Painting then for now

Fragments of Tiepolo at the Ca'Dolfin

Svetlana Alpers, James Hyde, Barney Kulok

To what degree is looking at a painting a creative act? We always bring personal interests and habits to bear as well as varying amounts of attention to the act of looking. It is easy to imagine that looking at a painting is different for an art historian, a painter and a photographer. If this intensive looking is recognized as constructed and questioned, it becomes a start for making new works of art.

On August 3rd, 2006, the three of us-Svetlana Alpers (art historian), James Hyde (painter) and Barney Kulok (photographer)-spent six hours in the Metropolitan Museum of art with Barney's 8 x 10" camera photographing sections of three paintings from a cycle of ten canvases by the eigteenth-century Venetian painter Giambattista Tiepolo. The session of looking, discussing and selecting resulted in nine negatives that were then scanned into a computer. Together we then chose nineteen smaller sections from the negatives. The prints are archival ink jet on matt paper. At two to three times the size of the paintings the prints graphically and intimately represent Tiepolo's practice of painting. Other than color adjustment and some minor rotations there has been no digital manipulation of the images. The photographs focus on Tiepolo's painted surfaces-the reflected highlights of the impasto and canvas's weave and the mineral quality of the pigments.

These Tiepolo paintings from which we developed our suite of nineteen photos are three of the most impressive and prominently displayed paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but ironically visitors often pass them by on route to more familiar works. It was justly pleasurable to stop and take a long and detailed look. The three paintings are bursting with detail-- curious and unexpected assemblages of bodies and objects executed in a dazzling technique. Elisions and juxtapositions provoke the eye. For all the apparent speed of Tiepolo's brush, the world appears as if in slow motion, its figures, be they living or dead, are almost somnambulant. In the largest canvas the victorious Roman general is distant and small while the captured enemy, near, large, and off-center is himself upstaged by a callow youth who turns and stares, his hand doubled by its shadow cast on his tambourine. Tiepolo is at the top of his form. His world, as always elusive and a bit bleak, here serves as a version of war.