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81: TIEPOLO/GOYA

#81: TIEPOLO/GOYA. I love Tiepolo. To some of my art-fancying friends, as well as to many a critic of painting, this is a sign of frivolity, if not moral degeneration; but to others, just the mention of Tiepolo’s name provokes a smile, even a grin, of shared delight. Whose colors are like Tiepolo’s, with their cool, almost pastel surfaces, their outré tonal combinations, the sudden intrusions of dark and of bursting light? Above all, whose compositions are like his, with cherubs flying and falling, as if gravity had snapped to after a moment of inattention? The kind of painter Tiepolo is means that an arid, academic or tedious book about him would be a special offense; in Tiepolo Pink (Knopf, 2009) the Italian writer Roberto Calasso approaches the eighteenth-century Venetian painter as the final European master of sprezzatura—he calls him “the last breath of happiness in Europe”—and explores his work with affection, insight and a marvelous congruence of temper. Sprezzatura Castiglione characterizes as “a certain nonchalance that may conceal art and demonstrate that what ones does and says one does without effort and almost without thought.” For him it was the “complete contrast” to affectation; I’ve seen it translated as “effortless mastery”. In Tiepolo’s exuberant and airborne scenes there is often a drama afoot just a bit beyond easy explanation, and Calasso approaches this mystery—Tiepolo’s “particular way of meeting the challenge of form”—not just via the ceilings and canvases but by the lesser known etchings, the Capricci and Scherzi. Throughout he defends Tiepolo against the dispraises of Longhi and other critics with just the right gravity of manner—the courtesy of erudition and the joy of complete involvement. Tiepolo Pink is a handsome book, a grave delight, and no poor example of sprezzatura itself. Castiglione’s last word on the topic: “From this, I believe, does much grace arrive.” Brava.

And after Tiepolo, the satire, the horned sexuality, the nightmares and terrors of that pained and contrary Spaniard, Francisco Goya y Lucientes. The syllable of light in the last part of his name has always seemed an irony to me, because, for all the range of his work, many of Goya’s paintings are surely darkness made visible. In many years of museum-going no thunder has ever rolled over me more loudly, more unexpectedly, than the galleries in the Prado which house the Pinturas Negras, the Black Paintings, murals rescued from the Quinta del Sordo, Goya’s last home in Spain before he was allowed to escape to a brief respite in Bordeaux before his death. With a couple of exceptions, these paintings seem impervious to explication, to narrative or mythic framework, to period reference; the vast panels of black and gold might be described as completely hermetic, completely baffling, but for the voltage and complexity of their emotional contact with the viewer. It is the corrosive and hallucinatory side of Goya’s work that most of us see first, but Robert Hughes in his magisterial Goya (Knopf, 2003; the small reproductions are extraordinarily good) gives us the grand and varied tour of the master’s work—the court painting, the religious decorations, the society portraits, down to the final lithographs, drawings, and works on ivory, down even to the unexpected influence of Tiepolo’s etchings on Goya’s own. Hughes also guides us through the Spain of Goya’s day—the power and collapse of the Bourbons, the Bonapartist intrusions, the hopelessly unappetizing Fernando VII (“cowardly, dim, cunning and cruel,” Hughes calls him, with simple accuracy). He brings a mordant eye to the politics of Spain and, in demonstrating the sources of Goya’s sometimes baleful stare, demonstrates also that, as with Calasso on Tiepolo, he is precisely the right man for the task. It’s a terrific, informative, readable book.

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