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Venice's Last Judgment

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Venice's Last Judgment

THE NEW CRITERION, September 2019

Venice’s Last Judgment

On the beginning and end of the Most Serene Republic.

The Venice Biennale, that strange pageant of contemporary fashions, offers the opportunity, if not the necessity, to explore the real art of La Serenissima. At the furthest extreme from the latest forms on display in the Biennale’s Giardini are the ancient mosaics of the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, on the distant lagoon island of Torcello. I brought my family to Torcello’s desolate piazza on what proved to be the hottest morning of a hot Italian summer. Torcello is an hour by vaporetto water bus from the Fondamente Nove, on the northern edge of Venice’s sestiere of Cannaregio. We cut the time in half by water taxi and sped past the islands of Murano, Burano, and Mazzorbo before idling up to Torcello’s Ponte del Diavolo, where the narrow canal becomes too shallow for navigation.

Since we arrived early, we had to wait for the church lady to unlock the doors of the basilica. We fed the languid fish schooling by the abandoned quay of a nearby channel. Then we huddled in what shade we could find on this barren deposit of alluvial silt. Torcello’s tiny Locanda Cipriani, the fabled retreat where Hemingway wrote Across the River and into the Trees, was closed for the day, so the negronis would have to wait. At one point, we begged someone inside the island’s archaeological museum for some shelter from the sun. Mi dispiace, he said, closing the shutters on us. Our water supply started running low, as did my party’s patience. In the Italian custom, the attendant for Torcello’s lavish municipal bathroom had overslept and missed his ferry, and no one else had the key.

The privations no doubt made the sight of Santa Maria Assunta, once we were let inside, all the more thrilling. On its western wall, the golden vision of its “Last Judgment,” which received a full cleaning and restoration in February, is as profound as any art in Venice. With six vertical registers, the mosaic is filled with an awe-inspiring amount of visual information: scenes of the crucifixion, anastasis (resurrection), deesis (Christ with Mary and John the Baptist), and psychostasis (the weighing of souls) all rest on vignettes of heaven and hell divided in the lowest registers.

The Last Judgment ,  ca.  twelfth century, Gold and glass mosaic.

The Last Judgment, ca. twelfth century, Gold and glass mosaic.

The decorative splendor of this mosaic barely holds its dynamic forces together. In the upper registers, an expressive Christ pulls the souls of the Old Testament up from limbo to heaven by their wrists. Below, a snaking line of judicial plumbing leads down to increasingly explicit visions of hell. Two demons try to tip the scales of Saint Michael with their pitchforks while pouring out sins from bottles and bags. Meanwhile the damned are subdivided among the lustful, gluttonous, wrathful, envious, avaricious, and slothful, where they endure fiery and icy torments, when not being eaten by worms.

Today Torcello is an overlooked shoal in the northern lagoon, but at one time the island nurtured the first seeds of what became the great Republic of Venice. Torcello flowered as the original center of activity in the Veneto, before its channels silted up and its inhabitants relocated to the nearby islands of Burano, Murano, and the high ground of the Rialto. A millennium ago, at its apex, there were some ten thousand inhabitants on Torcello. Today, only about a dozen remain. Torcello’s “Last Judgment” therefore offers genuine revelation. The end times here have already come.

There was a period when Torcello was the crucible of Venice’s unexpected beginnings. In the final days of the Western Roman Empire, barbarian hordes descended on the old Roman towns still clinging to the shores of the northern Adriatic. As Attila the Hun surrounded the town of Altinum in 452, its residents fled to the sandbars of the nearby lagoon. These Roman holdouts and refugees from the other Veneti towns became lagoon dwellers, incolae lacunae, just three miles south of Altinum on the shifting delta sands of the River Sile.

Today the view from Torcello’s campanile does not look all that different from what those settlers first saw fifteen hundred years ago. In The Stones of Venice, John Ruskin called the sight “one of the most notable scenes in this wide world of ours. As far as the eye can reach, a waste of wild sea moor, of a lurid ashen gray; . . . lifeless, the color of sackcloth, with corrupted sea-water soaking through the roots of its acrid weeds, and gleaming hither and thither through its snaky channels.”

A close-up of “the Envious,”  The Last Judgment ,  ca.  twelfth century, Gold and glass mosaic.

A close-up of “the Envious,” The Last Judgment, ca. twelfth century, Gold and glass mosaic.

The Venetian lagoon has always been an alien landscape, but its separation from the mainland provided essential protection from Italy’s drawn-out period of Germanic incursions and the collapse of the Byzantine Empire. In their exodus, the settlers built houses on pilings of hardwood driven into the mud flats. All of Venice was built this way. It is said that the baroque church of Santa Maria della Salute, the towering domed memorial to the devastating plague of 1630 by the Punta della Dogana, rests on a million wooden piles. The Venetians also organized their new community along Roman republican lines. Rather than be ruled by an emperor or king, they elected their leader—dux in Latin, duke in English, doge in Italian. In this way the Veneti of the lagoon formed their mighty maritime republic that endured for over a thousand years. In the Republic’s final days, before its destruction by Napoleon, the Venetians even counseled the architects of the United States on the secrets of their Republic’s endurance.

The foundation stone of the Torcello basilica was laid in 639, a year after the town’s bishop had a vision that his flock should abandon what remained of Altinum. As Torcello rose in importance, its basilica became a prominent cathedral. The nearby channel, now little more than a shoaled-up estuary that harbors those languid fish, was once Torcello’s bustling Grand Canal. The relics of Saint Heliodorus, the Altinum bishop who accompanied Saint Jerome and was martyred in 390, were carried off from his Roman town and laid to rest beneath the basilica’s altar. His golden reliquary can still be seen there today. Since the Torcello basilica predates the construction of even the first cathedral of San Marco in Venice by some two centuries, one legend maintains that the body of Saint Mark was first interred here, perhaps in the crypt’s Roman sarcophagus, after two Venetian merchants alighted with the Evangelist’s remains from Alexandria, Egypt, which was then under the dominion of the Abbasid Caliphate.

About the time of the height of Torcello’s predominance in 1100, the interior of the basilica received its cycle of golden mosaics, which includes a sorrow-filled image of the Virgin and Child in the main apse above a swirling, tessellated marble floor. Byzantine in form, the selection of a Last Judgment scene for the opposite towering western wall, through which congregants once entered and exited, is said to have been a particularly Venetian touch.

Torcello reveals Venice in its true provisional strangeness, where art gives vision to immanence and relics buoy the faithful to the final days. The great works of Venice have always conveyed these contingent qualities—as a world between worlds. Rather than gaze up to some idealized beyond, the art of Venice looks out to proximate, felt, rough-and-tumble revelation.

A close-up of “the Gluttonous and Avaricious,”  The Last Judgment ,  ca.  twelfth century, Gold and glass mosaic.

A close-up of “the Gluttonous and Avaricious,” The Last Judgment, ca. twelfth century, Gold and glass mosaic.

Art has always played a central role in connecting the Venetian experience to the cosmic story. The particular hardships endured by the disease-prone city can be seen through its adoration of the “plague saints”: San Rocco, in whose scuola and church, in the sestiere of San Polo, Tintoretto painted one of the world’s greatest cycles of Christian image-making; and San Sebastiano, in whose church, on the site of a medieval hospice in the sestiere of Dorsoduro, Veronese painted some of his own masterpieces. For the Scuola Grande di San Marco, which now serves as the entrance to Venice’s hospital, in the sestiere of Castello, Tintoretto painted his breakthrough Miracle of the Slave (1548), along with his famous depictions of how the body of Mark came to Venice (and its miraculous rediscovery after the Evangelist was, for a time, temporarily misplaced).

Art holds a particular power over the city, just as the city conveys a particular power to art. Undoubtedly this is the reason why many contemporary artists come to congest Venice’s art-filled walls: to claim the city’s revelations, even if what they themselves purport to reveal may be facile and false. Of course, the science-fiction didacticism of the group show in this year’s Biennale, full of blinking lights and spinning whirligigs, speaks little to the art of Venice’s resonant past. In our secular age, so enraptured with the present moment, how could it? Yet sometimes connections can still be made: in the United States Pavilion, the sculptures of Martin Puryear, which draw together the classicism of many sculptural traditions, are fraught with memory; an exhibition on “The Nature of Arp” at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection speaks to the aquatic forms of the lagoon; “Pittura/Panorama: Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952–1992,” at the Palazzo Grimani, returns the great modernist to Venice some fifty years after she dazzled in the United States Pavilion with her aqueous compositions; and at Ca’ Pesaro, “Arshile Gorky, 1904–1948” reveals the tragic vision of the American abstractionist who lost his family in the Armenian genocide.

Through plague and pestilence, rising sea waters and sinking salt marshes, in Venice the end has never seemed all that far off. Today the flood that troubles Venetians most is the tourists pouring out of grandi navi, the massive cruise ships that wreak havoc on the Giudecca Canal and may soon be banned, not the city’s frequent inundations of acqua alta, which locals take in watery stride. Last November, when I was previously in Venice for the Tintoretto exhibitions at the Palazzo Ducale and Accademia museums, the high-water siren sounded at daybreak. The sirene allertamento acqua altanow broadcast from twenty-two points across the historical center and islands of Venice. From my window overlooking the Accademia, I listened as the signal broke the morning spell from the alarm atop San Trovaso. As my water taxi motored up the Grand Canal, the flood waters compounded with the morning rain and washed over the calliaround the Ponte di Rialto.

Thirty-five years ago Venice installed its first flood alarm on the campanile of San Marco. A new alarm developed by the Centro Previsioni e Segnalazioni Maree now uses a wireless network and digital signals of various tones to indicate the height of the rising tide. Venetians also sign up for emergency notices by text message, giving them a few extra minutes to slide in the low metal barriers at the bottom of their doorways to hold back the headwaters. In the months of fall, as the sirocco southern wind, the full moon, and other hydrological effects converge on the Adriatic to push water into the lagoon, many Venetians now simply leave the barriers in place.

The waters of the lagoon have always offered protection and destruction in equal measure. With its canals framing an architecture of exquisite lace, the city’s liquid light gives evanescent form to the miraculous story of survival that began, and ended, on humble Torcello. “Without making this excursion you can hardly pretend to know Venice,” Henry James said of his own visit to that island. “It is impossible to imagine a more penetrating case of unheeded collapse. Torcello was the mother-city of Venice, and she lies there now, a mere mouldering vestige, like a group of weather-bleached parental bones left impiously unburied.”

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New Podcast: Nightmare at the Museum

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New Podcast: Nightmare at the Museum

Andrew Shea, assistant editor of The New Criterion, joins me to discuss cultural politics, in a conversation occasioned by the resignation of Warren B. Kanders from the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

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Gallery Chronicle (June 2019)

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Gallery Chronicle (June 2019)

THE NEW CRITERION, June 2019

Gallery chronicle

On “Picasso’s Women: Fernande to Jacqueline” at Gagosian, “De Kooning: Five Decades” at Mnuchin Gallery, and “Lucian Freud: Monumental” at Acquavella Galleries.

Pablo Picasso once joked that he had an eye at the end of his penis. In his multivolume Life of Picasso, the late John Richardson, Picasso’s ribald biographer, excelled at writing from this point of view. Richardson followed his subject from the studio to the bedroom and back again as the priapic Andalusian cycled through his various models, muses, and mistresses. Now at Gagosian on New York’s Upper East Side, the exhibition “Picasso’s Women: Fernande to Jacqueline” is offered up as tribute to Richardson, who died in March. The show tracks Picasso’s conquests in paint and in bed, beginning with Fernande Olivier and continuing on through his portraits of Olga Khokhlova, Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot, Sylvette David, and Jacqueline Roque.1

Picasso’s brush ranged as widely as that famous eye. One feature of modern art is the active erosion of divisions: between realism and abstraction; figure and ground; painting and sculpture; and among portraiture, still life, and landscape. Picasso’s protean modes could be as seductive and shape shifting as his Cubist facets, endlessly folding in on their reflected selves in glimmers of recognition.

Spanning some seven decades, the thirty-five works in “Picasso’s Women,” from Cubist to classical and back again, variously drawn, painted, and sculpted, seem to share little more than the common subject of “Picasso’s women.” Without a knowledge of Picasso’s unpredictable stylistic turns, especially his classical phase following World War I, one might mistake this selection for a thematic group show of deliberately diversified talent.

“Fernande to Jacqueline,” the subtitle of the exhibition, adds little to inform the visitor, since Picasso’s women were Picasso’s before they were Women. They were muses to be ground up into his artistic medium. At first they were celebrated as deities, with soft lines and swirling colors. Then, inevitably, they would be cast aside as demons, with distorted eyes, twisted breasts, and mouths cracked open in choruses of vaginae dentatae. Picasso made sure to destroy his women pictorially as well as emotionally. There is little biography here save for Picasso’s own.

Pablo Picasso , Femme aux jambes croisées,  1955 ,  Oil on canvas ,  © 2019 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artist Rights Society (ARS) ,  New York ,  Courtesy Gagosian .

Pablo Picasso, Femme aux jambes croisées, 1955Oil on canvas© 2019 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artist Rights Society (ARS)New YorkCourtesy Gagosian.

For better or worse, Picasso never shied away from telling the story of himself through the lives of others, borrowing what he couldn’t steal from the various innovations of fellow artists and making them his own. The exhibition opens with a pair of works that highlight this range of form. Nue endormie, a charcoal on gessoed canvas from 1932, offers a minimum of drawn arabesques of hand, nose, and nipple. Meanwhile a Portrait de femme from 1923, in an unusual media of oil and sand on canvas, could be a Botticelli goddess crossed with a mural from a Greek diner.

There are a handful of sculptures in the mix, several of them quite good, all adding to the formal complexities of the exhibition. One of the revelations of “Picasso Sculpture,” the landmark exhibition that was at the Museum of Modern Art in 2015–16, was that this famous painter who sculpted might better be regarded, in fact, as a sculptor who painted. Whether in his Cubist or classical phases, or somewhere in between, Picasso was a plastic artist by and large who unfolded three-dimensional forms in two dimensions, relying on tonal gradient rather than colored form to build his compositions.

In painted sheet metal or cast bronze, his sculptural work seems to flow effortlessly, informing his paintings in turn. The expression of the painting Tête de femme au chignon (Fernande) (1906) is flash-frozen in the bronze head of the same year, while Cubist Head (Portrait of Fernande) (1909–10) makes more pictorial sense when processed through the matching bronze of 1909. Monochrome paintings such as La Femme-fleur (1946) and Portrait de femme à la queue de cheval, Sylvette(1954) likewise convey the metallic sheen of Tête de femme (1931), on loan from the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, and the rubbed bronze belly of the pregnant Femme enceinte I (1950).

For all of his musing on his muses, Picasso largely took his subjects out of his portraits and rendered them as nameless still lifes. His figures do not come alive on the canvas so much as become hunted, ensnared, starved, and field-dressed in Picassoid symbols and forms. Femme aux jambes croisées (1955) is a woman flayed on the Cubist drying rack. The face of Buste de femme (Dora Maar) (1940) looks like it busted up in the business end of a nutcracker, which may be just the point. Even in such a tender portrait as the famous La Rêve (Marie-Thérèse) (1932), some critics have pointed out that the artist inserted a phallus above the upturned profile.

While merely listed as belonging to a “private collection,” most observers will recognize this last work as the painting purchased by Steven A. Cohen in 2013 for $155 million, then the highest price ever paid for a work of art by an American collector. The transaction occurred even after the former owner Steve Wynn mistakenly knocked his elbow through the canvas, later claiming he suffers from peripheral blindness. What record prices and blind collectors say about the art market, and the enduring value of Picasso, we may only speculate. In any case, this painting is now firmly behind glass, as is Picasso’s titanic reputation.

Willem de Kooning , Woman as Landscape,  1952–53 ,  Oil on canvas ,  Private collection ,  Courtesy Mnuchin Gallery ,  New York. Artwork © 2019 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS) ,  New York .

Willem de Kooning, Woman as Landscape, 1952–53Oil on canvasPrivate collectionCourtesy Mnuchin GalleryNew York. Artwork © 2019 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS)New York.

A clash of the titans rages on the Upper East Side. Now at Mnuchin Gallery, “De Kooning: Five Decades” continues the titanomachy of the twentieth-century art gods—and the mortal women who loved them.2

In our hypersensitive age, de Kooning’s mid-century “women” paintings can seem like windows onto a prehistoric era, when subjects could become objects and artists were not just allowed, but encouraged, to do anything and anyone. De Kooning was himself a genre-bending modernist, a supremely gifted and classically trained draftsman who became a conjurer in paint as well as a philanderer in the sack. As de Kooning said of Picasso, “He’s the guy to beat.” Indeed. While Picasso drowned his women in the depths of abstraction, de Kooning wiped away the abstract froth to reveal the women hidden just below his surfaces.

I have always been partial to that moment just before de Kooning’s seismic revelation, when his figures were active but still sublimated in mysterious forms, such as in moma’s famous black-and-white Painting of 1948 and the Art Institute of Chicago’s Excavation of 1950. The women that came forward in de Kooning’s compositions for a brief, furious period in the 1950s receded just as quickly as they appeared. In the 1960s they were diving deep into the waves of increasingly aqueous abstractions. By the 1980s they had dissolved into the gentle fog of de Kooning’s diminishing mental acuity.

There are several smaller works on paper here, many of them on loan from the Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Maryland, that locate de Kooning’s “woman” breakthrough between 1948 and 1954. They reveal how de Kooning was working through the tension between figuration and abstraction even before he began to extract the breasts and teeth of his women from his abstract forms.

Among the painters of the New York School, de Kooning was especially sensitive to surface treatment. His wet-on-wet application conveys a sensuously felt form. In paintings such as Woman III(1952–53) and Woman as Landscape (1954–55), the apparent manhandling of his crude female forms, up close, can seem like an embrace of color-rich oils and enamels. Once revealed, it may be impossible to see these abstractions any other way.

The waters off Long Island helped de Kooning cool these heated works. Following his move to East Hampton in 1963, both his palette and his paint handling began to chill. Two Women (1964) and Woman and Child (1967) have loosened their grip on de Kooning’s abstract surfaces. The “Untitled” paintings here from the 1970s feel like a refreshing swim in the hot Hampton sun.

Further bending his creative focus, de Kooning produced during this period a suite of watery clay figures, cast in bronze, most famously his Clamdigger (1972). As sculptures that seem to defy solid form, these are powerful works, crude from afar, like those “women,” but supremely tactile up close, imbued with the artist’s hand in their squished and pinched material. These are wet, sun-drenched visions, at the same time intimately felt and distantly perceived across the tidal flats.

For de Kooning, these figures may signal a long withdrawal into the recesses of cognition. A victim of Alzheimer’s who died at age ninety-two in 1997, de Kooning continued to paint into the 1980s, even as his compositions became more simple. There is long debate as to what exactly de Kooning painted himself during this period, and which compositions were driven by assistants. Nevertheless, forms from decades before remain as vestigial visions. Untitled III (1983) reads like a memory of 1950’s Excavation, with its evocations of lips and eyes, while Untitled XLII (1983) is mere ribbons of red and blue paint over light ground. As de Kooning’s forms dissolve into light, all that remains is the whiff of feeling.

Lucian Freud , Naked Man, Back View,  1991–92 ,  Oil on canvas ,  The Metropolitan Museum of Art ,  New York. Photo: © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images.

Lucian Freud, Naked Man, Back View, 1991–92Oil on canvasThe Metropolitan Museum of ArtNew York. Photo: © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images.

Not since Rubens has a painter been so focused on the amplitude of the nude as Lucian Freud. The English grandson of Sigmund, Lucian made a fetish out of flesh, surveying the landscapes of his mottled figures through a favorite selection of subjects. Last month at Acquavella, a loan exhibition brought together thirteen of Freud’s major paintings, curated by the artist’s studio assistant, David Dawson.3

There is, of course, a long tradition of English landscape painting, and Lucian Freud is not the only English modernist to treat the figure as another landscape view. The focus of landscape, especially in the English mode, is all-over, taking it all in, with a predilection for Saxon fact over Gallic fancy. Freud was a precocious draftsman. In 1943, just in his early twenties, he made a drawing of Loch Ness from Drumnadrochit that seems to account for every leaf and stone in pen and ink. His landscape drawings remain a high point in their astonishing detail.

As he turned to the figure, Freud applied this same precision, increasingly recording the marshlands and bogs of the flesh with unsentimental determination. By the time we get to the “monumental,” with the well-known portraits painted from the 1990s to Freud’s death at age eighty-eight in 2011, which were on display at Acquavella, this mode has become a manner. Going for the monumental in both the scale of his canvases and the size of his chosen subjects, most notably Leigh Bowery and “Big Sue,” Freud indulged in the landscapes of the flesh and exaggerated their ample vistas in paint. In Leigh Bowery (Seated) (1990), the perspective begins at groin level before turning to survey Bowery’s hills and dales in widening angles of view. There may be truths in these unflattering figures, but photographs reveal how Freud packed on the pounds and roughed up the flesh. In Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995), he added his own crags and mudslides to the human landscape for dramatic effect. These paintings may shock, but the results replace English fact with modernist fiction.

1 “Picasso’s Women: Fernande to Jacqueline” opened at Gagosian, New York, on May 3 and remains on view through June 22, 2019.

2 “De Kooning: Five Decades” opened at Mnuchin Gallery, New York, on April 19 and remains on view through June 15, 2019.

3 “Lucian Freud: Monumental” was on view at Acquavella Galleries, New York, from April 5 through May 24, 2019.

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