There are a few great works on offer, but most of his masterpieces didn’t make the trip.
I thought very carefully about how to review the National Gallery’s messy new Tintoretto show. I respect everyone involved and wrote two pieces about the show’s majestic incarnation in Venice earlier this year, mounted in honor of his 500th birthday. The show in Washington is the first Tintoretto retrospective in America. It’s really not a retrospective, though, unless we’ve invented a new genre of show called “retrospective lite.” Now, the Venice version? That was a real retrospective. The problem with the Washington? It doesn’t do justice to Tintoretto.
What is a retrospective? Traditionally, it’s a big, lumbering thing assembling an artist’s best work over his entire career. It captures the artist’s spirit, depth, and genius and has almost all the seminal things and his best work. It is usually accompanied by new scholarship, but it’s also historiographical. How has the artist’s reputation evolved, and why are we fascinated by him now?
In one of my pieces on the Venice show, I questioned whether a truly satisfying Tintoretto retrospective could occur outside Venice and speculated that this might not be possible, though the National Gallery was the one to try. It has borrowing power and tons of money. After seeing the show in Washington, the answer is not only “they couldn’t” but also to note that what they might have been able to do, they didn’t.
There are some core questions before a retrospective is undertaken. Is the art available? There are some artists — Michelangelo and Pinturicchio immediately spring to mind — whose iconic, seminal works are stationary. They might be tombs, and some of Michelangelo’s best work is funerary. You don’t discommode the dead willy-nilly. And don’t think about the Sistine Ceiling. It’s fresco, as are Pinturicchio’s cinematic library paintings in the Duomo in Siena. Architects, too, get the short end of the stick. Buildings don’t travel. The great park designer Frederic Law Olmsted’s 200th birthday is next year. He’s a great artist, but how do you do a show when the work is land, views, water, and flowers?
You can do shows on aspects of these artists, like the Met’s splendid show on Michelangelo’s drawings. You call this show a “drawings retrospective.” That’s fine. It was a great retrospective, with close to 300 drawings and covering all bases. Most very fine artists don’t deserve any kind of retrospective. They’ve had good decades or even only a few good years and then run out of gas or become hacks doing only what the art market wants. Andy Warhol, as we saw in the recent Whitney retrospective, was truly transformative only in the 1960s. The curator spilled gallons of ink and exposed us to some dreadful art in an effort to establish that the junk he did from his Chairman Mao in 1972 until he died in 1987 wasn’t junk. Curators doing retrospectives often get that giddy, that blinkered.
Retrospectives don’t need to be huge, but they need to be comprehensive, which is different from representative. I did a Mark Tobey retrospective with 90 objects. That was enough. I was involved in an Alfred Maurer retrospective, to my regret. The show was too big, and it merely established what a very spotty artist he was.
What do you do under any of these circumstances? You don’t do the retrospective. Or you focus on a narrower topic. Or you work on another artist.
I don’t think a retrospective on Tintoretto could be done without work from the Scuola San Rocco, the Doge’s Palace, and his parish church (the church of the Madonna dell’Orto) — all in Venice. For many reasons, this work doesn’t travel, not that it physically can’t, but it’s not practical. San Rocco was his anchor commission, his Sistine Chapel, with dozens of paintings and an encyclopedic array of his quirks, tricks, and talents at their finest. I assume the masters at San Rocco look at each of the great ones as part of an indivisible whole.
To its credit, the National Gallery got two minor pictures from this cycle only because they’d just been cleaned and had been in conservation, thus gone, for a while. Their brushy, billboard quality merely makes us want to see more, and want to see the highlights of what is one of the great monuments of Western art.
The Doge’s Palace reception rooms have his big, late work. It’s not his best, and there were often hands other than his involved. At that point, Tintoretto had, through his grit and vision, built Tintoretto, Inc., both a workshop and a reputation as Venice’s high-end artist. This would not have been predicted given his disputatious persona, lone-wolf mentality, Titian’s subversion of his career, and competition from Veronese. These late things are the final fruits of his labor. They’re noisy, even frantic, and important. They’re also huge. They’d need a cargo plane to move and giant spaces for display. Madonna dell’Orto contains Tintoretto’s three massive paintings of Moses, the Crucifixion, and the Presentation at the Temple. They cemented his fame. These, too, are enormous. Two are 50 feet tall.
The retrospective in Venice worked for reasons distinct to Venice and Italy. First, it was marketed as a Tintoretto extravaganza. It was assumed that serious people — and this is not merely a tiny fraction of people traveling to Venice — would also get to one, two, or all three of these outlying places. The staterooms of the Doge’s Palace with their in situ Tintorettos were just steps away from the show. Many of the visitors who saw the show were Italians and from Venice or the Veneto. Yes, there are still Italians who live in Venice, and Venice has suburbs on the mainland. The extravaganza was for them, too, and it’s easy for them to cover the spots over time.
Tintoretto’s birthday extravaganza, at least the traveling-loan part of it, was actually at two separate museums. The early work was displayed at the Accademia across town. It was a big, serious show that I thought was more coherent, satisfying, and beautifully displayed than the show of work from the 1550s onward at the Doge’s Palace. The Accademia show concluded with the big picture that made Tintoretto famous, The Miracle of the Slave, from 1548.
The Miracle of the Slave is a showstopper and shows the young Tintoretto as a master designer and choreographer. If there was any way to get it to Washington, it would have, maybe, redeemed this iffy enterprise. The director of the Accademia just retired, but she is a worldly person and so might have allowed it. If it couldn’t get out of the Accademia building, and this is a possibility, then that is a serious reason not to do the show, unless you could have pried things from San Rocco, the Orto church, or the Doge’s Palace.
Second, the extravaganza worked in Venice because it’s Italy. I have seen few important museum shows in Italy that are installed with the same standards as in American or British museums. There’s always some incongruous, even bizarre feature. We expect that and edit it out. Sometimes it’s bad lightening, sometimes it’s weird spaces, sometimes surly or snoring guards, and often it’s haphazard interpretation.
You expect, as in the case of Tintoretto, to see a retrospective in two separate museums. You expect to wander to three other places in Venice to see lots of major Tintorettos and a dozen other churches if you’re really committed to see individual altarpieces. The Venice retrospective succeeded because, in terms of marketing and how the curators arranged the shows there, visitors were almost commanded to go the extra mile, literally. Italians expect you to absorb things by osmosis, slowly, in bits and pieces. In Washington, you don’t, can’t, and shouldn’t. You have to do it in one place, with the best work, or don’t do it at all.
There is a self-inflicted, design problem, too. Elsewhere in the National Gallery, tucked away as if by stealth, is a version of the lovely Tintoretto drawings show that I saw at the Morgan Library last year. I found it totally by accident. This drawings show is not well publicized in the main Tintoretto galleries. Why was this show not simply integrated into the Tintoretto show? The only reason I can think for this is that the drawings show, done by another curator at another museum, undercuts one of the big Tintoretto show’s central themes. The big show makes much of Tintoretto’s spontaneity. The Morgan Library’s drawings show tells a story of an exacting, painstaking planner who thought long and hard about design and composition and didn’t simply paint whatever came into his head at a given moment.
Could the shows have been combined? Possibly. Should they have been separated, with one show in the proverbial “undisclosed location?” Of course not. If space was the big issue, my suggestion would have been either to find bigger space, do only the drawings show, or to do nothing but call FTD and send Tintoretto a birthday bouquet.
Some of the borrowed splendors in the Venice shows weren’t in Washington. Susanna and the Elders, surely one of the most gorgeous nudes ever painted, wasn’t there. We know it could travel because it made it to Venice from Vienna. The selection of portraits in the show — Tintoretto’s portraits are almost all owned by public collections — is good. Where was Christ Among the Doctors? It’s big, early, splendid, from the Duomo’s museum in Milan, and was cleaned just before the Accademia show. It made it to Venice. It has the whiff of juvenilia, but it’s still brilliant, with the very young Tintoretto experimenting with ideas he would soon perfect. Why is St. Martial in Glory from 1549 displayed separately, in a room a football field’s distance from the show, in a separate space? It’s a fine, very big picture, and there are things in the Tintoretto show that are bigger, so it wasn’t a question of low ceilings.
There are great things in the Washington show, to be sure. The portraits are strong, but, for Tintoretto, portraiture was a sideline. The Abduction of Helen from the Prado is there, and it’s fabulous. The Origin of the Milky Way, The Nine Muses, and Tarquin and Lucretia are three great nudes, and while they’re luscious, they make points that have recently been made for American audiences in the MFA Boston’s 2009 show on Tintoretto, Veronese, and Titian.
The Tintoretto show’s interpretation, graphics, lighting, and wall colors are perfect. The catalogue by Frederick Ilchman and Robert Echols is fine. It covers lots of old ground beautifully, with a new twist or two. It’s an important book. The separate catalogue for the Tintoretto show held at the Accademia was published only in Italian. The National Gallery could have done something meaningful and produced an English-language version of this very good book.
I think the justification of “well, there are some nice Tintorettos in the show” goes only so far. The Prado did a big Tintoretto show ten years ago, with a fine catalogue. I’m not sure the catalogue by Ilchman and Echols adds much to the Tintoretto scholarship there or in the fantastic Boston show on Tintoretto, Titian, and Veronese, which was, after all, an Ilchman and Echols show, too.
The National Gallery’s version of the Tintoretto show was likely a million-dollar show, if not more. That’s a lot of money, even for Washington. Is it just a treasures show? No, it’s better than that but not by a more than a few lengths.
There doesn’t have to be a Tintoretto retrospective in the United States. Sometimes it’s not possible to show an artist here in all of his splendor. The Bruegel retrospective I reviewed in Vienna in December could happen only in Vienna, period. Having an incomplete retrospective in Washington when you can’t have a complete one seems more of an institutional ego trip than anything else. The museum is spending government money, and it needs to spend it prudently.
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