Wednesday, September 7, 2011

“Peeling Off the Layers”: Venice in Art, Music, & Theater

As you could probably tell from my earlier gushing post, I really like the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick. After a summer-long hiatus, their popular Art After Hours program has returned, beginning this evening. Art After Hours is a monthly event where the museum stays open late one night and offers a wide variety of additional programming, including but not limited to film viewings, curator-led tours, classical concerts, opera scenes, and author and illustrator talks. There is sometimes (and appears to be increasingly more so) a theme that envelopes all the evening’s events.

This evening that theme was Venice. Yes, the romantic Italian city with its singing gondoliers. The impetus for this theme was undoubtedly a new exhibit featuring the works of two Venetian artists. The evening featured a curator-led tour, mandolin music accompanied by masked dancers, and a short version of Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice.

"The surface of Venice is constantly metamorphosing. Painting Venice is almost like being a restorer, peeling off the layers to find the picture after picture underneath. Venice is inexhaustible because the shifting light and the drifting fog keep changing her face. In the winter, Venice is like an abandoned theater. The play is finished, but the echoes remain. When you walk in the winter fog, there seems to be no division between water and embankment. You feel that you can walk through walls, through sky, through time." - Arbit Blatas, artist

The first event of the evening was the tour of the new exhibit. However, while we waited in the lobby for everyone to arrive for the evening, a few of the masked dancers came out and danced interpretively to some recorded music. I’m not a huge fan of interpretive dance, but I liked that there was something going in the lobby while we waited. Otherwise, my restless nature gets fidgety waiting around for the curator to begin the tour, and I’m sorely tempted to go wander off into nearby exhibits but am too nervous that I’ll end up missing the tour then.

The curator-led tour was fairly brief, but I always love these given the opportunity. Generally, the curators say roughly the same things they have printed in the information about the exhibit (website summary, brochures, etc.) and have on display throughout the exhibit. Nevertheless, sometimes they add in fresh tidbits and they will answer questions that arise as they lead the tour.

How anyone can simply be on the tour and then leave feeling they have seen the whole exhibit is beyond me though. While the mandolin players started strumming, I went back to the beginning of the exhibit and went through it on my own at a much slower pace. It is certainly a different experience than simply walking through quickly on a tour with numerous other people. For instance, in the quick passing through of the tour, I thought I preferred the works of Tiepolo, the second artist featured, to the works of Canaletto. But on a second go-through, I found that I enjoyed Canaletto’s works far better.

As alluded to now twice, the new exhibit featured the works of two artists - Giovanni Antonio Canal (known as Canaletto, which is Italian for “little canal”) and Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo. Besides having the same first name and being from Venice, the two shared other similarities. Both were the sons of artists and both began their own artistic careers as painters before moving onto printmaking, specifically through etching. However, the two had very different approaches when it came to their choice of subject matter.

Canaletto practiced “vedute” – he was first a painter, and then an etcher, of the landscapes of Venice and its surrounding area. I enjoyed that his series of prints included landscapes both real and imaginary. He was gifted with the ability to clearly and accurately represent what was right before him as well as the ability to create something of his own imagining. Some of his prints fell into an in-between place where he was depicting an actual place but chose to rearrange some of the placement of objects in order to create a more scenic view.

While not one of his etchings, this painting by Canaletto gives a good idea of his typical subject matter and style.

Tiepolo, on the other hand, worked in a style known as “expressive heads.” His primary subjects were people. He etched all matter of characters in various poses indicative of their emotional state. His early works were often reproductions of his famous father’s paintings, but he would choose to focus on a minor character from a painting instead of etching the entire work. It was noted that these small-scale etchings could be used as a way of whetting the appetite for his father’s works by introducing the viewer to only a small portion of a larger painting.

Again, a painting not an etching, but this gives a view of Tiepolo's typical subject matter and style. Indeed, there was an etching on display that was very similar to this painting.

As I mentioned, at first Tiepolo’s works were the ones that struck me more. I was drawn by the idea of works that featured people and their emotional state as inferred by their expression more than a landscape of a touristy spot. But on the second time around, the level of detail in Canaletto’s works was what astounded me. The curator’s explanation of the etching process left me in awe of any one who does that kind of work by reinforcing how much effort goes into each print, but Canaletto’s skill was particularly impressive for his inclusion of such tiny details as a perched bird or a skyline receding so far into the distance that you need to be standing an inch away from the print to be able to notice it. And the beauty of his scenes left me ready to book the next flight to Venice and be swept up in its wonders! (Alas, reality would not allow that…) Tiepolo’s etchings of numerous faces, however, were surprisingly very similar on closer inspection and did not show much variety in expression after all.

In addition to the exhibit featuring the prints of both Canaletto and Tiepolo, a small nook was reserved for some other prints from the Zimmerli collection. This sampling included works from the 17th to the 20th centuries and featured artists such as Rembrandt (who was an influence on Tiepolo), Picasso, and Donald Judd. It also displayed some prints by Giovanni Battista Piranesi who also etched in the vedute style, but his landscapes were of Rome. The curator noted that there are some 100 prints of Piranesi’s in the Zimmerli’s collection, so my fingers are crossed for an exhibit featuring these!

Here is a sample of Piranesi's etchings of Rome.

When I was done exploring the exhibit in closer detail, I emerged to find that the mandolin players (whose music I could hear throughout the exhibit) were accompanied by the interpretative dancers (whose numbers had grown). Again, as I’m not a big fan of interpretative dance, I did not feel I had missed much.

After watching them wind down their performance, it was time for the brief version of The Merchant of Venice, which was acted by only two performers. This is one Shakespeare play that I actually have not read and have no knowledge of its basic story or characters. Because of this, the condensed version left me puzzled nearly the whole time trying to figure out what was going on, with the lack of such helpers as scenery, props, or even 100% distinguishable characters. The two actors valiantly portrayed all the characters by switching their outerwear (a vest, a jacket, etc.) but it was still a bit confusing as one character appeared to be shared between them. And, in several scenes, one actor was continually taking on and off the one jacket at such a rapid pace it was difficult to tell when was the end of one character’s lines and the beginning of the next character’s lines. But, the acting was well done, especially given the limitations, and I found it very funny (and fitting with the practice of Shakespeare’s time) that the male actor portrayed a woman in one scene by putting on a lacey top and speaking in a high falsetto voice. I’m now motivated to pull out my giant book of all of Shakespeare’s works to read through The Merchant of Venice and see what it’s all about.

Overall, an excellent evening of arts and entertainment was put on by the Zimmerli Art Museum. And while you might not be able to enjoy all the activities found there tonight, it’s still well worth checking out the new exhibit. Two Venetian Masters: Canaletto and Tiepolo Etchings from the Arthur Ross Foundation is on display until January 2012.

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