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Veronese: Genius or Merely Great? : His vast canvases beg the question

December 25, 1988|WILLIAM WILSON

Veronese's vision was so secular that he once ran afoul of the Inquisition by painting a Last Supper so saturated with pagan luxury the priests found it heretical. Veronese saved himself by renaming it "Feast in the House of Levi" and admitting that "we painters are all a little mad."

History takes the incident as evidence of artists' growing ability to paint as they please, and that may be one reason we are inclined to identify with Veronese. Another may be the slight aura of, well, kitsch that creeps into the work. Veronese's combination of realism, ornamentation and theatricality make the paintings look vaguely modern like stills from a spectacle by De Mille or Zefferelli.

Like us, Veronese dwelt in an era of fulfillment rather than innovation. His detractors have withheld him a seat in the front of the bus by styling him decorative and lacking in profundity just as critics today level the same stings at artists who work in that other Serinissima: Venice, Calif.

It's hard to swallow the criticism of Veronese when we look at his majestically mournful "Crucifixion," but we can see surprisingly apt links between him and our Venetians. The powdery atmospheres that permeate his skies set moods not unlike Peter Alexander's. His mood of hedonistic lyricism gets into Billy Bengston's watercolors. Both Hockney and Diebenkorn echo some of his marvelous color. The delicate harmonies of his silver-gray pastels are as evanescent and heartbreaking as the afterglow of an L.A. sunset.

That ought to be enough to convince anybody that pure sensuousness is expressive in itself but that there is even more to Veronese. There is a vibrant gallantry and yielding grace about this work that causes its maker to seem like the embodiment of Il Cortigiano--The Courtier--the Renaissance gentleman as envisioned by the writer Baldassare Castiglione.

The Me Generation could do worse than to study Veronese's brand of noblesse oblige. It does not condescend, it understands.

It is not always easy to read the true character of an Old Master painter through his work. They were obliged to deal with so many conventional subjects, but Veronese's allegories on facets of the relationship between the sexes are so moving that you feel he had a personal investment in them.

"Venus and Mars" is certainly the finest example on view here. A milky nude Venus stands with an arm draped around a seated Mars in golden armor. They are in a wood near a classical fragment of a faun. Veronese's palette gives way to sonorous after-rain hues. Both god and goddess look at a Cupid who ties a pink ribbon around Venus' leg. Slightly startled, they are on the brink of amusement. In the background another Cupid holds Mars' horse at bay.

The painting seems to be about the way a harmonious liaison can create peace and a sense of wholeness. Other wonderful pieces like "Unfaithfulness" and "Disillusionment" look at the anxiety and imbalance that comes when things go wrong.

They grasp the nuances of intimacy so well despite heroic scale that we realize Veronese is a precursor of the delicate refinement of the Rococo, of Watteau's fetes galantes .

They understand human need with such practicality and human foible with such kindness that they are like Old Master versions of modern classic love ballads written by Larry Hart and sung by Ella Fitzgerald.

We like our geniuses to be about passion, but Veronese is about love. We can do worse than that.

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