their lives to some aesthetic authority’s pedantry. All art is derivative because, even if it is “revolutionary,” it’s inevitably reactionary, in that it depends for its novelty on what it rejects. A really interesting thing about art, instead, is how it acknowledges its predecessors, to what extent it’s consciously, knowingly derivative. The classical tradition embraced this reality and turned it into a fruitful tactic of both invention and appreciation. Artists were trained first to imitate, then emulate, and finally invent, but the traces of those first two phases remained in even the most radically inventive new work.

Emulation. It’s the critical approach missing in our modern return to tradition in the arts and architecture. Maybe it’s easier to imagine what it means for artists than architects (I’ll get to them in a minute): Tiepolo, for example, was known as a great emulator of Veronese—as was his Venetian predecessor Sebastiano Ricci. What did that mean in terms of his own “original” artistic production? Tiepolo never copied Veronese per se, but many compositions of his depend on Veronese for narrative structure, figure types, color, etc. What made him a great emulator, someone never accused of being a mere imitator as was Ricci, was that Veronese was a point of departure, a creative spark that Tiepolo fanned with his own manner and energy. He needed Veronese, in a way, as a place to begin, but it was never where he ended.

Do “realist” artists emulate today? And if so, whom do they emulate? Actually, since few make copies, and since their work is rarely inventive in the sense of imagining a narrative scene rather than painting what they see, they probably generally fall into the category of emulators. But whom, or what, are they emulating? Mostly—and this is admittedly really “broad brush”—they look to the past for painting technique; so their subjects of emulation range from Sargeant, to Bougereau, to maybe Velazquez. They seem to be mostly interested in the manner of application of paint to canvas. Looking to models from the past as Tiepolo, or Veronese himself, did—for ideas—seems not to interest many realists today. But it is fundamental, if not for realists then for classicists, to set the bar on the basis of great exemplars, not simply for the mechanical, but even more the intellectual side of art.

Do classical architects today emulate? I would say, not so much. Many copy—indeed, they wear as a badge of honor the “sources” from which they derive everything from a molding profile to a façade—and some invent. But the copies do not qualify as emulations because they do not seek to equal or exceed their models, they merely borrow some of their credibility. And the inventions are generally not very good because the authors are not trained in the rigors of emulation. What would it mean to truly emulate Palladio, or Wren, and not copy them? The answer to that question is worth puzzling over by everyone interested in the subject….