Painting

Washington Art Debut

Most countries have their emblematic art museum, the best in the nation, in their capital city. We suspect that will never be the case in the US, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Washington DC’s art museums are bad. Quite the opposite, in fact; the National Gallery of Art is quite a decent museum, with a very good collection. Plus, it’s free, which makes it even better (I recently visited Philadelphia’s Art Museum, of Rocky staircase fame, and had to pay… so free is good).

I was there in June 2019 (while exploring Washington on occasion of my visit to the International Space development Conference), and while I usually pay more attention to the 19th century landscape artists and impressionists and post-impressionists than anything else, this time we’re going to be focusing on Flemish and Dutch painters.

Why? Because, on that visit, I happened to grab a booklet entitled The Dutch and Flemish Cabinet Galleries, which I read recently. I generally try to read these booklets eventually, because I enjoy remembering what I saw there, and also learning from curators.

If you have a layman’s understanding of art, the general information about how Flemish and Dutch art developed in the 17th century alongside the newly prosperous merchant bourgeoisie might not be necessary, but I always find the curator’s view of what makes a specific painting interesting to be pure gold. As a layman, I look at paintings and I either like them or don’t, they either generate a specific emotional response or they don’t, etc. But experts can look past that and point out exactly what makes a given piece different from the rest.

And that exercise is hugely worthwhile. As you know, I read a bunch of thick books, where often the pleasure comes in discovering what happens to each of the characters, and how the problems get resolved. So taking half an hour to stare at a selection of 20 pictures that I might not have given a second glance at in a museum (must move over this section quickly, where are the Van Goghs?) is a relaxing exercise. Not quite as good as being in the museum itself, but very good all the same.

One of the things I look forward to most about the end of the pandemic is that museums should reopen fully. The world is so much poorer when these places aren’t running at full capacity.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His erotic thriller Timeless really takes flight after his protagonist has a long think in the Frick Gallery in New York. Art lovers and people who like to be excited in all senses of the world would do well to check it out here.

A Key Link to Modern Art

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

In 2012, a major traveling exhibition of Caravaggio’s work was shown at Buenos Aires’ Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.  It was entitled Caravaggio y Sus Seguidores (Caravaggio and His Followers).

I didn’t go.

But a few years later, my wife was given the catalogue of that exhibition, a beautiful heavyweight, glossy volume, as a gift and I tossed it onto my to-be-read pile, thinking it would probably be interesting.

Now, most of you will likely be wondering of what possible interest the catalogue of an exhibition I didn’t see could possibly be.  It’s a valid question, but the truth is that here at CE a) we like art and b) we like books, so it was a no-brainer.  Even if I hated it, I would at least have learned what it was like to read an auction catalogue.

Caravaggio y Sus Seguidores - Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

I didn’t hate it, though.  Quite the contrary.  The book was a fascinating collection of essays on several topics.  The first was a biography of the painter himself, the second a discussion about the works, both by the man himself and by some of the painters who followed his innovative footsteps.  Finally, the volume closed with a history of pre-8th-century art in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.

In a nutshell, Caravaggio was a fascinating figure both as an artist and a person.  He was involved in duels, murder and dissipation, and he spent his later years on the run from the law (an interesting situation considering his high profile).

Of course, it was as an artist, not an amateur murderer, where he made his mark.  His combination of chiaroscuro technique (of which he was a pioneer) with psychological realism (which wasn’t to be imitated until centuries later) was utterly new at the time, and broke all kinds of ground.  This is why the collection of his imitators / followers–even though he never had his own school–is so impressive.

So that’s what the book was about, and yes, it was mostly new information.  But what really jumped out at me from the text was the awful difficulties presented in attempting to assign attribution to unsigned paintings four hundred years old with gaps in their history.

A good chunk of the text is devoted to explaining why a certain painting is presented to us as being by a particular painter, often despite centuries of attribution to another.  Apparently imaging techniques that came into use in the past 30 years or so have rendered many of the expert opinions of the past obsolete.

Now the text was pretty dry, but reading between the lines, I imagine that the arguments back and forth are pretty heated.  Will they turn murderous, the way Caravaggio’s often did?  I hope not… but with so many of the people involved being Italian, I imagine passions will run hot and tempers will flare.

Another body or two could only add to his legacy.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is a thriller entitled Timeless.  You can check it out here.