The poor Scots!
That’s the first thought that may pop into your head on learning that summer fare at the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas is, in the museum’s words, “some of the greatest holdings of the Scottish National Gallery, Scottish National Portrait Gallery and Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.” The exhibit list, which extends from Botticelli to Braque – more than 400 years of painting – makes the word “some” seems oddly wishy-washy.
What exactly will be left in Scotland museums if the loan-out takes in El Greco, Watteau, Monet, Vermeer, Titian, Van Dyke, Veronese, Mondrian, Picasso, Rembrandt, Gauguin, Leger, Velasquez, Reynolds, Constable, Cezanne, Gainsborough and Pissarro? What are the Scots not loaning out? And what are the art-loving Gaels supposed to do without their major art holdings this summer?
Another question: Who can look at so much art in one show? Out of the glut, I’ve singled out for discussion one work by 18th century artist Antoine Watteau because he’s often misunderstood as a painter of light subjects.
Despite all the amorous dalliances you see in his seemingly carefree pictures, there’s a meditative air that calls for attention. The cavorting pirouetting lords and ladies of the court in, say, “The Dancing Party” and the mythological figures in French dress in “The Harlequin and Columbine” are classic Watteau examples.
Curlicues, fluffy foliage, and pastel hues abound, yes. But it’s as though Watteau were saying that pleasure doesn’t last. You can see his thinking in the ephemeral quality of his misty trees, which create a dreamlike atmosphere. The ultimate effect is one of make-believe.
Probably the painting that best illustrates Watteau’s view of love and life is “Pilgrims Leaving the Island of Cythera.” An isle sacred to the goddess Venus, this was a place where love lived. Leaving such an environment was tantamount to leaving Valhalla. The couples in the work, dressed in satins and silks, move slowly and pensively, as if they know they’re headed away from their ideal love into reality.
Watteau, who was sick with consumption, understood that sensual pleasure is short-lived. This may be why he painted Pierrot – a stock clown figure in Italian comedy – the way he did. The clown is unsmiling and wears an uncomprehending expression on his face, as if he were asking people why they are laughing.
Hard to imagine exhibit goers noticing such things in this supermarket of an art show.