The Petit Palais is presenting a real exhibition on the history of art, where visitors will discover to their surprise how Luca Giordano avoids every kind of label.
"Madonna of the Rosary, or with a baldaquin", 1680, oil on canvas, 430 x 240 cm, Naples, Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte.
© Photo Ministero per i beni e le attivita culturali
"At a time when Old Master painting seems to be an increasingly distant territory," say curators Sylvain Bellenger and Christophe Leribault, "it is important to remember how modern all great artists were in their time." For the director of the Capodimonte Museum and his opposite number at the Petit Palais, it was essential to "convey the painter's astonishing versatility when confronting and being fired by rivalry with his contemporaries and masters of the past. This might disconcert the modern eye, which likes to firmly classify artists or at most see a linear stylistic development in their work." To put it mildly: eighteen years after the first retrospective on Giordano, he seems more mysterious than ever. The exhibition is staggering. The curators splendidly convey the sense of the gigantic in the artist's output – he produced five thousand paintings and frescoes: a feat probably equalled only by Rubens and Picasso. Arranging the loans and especially moving the huge Neapolitan altarpieces was a real tour de force. However, through it is tempting to be impressed by Giordano's seeming facility, Daniel Arasse had already warned us in Le Détail: "For painting to achieve this dignity (in intellectual and social terms), traces of the physical working of the material must first be eliminated. The speed of execution characteristic of "brushed" painting has its own particular prestige, and Giordano certainly earned his nickname of "Luca fa presto", for instance. But it precisely indicates the artist's brilliance, elegance and sprezzatura: close up, the absence of effort is obvious."
For Neapolitan professor and scientific expert Stefano Causa, Giordano was all at once a "cannibal of the late Baroque", a "popular artist for connoisseurs", "a snake that adapted without sloughing its skin", "an efficient arsonist" and "a young man of seventy unconcerned by codes and rules". For the viewer immersed in this whirlwind of delightful brushstrokes, the colour virtuoso of Naples, Venice, Florence and Madrid is above all unsettling. In his sombre, Tenebrist vein, he transports us to the darkest depths of 17th century Naples. It is impossible to be unmoved by the series of "philosophers" on loan from the museums of Amiens, Chambéry and the Louvre, or by the Ajaccio St Sebastian, hung alongside the one by Ribera de la Certosa di San Martino. Giordano learned much from Ribera and Mattia Preti, but imposed his pallid, earthy touch as well. Then, in sensual, colourful mode, he astonishes us with the sparkling palette used to sculpt his Sleeping Venus with Cupid and a Satyr and Polyphemus and Galatea, cleverly presented alongside Pacheco's Venus and Satyr. A true chameleon of painting, the artist is never where you expect him. There is clearly not one but several Luca Giordanos, reflecting the people he met, the places he visited in Europe and especially the developments in a century that ended with him and was already looking ahead to Boucher and Fragonard with his Ariane abandoned. At Le Petit Palais, the first French retrospective on the artist is above all speaking proof that all it takes is one missing link for art history to need a complete reassessment.