It sounded like pretty good news when the Phoenix Art Museum announced the opening of a show entitled "Five Centuries of Italian Painting, 1300-1800." So along with, apparently, most everyone else in town, a friend and I trooped over to the museum on a recent Friday night to get a look at the masterpieces.

I came away with a bad taste in my mouth. If nothing else makes you feel like a dumb yokel, this show will.

The point of this exhibition, according to its catalogue, is to solve "the problem of public education in the fine arts." Run for your lives! They're bringing culture to the unwashed masses!

"Five Centuries of Italian Painting" was organized by the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, a Texas-based group that organizes shows like this and schlepps them around to places considered cultural backwaters. Like Phoenix.

No wonder I didn't have much fun. I was doing something that was Good for Me. Even the wall labels pissed me off.

Some time ago, museum officials took a survey and discovered that people want to get more information from wall labels. With this show, they certainly give it to them. There are thousands of words, a great many of them condescending.

"Renaissance, the French translation of the Italian word rinascita, means rebirth," the wall label states helpfully, for those of us whose cultural life to this point has been limited to The Simpsons.

Isn't this just a little insulting? Is Phoenix really that culturally deprived?

The preaching goes on and on. I like being told that the ointment jar in the portrait of a sixteenth-century woman is a reference to death, maybe to Christ's death, but more probably to the death of the sitter's lover. But I resent the label asking, "What do you think?" When I want to offer an opinion, teacher, I'll raise my hand.

And then there are the paintings themselves.
"There are two ways you can go with a show like this," my friend, who knows about these things, pointed out. "One way is to get first-rate work by minor artists. What they've done here is get second-rate work by big names."

She's right. The organizing principle seemed to be Paintings by Artists Whose Names You Will Recognize. Botticelli. Mantegna. Tintoretto. Veronese. But that's not enough to hold a show together, and it does a disservice to the really nice pictures they've got. Ultimately, it's boring. And why try to teach folks the entire history of Renaissance art in 48 paintings, anyway? The show has to do with "art appreciation," not ideas.

Remember "Classical Gas"? It's kind of like that. It's kind of like slide review for Art History 101, only they brought the wrong slides. Everything looks vaguely familiar, but a little off.

I don't get the point of this show. I don't think there is a point, except to preach at us. Forty-eight paintings, all done in Italy from 1300 to 1800. Yeah, and then what happened? Some are Madonnas. Some are portraits. There's a Last Supper. There's a nice picture of an elephant. So what? In what way has this increased my understanding of any aspect of the Renaissance?

At the starting point of the exhibition the museum has hung three Madonnas. The first is one of the green-faced fourteenth-century numbers that used to be called Italian Primitives. The second is High Renaissance a la Raphael. The third is Baroque.

It makes you wonder if a whole show of Madonnas would have been more interesting. Or how about something on the evolution of portraiture? And then there is the installation, something that I don't think about an awful lot until it gets on my nerves. The Italian painting show is one of three exhibitions on display at the Phoenix Art Museum at the moment. The shows have not much to do with each other, which may be why they are less installed than scattered into available spaces.

People lost in the wilderness are said to wander in circles. The same thing will happen to you at the Phoenix Art Museum. The other two shows you will encounter are "Artful Deception: The Craft of the Forger"--a traveling exhibition from the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore--and "Victor Higgins: An American Master in Taos." It's also a traveling exhibition, organized by Notre Dame College, but there's a semilocal angle. Higgins was part of a group of artists who discovered the Native Americans in northern New Mexico in the first few decades of this century.

The Higgins show is the first one you see after entering the museum. In a large foyer are some photographs, explanatory labels and a couple of paintings. This is not a pleasant space. It's too big for the small pictures, and unless you're on your toes, you'll fail to realize the show starts here.

Higgins picks up speed after you turn the corner into a narrow hallway, where on a slow afternoon you can wander back and forth looking at some very pretty watercolors.

Then, at the end of the hallway, a large sign to your left pulls you into the Italian Renaissance. Although the walls have been painted a very lovely dark green, looking at the pictures is not a pleasant experience. The rooms are big and bare, and there are not enough places to sit.

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