Traditionally, questions related to the origin and nature of art—specifically in terms of defining art—were argued within the realm of aesthetics. The science of aesthetics began as a branch of philosophy in the mid-18th century and is attributed to the work of the philosopher and historian, Alexander Baumgarten. As a field of inquiry into art, it was further developed in the latter part of the century by Diderot, who saw aesthetics as an articulation of one’s experience with works of art. More than a century later, Benedetto Croce referred to aesthetics more specifically as “the science of beauty” (Aesthetic, 1902). In contemporary terms, the pursuit of a definition of art took a relativist turn largely through the advent of conceptual art in the late 1960s. Here, for the first time, art and aesthetics reached a point of conflation in which the viewer’s response became inextricably bound to the notion that art exists as an idea, and therefore, expected artists to write texts that spelled out their intentions in advance. In other words, art as an experience became secondary to reading a text.
Because I would like to salvage the value of experience, which is basic to Enlightenment aesthetics, I was immediately drawn to an exhibition involving two artists, Emilio Vedova and Tintoretto, currently on view at the 15th-century art school known at Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice. Although included in this year’s Biennale, this important auxiliary exhibition was ignored during the opening days in late May by the New York press. One reason for this might be that, despite the exhibition’s art historical significance, neither artist is contemporary. Working in Venice until his death in 2006, Emilio Vedova was considered a leading Modernist painter, while Tintoretto is, of course, one of the great painters of the late Renaissance. A Venetian, he is the most important successor to Titian and Giorgione.
Curated by Germano Celant (the instigator of the Italian art movement in 1967 known as Arte Povera), Vedova Tintoretto is an attempt to reveal the origins of the Venetian Modernist’s approach to abstract painting. Whereas Americans might categorize Vedova in the context of Abstract Expressionism, Celant establishes a more complex point of reference. The setting of this intervention of Vedova’s paintings extends over two floors of the Scuola Grande,where the monumental cycle of wall-size murals by Tintoretto, depicting the Passion of Christ have hung ever since they were painted. On the first floor, suspended on wires in mid-air between the Tintorettos, were eight large abstract works by Vedova, painted in 1985. Hung back-to-back and spaced equidistantly in four groups these magnificent canvases not only reorient the meaning of the Passion but also reveal and revitalize the metaphorical potential of abstract art.
In addition, Celant also included a varied selection of small paintings and drawings, done in the 1930s and early 1940s, by the younger working class Vedova (then 17 years old) who came regularly to the Scuola Grande by his own volition to study the great works of Tintoretto. As the installation on the first floor makes clear the religious content that Vedova gleaned from Tintoretto was less the point than the validity of abstract painting as a vehicle to incite energy through a structural metaphor. This suggests that whether painting is figurative or abstract, it can have content. Moreover, there can be strong affinities between a Renaissance painter and a Modernist despite the absence of shared subject matter. For Vedova, painting became a question of how to express meaning beyond identifiable subjects through the instrumentality of the gesture—though he may have needed to absorb religious themes in order to break away from them. In any case, this intervention encourages us to understand the Tintoretto murals at the Scuola Grande less as icons of meaning than as occasions for an experience that requires neither scripture nor text. What defines the art on the walls and in the spaces of this Renaissance building is the confluence of pictorial energies, the Modernist vision engaging some of Tintoretto’s greatest works as if they were still in the present.