Holland Cotter’s recent New York Times article, “Passion of the Moment: A Triptych of Masters” on Boston’s Museum of Fine Art’s latest exhibit “Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice” is so brilliantly written, like a searing comet, we are urged to turn our gaze from our daily activities and pay closer attention to a specific corner of our artistic universe.
Titian first poked his head into the stunted and skewed Reality Bites of the 1990’s while we tripped through pseudo-scholarly undergraduate studies on the sun-beaten campus of UCLA. In Renaissance & Baroque Art, a survey class taken to fulfill Humanities G.E.s, we snickered and yawned when our professor, whose name, unfortunately, is long-forgotten, tasked our ignorant Generation X for equating the great Renaissance artists with four ninja-fighting turtles. In a huge auditorium filled with some tens of dozens of impatient and guileless students, over a scratchy microphone, she set us straight with a lecture about how Donatello predated, by centuries, his supposed contemporaries, Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael. And, if the TV execs really cared about the youth, they would have named Titian as the purple masked, bo-staff wielding, amphibian super-fighter.
Fifteen years later, Cotter’s scintillating words sets us snarks straight:
Hot is the word for this show. Devotional ardor radiates from monumental church paintings. In a gallery of female nudes with skin so incandescent as to barely need lighting, eroticism floats like a scent. For the first time in European art we see paint itself used as an impassioned material, the instrument of fervid hands and inflamed personalities.
The show is about three such personalities: Tiziano Vecellio, or Titian; Jacopo Robusti, known as Tintoretto; and Paolo Caliari, called Veronese. All three shot off sparks as they reforged painting as a medium. And all three had feverishly competitive overlapping careers.
These masters of 16th-century Venetian painting were no Holy Trinity. They were a discordant ménage-a-trois bound together by envy, talent, circumstances and some strange version of love.
If this had been our initial introduction to 16th Century masters instead of our daily dose of afternoon, childhood violence, would Cotter’s words have resonated, shaking our senses, and demanding our undivided and reverent awe? The likelihood is stark. Older, and, arguably wiser, Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, fleshed out for us by Cotter’s precise and appropriately laudatory prose resuscitates those dusty, alcohol-soaked memories from college, when we seemed to have the universe at our nimble and restless fingertips. The world and all its revelatory discoveries and creations was ours for the scholarly taking, if we just had the backbone and sense enough to grab our undergraduate education by the reins.
If our own life were an oil painting, Cotter gently reminds us to scrape away the telling layers of influence that have colored us in the most absurd and outstanding ways. The mongrelisation of high brow and low brow is what we Gen Xer’s were nourished on. Writers like Rushdie, Smith, Diaz, and Chabon, to name a few, capitalize on this and show us how to exploit our schizophrenic hybrid upbringing. At first impression, Titian did nothing more than raise an adolescent snore. Superimposed by TMNT, and resurrected by Cotter and the NYT, in our ever-expanding universe of artistic, literary, musical, and TV stimulants, Titian’s talents are by no means encumbered but richly complicated instead with associations beyond his control.
To see these masterpieces in Boston, where they’re currently on display would undoubtedly set the imagination soaring. The fact that the show is clear across the continent with no promise of a national tour is just the kick in the arse needed to remind us to keep our eyes and ears open, at all times. Creative shocks can come from anywhere at any time. Not only must we be open to receive them, we must also actively seek them out. Take nothing for granted. Gobble up what tidbits of inspiration come poking and prodding our way.
To read more brilliance and drop your jaw at a sample slide show of some of the pieces: