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We may hate to admit that love is blind, but this opinion has been accepted for the last few millennia. The latest Visiting Masterpiece at the Israel Museum, Venus Blindfolding Cupid, on loan from the Borghese Collection in Rome, is a case in point. It was painted by the great Venetian Tiziano Vecelli (Titian, 1487/90-1576) when the artist was 80 and still going strong.
Throughout his life, Titian, the first great painterly portraitist, also maintained a large workshop with many assistants which turned out mildly erotic potboilers for Spanish kings and Roman cardinals. This one was painted for Cardinal Paolo Sfondrato, but in less than a decade was in the hands of the Borghese family.
This is not one of the great virtuoso Titians, but it reflects why he is often termed one of the first modernists. Despite sfumato shadows that highlight flesh, the figures in it are not painted in true light and shade. However, various areas are tonally darker than others, perhaps because they were treated or restored by different hands or because Titian completed them at different stages of the drying process, giving him a chance to rethink compositional and other problems. Observe that Cupid, ostensibly the central subject, is partially concealed by a haze (not discernible in the above reproduction). If it wasn't for the ribbon of cloth, we might have initially failed to notice him. And Venus isn't even looking at him.
What is really going on? Several 20th-century art historians have made some wild guesses as to the identity of the protagonists. Edgar Wind thought the ladies were Diana and her nymphs, evidently suggesting that the bow was Diana's and not Cupid's. Walter Friedlander thought that Venus was Vesta, the goddess of chastity, while Erwin Panofsky wildly claimed that the trio of females were the Three Graces, though this does not explain the prominence of the figure (Venus), which dominates the work. More interestingly, Rona Goffen thinks Venus was blindfolding Anteros, a symbol of reciprocal love, while Cupid looks sceptically over her shoulder.
What interests me is the freedom, even messiness, with which this work is brought off, but then eyewitness Palma Giovane has described how Titian, a careful and methodical painter who never painted alla prima, nevertheless often used just his fingers when completing a painting, blurring edges of shadows or softening highlights.
What caught my eye was the way a bit of probably distracting landscape seen between the heads of the two women on the right was painted out with an area of flat greenish opaque color that has no relation to the palette and transparent treatment of any other part of the work. Did Titian intend to do something else to this bit of useful blocking out? Or did someone else add it later?
Incidentally, Titian's most prominent assistant was his son Orazio, who completed a number of his paintings or fabricated them from modelli, the master's working sketches. Orazio eventually ran the workshop, but not for long: father and son died the same year, in 1576. (Israel Museum)
THE STATELESS German-born painter Charlotte Salomon was pregnant and just 26 when, in 1943, she was gassed on arrival at Auschwitz; her husband was not selected for the gas but died of starvation early in 1944.
Charlotte was a vital, but not a great artist; her troubled life did not last long enough for her to develop. However, over the years she has become one of the most widely known of the many painters who were victims of the Holocaust. Charlotte left an illustrated diary-cum-play of her life, Life? Or Theater?, posthumously published as a huge book reviewed in this column several decades ago. Since then, exhibitions of her work have surfaced repeatedly here and in Jewish museums around the world. The latest, organized by the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam, is now on view at the art pavilion of Yad Vashem, where some of her works are in the permanent collection.
Salomon was born on April 16, 1917, the only daughter of Dr. Albert Salomon and his wife, Franziska, assimilated Jewish Berliners. In 1935, she was (perhaps accidentally) admitted to the State Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin and soon awarded an Academy Prize. Following the advent of the Nuremberg Laws, her prize was revoked and she had to leave the academy. After the Kristallnacht pogrom, her father decided to send her to her grandparents who had taken refuge in Southern France. There she learned that both her mother and grandmother had committed suicide, her mother when she was an infant.
Profoundly depressed, she sought help; a doctor suggested she resume painting. In 1940, Charlotte began work on the hundreds of leaves of Life? Or Theater?, completing it in 1942; she dedicated it to Ottilie Moore, an American expatriate with whom she had found refuge. It reflects the ups and downs of the lives of herself and her family.
Initially, Charlotte and her grandfather had been arrested by the French police and held in the detention camp at Gurs. They were soon released because of her grandfather's age and Charlotte survived anxiously in the sun-drenched south until the Germans spread their occupation to all of France. On September 21, 1943, the newly-married Charlotte and her husband, Alexander Nagler, were arrested by the Gestapo and transported to Drancy. On October 7, both were deported to Auschwitz.
The exhibit, which is accompanied by music and a voice-over written by Charlotte, will be in Yad Vashem's Exhibitions Pavilion until October.
SIDON ROTHENBERG (b. Kibbutz Merhavia, 1937) is a master etcher and printer who has been a pillar of the Jerusalem Print Workshop for three decades. To judge from the catalogue, his anniversary show at the Printshop Gallery is well worth a visit. Its title, The Human Condition, is the least original part of the show of mixed-media etchings devoted this time to expressionist renditions of the nude and skeletal portraits, all somewhat angst-ridden. Some are derived from oil sketches on paper which are also on view and many are printed from a variety of techniques engraved on the back of used metal plates, taking advantage of the randomly scarred surfaces. Included are related portraits Rothenberg has printed for other artists.
Rothenberg also shows an earlier series of gestural still life and studio interiors that are delightfully composed, sometimes via a near-abstract juxtaposition of light and masses of shadow. (Jerusalem Print Workshop - Osher Art Center, 38 Rehov Shivtei Yisrael, Jerusalem)
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