Titian in Venice & Rome – In A New Light with LEDs, Neurobiology…

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The all-encompassing Il Pallazo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace) exhibition in the 2013 edition of the Venice Biennale this year, for the first time in its hundred-year history also features a pavilion by the Vatican, the bastion of tradition and religion. Essentially a show of international modern and contemporary art from participating countries (88 this year) along with a main curated exhibition, this Biennale succeeds in showing art’s wide reach, including “outsider” art – art made by artists who worked outside the accepted art historical narrative and were not concerned with critical acclaim or financial success. Art for them represented an impulse or ideal that drove them to express themselves visually, with painting or building. This apparently is the thesis of Massimilliano Gioni, director of the 55th Venice Biennale and chief curator of its main show (See Holland Cotter’s review in NY Times).

Aside from the Vatican pavilion, Gioni’s amazing horizontal reach this year is also complemented by some deep art history in the millennium-old Doge’s Palace in San Marco. It shows Manet: Return to Venice (to September 1, 2013).  It is a fabulous show, reclaiming Baroque Italy’s place in its influence on Manet, who is known as the nineteenth century artist who pioneered modernism just before the Impressionists by painting everyday life, people and their social interactions. The great coup of the show though, without a doubt, is the pairing, side by side, of Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) with Manet’s Olympia (1863).

Neither painting had ever before left their respective homes, the Uffizi in Florence and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The influence is here obvious – same pose, almost identical composition – but the women’s attitude is vastly different. Both, probably courtesans, face the viewer directly with implicit invitation and are charged with eroticism. But the gaze of the two women shows their 300-year separation: that of Venus is slightly averted, with some classical modesty; whereas that of Manet’s 19th Century Olympia is bold and challenging, nonchalant, meeting the viewer’s eye midway. It is thought that both artists had used their mistresses as models

To further bring Titian into the 21st century, the Scuderie del Quirinale was showing Tiziano (to June 16, 2013) , a show I chanced upon in Rome after leaving Venice. It was a precious show that would have been worth a trip to Rome by itself (see slide show of the great paintings in the link above). It not only highlighted Titian’s extraordinary career with best representations from each period and genre, but also experimented with a specially designed LED lighting system. It is a track-mounted system whose light spectrum can be remote-controlled to enhance a painting’s range of color and depth of perspective. In the word of the designer, “no more climbing ladders”.

Room of Enchantment: A dialogue between light, art and the brain is installed on the ground floor of the Scuderie, outside of the ticketed exhibition. It shows a single work, Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Dominic and a Donor by Titian (1512-1516), under different lighting combinations. Viewers could fill a questionnaire indicating their preferences. The room will be installed later in Venice, Copenhagen and Bergamo through November of this year and the collected responses will be analyzed and used by the project designers to determine the final lighting to be used to illuminate all Titian’s works in various locations in Venice and other cities.*

The project web site alludes to engaging with our brain and our visual system, involving mirror neurons, to increase the viewers’ attention and emotional response. The lighting aims to not just allow the viewer to focus on a single painting but to be aware of surrounding pieces and the actions of people in the gallery space – a sort of over all, horizontal seeing and sensing, rather than linear and focused looking (right brain vs. left brain). However it did not mention how this mode of seeing could be enabled by the lighting. From what we now understand about our eyes, I imagine, being aware of one’s surroundings is a largely unconscious process, involving our peripheral vision. Peripheral vision is important at night and is sensitive to motion and attuned to the color blue as it also engages a larger area of our retina but in less detail, as opposed to the central fovea (or macula) vision. How this lighting can actually involve mirror neurons is unclear to me. Mirror neurons, discovered by Italian scientists in the 1990s, are motor neurons that can repeat (mirror) the motions that our eyes see, with or without effecting actual muscle movements. (See my post here).

Enhancing or emphasizing certain aspects of a painting with varied spectral lighting that may not have been intended by the artist has been somewhat controversial. Most curators emphasize respect for the artist’s intention and are reluctant to tinker with the art. On the other hand, in a 500-year-old painting, with inevitable accumulation of dust and dirt, not to mention the process of oxidation of various pigments and other natural changes, the “intention” of the artist becomes quite unclear. Furthermore, current neurobiology strongly suggests that most of what an artist does while painting or making art is unconscious – thus making the idea of artistic intention even more blurred.

* LED lighting is becoming the museum lighting of the future. It has many advantages, the most important of which is low energy consumption and longevity. As incandescent light bulbs are being slowly legislated out, lighting designers for museums now generally consider LEDs as the best alternative. The downside is high initial cost per bulb (eg. $5 vs $50); and the claimed longevity is undermined by older LED bulbs turning yellow.

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