Nothing is quite so humbling as a visit to one of the great art galleries of the world. It makes me feel like that unfortunate sunbather who in the old commercial got sprayed with sand by a hefty “Mr. Atlas” type of guy you used to see in the back of magazines.
Yes, my collegiate courses in the history of art help me recognize the basic periods, but I still fail to spot the subtle nuances that the ever-present guides relish pointing out to wide-eyed tourists.
Take my recent visit to the Uffizi in Florence. It was my second go-around there, separated by some 50 years. Despite the late October date, Florence was still inundated with tourists and the lines trying to get tickets were endless — until I discovered that with the payment of slightly more than the normal ticket price I was sped to the head of the line. Ah, Europe!
Greek and Roman statuary were never my thing, but if it were I’d have been totally satisfied with the collection. No there were no Elgin marbles (because they mostly reside at the Met in New York). But some fine busts displaying elegant Roman noses and lots of hefty muscular men and women made me wonder how, without Golds Gym or Planet Fitness, those guys got so fit.
It was the 14th- and 15th-century paintings that were truly amazing. Botticelli’s “Spring” and his “Birth of Venus” (that I was taught to call “Venus on the Half Shell”) drew the biggest crowds. Their size was much bigger than I expected. The Uffizi also had one of the 12 extant Leonardo da Vinci paintings on display and a Michelangelo or two. Getting close enough to these masterpieces to photograph them was my biggest challenge. There were quite a number of Signorellis and Peruginos that were stunners as well.
But apart from these greats the rest of the collection was thin. A Picasso or two. A Cezanne or two. Several lesser lights who were basking in their glow. But if you expect to see Impressionists you would be disappointed at the Uffizi. For them you need to go to the Musee D’Orsay in Paris or the Barnes collection in Philadelphia.
One of the other great galleries that I had always wanted to get to was The Hermitage in St. Petersburg. In 2012, finally, I made it. The building itself — Peter the Great’s winter palace — is an enormous green and white Elizabethan-baroque confection on the Neva and would have been worth the price of the entrance ticket. It outshines all the other great galleries and glitters with chandeliers and objects d’art. Plus its sheer size makes seeing it a several day affair.
For comprehensiveness, The Hermitage is unequalled. Catherine the Great, in the late 18th century, sent her minions all over Europe with plenty of cash in their suitcases to collect pieces in great quantity. Nearly every period and every locale was represented. For example, the Uffizi had one Velasquez, but The Hermitage has several. Its Rembrandt room, assaulting you as you enter with his “Return of the Prodigal (Son),” is spell-binding. But that’s just the beginning. Portraits, landscapes, still lifes, altarpieces, abstracts — all abound in room after room.
But my one criticism of The Hermitage is that few of its pieces seem to be the best of the representative artists. For example there were endless Picassos, but none that I recognized from art books. The Uffizi had fewer works, but some among them were the best. It’s as if Catherine the Great substituted quantity for quality. But who am I to question the quality of great works of art?
Which leads me to my main point — other than to share my mini grand tour of the galleries themselves. Is there really great art, or is that notion merely the prejudice of self-styled experts?
In his The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis decries the teacher who insisted that there was no such thing as a beautiful waterfall. There are only people with beautiful feelings when they look at certain waterfalls, said the teacher. So then, Lewis asks, are all value statements mere subjective opinions? Is there, in the end, no such thing as objective truth, goodness or beauty? Lewis — a convert to Christianity from atheism — argued that there was … but you’ll have to read his book to see why.
It reminded me of the story of a group of American tourists who had only an hour to do the Uffizi. With cameras slung over their shoulders, they made instant judgments as they briefly glanced at some of history’s masterpieces: “Don’t like that one!” “Kinda pretty I think.” “Nope, does nothing for me.” Finally, the Italian guard who was listening to this palaver couldn’t stand it any more. He went up to one of the tourists, tapped them on the shoulder and respectfully said: “Pardon me; but it is the people in this gallery who are on trial, not the paintings.”
Similarly, when a guard at Yosemite was asked by a breezy tourist what he’d recommend since she only had an hour to spend there, he looked dumbfounded. “If I had only an hour to spend here, I think I would go over there to that bench and sit down and weep.”
The conclusion I’ve reached is that you know great art when you see it. Similarly as a man of faith, I believe you know Truth when you hear it.
Peter C. Moore is the director of the Anglican Leadership Institute and scholar-in-residence at St. Michael’s Church. He and his wife live in Mt. Pleasant.