Eyewitness Views: Making History in 18th Century Europe is an exhibition on display through December at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. (The show is a coproduction with the Getty Museum in Los Angeles). The exhibit is not interesting as art -- the paintings are mostly journalistic and prosaic, canvases swarming with tiny figures against a backdrop of theatrically beautiful Venetian and Roman cityscapes. Almost all the paintings are bathed in clear light -- it's the light characteristic of a 1950's Hollywood epic, an illuminating radiance that shows the cast of thousands and the money spend on lavish set decoration to their very best advantage. With a few exceptions the painters are forgotten craftsman of the late 18th century -- all of the pictures seem to date from about 1740 to 1800 and they depict various religious processions, conclaves of nobles and clergy, baroque and rococo festivals and carnivals, and the vast masque-like spectacles of son et lumiere produced to celebrate the marriages of princes and princesses and the birth of royal heirs. Although the way that these paintings are made is of little interest, the pictures themselves are copiously crammed with fascinating details and the show is, in fact, quite rewarding. The men who made these pictures conceived of them as showing vast assemblies of men and women (and lots of dogs as well); the pictures are, often, puzzles -- frequently, the principal action is hidden in the remote background and there is a peculiar democracy to the way that the spectacles are staged: often we get up-close and personal images of beggars and peasants with the Pope half-hidden in a niche or doorway a thousand yards away. The viewer has to study the image closely to figure out what is happening -- the emphasis on huge crowds and grandiose architecture makes deciphering the journalistic intent behind the pictures difficult.
Only a few of the canvases are "painterly", although if you look at most of them with your eyes half closed, you will have the eerie sense of staring at a Jackson Pollock painting, an action painting comprised of innumerable vaguely biomorphic squiggles and splashes. (This is particularly true of Panini's paintings of balls and theatrical spectacles -- that is, his interiors colored with Pompei red and cool yellows.) Joli's 1759 "Abdication of Charles III" decorates a rather dour and uninteresting conclave with strangely intense chiaroscuro -- the figures are lit through tall windows so that swaths of light sweep obliquely through the crowd of dignitaries; their white powdered wigs shine resplendently in the raking light from the windows. Hubert Robert shows an opera building on fire in a huge close-up, all fire and ash with fleeing figures darting toward the viewer through cavernous arches -- this picture depends upon painterly effects and prefigures some kind of Romanticism. Less so, his sequel image -- a picture showing smoke rising from the ruins behind the royal palace with a frieze of spectators looking at the ruins. Canaletto's pictures of royal regattas in the Venetian canals are hyper-realistic -- indeed, they give the effect of photo-realism and are somewhat disconcerting for that reason. The Venetians were fond of water-parades featuring lavishly decorated aquatic floats, basically gilded barges with bas relief imagery on their sides -- the greatest of these aquatic floats was the Bucintora, a two-story barge with 42 oars and an elaborately decorated gold prow: it was deployed to celebrate the wedding of Venice to the Adriatic, an annual ritual in that City. There's a 1755 nocturne showing the Plaza San Marco lit by candles at night -- it looks like an image that Paolo Sorrentino might have filmed (in fact has filmed) in The Young Pope or The Great Beauty. Belloto made a picture of a procession in front of a Polish church -- the 1778 picture is peculiar because a third of the image shows a vacant field with some ruins and cattle grazing in them, a kind of waste lot in front of the church. (Belloto is incompetent with respect to the tiny figures in the procession -- many of them have outsized heads and the aspect of hydrocephalic dwarves.) Canaletto's precisionist "Procession on Feast Day of Saint Roch" features an elaborately conceived, if rigorously utilitarian, awning over the marching people -- Canaletto, like Menzel, is not ashamed of painting the most prosaic imagery: here we see how every knot is tied and can take pleasure in the caternary arches of hanging fabric: it's altogether extraordinary and has nothing to do with the subject of the picture -- it's just a gift given us by the painter, an artist that I typically don't much admire. One image encapsulates for me the appeal of the show: it's Panini's 1756 painting of the Piazza Navona in Rome, cheerfully flooded so that aristocrats can drive around in carriages in the water to splash themselves and their wives while making the circuit of the pond-like plaza. Apparently, Romans did this to cool themselves down on hot August days -- it's the equivalent of little kids in the ghetto opening fire hydrants. The drains on the fountains were stopped-up with the result that the piazza flooded and, thus, became a playground for the wealthy. It's not a particularly well-painted picture -- the handling of the surface of the water cut by the carriage wheels is perfunctory and, unless you read the title, you can't really tell that the plaza has been flooded. But it's wholly charming and I'm glad to know that aristocratic Romans engaged in this sort of tomfoolery to keep themselves cool in the height of the summer. In other words, the charm of the picture has nothing to do with how it is made or its painterly composition.