Masterpieces, for your viewing pleasure

Whenever I go to the public library, which is often, I cruise through the new books.  Last time I was there, I came across, What Makes a Masterpiece: Artists, Writers, and Curators on the World’s Greatest Art.  I almost didn’t pick it up. The word “masterpiece” really gets my back up.  Who’s to say what makes a masterpiece?  It makes me think of THE CANON, in literature and in art history, in film, too, and how elitist and subjective that has always seemed to me. And how powerful.  Then as I’m opening the book, I’m wondering what is going to comprise “the world’s greatest works of art.”  Western/European/American art predominantly, right?  It’s got to be.  And it is, although they do include some Asian art, and an African and Native American piece or two.   The book has excellent illustrations, including many of the art objects in situ, and although a lot of the writing is fact presentation, each chapter is by a different curator, art critic, artist, or art historian, so you get different writing styles, approaches and opinions for each artwork.  Here’s a sample:

Philip Pullman (of the His Dark Materials series/Golden Compass  fame) on Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergere:

Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1882

Pullman’s writing about this painting is engaging and dramatic, and he makes points that are different from what you usually read.  What I find most interesting about it, though, is that he delves into the land of portraits.  Is this painting a portrait?  Sure — it’s a painting of a person.  A specific person, it appears.  Pullman says that the barmaid’s expression, which he says we can’t read (then he goes on to read it, by the way — it’s hard to resist), is “an enigma so profound that even if we managed to describe the rest of the painting in words, we’d still have to throw up our hands in despair” when trying to interpret her expression.  I disagree, Mr. Pullman.  For me, her expression is quite easy to read.  I try to be very careful about portraits, at least about reading the expression on the person’s face.  It’s usually so subjective.  Having said that, in this case, she looks resigned to me, and kind of distracted.   She’s doing her job, she’s dressed appropriately and she’s appropriately attentive, but she’s not loving every  minute of it.  Pullman comes to a similar place, saying that her face expresses sadness, regret, unease, alienation.  What do you think?

Still with me?  How about one more?

Ornella Casazza (art conservator who directed the restoration of the Brancacci Chapel) on The Brancacci Chapel frescoes by Masaccio and Masolino:

The walls of the  Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence are covered with frescoes of the story of the life of St. Peter, as well as some scenes from the book of Genesis.  One of the most striking things about these frescoes, to me, is that this:

Masolino, The Temptation, 1424-28

is in the same fresco cycle as this:

Masaccio, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve, 1424-28

I love the juxtaposition of these two frescoes, done at the same time in the same chapel.  We like to think of art as a progression, from one style or technique to another.  But quite often, two or more styles or techniques happily co-exist, as is the case here.  And the two styles are quite fitting for the subjects the artists are depicting.  When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, up until the Temptation, the beginning of which is painted by Masolino, there was nothing to get worked up about.  Calmness reigned, right?  When Adam and Eve are expelled, they should be upset, and they are, visibly and physically.  They’re in anguish.  I think it’s really interesting that Eve covers her body and Adam covers his face — how should we interpret that?  And the serpent in Masolino’s fresco?  Perfectly creepy and disturbing, as that serpent should be.

So a couple of things.  Masaccio, age 21,  and Masolino, 39, worked on this chapel together.  Masolino means “little Tom,” and I always thought that Masaccio meant “big, bad Tom.”  I’ve read recently that it means either “ugly Tom” or “clumsy Tom.”  This changes things.  I’ve always wondered how the older master, Masolino, felt about being called little, while his younger collaborator was kind of a badass.  Turns out that Masaccio was given a rather cruel nickname.  Puts a different spin on the whole thing.  And Masaccio died when he was 26.  That blows me away.  How could he accomplish all that he did before age 30?  Simply amazing.

I can’t resist posting this (before and after cleaning in the 1980s.  For more detailed, and I mean detailed, information about the Brancacci Chapel restoration, click here.):

Masaccio, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve

Back to masterpieces.  We played a lot of board games when I was a kid, and one of my favorites was Masterpiece.   You attached paintings to cards that had dollar amounts (or the word “forgery”) on them, then moved playing pieces around the board, buying and selling paintings as directed.  That game was all about how much a painting is worth, a  criterion not mentioned by Christopher Dell in the introduction to What Makes a Masterpiece.  He does a good job of covering the question, including the history of the word “masterpiece,” summing up what artists strive to do in this way: “to surpass themselves, to produce something that is greater than the sum of its parts, and that will live on after they’re gone.”  He doesn’t come to any conclusions regarding what a masterpiece is, and in the end, I appreciate that.  I suspect that the book was given this title to grab our attention, whether negative or positive, and it does!

I’ll leave you with a chuckle.  Here’s the 1970s ad for the game of Masterpiece.


(Quote from What Makes a Masterpiece: Artists, Writers, and Curators on the World’s Greatest Art, page 13. )


One thought on “Masterpieces, for your viewing pleasure

  1. Pingback: Rainy Days with Caillebotte and a Little Bit of Hockney | I've got some art stuck in my eye

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