Thursday, June 28, 2012

In Florence

Forewarned about driving in Florence and its parking (both the difficulty and the cost), I decided to park at the airport and take a taxi in and out as the airport is close to town. How difficult might it be to find an airport? Markedly because the signage appeared designed to conceal rather than reveal the entrance. I could see the airport, glimpsing it as I dodged and weaved in the morning traffic, but where was the entrance? It was only on my third circumnavigation past Ikea and imprecations (I mean invocations) to St Antony (things that are lost) of Padua (whose reply was probably: how do I know where the Florentines keep their airport, come to Padua instead!) that I slipped into long term parking, walked over to the terminal (as it is that size of airport) and was on my way into the city.


It has been a long time since I was there and I met a Russian and an American friend and we went off to the Ducal Palace - seven galleries in one - to do art. Doing was probably the right word. The Dukes acquired a lot of art that is now displayed, exhaustively, and rather badly, on the walls of their palace. The one thing that immediately struck you about the collection (in their apartments) was how parochial it was. Now in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Italy was the happening place but like all happening, you forget how much of it was mediocre. In most modern galleries what is displayed is the best: a carefully edited statement. Here it all hung out: what is the best and what people at the time equated with it, may possibly even have preferred. Myriads of trooping and drooping Virgins and her Holy Bambini and then the Mother emerges with her, our infant Jesus and you look, and recognize: here is a Botticelli or a Rubens! Interestingly Rubens and van Dyck were the only two artists that I noticed here that were not Italian! And it was overwhelmingly either religious painting or portraiture, the third great strand: the mythological was a very subdued third note except as decorative painting on the walls. Mythology should know its place as background to an incarnational, historic foreground?

More interesting perhaps, but by this time we were flagging, was the gallery of 'modern art' (post-Renaissance until the late nineteenth century). Here were lots of Italian artists of whom I had never heard (or knowingly seen) and, like Russian nineteenth century art, little known outside its own country. The baton of 'happening' has clearly moved elsewhere - France and Germany - (and was washing back) but you glimpsed real treasures - and familiar themes; for example, a discovery (or re-discovery) of the peasant and the worker and a yearning to show their lives in the round, including the misery of new industry or failing agriculture; and, of course, landscape. More locally was the desire to show the struggle for the re-union of Italy: bold red shirts bash perfidious white coated Austrians again and again and again...

But then it is the unexpected that truly captures the eye: two small exhibitions on Japan. The first on Japanese craft in the context of modern art and the second the influence of Japan on Italian art at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. In the first an extraordinary display of ceramics, lacquer and textiles both as functional items and things of beauty, especially a bowl where a star burst of aquamarine blue moves from its centre into embracing golden-yellow light, simply called 'Birth'. I noted too that all the work was from the National Gallery of Modern Art in Japan: craft remaining integral to 'high' art.

In the second exquisite post-impressionist/expressionist paintings weaving in or boldly addressing Japanese themes including a fabulous, dramatic painting of a kabuki actor all humour in menace.

Finally the heat overcame us (as it appeared to be doing to the air conditioning in the gallery) and we repaired to a square and a long, late lunch at a restaurant we noted frequented by the great and the good including the omnipresent Mr Clinton. (You wonder if he has a sideline in restaurant endorsement complete with faked newspaper cuttings. I keep seeing him everywhere)!



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