Monday, August 11, 2008

Bernini at the Getty

Last Thursday my friend Mary and I, the last remaining members of the Art History Reading Group (a.k.a. A(rg)H), went to the Bernini exhibition at the Getty Center. The above picture is not in the Bernini exhibit, where photos were not allowed. Rather it is of Mary thanking J. Paul Getty's bust in the Museum Entrance Hall. I attempted to capture her "lips . . . parted as if hanging slack or caught in mid-utterance, an effect that Bernini would repeat, to dynamic effect, many times."

When I returned home on Friday, what did I spy in the New York Times but a review of that very show. What a small world!
The NY Times review describes the exhibit "[a]s the largest show yet of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s portraits," which I find surprising. It wasn't a huge show. Maybe my art exhibit stamina has increased what with all my A(rg)H training. The upper level of the Getty's Exhibitions Pavilion is not a huge space. But it did have a lot of busts on podiums, so that probably fits more works into a small space than if they were all large scale paintings. And the ample signage did note the many times when works appearing together constituted a first of some kind.

Speaking of ample signage, the curators did a great job connecting works to one another in terms of subject matter or style. This was true not only in the Bernini exhibit, but throughout the Getty. I found this incredibly helpful both in keeping my attention and in improving my understanding of all of the pieces.

If you're going with small children or the easily bored or on a potentially awkward first date, consider these two scavenger hunts to keep you or the person you may or may not love paying attention. First, sculpting eyeballs is challenging. Sometimes, they're just blank spheres. But not always. One could ask the big questions like why did the artist choose to make this bust's eyes one way and another another? But one might have more fun if one ask the question, why does one bust CLEARLY have a smiley face in each eyeball? Why does one bust CLEARLY have a Mickey Mouse head in each eyeball?

Second, button, button, who carved the button. Most of the busts are of mucky mucks in the Catholic church, so they're usually in uniform. One would think Bernini outsourced that part of the manufacturing process, like those portraits where clearly the heads were painted by a completely different person than the rest of painting. But according to the signage he didn't. Moreover, he seemed to take a VERY realistic approach to the buttons on the vestments. For example, the bust of Scipione Borghese, "a cardinal with intimate links to the Vatican," which the New York Times describes thusly.

If any of Bernini’s portraits can be said to convey affection, the one of Scipione does. Or maybe it’s just a sense of relaxation. He presents his old friend as he saw him — corpulent, loquacious, hat tipped back, lips pursed in a quip — but also as he envisioned him: the rock-solid source of stability he had been for a young artist making his way. And this blend of realism and idealism, of fleeting impressions and monumentality, instantly expanded the possibilities of sculptural portraiture.
So corpulent that the buttons on his vestments are practically bursting. It's a big tent and he's even bursting the buttons of that?!? Other clerics missed a button, or haven't mended a button whose thread is clearly loose. We didn't have time for a full survey of eyeballs or buttons, so we'd appreciate it if someone, preferably a field trip of small children, did so and shared the data.

Continuing the theme of connections (and segues apparently), instead of just having works by Bernini, the show included a number of works by contemporaneous artists to great effect. At first I thought, "Dude, I came here for Bernini, why am I looking at stuff by Anthony van Dyck, Alessandro Algardi, or Giuliano Finelli?" But then the signage compared and contrasted Bernini's work with these other artists' works in a way that made me understand Bernini better than I would have in their absence. In fact, this has now convinced me that all "solo" shows should include such supplementary material. As I haven't quite wrapped my brain around portraiture in sculpture, the fact that the first few rooms were particularly heavy on the non-Bernini painted portraits of the same sitters in the Bernini busts was very much appreciated. Similarly, the collection of Bernini's sketches was very helpful to understanding his focus on "kinetic emotionalism," which is harder to see in the hyper-static medium of stone or bronze.

The exhibition took the time to explain the medium of stone more so than any other exhibit I've seen anywhere. There was a whole room, granted a small one, dedicated to the craft behind sculpting marble. It included a piece of marble to which various techniques had been applied and the tools used with captions explaining how and why. It also included a video showing real craftsmen plying their trade. How many times have I seen a sign next to a piece of art which says the piece is an exemplar of a particular technique and yet gives me no insight as to what that technique entails and what makes this a virtuoso? Would that every art museum dedicated a section to technique. It would make better art appreciators of us all.

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Thalia said...

Is that the Mary I met at Rocket to Venus, who is awesome?

Dude. DUDE! I am so envious of your Bernini exhibition wanderings. That sounds like so much fun.

I miss my art history. *sniff* I wonder if I still have that tome of Janson's, which was our "textbook" for AP Art-History.

Sarah said...

Indeed, that is the Mary who you met at Rocket to Venus who is, indeed, awesome.

The Bernini exhibit at the Getty was indeed fun, especially with Mary.

You're welcome to join A(rg)H. We're reading Stokstad's Art History textbook and have managed to read through Roman Art. But we're having trouble conquering the Romans so we can move on to the Etruscans. So if you want to chime in with Janson's perspective on these things, we'd love to hear it. I can add you as an author over at our other blog.

Thalia said...

I'd love to join! First on list, getting Stokstad's book.

Sarah said...

We're reading Stokstad's 2nd Edition, so that should save you some money, what with the 3rd Ed being out presently. But seriously, if you'd like to save your money, you can just read the corresponding chapters in whatever art history textbook you have.

Also, you should totally meet up with Mary in Baltimore and D.C. to go to A(rg)H-related exhibits. We've already done the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian galleries at the Walters in Baltimore. They were awesome! Especially the children's handouts. Very informative and fun!