What would Mr. Tiepolo say?

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What would Mr. Tiepolo say? This is how Robert, an art student from Dresden, responded to my last interview question: is there any recommendation you would make to the museum? Mr. Tiepolo? Who’s that? It took me a few moments to realize that Robert was referring to the Italian Renaissance painter Giovanni Batista Tiepolo, long since dead. Ah, the question was rhetorical, akin to what would Jesus do? Alright Robert, medium of dead Italian painters, what would Tiepolo say? Robert seemed sure: “He would say turn down the lights!” Robert went on: Tiepolo painted Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Hyacinth as an alterpiece for a church. In a church the eyes must accustom themselves to sober lighting, the viewer has to be patient, has to look a long time, and then the colors slowly reveal themselves. In Robert’s opinion, Tiepolo’s painting was misrepresented because we could see it too well. To him, the colors were almost garish.

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Robert’s question, on behalf of Signore Tiepolo, brings up an interesting point: art museums decontextualize objects, serving them up to us in dramatically different conditions than those for which they were made: a statue of Buddha in a museum provokes a different response than it would in a temple, the 13th century Corpus of Christ with its stoic style had an entirely different effect (and purpose) in the Church of Santa Maria in Banyoles, Spain (where it remained until 1919) than it has today on visitors to the Art Institute.

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While Robert wasn’t questioning the museum’s legitimacy to display an alterpiece originally designed for a church (in fact, one of his preoccupations was museum lighting, which is a whole other kettle of fish), he does give us some food for thought: large, public museums as we know them come to us from the 18th and 19th centuries, beginning with the Louvre which opened its doors in 1793 after the French Revolution (prior to which it had been the private collection of the king). In the Age of Enlightenment art was seen not as the property of a privileged few but as a humanizing tool for everybody and thus replaced in some respects the role the church had occupied for hundreds of years. Today’s public museum can therefore be seen as a sort of secularized church…only with better lighting!

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I now have my questionnaire posted, you will find it under tools for your visit. Feel free to download it to shake up your next visit to an art museum or to fill out and send back to me. I would love to hear from you.

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