Museums are designed – and public museums are mandated – to act as the stewards of the nation’s or a city’s heritage. The New York Public Library failed dismally in this respect, a failure only eclipsed by the National Gallery, which quite frankly is serving as the bagman for the theft of public art treasures from New York City and Philadelphia.
The overall sensation evoked by examining the works on display in “Cezanne to Picasso,” however, is one of awe at his grasp and appreciation of the creative talent of artists spurned, at least initially, by the rest of the art world.
Not quite a century ago, on August 29, 1911, thousands of people began flocking to the Louvre (among them, Franz Kafka and his friend Max Brod) to gaze at a blank space on a wall. The 49-acre Louvre – still the largest museum in the world today – had been closed for most of the preceding week for the investigation of a singular occurrence: the most famous painting in the world had disappeared from that blank spot.
No less than the American financier who donates a museum wing on condition it bears his name, or the merchandiser who endows a university institute named for him, the results of Renaissance patronage had to be, first of all, highly visible.
Writers of the caliber of Anton Chekov, Alexsander Blok and Anna Akhmatova, visionary artists like Mikhail Vrubel, Leon Bakst and Kazimir Malevich and inspired patrons like Diaghilev were matched by counterparts in music, architecture, the social sciences and Russia’s burgeoning Industrial Revolution. Composer Igor Stravinsky, the aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky, dancer Vaslav Nijinksy and a host of others formed a constellation of talent worthy of comparison to the leading lights of Florence in the age of Lorenzo de Medici.
A famous double portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds shows members of the Dilettanti Society sipping away while making rude gestures about vaginas while holding up gemstones from classical antiquity and admiring painted Greco-Roman vases.
A favourite theme which recurred again and again in wall paintings was the satyr creeping up behind a nymph to catch her by surprise. In at least one case the nymph, her veil ripped away, turns out to be a hermaphrodite, to the satyr’s theatrical dismay, and the observer’s amusement. Some wall paintings showed homosexual sex and, because African motifs were popular, another depicted picnicking pygmies enjoying a group orgy under a tent.
‘Coffee table book’ is a familiar pejorative used to describe an intellectual lounge ornament which, should the need arise, can also serve as a doorstop, table prop or weapon in marital dispute.
It was partly in reaction to the religious discord and iconoclasm of the Reformation, that artists in Europe around 1700 began seeking inspiration from sources removed from Christian spirituality. And where European innovators led, artists of other traditions and cultures would in time follow. The journey on the road to “art for art’s sake” had begun.
For all of his own moral blemishes, Caravaggio knew exactly how to please the princes of the Catholic Church. He completely rejected the pretentious intellectualism and coy erotic themes that had preoccupied the Mannerist painters.