Review: “Masters of Venice” at the De Young Museum, San Francisco

 [Reviewed by Christopher Bernard]



The enterprising Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco never lets an opportunity slip from its grasp.

According to John Buchanan, director of museums for FAMSF, when he learned a number of famous Venetian paintings at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna would be taken down to make way for a temporary exhibit, the museum seized the opportunity to bring them to San Francisco for a unique presentation of these, some of them the most celebrated paintings of the High Renaissance. As an added bonus, a number of them had never been seen in the United States. (One can fairly say FAMSF never lets the grass grow under its feet: just last year they presented two enormous and brilliantly curated shows of impressionist and post-impressionist artworks borrowed under somewhat similar circumstances from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.)

Now, the word “awesome” has lost much of its rhetorical power due to sloppiness and overusage (“That corn dog was simply awesome!”), but every once in a while, it’s the only word that sums up one’s experience briefly and securely. This exhibit is one of the few things in recent memory that incontrovertibly deserves it.

To move through it is like meeting old friends – or what you thought were old friends – in something closer to their original habitat, and in spectacular apparel. That painting by Andrea Mantegna of Saint Sebastian standing against a marble pillar and pierced with arrows, beneath a sky of steely, cobalt blue: haven’t you seen that before? And yet never has it looked so forceful, so, frankly, magnificent. And of course you have: in many an art history book since school, or on the web, or on posters. Then you realize: you had never seen the painting. And the shock hits you: this is the real thing  – more modest in size, more approachable, than you’d thought, and more beautiful, and powerful, more nearly perfect, than you had ever imagined. And you realize the word “masterpiece” does not actually refer to an interesting if uneven television series on PBS.

A similar thing happens to you with other paintings: with Giorgione’s mysterious and spacious Three Philosophers and his intimate Portrait of a Young Woman (Laura) and mysteriously androgynous Young Man with an Arrow; with Titian’s grand sensual fugues of Mars, Venus and Cupid and Danaë basking under a shower of gold coins from Zeus, her divine lover, and his stately portrait of Isabella d’Este (looking like a gilded child, though painted by the foxy flatterer when she was already past 60), and his depiction of the massive torso and worried eyes of Johann Friedrich, Elector of Saxony (a Protestant ruler imprisoned by the Catholic emperor Charles V during the strife-torn Reformation);with Tintoretto’s surrealistic Susannah and the Elders and straining Saint Jerome (as if in combat with himself or his God); and Veronese’s pain-wracked Lucretia: images we thought we knew, but realize we are discovering only now. The effect is a bit dazzling, sometimes deeply moving: a painting, no more than a frame of wood, a covering of rough fabric, a smearing of thin color, can seem to contain a soul.

For me, the greatest discovery of the exhibit is Giorgione, a highly influential artist who left a relatively few paintings and died in his mid-thirties. Some of his work I know from visits to the Louvre (more on that later), but otherwise I knew his paintings from art books alone: I always liked his work. I didn’t realized I loved it till now. There are mysteries at the heart of many of his canvases that scholars still argue about, and a beauty, of a precision and softness, that fascinates like an unanswered question or a veiled and seductive look.

Giorgione continues to be the subject of discovery and controversy: discovery in that only recently (according to the exhibit’s signage) has his family name come to light: Gasparini; and controversy over the re-attribution of one of his most famous canvases, the Concert Champêtre, now in the Louvre, to Titian. (I’ve always been suspicious of that attribution, but after seeing this exhibit I must put in my modest two cents and say, if that canvas is by Titian, and not by a Giorgione who was willingly influenced by his most famous pupil, then I will eat my hat.The reticence and inwardness, the softness yet preciseness of contour, the Leonardesque sfumato, of the Concert, to say nothing of the Giorgionesque enigma of the scene, are at the farthest remove from the taste for high drama at the heart of the style of the grand old man of Venetian painting.)

The dominant figure in the exhibit, as throughout 16th-centuryVenice, is indeed this very same Titian, and his work continues to intrigue and impress, from the precisionist portraints mentioned, to the glorious poesie: scenes direct from mythology, many of them gorgeously sensual, pointedly erotic.

Another revelation is the Tintorettos: sometimes called the first modern painter, and the subject of a typically provocative essay by Sartre, there is at least one canvas here that looks like it could have been done by a late 19th century symbolist – a Moreau, even an Odilon Redon – or a newly-discovered expressionist, with the endless spirals of his compositions, the pained psychology contorting his faces, the virtuosic foreshortening and perspectives, to express a tormented and suspicious sensibility: a proto-Daliesque paranoia.

The exhibit (which is curated by Dr. Lynn Federle Orr with help from Sylvia Ferino-Pagden, director of the Gemäldegalerie (Picture Gallery) of the Kunsthistorisches Museum) concludes with several lucious Veronese’s to make one drunk on Venetian colore to balance the more sober enchantment of the designo so well displayed in the earlier Mantegna.

But even Veronsese appears here in a profounder light than usual, despite the curator’s interpretation, expressed in the excellent audio tour: Veronese’s painting of Lucretia, the famous pre-republican Roman woman depicted at the moment just before she takes her own life after being raped, is a profound gaze into the face of a lethal anguish, the more telling for being displayed as surrounded by the gifts of wealth and luxury, and one I never expected to find among Veronese’s usual voluptuousness and sybaritic radiances.

The exhibit  is enriched by paintings and prints, including portraits of individual men and generic female images, by lesser-known but intriguing figures such as Bassano, Pordenone, Bordone, and Palma Vecchio, as well as large-scale, context-setting reproductions of work by the likes of Carpaccio, Teniers, and Gentile Bellini.

In sum: this show is awesome. And a triumph for the museum.


Christopher Bernard is a San Francisco writer and founding editor of Caveat Lector magazine.

Masters of Venice: Renaissance Painters of Passion and Power

From the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

De Young Museum, San Francisco

Through February 12, 2012