Superstars of High Culture Knew How to Rock the Canvas

One rainy Sunday in 1964, about a nanosecond after the end of the Divine Liturgy at St. Sophia Cathedral in Washington, DC my parents stuffed their four children into a rusty station wagon. Destination: The National Gallery of Art, nestled along the Mall between the U.S. Capitol and the White House.

It took as long to find a parking space as some guy named `Dan Vinchey’ took to paint what we had come to see: the Mona Lisa. On top of that, we waited in the rain for another hour, so this Vinchey dude might have even had time to begin on the next project.

I listened to the crackle of my AM transistor radio so I could hear updates on the scores of pro football games that afternoon, only to be shushed by the mannequin-like security guard.

Fast-forward to 2019. Still very much a Greek-American, I am now Medicare-eligible – and more clueless than before. Recently, I spent the afternoon at the same museum. On this humidity-laden Sunday, I couldn’t help but take note of the juxtaposition of a smoky, rowdy barbecue festival unfurling at the doorstep of the museum. It served as a fitting metaphor for political Washington’s reputation for birthing strange bedfellows.

While the NGA offers a constellation of works from the likes of Degas, Gauguin, and van Gogh, the crowd that day was making a beeline to see the works of Jacopo Tintoretto on the 500th anniversary of his birth. It marked the first exhibition in 40 years to zero in on the Venetian native’s products as a draftsman during the late 16th century.

Credit goes to my friend and coworker, Christine Aaron, for introducing me to the beauty and aesthetic of Tintoretto. While I can’t prove it, my spies report Christine would rush out of work promptly at 2:30 PM and catch the subway downtown. Until closing time, she would slowly stroll through the maze of galleries. Meanwhile, in a darkened, forgotten storage room somewhere, she would store her rolled up sleeping bag. All this effort just to be near the art! No wonder she was an understudy in Night at the Museum.

“Since I am `drawn’ to the subject matter of the human figure,” said Christine, an artist in her own right, “Tintoretto greatly appeals to me. In these masterful works, his compression and spatial arrangement create interaction between the viewer and the work itself.”

By far, my favorite oil on canvas he did was a self-portrait in 1546-47. Like a temperamental opera singer, he appears brash and bold, a 29-year-old dripping with star power in Venice, the city he called home his entire life. Since he was juggling one commission after another, there’s, at the same time, a heightened sense of urgency that says, “yes, I know I’m a rock star, but I must be getting back to my brushes, my colors and my easel soon.”

If you want to see why Tintoretto earned a reputation for fashioning erotic soap operas on canvas, in particular, check out Venus and Mars Surprised by Vulcan. You’ll see how human nature hasn’t changed in the last half-millennium.

The story his later self-portrait tells is dramatically different. At 70, the artist, his face weathered, looks deeply introspective, as if he knows his life is winding down and there’s no brushstroke in the world that can conceal that pain.

The nice thing about living in the DC area is the easy accessibility we have to museums. Of course, the NGA’s collection can’t begin to compare to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Nearly seven million people visited there in 2018. Plus, it offers free admission to residents of New York State.

Since it’s the Big Apple, I would bet there’s some iteration of a barbecue smack down every day on every corner.

1 Comment

  1. I would be interested in your take on the mosaics in St. Sophia Cathedral, done by Demetrios Dukas over the years.

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