Today was a lazy Saturday and I decided to go for a walk. The weather not being too cold or particularly windy, I thought I’d lope over to the Cincinnati Art Museum. There is an exhibition on the 150th birthday of the Art Academy of Cincinnati and one around art nouveau 1900’s Paris. It’s neat to know the famous artists from Cincinnati, or at least who created famous things here. Frank Duveneck, Charlie Harper, John David Back, for example.
What really got my goat, though, was a single painting taking up a single gallery. A painting called La Vecchia by an Italian artist called Giorgione hung by itself behind glass in a single room with a single guard. Here it is:
On uploading the photo I see my awkward head silhouette. Whoops. Ignore that. It’s supposed to be the woman on an all-black background.
What really ground my gears about this exhibit wasn’t the painting itself, which was pretty incredible for being more than 500 years old. It wasn’t the two older women who literally barreled into me to see it, and then glowered at me for being in their way. It was the sign on the adjacent wall that explained the painting, or, more specifically, that explained the restoration of the painting.
The two women discussed the merits of the piece loudly, including that La Vecchia points to herself and holds in her hand a note that says (in Italian) “with time”. One of the women waxed philosophical on the artistic devices of the piece, one of them just said a lot of art-related words loudly with no discernible coherence. I tried to concentrate. The piece is meant to jar the viewer with it’s uncomfortable aged visage. The old woman is slightly haggard, erupting from darkness, and very clearly pointing to herself, to her heart. This image invites the viewer to experience feelings about their own mortality. I was definitely thinking about mortality, but it could have been due to the cackling geriatrics berating one another.
Okay, so here’s what slayed me
All that aside, what really busted me up was reading about the restoration, how meticulous it was. Restorers removed layers of varnish and paint-jobs, touch-ups and corrections. The painting was clearly in utter disrepair, aged badly, and kept up poorly. Art experts did a fabulous job returning the piece to its former glory. The old woman glowed anew with a youthful vigor.
But, the whole point of the painting was that the woman was old and looked bad.
Literally: that is the point of La Vecchia. Giorgione wants us to take our own age, our own slow progression to decay, into active account. What better way than the dual symbolism of not only the painted image of the old woman, but the actual decay of the painting? The painting itself, like any object, is impermanent. It must not last forever if given to the truth of universal entropy.
This painting needed to be allowed to die, and it wasn’t. Hell, looking at the restored piece, it doesn’t even look so bad. She looks like a kindly grandma who probably bakes killer cookies and has a glass bowl of hard candies on her coffee table.
I’m not saying that we should always let art just crack and fade and die away. I’m saying that this specific piece could have been the penultimate artistic truth by allowing it to decay as the artist intended.
It could have been something powerfully akin to the painting in The Picture of Dorian Gray. True, eventually it would cease to exist. But instead of being watered down for all eternity, it would have been incomparably powerful to some number of people.
It’s a beautiful painting
It is truly a haunting, nostalgic work. Or else, why would two women verbally grapple with one another, with breathless argument echoing around an otherwise tomb-like gallery? Innocent arts reviewers be damned.
I recommend you go see it. It’s free. It is a pricelss, and (unfortunately) timeless piece. La Vecchia hangs at the Cincinnati Art Museum February 15th, 2019 — May 5th, 2019. See it in gallery 125, which is gallery speak for “to the right about 75% of the way down from the main entrance”.