Sunday, July 22, 2012

The End of the Blockbuster?

A blockbuster is a large, popular, moneymaking crowd pleaser  that brings in the crowds and therefore revenue at the gate.  So I am afraid that the blockbuster is here to stay.

There is, however, an alternative that we have seen more and more of as museums have had to cut back.  They are small focused exhibitions which are easy to absorb.

When I was in New York briefly I saw, in addition to the Neuber show at the Frick that I wrote about last week, another little gem of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum: “Bellini, Titian, and Lotto: North Italian Paintings from the Academia Carrara, Bergamo.”

Academia Carrara, Bergamo

Bergamo, Italy is a small hill town near Milan.  This is not the first joint effort between these museums.  In 2000 they collaborated on a show of the work of Evaristo Baschenis (Bergamo, 1617-1677), the pre-eminent Italian still-life painter of the 17th century.  The Accademia in Bergamo, like so many other European institutions, is presently closed for renovation and they have sent exhibitions all over the world as far away as Australia to promote their treasures worldwide during this period.

At the Met the Bergamo  pictures are all in one small gallery in the middle of the Italian painting galleries.  In fact, it is totally unexpected and it is only thanks to a sign over the doorway and a stanchion with a sign in a gallery nearby that I stopped to see what was inside.

The show is easily digestible, just 15 small and medium-sized works focused on North Italian painting done between 1450 and 1550.  I like the fact that one does not have to study the entire history of Byzantium or try to remember 120 or more paintings that either all look similar or completely different: either way the blockbusters are a challenge.

At first I was not that excited by the pictures.  The Titian is not universally accepted, the Bellini is not the one that one would expect Bergamo to lend, but as I spent more time without the pressure of feeling I had many galleries to cover, it began to grow on me.  I have to confess here that I am a big fan of the curator, Andrea Bayer, who has done so many wonderful exhibitions at the Metropolitan such as “Art and Love in Renaissance Italy” in 2008/2009, so I willed myself to see what her goal was.

Curators get bored with always showing the same works of art or similar ones because that is what the public expects.  But like a Billy Joel concert with some new songs inserted among the old favorites a curator may include unexpected works or unfamiliar artists.

Having just seen, at the National Gallery in London, what was billed as “Titian’s earliest masterpiece,” “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” (1506) from the Hermitage I saw a relationship with the Bergamo Titian of “Orpheus and Eurydice” (1508-1512).  Neither looks like what I would call a typical Titian.

Titian's “Orpheus and Eurydice” 

 As I studied the Bellini, however, it was everything one wants from Bellini and more.  The pathos of the “PietÃ¥ with the Virgin and Saint John” (1555-1560) is palpable.  If you look at it long enough you are totally absorbed into the moment.

Bellini's “PietÃ¥ with the Virgin and Saint John” 

In fact my very favorite picture in the show is by a relatively little-known artist, Bergognone (Ambrogio di Stefano da Fossano) (active 1481 died circa 1523) of “Saint Ambrose and Emperor Theodosius I” (1490).  I just saw as I am writing this that the back cover to the catalog is of this image. The participants in the picture all seem to relate to each other.  The Emperor is actually listening to St. Ambrose and the other figures are all paying attention to the interaction between these two.  At least to me, it seems that the artist actually witnessed this event and the participants were aware of the artist as well.

Bergognone's “Saint Ambrose and Emperor Theodosius I”

The catalog is mercifully small, not a tome that you cannot hold and read.  Sometimes, I jokingly ask the bookstore clerks that if I buy the catalog will they carry it home for me.  In this case, when I went back to the exhibition for a second look I could easily take the catalog along with me and make some notes in it. 

Andrea Bayer told me that one of her goals is to do a number of these more intimate exhibitions with smaller, easily readable catalogs that parenthetically have proven to sell very well.

Exhaustive exhibitions have their place but too often they are just exhausting! 

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