Arts & Theater

Shimmering, sensuous storytelling by the ‘Masters of Venice’ on display at the Crocker

“A Centaur Playing with Punchinellos”
“A Centaur Playing with Punchinellos” Courtesy of the artist

Luminous, sensuous, and storytelling are terms that define the exquisite drawings of two of the 18th century’s most famous draftsmen, Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) and his son Domenico (1727-1804).

Renowned throughout Europe for their colorful frescoes, buoyant ceiling paintings, and masterful prints, their patrons, including German and Spanish royalty, raised them to the pinnacle of Venice’s lively community of artists. In addition to fresco ceilings for the Palacio Real in Madrid, Giambattista was known for brilliant, light-infused drawings that ranged from religious subjects to witty caricatures.

He captured the distinctive dappled light of Venice with its bright reflections and deep shadows in shimmering drawings with abundant warm brown washes, said Crocker Curator William Breazeale on a walk-through of the exhibition.

“In the ‘Flight into Egypt,’ he depicts the Holy Family leading a stubborn donkey past barren trees, creating a remarkable experience of light and shadow with patches of warm washes and bright negative space.”

Composed of numerous drawings from the Anthony J. Moravec Collection at the Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University, Bloomington, as well as a selection of Venetian drawings from the Crocker’s collection, the exhibition focuses primarily on two cycles of drawings by Domenico Tiepolo, who in mid-career after his father’s death, freed of the demands of patrons by his accumulating wealth, focused on more personal, imaginative, and spiritual drawings.

“Domenico was above all a storyteller,” Breazeale observed. “His talent for inventive composition is apparent in his famous Punchinello Series of 104 drawings that were kept together until 1920.”

In a drawing of a centaur playing with a young Punchinello, he combines a mythological being with “‘Punch,” a character from the “commedia dell’arte” in a lively image of the centaur (a teacher figure) holding up the boy Punchinello as if to make him fly as the father Punchinello comes rushing in to save his child. The marvelously detailed drawing with a pig and pan pipes on the ground and feathers flying around young Punchinello is a masterful composition.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is a group of 12 drawings from Domenico Tiepolo’s New Testament cycle, a series of 320 drawings comprising the most extensive depiction of the New Testament in the history of art. The large ink and wash drawings are not studies for other works, but rather unique images that show the artist’s deep understanding of the religious subject matter and his careful observation of the world around him.

Scenes of devout prayer, swooping angels, a menacing Satan, and a weary holy family convey the artist’s deep faith and feeling for the humanity of his subjects.

In “The Holy Family with the Bending Palm,” we see a palm tree Jesus has commanded to bend down so that an exhausted Mary can partake of its fruit. A helpful angel, partially obscured, beats the fronds to loosen the dates as lions and a leopard settle down to guard the Holy Family on their journey.

In “The Third Temptation of Jesus,” a jolly good devil confronts Christ, his horns turned in opposition to Jesus’ halo. Segueing from scary to sacred, “Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: The Second Prayer,” depicts Christ deep in fervent prayer before the Crucifixion, his flesh almost becoming spirit as he supplicates the Lord. A fallen limb blocking the path down from the mountain tells us there is no turning back from his sacrifice.

Though not up to the superb quality of the Tiepolo drawings, the Crocker drawings amplify and provide context for the main event and give us a look at the Crocker’s small Domenico Tiepolo of St. Anthony and the Christ Child as if posed for a ceiling fresco.

Masters of Venice: Drawings by Giambattista and Domenico Tiepolo from the Anthony J. Morovec Collection

Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O Street.

When: Through Feb. 4. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. Closed Mondays, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

Cost: Every third Sunday of the month is “Pay What You Wish Sunday. $10-$5, free for children 6 and under and museum members.

Info: (916) 808-7000.