Thursday, August 14, 2014

At the Detroit Institute of Art, Part I

Two weeks ago, I made my first visit to the Detroit Institute of Art to see a collection that has to be described as 'fabled.' My first art history class was in my teens, and some of the very first pictures my teacher made me look at and consider are housed in the DIA, and here I was, many decades later, finally getting to see them for the first time. The collection is also great enough to catch the rapacious eyes of the city's bankruptcy manager, so perhaps this might be the last opportunity I get to see the collection in one place.

The first painting that caught my eye is this one:


Clearly the Renaissance (perspective, depth of planes, rounded modelling of figures, close attention to the detailed surfaces of things), probably from the Low Countries, good enough to be by Van Eyck or an earlier master. But the painter is virtually anonymous, known only by the name "Master of the Embroidered Foliage." So what is decoration, and is it more than just patterning on a flat surface designed to produce a pleasant sense of order?

The question becomes louder with Bronzino:


Painted about 1540, half a century or so later than that Netherlandish painting. It seems to be nothing but decoration, especially comparing the figures to the clothes. Figures: smooth like marble, airless, almost, unbreathing, so still that they could be statues, cold, withholding. Clothes: compelling, astonishingly rendered, so that when you look up close you can see the individual textures of braid painted with unerring and repeated perfection dozens of times over. Decoration as portrait, a portrait of wealth and power and privilege, a statue of a painting that suggest the permanence of temples.

Is Bronzino cold, unemotional? I respond positively to his work. As I was standing in front of it, I thought of contemporary painted Kehinde Wiley, and how heavily he draws on Bronzino for his effects. Sure enough, I found this painting by Wiley in one of the contemporary art galleries:


It's a big canvas, maybe eight feet square. Self-consciously baroque, from the heroic 'general-on-a-rearing-horse' pose to the superimposed floral pattern, and the gold-gilt frame. Highly skilled, but essentially flat and lacking in tension compared to the Bronzino. We approve of the idea -- appropriating the heroic styles of painting from the past to raise to consciousness a people under-represented in the western art canon -- but everything in the painting arrives very quickly at just that, an illustration of The Idea. I'm not trying to fault Wiley's project, merely trying to suggest the difference in effect between Bronzino-decoration and Post-Modern-Irony-decoration. 

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