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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Honorable Mention

Having set forth a list of the greatest paintings of the last thousand years, I probably raised some eyebrows not so much for the artists and paintings I chose but those I didn't mention. Everyone has their favorite artists and I'm no exception. I tried not to let favoritism play a part in my selection, and, indeed, some of the paintings I mentioned are definitely not among my favorites. I'm starting to feel like a self-appointed, one-man jury in the greatest art show of all time. Very well, having awarded prizes for the ten best, I think I should now list the "also-rans" who richly deserve at least an "Honorable Mention" ribbon. I had intended to list only ten but ended up with at least fourteen. I whittled away somewhat at that list but still ended up with eleven, which is, at least, close to ten. In no particular order they are:

Nude Descending a Staircase #2,
1911, Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp: Nude Descending a Staircase #2, 1911, Philadelphia Museum of Art. While the painting certainly had a landmark effect upon art, its effect was mostly in this country rather than world-wide, and it was, after, a derivative painting based upon ongoing studies in Cubism at the time by Picasso and Braque.

Triptych of the Descent from the Cross, 1612-14, Peter Paul Rubens
Peter Paul Rubens: Triptych of the Descent from the Cross, 1612-14, Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp. Like Michelangelo's ceiling, this work involves multiple paintings, each one exquisite in its own way, though unlike Michelangelo, only the central panel depicting the actual descent from the cross can really be considered a masterpiece. What must have been a clumsy, awkward undertaking in reality, comes across with a powerful, loving grace that is as deeply moving as it is beautiful.

Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-86, Georges Seurat
Georges Seurat: Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-86, Art Institute of Chicago. While technically, a breakthrough in the use of color and a sort of "scientific Impressionism," the overall scene is one of stiff formality in no way capturing the relaxed, playful quality of the setting. Too much attention to technique, not enough warmth to break a sweat.

The Bathers, 1906, Paul Cezanne
Paul Cezanne: The Bathers, 1900-05, National Gallery, London. I felt terribly guilty leaving Cezanne out of the original ten, but it was impossible to come up with one work that stood out above his others. And even the choice of this painting is somewhat arbitrary in that he is probably best known for his landscapes. Here though, there is the element of landscape amongst his figures, which are more still-life objects as living "bathing beauties."

The Raft of the Medusa, 1819, Theodore Gericault
Theodore Gericault: The Raft of the Medusa, 1819, Musee du Louvre, Paris. The choice here was not so much which painting but which artist in that Eugene Delacroix was a Romantic artist of equal stature and his outstanding Liberty Leading the People is at least as dramatic. However the award goes to the work having the greatest impact on art from this much misunderstood era, and here, without question, "The Raft" in its depiction of a scandalous, actual event, edges out the competition.

The Holy Trinity, 1426-28, Masaccio
Masaccio: The Holy Trinity, 1426-28, Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Probably the greatest pre-Michelangelo fresco, I narrowly had to give Giotto the top billing in that his Lamentation Over the Dead Christ was earlier and had a more profound effect upon fresco painting (including the work of Masaccio), even though this work is much more complex in composition and technically superior (as well it should be having been done 125 years later).

Oath of the Horatii, 1784, Jacques-Louis David
Jacques-Louis David: The Oath of the Horatii, 1784, Musee du Louvre, Paris. The kickoff to the Classical era in painting, undoubtedly David's most outstanding work. The problem I had with it was not the painting itself (who could fault David technically) but with the violent, melodramatic, sexist theme of the work. Often touted as the first painting of the modern era, if that's the case, it mostly serves to underscore how different the Postmodern era has become when wars can be fought and won by remote control rather than blood.

Impression, Sunrise, 1872, Claude Monet
Claude Monet: Impression, Sunrise, 1872, Musee Marmottan, Paris. Like Cezanne, Monet was difficult to pass over in the original ten, as was this painting. But again, there are so many good Monet's and so few great ones. This painting, while an excellent example of what Impressionism was all about, had little impact on either Impressionism or Art. Its chief claim to fame is its impact on a single journalist/critic in his derogatory coining of the word "Impressionism."

The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last
Berth to be Broken up, 1838, JMW Turner
J.M.W. Turner: The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up, 1838, National Gallery, London. Turner, as a precursor to Impressionism, was hard to omit from the "big ten" and this is as good as he gets. The problem was, Turner was little appreciated by his contemporaries and had a far greater effect upon American art than he did on the mainstream English or French painters who largely had to "rediscover" during the Impressionist era, that which he'd already known some forty years before. (Notice I didn't include any Impressionists in my original top ten either.)

The Third of May, 1808: the Firing Squad on Mount Pius, 1814, Frncisco Goya
Francisco Goya: The Third of May, 1808: The firing Squad on Mount Pius, 1814, Museo del Prado, Madrid. A very strong, journalistic/propagandist work with few precedents in painting at the time, and unfortunately, few antecedents, at least until Picasso's Guernica a 130 years later. Goya is a much-underrated painter who deserves better.

The School of Athens, 1509-10, Raphaello de Sanzio
Raphaello de Sanzio: The School of Athens, 1509-10, Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican City. Had he not stood in the shadow of Michelangelo, Raphael might well be considered the most outstanding painter of the Renaissance. However, had it not been for Michelangelo, he might have been known only for his syrupy-sweet Madonnas. This outstanding, thought-provoking work, painted while Michelangelo was at work nearby in the Sistine Chapel (Michelangelo accused Raphael of "spying" on him), certainly proves him to have been a fast learner.

There you have it. Even though I've listed them as "also-rans", none of them are second-rate artists. And notice I've not included other outstanding work by any of the "big ten" even though paintings such as Picasso's Guernica, Manet's Olympia, or Leonardo's Last Supper, for instance, had a greater impact on the development of Western art than did some of these. But I've not listed those in an effort to spread the spotlight focus a little broader, bringing to light art and artists that should have had a greater importance in art history than they did.

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