This week Milwaukee Art Museum opens a new show in the Baker/Rowland Galleries. "Of Heaven and Earth: 500 Years of Italian Painting from Glasgow Museums" opens Thursday, Oct. 2 and runs through Jan. 4.
Wait. What? Italian paintings from Glasgow in Milwaukee?
"The question I’d turn back on us is to say, ‘Well, if you’re looking for old master paintings, why in the world would you come to Milwaukee?’," says Tanya Paul, MAM’s Alfred Bader Curator of European Art at the Milwaukee Art Museum. "This exhibition is as much about a formation of a civic collection in the 19th century and how that sort of notion of civic pride and sort of civic development happen in the city of Glasgow just like how it happened here in Milwaukee. There’s actually strong parallels between Glasgow and Milwaukee.
"Those cities are very much industrial cities, that’s how they make their money and both major art collections in these cities were started by an individual with real strong vision."
While Frederick Layton was building his art collection in Milwaukee, Archibald McLellan was assembling one in Glasgow. Both driven to collect and by a civic urge, Layton and McLellan left their collections to their respective communities, which, as Paul points out, have other parallels, the most notable being their once-mighty industrial output. But they both also began to lost that strength around the same time and were forced to forge a new future out of an expired past.
"Many of the pictures in the exhibition are from McLellan’s original collection," says Paul. "It speaks a little bit back to us as well here in Milwaukee, which I think is a nice, sort of unexpected bonus I think."
But the real bonus in "Of Heaven and Earth" -- Paul’s first major exhibition since signing on as curator at MAM last September -- is, of course, the work, which is displayed in five chronologically organized sections, beginning in the 15th century and wrapping up in the 19th.
As one might expect, the works don’t stray much from the well-trodden paths between Florence, Venice and Rome, though "Of Heaven and Earth" does detour to Naples, Bologna, Ferrara, Siena and Milan.
There are some wow pieces here, among works by the likes of Titian, Botticelli, Giovanni Bellini, Domenichino, Francesco Guardi and Salvator Rosa.
"It’s fantastic for a number of different reasons," Paul enthuses. "The exhibition charts the full 500-year arc of the Italian contribution to the visual arts, which is quite unusual to see in an exhibition form. Normally, exhibitions will focus on the Renaissance or Baroque era or that sort of thing. What’s really wonderful about walking through this exhibition is that you can see the ebb and flow … the way that different artistic styles emerged, developed and sort of dwindle and then reemerged often as you can see in the creativity."
What’s not here is the wow factor that might typically drive casual art fans to see exhibitions by Italian painters. There’s nary a Caravaggio, not a single DaVinci, not a whiff of Michelangelo.
But it shouldn’t matter, because whether or not you know these names -- though surely you’ve heard of Botticelli or giggled at the common mispronunciation of Titian (thanks Dan Aykroyd) -- because the quality of the work is, in many cases, exceptional.
"You have these major pieces by major artists and you have major pieces by artists whose names are sort of lesser known," says Paul. "There’s a great opportunity for learning in the exhibition."
In the first gallery, don’t let Botticelli and Bellini wow you -- and they should wow you -- so much that you slip past Luca Signorelli’s "Lamentation Over the Dead Christ."
Though it lacks the demonic gore of his San Brizio Chapel in the cathedral at Orvieto, in this dynamic panel painting, Signorelli looks to have crammed his figures in. Some nearly reach the top of the long board, while others are sitting on the bottom of it. There’s a lot of action here and Signorelli was a master of expressive visages and gestures, so each of the 10 central figures is worthy of investigation.
In the 16th century room, allow your gaze to lead you to Cavaliere d’Arpino’s similarly crowded, but vertical and stylistically much different "Archangel Michael and the Rebel Angels" -- good band name, right? -- painted on metal. As Paul points out there’s so much action in the foreground that it almost appears there’s nothing but void behind.
Something tells me the Cavaliere (whose real name was the more workaday Giuseppe Cesari) liked to stir the pot a little. After all, what’s that third figure from the right -- just below St. Michael -- grabbing hold of there, anyway?
In Antiveduto Gramatica’s 17th century "Virgin and Child with St. Anne" we see the kind of chiaroscuro later mastered with such skill by Gramatica’s pupil Caravaggio. Is it me or does it look like St. Anne is teasing baby Jesus with those cherries?
Compare the painting with Sassoferrato’s nearby "Virgin and Child with St. Elizabeth and the Child Baptist," which is a technicolor wonder.
I admit I didn’t expect to find much to chew on in the 19th century gallery -- hardly the most heralded era in Italian painting, but I was pleasantly surprised by Antonio Mancini’s paint-heavy "The Sulky Boy," which is an alluring composition rendered in an expressive style that reeks of French influence.
And directly opposite Federico Andreotti’s portrait of "The Violin Teacher" is so alive you can almost hear the subject correcting your bow work. On another wall hangs Luigi da Rios’ "Overlooking a Canal," showing a balcony scene in Venice’s Dorsoduro neighborhood. A group of women and children are trying to get a view of something going on below and if the style reeks of art aimed at the tourist trade, the subject matter is engaging, reeling you in as you wonder what’s going on over there outside the frame.
A complete list of programming and events related to "Of Heaven and Earth" is here.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.