Sunday, November 19, 2023

The Frick Collection’s Last Exhibition at the Frick Madison

As a writer, a number of museums grant me privileges that I wish I could make full use of. I get press notices and releases and can, at least in theory, go to press previews. Living in Santa Fe I cannot easily take advantage of many.

Recently I received an invitation from the Frick Collection for the preview of their final exhibition in their Madison Avenue space. By the time you read this, the exhibition will have opened. It will neither be the largest nor the most complicated they have ever done though it definitely must have been a masterstroke of International Diplomacy. The exhibition is called “Bellini and Giorgione in the House of Taddeo Contarini”.

If you have read these Missives for a while, you already know that “St. Francis in the Desert” by Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516). has been my favorite painting in the Frick, since I was a child. It is being placed “in dialog” with Vienna’s Kunsthistoricsches Museum “Three Philosophers” by Giorgione. Only six works are generally accepted by Giorgione’s hand, and it is not a common occurrence for a museum to lend a prized work of such importance. Think of the risks involved in transatlantic shipments and the concerns of having another institution dealing with one of your precious “children”. Should, god forbid, something happen to this picture that is being sent to an institution over 4,000 miles away, the political fallout alone would be seismic!

Giorgione (circa 1477/78 – 1510), is one of the earliest and most influential Renaissance painters although there is little known about him. Since he died young at 32 or 33, Giorgio Vasari (1512-1574) in his Lives of the Artists, stated that the cause was probably the plague of that period.

Giovanni Bellini painted a dozen times as many paintings. I venture that “St. Frances in the Desert” is his best and most famous. By now you are wondering, so, what do these two works have to do with each other? The answer is quite simply that they were owned by the same collector, a Venetian nobleman, Taddeo Contarini (circa 1466-1540). It is thought that quite possibly “The Three Philosophers” was commissioned by Contarini as the companion piece to “St. Francis in the Desert”. According to the Vice-Director and Chief Curator of the Museum, Xavier F. Salomon, Contarini is best known for owning these two masterpieces. Let me not forget to say that Salomon has written an accompanying book about these two masterpieces and their owner, available at the Museum and on Amazon.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum entry on their painting says that it has been seriously cut on the left-hand side. In a paper by Patrick Boucheron, he writes, “The cavern clearly once dominated the original picture, of which 20 centimeters of the left side was chopped off in the eighteenth century – which explains why the first accounts of the workplace such emphasis on the scenery.”

The many questions that surround these complex works may be illuminated either in the show or in the accompanying book. Why the title of Giorgione’s “The Three Philosophers” is accepted today though it had had other titles such as The Three Astronomers, The Three Ages of Man, and The Magi in the past. Why was the painting cut?

There are other questions regarding St. Francis. Are we viewing a “stigmatization by light,” a symbolic portrait, or Francis singing a hymn of his own composition? There is so much symbolism in the landscape. He may be in the desert, but you can see a town very nearby.

Viewing these two paintings together as their original owner did provides the opportunity to study and analyze their meaning, or simply look and enjoy two masterpieces. The exhibition will be on view until February 24, 2024, at which time the Philosophers will go home to Vienna and St. Francis will head home to his mansion on 70th Street.

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