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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: La victoire est au bout du pinceau

by Maurice Ulrich

Victory Lies at the Tip of the Brush

Translated Saturday 10 October 2009, by Henry Crapo and reviewed by Bill Scoble

Painting: At the Louvre Museum [1], Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese. Rivals in Venice. In that republic, rich and free, the competition among these artists turned the 16th century into a golden age of art.

The Lady of the Mirrors [2]

One of the most beautiful paintings in the Louvre is without doubt unknown to most of the eight million visitors who pass through this, the largest museum on earth. The Lady of the Mirrors by Titian suffers actually from a curse. It is exhibited in the same hall as the Mona Lisa. But nevertheless, if the smile of the Mona Lisa fascinates the crowds of people in front of this deserted passage so detached from time and the materiality of the world, the Lady of the Mirrors, herself a rather coy young Venetian at her dressing table, cedes nothing to the other work of art. The fall of her golden hair, her full and brightly lit shoulders, the opening of her white shirt, the piece of blue material that heightens the whole image ...

Tintoretto, a masterpiece of lucidity

There is not only this one painting in the hall that shares this unjust fate. Not even to mention The Man with a Glove, also by Titian, which is placed just the other side of the vast panel upon which the Mona Lisa is hung. Thus, by Lambert Sustris, a northern painter who set up his studio in Venice, Venus and Cupid attending on Mars, a painting with magnificence and grace, of which certain portions, such as the edge of the sofa upon which the goddess is half lying, playing with two fully enamored pigeons, seems to have been painted with the brush of an impressionist. Similarly, this self-portrait of an aging Tintoretto, is a masterpiece of lucidity, whose vision, as he is nearing death, is an equal to that of Picasso or Rembrandt.

The foremost merit, then, of the exceptional exposition Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Rivalry in Venice is perhaps already to place these paintings in view (with the exception of The Man with a Glove, the absence of which is unexplained) in another environment, granting them, one might say, full freedom. The second merit, clearly, is to permit us to discover those paintings that we have known until now only in reproduction. This is the case for Suzanna and the Elders by Tintoretto, unless you have made the journey to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, which has lent the work to the Louvre. There’s the shock and anecdote of the two spying men, who, one understands are there for no reason. But the real shock is the incredible light emanating from Suzanne’s body, a light that, in a way, condenses and expresses what was Venetian painting in the 16th century, in the aesthetic conflict that opposed Rome, and even more so, Florence, summed up most often as the battle between line and color.

The type of paint called tempura lent itself little to modeling. The color, you might say, came to fill the drawing. With oil painting, which arrived from the north, there opened the possibility of working with color and matter, via the touch, with successive layers, and it’s this method that the Venetians preferred, particularly for the nude, starting, we would say, from the flesh, not from the contour. The Venus of Urbino, by Titian, will have sisters later by Rubens, Courbet, and even later by Renoir. Why the Venetians? Perhaps because in Venice the weight of the Church was less. Venice was a republic of merchants, sovereign and powerful. Morality was freer, and the nude, among other themes, quickly won its profane, even erotic, status. Desire could be expressed for what it was, or almost so. In return, this manner of painting, being in the quick of the flesh, entered even into religious painting. Thus the last paintings of Titian, where the aged master went so far as to paint with his fingers, as in a drunkenness of color and matter. But when it’s a question of eroticism, you have to look at the Tarquin and Lucretia of Tintoretto, painted about 1580, and on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago. The few linens that remain on the body of Lucretia only undress her more, and the folds suggest her sex more than one can say...

Tarquin and Lucretia [3]

Rivalry and emulation

So far little has been said about the theme of the exposition Rivalries in Venice. But is this really the essential element, when we are permitted to see such an assemblage of paintings of one of the most beautiful periods in the history of painting, dominated by Titian by reason both of his genius and his longevity (from 1490 until about 1576)? In a certain sense, no, except that this formidable explosion of painting and masterworks, of which the exposition at the Louvre, in the end, gives only a partial view of the treasures of Venice itself, might never have been produced without this rivalry and, at the same time, this imitation of one painter by another. To be clear, it was not a question of aesthetic rivalry, but of straight-out battles, openly fought, for commissions and money. Thus, Tintoretto went so far as to work without pay, in order to obtain a subsequent commission. A brand of dumping, already in those days. But this competition, which went so far as trickery and fights between factions each supporting their own painters, is what enabled these Venetian painters to outdo themselves. Venice is rich. free, and takes care not to favor an official painter, thus leaving the road open to all, with every chance to re-enter the competition. It is this passion-filled history that is recounted by the exposition, with articles in the catalogue [4] by Frederick Ilchman, Vincent Delieuvin and Jean Habert and Patricia Fortini Brown. To be read like the chapters of a police thriller.

[1Exposition at the Louvre until 4 January 2010.

[3at the Art Institute of Chicago, visible here

[4The Catalogue edited by Hazan and the Musée du Louvre, 480 pages, 42€.

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