Thursday, November 27, 2008

The National Gallery: If it ain't Baroque... oh, never mind

Okay, second full disclosure of the week--I've never really liked the Baroque period all that much. However, I'm feeling swayed by the rave NYT and LAT reviews that "Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture" has had during its run at the Getty. With that show hitting its sole Canuck stop, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, this week, I took the chance to ring up curator David Franklin and ask him how exciting this stuff can actually be to a new millennium. The results are in today's National Post. To read that (including Franklin's comment on his current status at the Gallery) click here and go to page L4 of the digital edition, or read on after the jump.

Lights! Plaster! Action!
A new exhibition on sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini tries to imbue the Baroque artist with a little Hollywood razzle-dazzle
National Post, Nov 27 2008, pg L4

There’s a new must-see that’s gotten rave reviews in the New York Times—but you won’t be seeing it at your local multiplex. Why? Because “Bernini,” rather than being a film offering killer chase scenes, is an exhibition offering incredible (if wrapped in stone) characters. This week, the show opens at the National Gallery of Canada, its sole Canadian stop following a successful run at Los Angeles’s Getty Museum. Still, as exhibition co-curator David Franklin explains, there is something strangely cinematic about these centuries-old works. Here, Franklin tells Leah Sandals what turns Baroque into blockbuster.

Q The portrait bust can be a pretty dull, dusty art form—particularly in a digital effects era. What makes Bernini’s exciting?

A There’s many aspects. I think the human face is perennially of interest. There’s also, for me, the virtuosity of these works, which make its subjects come to life in stone. And I think ironically, in the digital age, the authenticity of these objects when seen in person generates a kind of wonder; we’re so little used to anything authentic anymore.

Q There’s something almost snapshot-like about these sculptures, with Bernini capturing split-second moments of his disarmed lover Costanza Bonarelli, or of a cerebral cardinal or powerful pope. Do you think Bernini foresaw the need for more immediate art forms like photography?

A He definitely revolutionized a previously dusty art form. Before, these sculptures had to do with permanence and stasis. But he pushed this public art form into the private realm.

And the real revolution Bernini pushed was treating each work almost like a cinematographer. Each bust becomes like a story. There’s a sense of each being different and alive that’s very new. To me, it’s almost like there’s a novel behind each sculpture. That’s what’s so original about him.

Q Bernini was also a painter and an architect, creating famous Rome sights like Fontana Trevi and St Peters Square. Were he alive today, what do you think he’d be working on?

A Oh, I think he would definitely be a filmmaker. In his own time he also designed stage sets. So I think he would be designing operas and theatre sets too. But overall working in theatre and film, no question.

Q Some of Bernini’s artworks figure heavily in Dan Brown’s bestselling book Angels and Demons. What do you think of Brown’s use of these artworks?

A I’m very relaxed about it. Some academic types get very agitated. But you just have to realize it’s entertainment and it’s to be enjoyed on that level. And frankly, in our business with all its budget cuts, anything that brings attention to Bernini or Caravaggio or Leonardo da Vinci is wonderful—especially if it inspires people to learn the truth and see the originals.

Q Earlier this year, the Ottawa Citizen reported that this Bernini show almost didn’t happen at the Getty Museum, your key partner on the project. What was the problem?

A There were disputes between the Getty and the Italian government for several years over works that were allegedly illegally excavated from Italy and smuggled out of the country. In May 2007 about 40 artworks were returned to Italy from the Getty’s collection, which resolved the dispute and made Italy open to lending artworks like Bernini’s to them again. So this exhibition is really the first major collaboration between Italy and the Getty, and we’re the happy benefactors.

Q On another political front, there’s been a lot of drama at the National Gallery this year, with rumors that you might leave. What’s your status there now?

A I don’t know how much I can say, but I’m back at the gallery and everything is fine. The way I put it is that families fight but it’s doesn’t mean they don’t love each other. I’m back and we’re moving forward—and we always just want to focus on the art.

Q Getting back to art, Bernini’s son Domenico said that his father saw all the arts as equal. Do you agree?

A That’s a difficult question. What’s exciting about an artist like Bernini is that he was very eclectic, like Leonardo. Artists today tend to make their work for themselves and sell afterwards. But artists of the Baroque thought of themselves as designers and worked on anything that came their way. They had to be really good at multitasking and being open-minded.

“Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture” opens Friday (November 28) and runs to March 8 at Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada (


J@simpleposie said...

Hey Leah,

I've tagged you in a meme that was started by Mayhem


as an experiment - to find out if the blogosphere is as viral in 2008 as it used to be. To find out about, and/or participate in, the meme - you can go here:

Leah Sandals said...

Hey Jen,
Sorry it took me so long to get back to you on this!
I'm a little confused on how this thing works.
Also, I'm probably just pessimistic but I don't think my blog is the best place to test the success of the web : )
I do love what you're doing though.
If you could explain more that would be awesome.