Visual Arts


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.

The museum seems to have run out of ideas completely by the time we get to the end of the Renaissance show. The last room is leftovers: a handful of oversize pictures, jammed cheek by jowl with a television set and a display on the differences between egg tempera and oil-painting techniques.

On the television set, the day I went back for a second look, a very annoying man with an English accent ("Sint Peter") was droning on. I can't remember about what. Several people sat on the benches in front. One man was asleep.

By this time, I was cranky at having been preached at, mystified by the scattershot nature of what I had seen and wondering whether I really did dislike all of the Baroque or only the stuff in this show. Are there really entire centuries of art I don't give a damn about? Should I seek help for this problem?

I had also been completely sidetracked mentally. I was starting to count elephants. (Three.) I was starting to wonder why there were so many birds in these pictures. Was the curator a birdwatcher? Maybe a show on elephants, I was thinking, when I found myself propelled into the middle of "Artful Deception." It's great fun. You will see another version of Mona Lisa. You will learn what pitfalls to avoid in forging medieval ivories. You will be given a chance to guess which Egyptian head is fake. Just don't go there wanting to sit down--the benches have all disappeared.

After I failed to distinguish the real Sevres clock from the fake, I found myself face to face with a weird dead area. It looked like the place to go next. But off to my left was a fire door. And off to my right was more Victor Higgins.

Victor! I'd almost forgotten. Even though the wall label identifies Taos Mountain as Camelback, this is a show full of charm. It's focused on one man. It's work he did in one place. It is, in effect, what the Renaissance show could have been, if Sarah Campbell Blaffer hadn't wanted to educate me.

Most of Higgins' work is good to look at. I don't think you need to have lived in Taos, as I did for a year in the 1970s, to appreciate his lovely street with new-fallen snow, fresh tire tracks and, looming behind the adobe buildings, hovering over town, the mountain from which the Taos Pueblo Indians believe they draw their strength.

Higgins can be pretty uneven--in "Winter Funeral," identical black blobs alternately seem to be cows, cars and people. But the worst of his work is still appealing, so who cares?

After I finished with Higgins II, I staggered back to the front door. On my way, there was a pretty little room, intimate, dimly lighted, with four blessed benches and four ferny plants.

I was tempted in and found Japanese prints having some connection with Frank Lloyd Wright. I didn't bother with the signs. I just looked at the pictures.

I have no idea what any of this stuff meant, but it was all so beautiful I didn't care. Lovely ladies in kimonos with cunning little shoes. Fans. Bonsai trees. People in a boat, a black sky, blue water, white hills. An octopus. The delicacy of the line invited the nose-to-the-glass approach. So I just looked and looked, and didn't read a word, and left with a wonderful feeling that all of Sarah Campbell Blaffer's do-goodism hadn't been able to evoke.

"Five Centuries of Italian Painting, 1300-1800: From the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation" and "Artful Deception: The Craft of the Forger" will be at the Phoenix Art Museum through March 3. "Victor Higgins: An American Master" will continue through February 10. "Surimono: Prints From the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives" will end on Sunday. The Phoenix Art Museum is at 1625 North Central.

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Anna Dooling