Grace, Depravity, and Grandeur

The Venetian Renaissance by way of ancient Greece and Cecil B. DeMille

A powerful contradiction verging on psychic whiplash is built into the grandiose visual machines that are Paolo Veronese's five Allegories, currently on glorious view in the Oval Room at the Frick Collection. Not only does this contradictory whiplash fuel Veronese's paintings, allowing them to have one foot firmly planted in the art-historical firmament and the other in the shifting sands of the ephemeral, it produces one of the most jolting splits between subject matter and content in all of art.

The meta-subjects of Veronese's Allegories, painted in Venice between 1565 and 1575 by an artist at the height of his powers and vying for top-dog status, include virtue, fortitude, rectitude, and wisdom. Veronese renders an empire of high standards and honor, a realm where you are an empowered poet-philosopher, looking on not in awe but with a sense of Platonic contemplation.

In the magnificent Venus and Mars United by Love, we see a rosy-cheeked Cupid tying a gauzy pink ribbon around the legs of the mythological figures of the God of War and the Goddess of Love. It is a picture of the convergence of devotion and might. A putto in the background restraining Mars's black stallion with a golden sword underscores these themes while suggesting that desire bows to constancy and that faithfulness will triumph over armed conflct. In Wisdom and Strength, Wisdom is a beatific diva with her head tilting upwards toward an ethereal vision. In the shadows, in what is almost a separate reality, Strength, personified by Hercules, hunches over in animalistic obedience. Brawn notwithstanding, he's but a wisp compared to Wisdom's majesty. The winged cherub at his feet seems to say, "Brute strength pales in the face of grander goals." The Choice Between Virtue and Vice is an all-out mythical soap opera. Virtue, a busty, be-laureled semi-deity in a flowing green gown, reaches out to save a young man (see his torn stocking and drops of blood on the back of his leg) from the clutches of Vice, who has vampire-like claws, a dagger behind her back, and playing cards in her left hand.

Satin doll: Veronese's Wisdom and Strength
Paolo Veronese/The Frick Collection New York
Satin doll: Veronese's Wisdom and Strength

Details

Veronese's Allegories: Virtue, Love, and Exploration in Renaissance Venice
The Frick Collection
1 East 70th Street
Through July 16

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  • Veronese is the Venetian Renaissance by way of ancient Greece and Cecil B. DeMille—he's Wagner before Wagner. But there's a big catch. Even though his subject matter is heroic and noble, the rift between what you're seeing and what you're experiencing is so gaping and thrilling that it creates a jarring optical-cerebral rupture. In essence you look right through these otherworldly lessons of vice, virtue, and fidelity and into this voluptuous, opulent world.

    Underscoring this split are Veronese's colors, which are astoundingly sumptuous. Venice was a center of the pigment trade and it shows on Veronese's surfaces. His paintings are replete with phantasmagorical swells of red lake, smalt blue, vermilion, malachite, azurite, and verdigris. He uses dyes made of the dried and pulverized bodies of female insects, Hungarian copper carbonate, resinous bug secretions, and color from mines in Afghanistan. It's an Arabian Nights for the eyes. Adding to this, Veronese converts satin, lace, velvet, and brocade into luscious landscapes unto themselves.

    The overall effect is that within seconds of coming into contact with a Veronese you're not thinking about virtue or fidelity. Essentially, you're high. You start pulling for Vice; Wisdom begins to seem stuffy; Venus's chasteness turns libidinous as she squeezes her breast, releasing a spurt of milk, and her left thigh arches toward Mars's touch as he reaches inside her cloak just in front of her bare pudenda. Many of the women in Veronese's paintings have their tops pulled down; prodigious amounts of breast are exposed. (It's the "Girls Gone Wild" of the Venetian Renaissance.) No matter how lofty his subject, you're always aware of a very sensuous, sexual side to Veronese. You understand that this artist was a cosmopolitan; he painted as much for delight as for glory. In a very deep way you grasp that the moral values espoused in Veronese's paintings are being questioned, even if unconsciously, by him and his viewers.

    Veronese is an early incarnation of an untamed contrarian spirit that would blossom centuries later. D. H. Lawrence, who wrote, "Whatever you say, say hot," is one such contrarian. Lawrence called the temperance, frugality, and moderation preached by the likes of Benjamin Franklin and other puritans "dummy standards." Veronese's paintings predict Lawrence, who wrote, "I have a strange and fugitive self howling like a wolf or a coyote at ideal windows." Veronese's paradoxical visual operas are howls of a sort, attempts to circumvent moralistic codes, and do what Lawrence said each of us should do: "Let Hell loose."

    Our Crowds

    Like a disturbing number of the good group shows this summer, "Two Friends and So On" has been organized by men, in this case the artist-couple Jonathan Horowitz and Rob Pruitt. The title is as honest and casual as it is descriptive. Horowitz and Pruitt, who organized the exhibition along the exact same lines at this gallery six seasons ago, simply act as a two-headed butterfly flapping its wings in order to see if a storm can be generated.

    The results are more a squall than a full-fledged cyclone, but this exquisite corpse of a show sheds light on undercurrents that usually go unacknowledged in the art world. Primarily, it answers the unspoken question, "How do I get in a show?" with "It's who you know." This isn't shocking as it's long known that artists are often the best scouts and that galleries are usually led to artists by other artists. This is as it should be.

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