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TIEPOLO | BON VOYAGE
"...In the Qing dynasty, a poet wrote,
'The cool breeze doesn't know the words. Why does it riffle through the pages?'
This made people feel the poet was unfathomable, so he was taken to the execution ground and cut into pieces...."
"...On the alkali flat [of the Art Re-Education Institute], when I was considering how to save my uncle, it suddenly dawned on me that the truth of art was unfathomability. However, this answer meant nothing, for nobody in the world knew what unfathomability was. If anyone knew, it wouldn't be unfathomability."
Wang in Love and Bondage / "2015"
"Once conform, once do what other people do because they do it, and a lethargy steals over all the finer nerves and faculties of the soul. She becomes all outer show and inward emptiness; dull, callous, and indifferent."
"If I decide to be an idiot, then I'll be an idiot on my own accord."
-Johann Sebastian Bach
" 'Tiepolo was a happy painter by nature,' wrote his contemporary Anton Maria Zanetti, son of Alessandro - and he was not forgiven for that happiness."
"There isn't time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”
"...and the light seems to be eternal
and joy seems to be inexorable
I am foolish enough always to find it in the wind."
from Poem/Kruschchev is Coming On the Right Day
This month, as Goodale Architecture Planning opens its studio, I scheduled an afternoon to revisit a painting that - inexplicably - transfixed me on my first contact exactly three years ago, 15 May 2015; has meant a great deal to me since; and is still the best inaugural I can imagine for this moment of embarking on a fresh design practice.
For a while, the location of my Old Pasadena workplace made it possible to take a short stroll on the first-of-the-month Friday evening, walk up the hill and into the Norton Simon Museum, unmolested by ticket-takers. Each time I went, I put myself in the mood for lingering, and paid homage to the many masters; and each time I also found myself staring – ten minutes at a time – in front of four paintings, respectively, by Courbet, Sam Francis, and Rembrandt (2).
But it’s Giambattista Tiepolo’s 1743 neo-Baroque sky-dome painting that has held me down by the half-hours. Anchoring a long view-axis at a far end of the museum, (a view that’s stunning enough), it’s when you enter the room itself, with its surrounding complement of dusky moralized melodramas, that you recognize the Tiepolo as a strange, ecstatic satellite that shoots out of the world of its somber-souled companions.
The title is Triumph of Nobility and Virtue over Ignorance; and the title plaque provides the viewer this helpful guide to the painting's understanding:
Delightfully, however, the painting has its energies in an entirely contrary place to the stiff Christian Enlightenment allegory favored by its aristocratic sponsors - (and by their successor institutions). Tiepolo’s inspired joy suffuses every inch of the painting. If not pre-possessed, one comes upon it in its dark context and is immediately overcome: A cool blue-pink-and-gauzy-white action painting which, close up, is sensually detailed down to the shining nail-cuticles and cats-eye pearls. (The museum had the good sense to place a central skylight in the room, and to blast the painting with artificial light as well - even if one suffers the occasional glare.)
"In his unabashed frivolity, Tiepolo suceeds in presenting what an epiphany really is....."
"....the word epiphany had no place in the lexicon of the Enlightenment, even though it was a modality of light."
Much of the one's pleasure comes from the technical problems and how Tiepolo and his studio solved them: How does the hem of a gown behave when it gets caught on a cloud? How do the pinks, oranges, greens, and blacks form a vortex, a maelstrom at the center of the otherwise cool canvas? How does the mist, even away from the scumbling clouds, weave diaphanously over objects in the mid-ground? And one could cite the genius of the compositional geometries and what they do to make a viewer come alive.
But - in opposition to its symbols - it's the emotional dynamics of the painting that make it revolutionary. Nobility, (donned by some art critics as Valor), and Virtue claim the high ground, the light, and the honors of Cloud Number Nine; laid back, with big white wings, they're haughty indeed. Half undressed, seductive, it doesn't matter. In their ease, the whole world is their maid. Cherubs climb their cloud, entangle themselves in their skirts. It's dubiously erotic in the way of certain church picnics, presidential trysts, 1950's musicals.
In another reading of the solar breastplate: These two are beyond vulnerability, compassion, or any wounding of the heart. Virtue's nothing-to-it sneer seals it: Neither Ignorance nor any other foreign matter will be climbing aboard this elect cloud.
"Tiepolo invented something one might dream about to this day: a democracy leveled off toward the top, where aesthetic quality makes it possible to eliminate any divergence in status. It is the boldest and most plausible political program, still not invalidated. And still waiting to be put into practice."
Where the fun is: is in the lower left quadrant of the canvas, where Ignorance, (donned by some critics as Vanity), is clearly and tumultuosly taking a fall. A cloud has cast a deep shadow over her. She seems in an irrecoverable opium swoon.
She wears an electric indigo dress, coins trailing carelessly from her hand. A strand of pearls, come undone, is wrapping around her wrist - (bringing to mind the great dancer, Isadora Duncan, vain and euphoric,
strangling on the scarf that trailed from her car and into the rear hubcaps. "Affectations can be dangerous," Gertrude Stein quipped from her own cloud, on hearing the news).
Out of the victors' glare, in the cool, shadowed light, the acute perfection of Tiepolo's brush goes into over-drive. He creates a modern woman, a free-living Bohemian, that art won't see again for another century.
Complicating matters, Ignorance's attending angel, black-haired, dirty-winged, reaches out for her. In his troubled crimson face, it's unclear if he's drawn to study her, shove her off, or follow her down. In some ways this dark cherub may be the most unfathomably promising protagonist in the painting.
The raw beauty, with which Ignorance and her cherub hold the picture plane together denies the effeteness of its upper half. The painting transcends its allegory and subversively divides our sympathies.
Priest to Voltaire on his death-bed:
"Will you renounce Satan?"
"Now, now, my good man, this is no time to be making enemies."
Nobility and Virtue, impregnable and secure from common and vain impulses - from Ignorance - have frequently been triumphant in the most grotesque ways across human history - The 100-Years-War; the Inquisition; The Crusades; Colonialism; Fascism, McCarthyism. We're watching, mostly bemused, as this triumphant pair rise again in our own century. In aristocratic isolation, they've nurtured and cast off more Ignorant fall-guys than the souls in Dante's Inferno.
Thomas Pynchon once wrote how difficult it would be to inspire a goose-stepping mob with the music of Rossini. A brother to Rossini, Tiepolo's 'triumph' is the way that the spontaneity, wit, and vitality of his painting is an electric mockery of the arid moralism of its title. For nearly three centuries, these three gods have floated aloft in a precarious balance, making a claim for the dancing integrity, the magnetic unity, of Nobility, Virtue, Ignorance. In this claim: It's a happy work!
The most inspiring lights of my own life have found ways to hold all three of these gods inside themselves: Boldness, Kindness, and a vain, warm-blooded Rebellion against the fixities of the universe.
Without all three of these pistons hitting in some form of synchrony in oneself, one can never dream to find Innocence. And without an innocent embrace of all three, new voyages into the unknown would be inconceivably joyless.