Home » fine art

Sunday in the Park with Dramaturgical Heueristics

Tiepolo Pink

Roberto Calasso (translated by Alastair McEwen)
Knopf, 2009

From the very first moment he sold a painting or fresco (probably around 1715), Giambattista Tiepolo has been the favorite punching bag of condescending critics. Giorgio Manganelli said of him “he is an idolater of light disguised as a human being,” and he didn’t mean it in a friendly way. Critic Roberto Longhi referred to a Tiepolo as “a Veronese after a downpour.” Bernard Berenson, the avaricious procurer of so many of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s art treasures, sniffingly commented, “It was Tiepolo’s vision of the world that was at fault, and his vision of the world was at fault only because the world itself was at fault.” The consensus among the cognoscenti has always been that Tiepolo is an adequate coverer of walls but a far cry from the best Venice has to offer.

To be fair, he brought some of this on himself. He did virtually everything an artist needs to do in order to curry no favor with the pretentious snobs of future ages: he worked fairly quickly, he worked, so far as we know, exclusively for money, he wasn’t a particularly tortured individual, he trafficked in historical and mythological allegories (hoo-boy, nothing make modern snobs madder than that), and when the commissions started piling up, he was happy to merely oversee the drafting of works and let assistants (chiefly his sons) do the detail-work. In other words, from his own day to the present, he’s been suspected of being a hack, an odd-jobs man, a hired paintbrush with no more genuine artistic sensitivity than a Thomas Kinkade or a Bev Doolittle.

History moves on, critical schools form and disband, and those of us who don’t profess to be cognoscenti must look to other things in order to form our own opinions of someone like Tiepolo (if we’re smart, we’ll do it with every artist, in every medium, but let’s at least start with Tiepolo and see how we do). The first, last, and most important things to look at are the man’s paintings. And that has always saved Tiepolo, because his paintings are full of untroubled wonder, shining in the sun. Whenever an impartial viewer comes across one and sees it sprawling there smiling in the bright light of its own conception, that viewer will smile and exhale a little, the involuntary intake of a little rapture. Most painters are lucky if they’re able to cause such a reaction once or twice in a career; Tiepolo, with his massive processions of richly-costumed characters preening and cavorting, does it in every canvas, in every fresco. French critic Maurice Barres said of him, “My companion, my true self, is Tiepolo,” and countless viewers have felt the same way: that they were cultivating a secret preference, that they had found a friend among the numberless ranks of costume-ball painters whose work fills the halls, chapels, and churches of Italy and Europe.

Certainly I feel that way about Tiepolo, have for years. So it’s only natural that the prospect of well-known writer Roberto Calasso publishing a book-length appreciation of Tiepolo would fill me with a cold sense of dread.

Not because I’m so enamored of the delusion of privately possessing Tiepolo that I’d begrudge him the new attention such a book would bring him – no, I would dearly love it if more people, and even some among the cognoscenti, could have their eyes opened to the glories of this particular Venetian master.

No, the dread comes from the fact that as a writer, Calasso is so full of cow crap that if you planted seeds in his cerebellum in midsummer, you’d have a bumper crop of pumpkins come autumn. His many admirers have tripped over themselves to excuse – or honor – the fact that in his prose he often seems not to know what he’s doing or what points he’s making, probably because in certain literary circles even pure twaddle will get the laurel as long as it’s ineffable twaddle. But no number of ecstatic (and, alas, ruefully accurate) cries “Only Calasso could have written that!” can change the fact that his breakout title The Ruin of Kasch has hardly a single coherent sentence not cobbled together by a hapless editor or polished into prose by a heroic translator, nor the fact that his most popular book, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, is a muddle so thorough I’m certain even its author has never read it.

So we come back to the cold dread. The idea of Calasso writing at length about my secret self, my Tiepolo, struck the same twisted-ironic note that genies always strike when granting some poor slob a wish. Eternal life? Certainly – but as a cucumber! A mainstream book about Tiepolo by a popular author? Certainly – but it’s Roberto Calasso! Ha ha HAH!

A certain irony hovers over bemoaning an author’s impenetrable self-indulgence while talking about Tiepolo, that most gaudy yet removed of artists, but it’s not a deep irony nor an instructive one. Peer beneath the color and riot of any major work by Tiepolo, and you will find not only consummate technical skill but a puckish brain at work. Peer beneath the garrulous showmanship of Calasso’s prose (translated here by Alastair McEwan) and you get passage after passage like this:

Although Tiepolo probably didn’t know the word – we may surmise – he would have found it indifferent and extraneous, an epistemological change seems to underpin his painting. It is as if the Vedantic maya had clandestinely seeped into the pigments and enveloped every figure, but without changing in any way the ceremonial of commissions, subjects, and techniques. But could this be a misrepresentation, an unjust attribution of significance to a style of painting that contemporaries did not even consider particularly new and admired above all for its skilled execution? There is no way of ascertaining this. But neither can we exclude it in principle: certain boundaries are stepped over unnoticed, without this being perceived by the one taking the step or being recognized by others. If we wished, we could propose a proof by contradiction, a kind of ordeal: in the absence of that all-embracing maya, Tiepolo’s world ought to be understandable in another way, in terms better suited to his times and milieu. But that’s not how it is.

Quick: how what is?

You see the problem.

But it’s not all bad – the most problematic part of Calasso is that he’s never all bad. His thoughts are spastic and rapid-fire, and sheer probability has some of them hitting the target. When he refers to Tieoplo’s paintings as “the last gasp of happiness in Europe,” you want to applaud – but then it’s followed by something like this: “No one, until then, had attributed a self to Tiepolo, who was probably devoid of one – far less had anyone thought of identifying with him.”

Probably devoid of a self? So what, he painted all those big walls in a coma? The line is probably a gesture in the general direction of some vague idea of historical phenomenology (perhaps in a crowded dining hall one day Calasso distantly overheard the phrase “Renaissance self-fashioning,” filed it away, incorrectly, and kept eating), but as usual, the author has forgotten that he isn’t the Book of Mormon – his readers shouldn’t be obliged to parse, cobble, and launch intuitive guesses at his meaning.

In Tiepolo Pink they are required to do that, over and over again, and the result is never worth the effort. It’s not the whole of the book; there are sections that demand acclaim and offer easy illuminations. For instance, Calasso devotes a refreshing amount of attention to Tiepolo’s Scherzi series of etchings (almost all the etchings we have from him), a mysterious sequence of black-and-white images that defy interpretation:

It is as if Tiepolo [in his Scherzi sequence], in the twenty-three images of the series, had radically reduced the elements that make up the world. As if he had said: the game, our secret game, is made of these entities, which the viewer is permitted to see, even though he is still an intruder. Every Scherzo is a variation of that game. Every time the figures meet up again, they exchange roles, take part in the same events, which are unclear and – for the viewer – never have any precise name. In over two hundred years, all attempts to define what is happening in these images have proved invariably inadequate. Only the actors know – and even they are often astonished.

But hard on the heels of such frank wonder will come whole chunks of prose that are every bit as mysterious as the Scherzi sequence, but substituting blather and wind for beauty and wonder:

At one and the same time, theurgy contains within itself the most conspicuous and the most imperceptible parts of the magic arts. Often, it is based on talismans, liturgical gestures, offerings, and formulas, but it can also manifest itself in immobility and silence. Both are forms of theurgy, because both recognize that the world is inhabited by a variety of beings who are in some way a part of the divine, beings with whom thought can – indeed, should – establish constant relations, visible or invisible. Consequently, theurgy can assume opposite aspects.

It’s clear from Tiepolo’s paintings that he had a regular troupe of models for all his major figures – we see the same faces over and over again. Calasso charmingly points this out several times, noting: “Cleopatra [in Banquet for Cleopatra and Antony] has chosen the same dress she wore when the baby Moses was found. Then she was the pharaoh’s daughter. Now she finds herself playing the last Queen of Egypt.” The tone here is precisely right: when we study Tiepolo, we must never stray from bemusement. He himself knew he was often creating adornments his patrons would glance at a few times and then ignore for the rest of their lives (you can’t paint walls and ceilings and not know this), and this holds true even for his overwhelming masterpiece, the 7,000 square foot ceiling fresco he and his sons created for the Wurzburg palace in Germany. “The eighteenth century teems with ceilings that become skies in which figures wheel and circle, every time we come across a sufficiently magnificent and ambitious palace,” Calasso says. “But they are never as airy and intoxicating as those by Tiepolo.”

This kind of assessment is true and heartfelt, and readers wish for more of it from Tiepolo Pink. Unfortunately, Calasso has a loyal and vocal fan-base who must have certain quantities of rubbish shoveled their way in every Calasso book, and our author is only too happy to oblige:

In whatever situation they appear – festive or dramatic, secret or public – the Orientals wear the same expression: grave, absorbed, with something foreboding and sinister about it. They never intervene, they observe. And we cannot even understand if they approve or condemn what happens. But their presence points to the fact that something is happening, something that perhaps eludes the actors and the bystanders – and perhaps even those who look at the picture. You can run right through all painting at the height of the eighteenth century and find nothing like Tiepolo’s Orientals. It is as if they were a concentrate of everything that the period attempted to expunge from itself. What were they doing, first of all? Looking at something being destroyed by fire – and becoming invisible. They were looking at destruction of the visible. By now, this might seem like the practice of witchcraft. But it was the foundation of ancient liturgies in India and Persia – the places of origin of those Orientals who now found themselves on the high ground, in countryside perhaps not far from Venice.

Quick: what was?

As noted, Calasso is never entirely bad; Tiepolo Pink (originally published five years ago in Italian) has lines, sentiments, portions that will appeal to many readers, especially those unfamiliar with Tiepolo – in whose paintings, as Calasso happily writes, “There is space and air for all.” But air and space should be clean and clear, and this book is almost never clean or clear, because its author has seldom in his career stopped writing long enough to think. Grab at the sketch of a theory, slap together some melodramatic, slightly anachronistic terminology, and wrap it all in a thin veneer of inscrutability, then package it as the next Calasso rumination.

“Of all the greats of painting,” Calasso tells us, quite rightly, “Tiepolo was the last one who knew how to keep silent. No one managed to wring from him any declarations of faithfulness to nature or the sanctity of drawing.” And this dearth of first-hand information is used as a kind of rallying-point:

These huge lacunae should be respected, contemplated. Posterity’s pretensions to reconstruct, to weave something out of nothing, are a sorry affair. The works remain – and their eloquence may suffice.

At that point, Tiepolo Pink still has 35 pages to go.

Bartolomeo Piccolomini is a native of Fiumicino, Italy. He graduated from Rome’s John Cabot University and now works as a freelancer based in Rome.