A Day at Fine Arts Museums SF

Recently I spent a whirlwind day in San Francisco catching up on some of the important exhibitions at the de Young and the Legion of Honor—here are some of the highlights.

De Young Museum 

Masters of Venice: Renaissance Painters of Passion and Power, an exhibition of paintings by Venetian artists primarily from the sixteenth century, includes Titian, Giorgione, Veronese, Tintoretto, and Mantegna, as well as some lesser known artists. The work is on loan from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, which has its own fascinating history as a legacy of the Hapsburg art collection.

Since a number of reviews have been written about the exhibition, I’ll mostly share my favorites and personal insights. If you are so inclined, one of the best reviews is by Mark Van Proyen, and can be found at www.SquareCylinder.com/ archives, Masters of Venice @ de Young Museum.

With 50 pieces, the show was not overwhelming, and allowed for some close- up comparisons of styles and media. The use of oil paint was just becoming popular, and many artists were experimenting with this new medium, trying various mixtures and applications, as well as discovering its advantages over egg tempera. Since oils were more fluid and slower drying, the application encouraged the use of looser brushstrokes and greater luminosity of pigment. Compare Andrea Mantegna’s Saint Sebastian, ca.1457–1459, to Tintoretto’s Portrait of Sebastiano Vernier, c. 1571, and you can see how Mantegna’s composition on a small wood panel maintained sharp edges around the forms and controlled transitions from highlight to shadow. On the other hand, Tintoretto’s larger, oil on canvas, employed quick, gestural brushstrokes showing gleams and reflections on the metal armor and helmet, as well as a smoky, atmospheric battle scene outside the window. The transition from tempera to oil also promoted the use of stretched canvas instead of wood panel, allowing for the evolution of larger-scale paintings because canvas was lighter and less expensive.

Bravo

"Bravo" by Titian

It was a pleasure to see over a dozen works by Titian; portraits as well as mythological scenes. Titian was a master at psychological expression, most strikingly depicted here in his mysterious Bravo (The Assassin), ca.1515–1520. In the bold diagonal composition, the red frilly sleeve of the antagonist in the foreground curves dramatically up to the illuminated face of the victim, (possibly Bacchus). His complex expression shows surprise, alarm, and yet defiance at being firmly grabbed by the collar from behind. While still portraying the luster of leather, texture of fabric, and the firmness of a youth’s face, details of the scene are kept to a minimum, thus heightening the drama of the action. In another comparison—Titian’s masterful

Lucretia

"Lucretia" by Veronese

portrayal of the moment of provocation shows the nuances of emotional expression, but without the stage-set drama of Veronese’s Lucretia, 1580-83, where the fact that the beautiful Lucretia is stabbing herself is almost lost in the extravagant details of luxurious fabrics and elegant jewelry.

 

De StaeblerMatter and Spirit: The Sculpture of Stephen De Staebler
After all that passion and power it was calming to came back to contemporary times with a tour through Matter and Spirit: The Sculpture of Stephen De Staebler. This memorial exhibition commemorates the work and contributions of De Staebler as an influential Bay Area artist and teacher, who played an important role in the California Clay movement. He was also one of the few sculptors, along with Manual Neri, that was associated with the Bay Area Figurative movement. This collection of his iconic rough-surface figurative pieces, as well as masks and studies, dating from the 1960s to 2010s, emphasizes his interest in Egyptian sculpture, as well as the existential relevance of the human figure in modern history.

Masters of Venice: Renaissance Painters of Passion and Power, closes on February 12, 2012.
Matter and Spirit: The Sculpture of Stephen De Staebler, closes April 22, 2012.

Legion of Honor

MedusaThe Medusa
At the Legion of Honor, who could resist taking a quick look at Bernini’s Medusa, which is on loan from Rome’s Musei Capitolini through February 19, 2012. My quick look turned into a long observation, trying to comprehend and marvel at this masterpiece by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, one of the best sculptors and architects of 17th-century Italy. Bernini chose to portray this bust of Medusa, carved from Carrara marble, just as the beautiful young woman’s hair turns to writhing snakes. There is a spot just to the right as you face the sculpture that best shows her emotional angst as she transforms into a horrid monster that turned anyone who gazed at her into stone. With her brow furrowed and mouth open as to cry out in alarm, I wondered what it might feel like to have the worst bad hair day of your life.

Pissarro’s People
I almost missed seeing Pissarro’s People, thinking I’d seen a lot of Impressionist work in recent months, and there were so much other art to see, but I was really glad to have seen it. While the recent Impressionist shows at the Fine Arts Museums were excellent and important, this exhibition offered a more in-depth approach to its subject, Pissarro and his people.

The exhibition, curated by Richard Brettell, includes work selected from private and public collections around the world. Based on Brettell’s scholarly research, the exhibition brings out under-explored material about the artist and his era. Pissarro, a Danish Jew born in the Caribbean, was an influential artist associated with the Impressionists in France, where he lived most of his life. Much more than portraits and figures, we see Pissarro’s personal side as a family man with strong political views based on anarchist philosophy and radical social-economic theories.

According to gallery wall texts, Pissarro “viewed all men, women, and children as equal . . . having the right to live without shame and want.” He also warned that “the miseries of capitalist society” would lead to a revolution which would bring about a new era of peace, harmony and cooperative living. Why does this sound so familiar?

His beliefs are expressed through various contexts in the exhibition, including scenes that praise domestic labor, rural lifestyles, and the community marketplace. The Harvest, 1882, depicts a scene of utopian rural life after the revolution. Men and women are working together in a serene pastoral landscape. The painting is accompanied by some of the drawings and studies he did, which he used to create a harmonious and balanced composition. However, Pissarro’s political views cannot be detected in the painting, and without background knowledge it can easily pass as another lovely Impressionist painting.

The Harvest

The Harvest, by Pissarro

It was interesting to note that Pissarro used egg tempera as his medium for this painting. Unlike the Mantegna I saw earlier in the day, with its hard edges and smooth brushstrokes, Pissarro used the medium as one would pastels, building up the colors and forms with short dry strokes.

The exhibition was also unique in that it included illustrations from radical journals of the day, in addition to Pissarro’s own anarchist drawings, Les turpitudes sociales, 1889-90, which were being exhibited for the first time.

Pissarro’s People closed January 22, 2012.
Bernini’s Medusa, closes February 19, 2012.

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; 415-750-3600; www.famsf.org.

All images are from famsf.org, where additional images can be found.
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About Satri Pencak

Independent Curator, art writer
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