Two important exhibitions have just opened in Madrid, each dedicated to a single painter. The Prado’s Turner and the Masters places major works by the great British artist in the context of his forebears and rivals; at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza across the street, Ghirlandaio and Renaissance Florence spotlights one portrait to illuminate the artist’s cultural context. Despite sharing a monographic approach, the curatorial strategies of the exhibitions couldn’t be more strikingly divergent. While the Turner show provides an old-school exhibition of blockbuster loans, Ghirlandaio and Renaissance Florence embodies a new, recession-driven trend, in which museums are drawing afresh upon the riches of their own collections. A day spent touring both shows illuminated some of the advantages and costs of each approach.
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Tate Britain, home to most of Turner’s greatest paintings, organized Turner and the Masters; the exhibition was seen there and at the Louvre before its run at the Prado (through September 19). In its Madrid incarnation, the exhibition includes a number of major works not shown in London or Paris, including the stunning Snowstorm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps and Peace—Burial at Sea, Turner’s memorial to his friend David Wilkie. These paintings, each based on an apparently simple structural contrast of light and dark, are two of the greatest land- and seascapes ever painted, with characteristic coarse and scumbled surfaces that seem to invite exploration more with fingers than eyes. Their shimmering indeterminacy, in places bordering on abstraction, relativizes the human narratives they ostensibly depict—the progress of an army, the death of a friend—by insisting on the overpowering, obliterating mastery of nature. Seriously looking at these paintings, some of which are more than six feet tall and nine feet long, requires an act of near physical surrender.
Because each pair of paintings receives only one wall-text, the often obscure literary subject matter of Turner’s work places uninitiated museum-goers at a disadvantage.
Unfortunately, the structure adopted by the Prado exhibition discourages such close engagement with individual works of art. Making use of a didactic technique familiar to any art history major, Turner and the Masters pairs each of the Turner paintings with one by another artist, also mostly on loan from other museums. Thus Hannibal hangs alongside an alpine scene by Philip James de Loutherbourg, while other works are placed in dialogue with paintings by Rembrandt, Poussin, Claude Lorrain, and other blue-chip Old Masters. This approach suits Turner’s oeuvre in the sense that he was profoundly aware of his own place in art history—a particularly fascinating section of the exhibition displays Turner’s “biographical” paintings dedicated to Raphael, Watteau, and Ruisdael. But because each pair of paintings receives only one wall-text, the often obscure literary subject matter of Turner’s work goes largely unaddressed, placing uninitiated museum-goers at a disadvantage. More alarming is the underlying implication that a work of art is somehow insufficient until placed in relation to a single “source”; this represents a time-worn strategy within academic art history, but one that makes for a fairly reductive experience of Turner’s paintings.
The Ghirlandaio show at the Thyssen, by contrast, resolutely insists on the multiplicity of meanings in a great work of art. The entire show, on view through October 10, revolves around one masterwork from the museum’s own collection, Ghirlandaio’s luminous Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni, painted in 1489 or 1490. The exhibition forms part of a recession-era trend of in-depth re-examinations of individual works already hanging at a given museum. At the initiative of its director, Nicholas Penny, the National Gallery in London has inaugurated a whole series of such “objects in focus” shows, while the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna recently dedicated one to Vermeer’s The Art of Painting. In a related move, the Picasso exhibition currently at New York’s Metropolitan eschews loans to display works exclusively from the museum’s own collection.
In presenting the Ghirlandaio portrait, the Thyssen’s curators have isolated various elements of the painting—its profile composition, the sitter’s jewelry, a costly prayer book on the shelf behind her—to investigate the life of a patrician bride in Renaissance Florence. The exhibition opens with a few visually unprepossessing items, such as a woodcut view of Florence and the ledger in which Giovanna’s father recorded the expenses for her wedding, that nonetheless powerfully situate the viewer in a specific time and place. The next gallery charts the female profile portrait’s movement across a variety of media, including drawings, bronze medallions, and sculptural reliefs. Other sections contain actual examples of the type of jewels and book portrayed in the painting, while the exhibition’s major curatorial coup is the reassembly, after 500 years of dispersal, of the group of paintings by Ghirlandaio and other Florentine masters that adorned Giovanna’s bedroom before her death at the age of 19, during her second pregnancy.
Most of the loans to the Thyssen exhibition are from small private or regional museums and probably none can claim the same unquestionable “masterpiece” status as Ghirlandaio’s portrait or, for that matter, almost any of the paintings in Turner and the Masters. Nonetheless, in its remarkable unpacking of a single artwork’s multiple levels of signification, the Thyssen exhibition does a terrific job of illustrating the inexhaustible richness by which one might plausibly define a masterpiece. Meanwhile, by hedging its bets with a veritable glut of canonical paintings, the Prado’s Turner show betrays a certain lack of confidence in the individual works themselves—an overcompensation perhaps not so much revealing about Turner as about our own age of anxiety.
Adam Eaker is traveling Europe on the trail of Caravaggio and other great artists.