Grope or Cuddle

Peter Campbell

‘Tiepolo,’ Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall write, ‘is not a difficult painter. He is accessible and easy to like.’ Well, up to a point. For example, while I did not find the Tiepolos in the Royal Academy’s exhibition of 18th-century Venetian art ‘difficult’ in any obvious way, I did not find them ‘easy to like’ either. On the contrary. Despite their brilliance they are easy to dislike. Take, for example, Saint Agatha. The saint kneels, facing you and looking up over your head. A companion holds bloodied drapery to the saint’s mutilated chest; a boy bears her severed breasts on a dish held chest-high – for all the world like a Veronese page boy bringing puddings. The executioner, his bloody sword in his hand, stands behind Agatha and her supporters. Clear colour is confined to the drapery – slate blue at Agatha’s feet, pale blue at her elbow, amber yellow in the boy’s shirt behind her right shoulder, orange-pink in the puffed sleeve of the female supporter, dried-blood red in the vest of the executioner. This drapery, which is so loose and bunched up that it is difficult to read the bodies behind it, makes a loop which crosses the linear pattern of arms and shadows and surrounds the central figure of Agatha. Her face, bare shoulders and right arm are the eye’s starting point and final resting place.

The effect is operatic. An atrocity, which a Goya etching or a photograph would make horrible, is here enthusiastically emotional. But it is not just a Protestant failure to respond to images of spiritually exultant martyrdom which stands between me and Tiepolo. If I follow Alpers and Baxandall, who exclude the issue of Tiepolo as a religious painter from Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence, and concentrate on emotionally neutral paintings reservations still surface. Looking at the princess and her entourage in The Finding of Moses, I feel they are not people I much like. There is something disordered and odd about the way they stand, something disturbing about the way they respond to each other. And The Finding of Moses – which was also to be seen in the Venetian exhibition – is an example Alpers and Baxandall use to characterise some of Tiepolo’s strengths. Even the magically fluent drawings are performances which display a talent for thematic variation and decoration, rather than testing drawing’s ability to show how the world is. Tiepolo’s greatest works were frescos, which are not well served by reproductions, though comparisons are possible. But even his most wonderful walls and ceilings do not offer, as other great frescos do, entry to a world which is more humane, rational or terrible than the one we inhabit.

It is of course absurd to complain that Tiepolo is not Masaccio, Raphael or Michelangelo. So why make invidious comparisons? Only, I suppose, because we want the man who, some argue, was the greatest painter of his century, to speak more deeply or grandly or engagingly about human beings. The delicious, pale colours of the frescos; their light, which seems to have the extra brightness that comes of being reflected from water or snow; the sumptuousness of fabrics; the confidence with which every mark is made – these, one can feel, are not enough. Such negative responses cloud the view I have of Tiepolo. He does not make worlds to walk in, people to like, dramas to be moved by.

Anyone tempted to stop there, with irritation and admiration fighting it out, can turn to Alpers and Baxandall. They subdue the uneasiness which arises from Tiepolo’s refusal to be sincere. Before asking in too much detail how we feel about what Tiepolo does to us, we can profitably ask how he does it. We can learn a better way of looking, and of discriminating between the pictures which work and those which do not. Describing The Death of Hyacinth, they write that ‘the demands of narrative concentration and climax upset his rhythm and pace.’ They see Tiepolo falling back in desperation on his ‘ready pictorial wit’ (a tennis racket and balls have been substituted for the fatal discus of the original story). The alternative to plain narrative they find in Tiepolo is not escape (as a move to genre, or pure landscape or portraiture would have been) but fragmentation, which allows us more alternative readings and insists less on a point of view and a moment in time. The experience of looking at The Finding of Moses is, they write, like a dream: but not our own dream – ‘It is as if we are enabled to dream by taking as our own the notation of someone else’s dream.’

Reading this Tiepolo is like watching a movie with someone who is more interested in the work of the director and the cinematographer than in the original story. (The analogy works in another way: Tiepolo was a painter-director, supervising the work of others and often making paintings tailored to architectural settings.) Seen this way, Tiepolo becomes an odder, cleverer painter. His pictures, like some kinds of cinematography, suggest reality more effectively than works which have already digested the visual information. The International Dictionary of Film and Film-Makers’ entry on M*A*S*H* could almost be paraphrasing Alpers and Baxandall: ‘Altman abandons Hollywood narrative techniques in favour of a very personal style characterised by overlapping dialogue, improvisational acting, elliptical editing, wide-screen Panavision compositions.’ We are neurally well-equipped to resolve both overlapping speech and partly-seen objects; Altman has found a device which draws one into the picture by making one work for an understanding of what is going on. Tiepolo makes an analogous use (also in wide-screen compositions) of our ability to make sense out of fragments of visual information. He is mischievously subversive of solemnity – cheeky boys and unexpected visitors clamber into his pictures or look quizzically out at us. He is an elusive, behind-the-scenes performer: ‘there he is again, one feels, though the personality in question is curiously absent and the hand is often that of his sons or others.’ This combination of elusive presence with what Alpers and Baxandall describe as ‘the curious detachment and withholding of his figures’ could (as much as practical matters, like the fact that frescos are not portable, so that his best work cannot be found in museums) explain the qualified afterlife of his art. His work is not loved because he is not lovable. Unlike artists who have proved more popular, he is not there to be loved – or, for that matter, disliked.

The ‘pictorial intelligence’ of Alpers and Baxandall’s subtitle is not a single, unitary talent, like Velázquez’s genius for tonal painting; nor is it a Rubens-like power of invention. There is something opportunistic about it. Baxandall and Alpers reconstruct the sequence of the drawing’s creation: a graphite squiggle suggests the placing of pen lines to outline the edges of a body, which in turn suggests the placing of brush marks indicating light and shade. He does not take the academic route to pictures of guaranteed probity: from sketches to life drawings of nude models to drapery studies to finished painting. Indeed, much of what Alpers and Baxandall say about Tiepolo’s pictorial intelligence sets his practice in opposition to such routines. The fragmentary information which is a large contributor to the power of his pictures makes painting a kind of visual martial art where, by first putting us off balance, he makes us use our own interpretative powers to give life to his images. In Alpers and Baxandall’s account of Tiepolo the science of perception – from photon flux by way of the visual cortex to the mechanism of edge-recognition – is as powerful a presence as the history of art. ‘Much of the idiosyncrasy of Tiepolo’s painting,’ they write, ‘results from his registering the activity of the mind as it grasps the world ... It is as though his extended inventive procedures – the multiplication of pen-and-wash drawings, sketches in oil, vast frescoed surfaces – are a perpetual rehearsal of the mind’s construction of the world.’ For him to have aimed for something more true to the rules of, for example, projective geometry, would have been beside the point. His way of working was not a matter of accretion and correction. The most interesting thing about the relation between the drawings, the sketches and the finished work is that each step predicts so little about the next: figures come and go, groups of figures are added or subtracted, strong outlines are replaced with edges where tone meets tone.

In their detailed account of the ceiling of the staircase hall at Würzburg, Alpers and Baxandall analyse the most commanding example of this talent for the elliptical and the unresolved. The light changes from hour to hour and season to season; the view of the painting changes as the viewer mounts the staircase. They show how Tiepolo managed these variables in a set of illustrations which (even within the severe limits posed by the printed page) are convincing evidence of his skill.

Set side by side in a museum, a portrait, an altarpiece and a landscape must persuade us that they have lost no important part of their value now they are no longer attached to a significant wall. We tend to assume that their original purposes were unproblematic. Altarpieces speak of kinds of faith, portraits of kinds of pride, landscapes of kinds of pastoral attachment. For us art is problematic; once it was easy and natural. Tiepolo’s history is just one example which teaches that there have always been problems about how to paint, and who for. One of them, in 18th-century Venice, was that ‘native patrons lost interest, at least partly because their walls were already crowded with pictures.’ Some painters turned to views-for-export, some to book illustration. Tiepolo found many of his commissions for walls and ceilings abroad. Another problem was what to do with the most current and powerful example of past excellence. For Tiepolo the equivalent of the mid-20th-century problem, ‘how do we handle Picasso?’, was: ‘what do we do about Veronese?’

His answer was to take over the cast (along with much of its wardrobe) and improvise on Veronese’s themes. To love Tiepolo you must put up with an emotionally and anatomically limited set of human characters: especially his handsome white-skinned goddesses, whose bodies, despite his brilliant way with pale flesh, are oddly stiff and un-fleshly. When they are naked their straight backs and high, small breasts mimic the shape they would have had beneath constricting bodices of the kind worn by his clothed queens and princesses. This stiffness, along with their hauteur, the improbable flounces of their skirts, and their indifference to each other, brings to mind shop-window mannequins and cloned graphic types. The girls usually dominate his pictures, but as much because they are the brightest elements as because they are central to the action – for, Alpers and Baxandall teach us, there often is no centre to the action in these paintings, no equivalent to the chains of glance and gesture which give a courtly rhythm to Veronese’s pictures. Add to the girls the bearded old man who plays river gods, a platoon of Oriental potentates, a company of merchants and courtiers, the strong young man, the old woman with yellowish complexion (but the same skull beneath the skin as the pretty young woman) and boys who sometimes seem to join you as disengaged, curious observers of the scene, or look out at us – child actors refusing to join in the make-believe on stage – and you have all Tiepolo’s main players.

To be persuaded of the genius of Tiepolo the inventor, the spatial magician and manipulator of pictorial machinery, is not to put aside for ever reservations about Tiepolo the window-dresser. To do that one must come to terms with a painter who exists not through a relationship to the world, but through art and its devices. ‘ln Tiepolo’s case it was to an extraordinary degree through his style that he was able to see, to think, to perform. It was not a device he hid behind. It was never outgrown.’

Tiepolo’s style is effective. One is touched by it – but one can be touched unwillingly. The metaphor draws on that breaking down of inhibition which causes a sympathetic hand to reach out to a shoulder, or a cheek, or another hand. Lovable pictures touch you in this way; others reach out with an intrusive, unwanted fondle or backslap. One person’s grope is another’s cuddle, and the ambivalence I sense in myself, in the role of modern audience to Tiepolo, is culturally determined. One way to avoid the instinctive withdrawal-from-being-touched, to stop the mind slamming the door, is to learn more – to replace emotional squeamishness with an interest in the anatomy of psychological manipulation.

Alpers and Baxandall’s book, which keeps bringing one back to the pictures and makes one think about how they work and the kind of mind which made them, is wonderfully effective at keeping the door wedged open. Even those of us who find some of Tiepolo’s paintings unlikeable have always had ways into his work: the pen and wash drawings of farm houses – the only evidence, apart from a few early life studies, of his working from nature; the drawings of leggy nymphs and shaggy gods – endlessly inventive tryouts for the choreographic scrimmages which wheel around in his stunning skies; the swift, direct oil sketches; and the end to which those sketches point, the frescoed ceilings and walls which are, on any assessment, among the very greatest of pictorial engines. So the compass needle veers, first drawn to the cool, secret manipulator of our fancies and then repelled by an art which (like fashion photography) lives by style alone. No resolution is possible. But then, as Alpers and Baxandall demonstrate, Tiepolo was ever a master of the unresolved picture.