Metropolitan Museum of Art

(through April 27, 1997)

"Time Uncovering Truth," ca. 1743, 100 x 133 7/8 inches, Museo Civico, Vicenza, catalogue No. 18

By Carter B. Horsley

Giambattista Tiepolo is the most ascendant Old Master painter, literally.

His ceiling frescos, and in particular his masterpiece, "The Four Continents" over the staircase at the Residence in Würzburg, commissioned by prince-bishop Carl Philipp von Greiffenclau, are the most glorious manifestation of heavenly levitation in Western art.

His magical compositions for often very complex architectural forms are mind-boggling, a vertiginous imposition of dizzying virtuosity with multiple perspectives.

A theatric, Tiepolo (1696-1770), as one might say, was over the top.

The large and impressive show on him at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is almost overwhelming, but it doesn't quite capture his majestic artistry. That is not a valid criticism, of course, since it would mean moving a few major churches, residences and palaces from Europe and rebuilding much of the Metropolitan.

What is on view, however, is a mixed bag of bad paintings, small jewels, a few surprises, and a few masterpieces. Fortunately, the large and not inexpensive catalogue ($45 paperback) reproduces many of the more spectacular unmovable masterpieces and its essays give appropriate and enthusiastic perspective on his oeuvre. To the museum's great credit, its bookstore also carries another paperback that only sells for $27.50 that reproduces even more of the unmovables and is a wonderful, and necessary, complement to its own catalogue.

The museum also deserves great credit for its policy of placing large reading rooms in the center of its "blockbuster" exhibitions, such as this, with many copies of the hardcover exhibition catalogues. This practice is very, very helpful as it permits leisurely perusal of the catalogues in a nice surrounding while the originals are still fresh in the memory and reapproachable. It is especially nice for those museum visitors whose budget barely covers the "suggested" admission fees to the museum. It still is not the equal of Washington's National Gallery of Art's practice of providing free sheets of information on each painting in each gallery, but it is equally laudable.

The catalogue argues, reasonably, that Tiepolo was the greatest painter of 18th Century Venice and he laid claim to being the last great master of the Renaissance legacy of "the sublime union of real architectural space and the space of pictorial fiction," according to Keith Christiansen, Jayne Wrightsman curator of the Metropolitan's Department of European Paintings.

Some art critics have lamented the academic stretches of some curators and art historians who sometimes seem desperate to find contemporary relevance, or just plain old controversy, in their ruminations over older art. Hilton Kramer of The New York Observer, for example, was not particularly impressed with this show and probably would have gagged somewhat over the following catalogue remarks by Christiansen:

"There is something of De Chirico in the way Tiepolo generates a feeling of malaise and enigma with his arbitrary combinations of costume and juxtapositions of seemingly disconnected elements in a composition. And there is something of Matisse in his serious pursuit of the pleasurable. A willful ambivalence characterizes much of his work."

Ambivalence is hardly the word for Tiepolo. He was a pyrotechnical genius of perspective with a facile painterliness and fertile imagination.

"…there is no doubt that his costumes, reinventions of cinquecento and Oriental models that always feature some touch of eccentricity - those brocades, those cascades of silk and satin draped over lovely limbs and billowing in midair and in light - are a fundamental ingredient of Tiepolo's spectacle and part of his charm (they conform, moreover, to a manner peculiar to the Venetian school, with precedents in Carpaccio and Veronese)," observes Adriano Mariuz in his catalogue essay.

Spectacle, charm, yes, but also color and composition and drama. After Rubens, Tiepolo is perhaps the most successful old master at combining these elements with vivacity and elan. These two masters are virtuoso lovers of the feminine form, yet their ideal beauties are very different: Rubens's heroines are robust, voluptuous, alluring; Tiepolo's are taciturn and rather sullen and uncommitted.

Indeed, Mariuz notes that despite Tiepolo's sensual enchantment "one cannot help but notice that smiles are almost entirely absent from this apparently festive universe, whereas there is often a flicker of irony and at times even a hint of mockery and the grotesque."

Tiepolo is more about posturing than subtle characterization and one senses that he is a bit bored with such niceties and eager to move on, yet his style does not have the dash, verve and energy of a Magnasco, or Guardi, or Monticelli, or Goya. Despite his bravura displays, there is a static, frozen quality to many of his painted works. In vivid contrast, his drawings and watercolors are the exact opposite and supremely fleet and adept. Sadly, not enough are included in this show.

Some of the most fascinating works on display, however, are his oil studies for some of his major works, several of which are included. One is tempted to rate them higher than the finished compositions, with the exception, of course, of the major ceiling frescos, which must rate with the incomparable creations of all time.

Among the major works not included in the New York show, in addition, of course to "The Four Continents," are "The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew" at S. State, Venice, "The Apotheosis of Saint Catherine" at S. Maria di Nazareth (the Scalzi), Venice, "Saint Dominic in Glory" at the Accademia in Venice, "Madonna of Mount Carmel" at the Brera in Milan, "The Triumph of Eloquence" at the Palazzo Sandi in Venice, all, thankfully, illustrated in the catalogue.

The best small paintings in the show that any connoisseur would love to possess are "Appeles Painting Campaspe," a relatively small painting from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, "Danaë and Jupiter" from Stockholm University, "The Agony in the Garden" from the Kunsthalle in Hamburg, "Venus and Vulcan" from the John G. Johnson Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and "The Immaculate Conception" from the Courtauld Institute Galleries in London, "The Madonna of the Rosary" from a private collection, and "The Annunciation" from Duquesa de Villahermosa in Pedrola.

The best large paintings in the show that any museum would covet are "The Triumph of Zephyr and Flora," a huge elliptical painting from the Ca' Rezzonico in Venice whose dragonfly wings startle with their luminosity, the Tasso cycle from the Art Institute in Chicago, "Time Uncovering Truth" from the Museo Civico in Vicenza, the Metropolitan's own "The Glorification of the Barbaro Family" from the set of decorations for Ca'Barbaro in Venice, "Saint James of Compostella" from the Szépmüvészeti Museum in Budapest, and, best of all, "Neptune Offering Gifts to Venice" from the Ducal Palace in Venice.

The latter is atypical of the signature Tiepolo style and highly evocative of Veronese. It's just a smashing knock-out of a regal lady reclining on a lion and accepting trinkets from a fit, older man in an elongated composition of intense color. (Sadly, the catalog spreads this reproduction over two pages, a practice that should never be allowed by publishers. Sometimes, smaller is more manageable.)

There are a surprising number of paintings included in the exhibition that are puzzling, to say the least, and that many connoisseurs would most likely shy away from, or demur about questionable quality: the portraits of Giovanni Corner II and Marca Corner from a private collection; "Hercules and Antaeus" and "Apollo and Marsyas," decorations for the Palazzo Sandi from a private collection in Vicenza; and "The Betrothal of Alexander and Roxanne or Latino Offering His Daughter Lavinia to Aeneas in Matrimony" from the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, part of the decorations for Ca'Barbaro suite.

Inconsistency and diversity, of course, are not alien to artists and it is always refreshing to not always concentrate on the formulaic.

Tiepolo at his best conveys a grandeur that is ennobling and awesome and there is enough here to inspire.

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