410 Ceci n’est pas une peinture

Schwartz thought that his love for art in museums was strong enough to assure his enjoyment of museums, even while acknowledging that they removed art from its original locations and contexts. Last month he took a shock to the system, in Venice. For Doeschka and Bernard.

As a museum junkie, I have long wilfully suspended whatever reservations I might have concerning the objects of my affection. The main one is that museums pluck art works – let’s talk about paintings – from the environment for which they were made and claim them for their own. This self-blinding attitude is easier to maintain for aficionados of Dutch seventeenth-century art than for many other schools, simply because most of the paintings made here were stand-alone objects that could be hung anywhere. But my easygoingness carried over to the museum display of other kinds of paintings as well.

Until a month ago. There we were, Loekie and I, staying with dear friends at their apartment in Cannaregio, Venice. Getting back to their place from the Arsenale, our first Biennale destination, with ground plan and guidebook in hand, we had to force ourselves to keep walking, passing one irresistible wonder after another. Then we came upon a sight past which we could not walk, the façade of the Gran Scuola di San Marco.

­­­The elegant variations on a Venetian theme, the games played with perspective, to the point of making believe the façade was a painting, the freedom taken with strict forms, knowing you could get away with it – too much! When we came back the next day to go into the building, we were stunned again. Can you believe that this is actually the unmarked entrance to a hospital? To the Ospedale Civile Ss.Giovanni e Paolo? You enter a huge hall, with a little table at which a guard sits, directing patients down to the end and suggesting to tourists, who are also free to go that way, that instead they climb the stairs on the right to the magnificent first floor, with a splendid presentation on the history of medicine, supplied with expensive facsimiles that you can browse.

There, thanks to the special relationship that the scuola, a lay brotherhood, enjoyed with the patron saint of the city, a cycle of paintings of the story of St. Mark had been painted by Vittore Carpaccio, Giovanni and Gentile Bellini, and Jacopo Tintoretto. These have however been removed and are now divided between the Accademia in Venice and the Brera in Milan, to be replaced in part by copies that are not even in the original locations. Why, we anguished. Those in the Accademia, rather than in a reconstruction of the spaces for which the paintings were made, are hung uninterestingly in typical museum spaces. The scuola has been robbed of a treasure that it engendered; it has been turned into a simulacrum of itself.

Our chagrin was augmented when we turned from secular to sacred environments, and the impact on them of museum values. Here is what I mean. Just look at the photo, of an altarpiece in the church of S. Pietro Martire on Murano, in contrast to a view, below, in the Accademia.

The canvas in the altarpiece, by Palma Giovane, shows a Madonna in an angelic heaven gazing down, and the Child she holds gesturing in blessing at Sts. Nicholas, Carlo Borromeo and Lucy. It is not mainly a painting at all. It is the centerpiece of a complete presentation in architecture and sculpture, to which a worshiper would climb the stairs to pay respect. The columns have the helical turn that characterize them as “Solomonic,” modeled on columns brought by Emperor Constantine from Jerusalem to Rome in the fourth century and given to St. Peter’s. The image derives status from carved symbols of sanctity and deity in higher spheres than saints or martyrs. The church wardens have arranged for the altar to be adorned with fresh flowers. It is illuminated by a chandelier made on Murano island, a twentieth-century addition to the ensemble. The installation of the chandeliers will have been blessed by a visiting bishop, bringing the lives and livelihoods of the locals into the historical and eternal veneration.

The Milanese reforming cardinal Carlo Borromeo was not beatified until 1610, so that the painting was a homage to a mortal who was known in his lifetime, perhaps even personally, to whoever commissioned the painting and its framing elements. Why he is combined with Nicholas and Lucy will have been known by the priests of St. Peter Martyr and the parishioners of the time. Perhaps it was donated by a man named Nicola married to a Lucia.

Most significant of all is that the image stands above an altar that is sanctified by a relic, perhaps of Carlo Borromeo, which would have been most accessible. The entire constellation comes to supernatural life, endowed by the relic, when a priest raises the host at it and then feeds it to the congregants, imparting salvation to all. That is what Palma Giovane (1548 or 1550-1628, no longer so young in 1610), was honoring with his creation.

And what do we see in the Accademia? Amputated fragments of such ensembles, lacking all that wealth of significance, association and stature, attached only to the incidental attribute that is the name of the artist. The museum condones – enjoins – the stripping of this wealth of meaning, to impose on it a fairly irrelevant art-historical nametag.

You see what this does to me! It turns me into a rhapsodist of oligarchic supremacy and Catholic devotion. Oy vei iz mir!

© Gary Schwartz 2022. Published on the Schwartzlist on 31 October 2022.

Our experience of the Biennale, our first, was mixed, but above all we felt sheer appreciation for the immense effort to make the work of hundreds of artists available in such fabulous surroundings. One highpoint, in the Belgian pavilion, was The nature of the game, an addictive set of videos of children’s games, filmed over the years by Francis Alÿs. A complete set is freely available at https://francisalys.com/category/childrens-games/. Look at some, you’ll love them.

My ambition to attend Rosh Hashanah services at the stunning synagogue in the Old Ghetto, designed by Baldassare Longhena, was frustrated. A guard kept me out, saying that the synagogue was full. But I was able to go to the following Sabbath services, on the Sabbath of Repentance, Shabat Shuvah. That was made possible through my meeting with the custodian of the Jewish cemeteries on the Lido, the nonagenarian Aldo Izzo. We were introduced to him by Ruth Ellen Gruber, the maker of Jewish Heritage Europe. See the Halloween submission and take out a subscription. Here are these wonderful people in the old cemetery.

There is too much to tell, forgive me. After getting home, the following month was a period of rising tension and ever longer work days, getting the Dutch and English editions of my book Rembrandt in a red beret ready for printing. Stressful, but last Wednesday it was done – at least, it was taken out of my hands and sent to the press. Publication is scheduled for 2 December.

A closing memory of Venice, with all the sentiment I feel:

Responses in the Reply box below (these will be viewed by all visitors to the site) or personally to Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl are always appreciated and will be answered.

So will donations. Don’t be shy, send a donation.

Your donations help defray the costs of the Schwartzlist and encourage Gary Schwartz to write more columns.

.Donate Button

15 thoughts on “410 Ceci n’est pas une peinture”

  1. A poignant entry. Wonderful photos. Sentiments, regarding Venice, I share. Last there in May and June of this year, where the most overwhelming of the sights was the Kiefer exhibition in the Palazzo Ducale. Of course the splendors in Venice are unending, but that Kiefer show seemed to me a wonder in every way.

    1. I’m afraid we missed the Kiefer show, Robert. Can’t always get our priorities right. The closest we got to the Palazzo Ducale was the fascinating presentation by Taiwan in the Palazzo delle Prigioni. They reviewed all their Biennale submissions from the start, in the 1990s. Another of the self-reflective presentations was the less fascinating Spanish pavilion in the Giardini, where the architect realigned the ground plan to click on the grid. The space was left empty, to give full scope to this spatial concept. Self-important silliness, which I also found in some of the other country pavilions.

  2. What an utterly fantastic entry. The last photo was so warm, but the one of the Accademia? So cold! And I do not hate that museum by any stretch of the imagination. We can talk some time (soon, I hope) about the works still in situ at SS. Giovanni e Paolo and the Frari. I can talk Venice all day (or all dinner).

  3. You may well say “Oy vei”. My take is that there is a very different aesthetic experience in seeing the works in the museum setting. Whereas in the church they are adjuncts to an aggregate of socially-distorting religious propaganda, in the gallery the emphasis shifts to the artistic representation and narrative history of the depicted events. For me this is critical distinction.

    1. Yes, Christopher, exactly. Museums appropriate art from other, more personal and more integral environments and impose new sets of values on them, values that I too share. But in the cases I cite, I find the loss greater than the gain.

  4. yes, on the spot. Thank you Gary, exactly my thinking.
    Another example.
    Last week I enjoyed dinner at La Colonne d’Or in St Paul de Vence, dining surrounded by ART, a Picasso on my left, a Braque, Bonnard, Tinguely and many more. The astonishing energy works of art have in their original setting.

    1. This is an old frustration of mine, Monica. In 1987 I started working on a scheme I called the Musée Documentaire. One of the features was to be “a database of the works of art in Europe which are still located on the premises, or owned by the families, for whom they were made. The information from archival documents, inventories and catalogues too can gain in effect if fitted onto the armature of the Musée Documentaire.” From an article of 1989: http://www.garyschwartzarthistorian.nl/le-musee-documentaire/. This is one of my plans that fell by the wayside.

      I was happy to see, at the last CODART congress, that the theme was talked about by a choice of speakers. Called Art in Situ, you can check it out here: https://www.codart.nl/our-events/codart-23/theme/. Each of them came upon complicating factors that made the entire issue more complex, and perhaps even dubious, than in my old plan. An imaginary (I hope) example of the kind of issues discussed would be to find out that the altar in S. Pietro Martire I get so excited about turns out to have been concocted from elements drawn from other churches and not assembled and put on the spot until sometime in the twentieth century.

      But thanks for the dinner tip!

  5. Dear Gary, Thank you very much for your thoughtful remarks. I agree, but in some cases works of art, otherwise damaged or destroyed, could survive in our museums.
    We were last week in Venice, I also liked the pavilion of Belgium very much. My immediate association was: actual response to the “Children’s Games” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

    1. Dear Karl,

      I’m sure we agree about the benefits of preservation in a good museum. There are all kinds of considerations to be weighed against each other. One of the big ones is our unwillingness to acknowledge that we are using art objects up, no matter how we treat or neglect them. Time, wear and tear go, for the moment, only in one direction.

      Yes, Bruegel, absolutely. Loekie and I went through all the writings and texts in the Belgian pavilion, and when we didn’t find a reference to his children’s games we decided that the curators of the pavilion were not being completely open with us.

  6. I dream of seeing my favorite Rembrandt painting (Br. 431) under conditions of lighting and viewing like those of his day, and, while we’re at it, why not by candlelight? Of course, I’m not talking about a Wunderkammer… which in a way is what museums have always been. But doesn’t the whole thing, whether Catholicism or Love of Art (or Purity…), boil down to fetishism? And do I have to cite the 2nd Commandment? Ceci n’est pas cela.

    1. I too wonder about light (and climate) conditions for the makers and the viewers through the centuries of so much art. Some day I have to collect images showing how they did it. Fetishism is something I don’t worry about. Maybe I should though. All those books…

  7. Gary,

    There’s an additional wrinkle on context and meaning. I so agree that seeing a work intended with a specific meaning for a specific context is crucial to both seeing and understanding–and even here, this is something where the dynamics keep changing: churches (and synagogues too!) are never static places frozen in transparent amber to what a particular work is destined; modernizations over time, changes in lighting, in the other stuff that accumulates around it or is removed, as well as the mindset of the people viewing it at a specific moment is always differing. As Art Historians, can we really ever know, no matter how much we try, how the original was perceived or seen? Maybe the real parallel in our time is the contemporary art installation, conceived for a specific space for a specific timespan, for people with a specific mindset. To put a work in a museum is rather like exhibiting a taxidermist’s careful reconstruction of a bird or animal for a natural history museum. We can’t hear their songs, or experience their smells–or the way they move that we can in the wild. And so we try, looking backward, to evoke it, but can never really catch it as it was.

  8. Guy Sainty posted this comment on Facebook:

    “Of course you are right but then one has to introduce the issue of security – remember the Caravaggio Nativity, stolen in 1969 from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo and never seen since. Thousands of churches across Europe have been looted and their treasures, seldom of the importance of the Caravaggio but nonetheless as significant for the church, have disappeared. Since the state has taken ownership and therefore responsibility for most ecclesiastical property in Europe, it is the state which has the duty to maintain these buildings. But it doesn’t do so, although churches are locked (preventing easy access) there is usually no real security.

    Thankfully the Tintorettos in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco remain in place, but the great Veronese Supper at Cana was taken to the Louvre by Napoleon. The reproduction made by Factum is very effective in the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore, and the presentation of the painting in the Louvre much more visible. So much art has been displaced from its original home but one sees great works of art now reposing in country houses in Britain and that are considered rather bizarrely as part of Britain’[s artistic heritage. The museum as an institution offers the visitor a chance to appreciate and experience great art which might otherwise be inaccessible – but to move it from one place to another in the same city is harder to justify. I am not disagreeing with the principle of leaving art in the places for which it was made, but I have little trust in the state authorities responsible for its custody.”

    Many thanks for these good remarks, Guy. As I started off to say, I love museums and am the last one in the world to contest their reason for being, or to belittle their function as preservers of vulnerable heirlooms. But having been brought up short in the Accademia, I found myself wondering whether the shift in focus they sometimes bring about, from integral embeddedness in society and cult to extraction on art-historical and aesthetic terms, can’t be mitigated a bit or more than a bit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *