Sophisticated Sicilian Was In Step With Masters of Northern Europe

Vincent Van Gogh: The Drawings has left the Met, and not a moment too soon. Am I the only New

Vincent Van Gogh: The Drawings has left the Met, and not a moment too soon. Am I the only New Yorker happy that the tempestuous Dutchman has hit the road?

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Whenever the Van Gogh name gets onto a museum marquee, you’re guaranteed an environment bereft of oxygen. I’m not talking about the crowds. It’s the biographical fog that both obscures and embellishes what is essentially a respectable, not spectacular, achievement.

Poor Vincent isn’t to blame for the hype, of course. Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger, the artist’s sister-in-law and initial overseer of the estate; Irving Stone’s melodramatic biography Lust for Life, Hollywood hot on its heels; and countless museum folk with dollar signs in their eyes—all have worked hard to make the most of the all-consuming, one-eared myth with which we tussle today.

Some of us don’t tussle all that much. Every time I walked through the Met, on my way to Vincent Van Gogh: The Drawings, the paintings of Fra Angelico, literally sublime, beckoned instead. At the onset of the Christmas crunch, I gave up altogether on seeing the Van Gogh show. A friend tells me I didn’t miss much. I hope he’s right.

We shouldn’t altogether begrudge the Met its forays into showbiz, though. Blockbuster box-office numbers ensure that the kind of exhibitions that promise uncommon scholarly and aesthetic pleasures—if not ready accessibility or huge profits—can still be mounted.

Take, for example, Antonello da Messina: Sicily’s Renaissance Master, a tiny, rather specialized exhibition devoted to (as the introductory wall label has it) “arguably the first truly European painter.” Visitors to the Met aren’t exactly lining up for Antonello, but those who do chance upon his work—wedged, as it is, into the museum’s collection of Western painting—seem to be quite taken with it.

Why Antonello (ca. 1430-1479) might be the first European painter is less puzzling than how he achieved that status. Even on the slim evidence on display at the Met—two double-sided panels, four paintings and a drawing—it’s clear that Antonello was conversant with the meticulous pictorial traditions of Netherlandish oil painting. Not that it’s a given that an artist residing in Italy should be heir to all of his own country’s artistic glories. Antonello was a provincial—if not necessarily in achievement, then in geography.

Hard facts on his development and travels are in short supply. Hypotheses abound in trying to explain how this native of Messina and eventual citizen of Sicily—neither of which could be considered a cultural center—came by his sophistication. The curators wistfully conjecture that he may have had direct contact with Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus, painters of genius and near-genius respectively. The inclusion of Christus’ The Lamentation (ca. 1450), a staple of the Met’s permanent collection, among the Antonellos is an attempt to underline and amplify the Northern European connection.

It’s also something of a blunder, I’m afraid. There’s certainly much to like about the Antonello paintings, especially the irresistibly shifty character featured in Portrait of a Man. But if the curators really wanted to make a case for Antonello’s artistic primacy, better they should have left The Lamentation—and, for that matter, Jacometto’s steely Portrait of a Young Man—out of viewing range. The resulting comparison casts doubt upon Antonello’s status as Renaissance master. The Antonello pictures—at least those at the Met—just don’t scale the same heights.

Christus’ The Lamentation—with its saturated palette, impeccable orchestration of form, crystalline warp of space and cool, and devotional intensity—makes Antonello look timid and sluggish, serious but something of an also-ran. Odd elisions of anatomy and irregularities in compositional structure—the unconvincingly situated right hand of The Virgin Annunciate, for instance—don’t help. A more thorough accounting of the Sicilian master might make a stronger case—and could be thrilling. Perhaps the folks in the Met’s back room are working on it as we speak.

Antonello da Messina: Sicily’s Renaissance Master is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, until March 5.

Complaisant Combines

Robert Rauschenberg: Combines, another exhibition on display at the Met, is surprisingly moving: Its trajectory is more genuinely sad than anyone could have guessed. The Met didn’t intend that its array of “daring and influential works by one of America’s great modern artists” would offer a parable on squandered artistic promise. But that’s exactly what it is. The exhibition highlights, with devastating accuracy, an artist who sacrificed a small but precious gift for the sake of overblown gestures and careerist ambitions.

The combines are constructions cobbled together from a surfeit of found objects—old sheets, a stuffed Angora goat, blinking lights, socks and a bed, to name just a few. They’re augmented with frantic passages of brushwork that refer explicitly to the conventions of Abstract Expressionism. Though the pastiches of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline aren’t unappreciative, Mr. Rauschenberg has never displayed an affinity for oil paint—he can’t pick up a brush without swaddling it in irony. Much has been made of the experiments in mixing media, but even at his most “far out,” Mr. Rauschenberg remains a pictorial artist—and a rather academic one. The combines never really go over the top; the flat ground of the canvas is their ball-and-chain.

Influenced by the collages of Kurt Schwitters and the anti-aesthetic theories of Marcel Duchamp, Mr. Rauschenberg isn’t a true Dadaist. Sympathetic to Dadaism’s flagrant, nose-thumbing ethos, Mr. Rauschenberg’s go-get-’em esprit and happy superficiality could never submit to outright nihilism. He’s an amiable guy. Still, it was Mr. Rauschenberg—more so than Jasper Johns, his lethargic coeval in Dada lite—who transformed Duchamp’s aesthetic from a curious sidebar of history to the predigested engine of culture it is now. It’s Mr. Rauschenberg’s example that’s largely responsible for flashy mediocrities like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. Thanks a lot, Bob.

Nonetheless, there are a smattering of early works— Honeysuckle, Levee and an untitled piece from around 1955, in particular—that evince a sensitivity to the materials used in their crafting and hint at special correspondences that are more than the sum of their tatters. Had Mr. Rauschenberg explored this tendency on the intimate scale it called for, he might have made an unassuming and welcome contribution to the history of 20th-century American art. As it is, he became the Leroy Nieman of the avant-garde—an unapologetic hack ready, willing and able to reiterate a hugely successful, aesthetically empty formula.

Come back, Van Gogh; all is forgiven.

Robert Rauschenberg: Combines is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until April 2.

Sophisticated Sicilian Was In Step With Masters of Northern Europe