'Tiepolo,' Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall write, 'is not a difficult painter. He is accessible and easy to like.' Well, up to a point. For example, while I did not find the Tiepolos in the Royal Academy's exhibition of 18th-century Venetian art 'difficult' in any obvious way, I did not find them 'easy to like' either. On the contrary. Despite their brilliance they are easy to dislike. Take, for example, Saint Agatha. The saint kneels, facing you and looking up over your head. A companion holds bloodied drapery to the saint's mutilated chest; a boy bears her severed breasts on a dish held chest-high - for all the world like a Veronese page boy bringing puddings. The executioner, his bloody sword in his hand, stands behind Agatha and her supporters. Clear colour is confined to the drapery - slate blue at Agatha's feet, pale blue at her elbow, amber yellow in the boy's shirt behind her right shoulder, orange-pink in the puffed sleeve of the female supporter, dried-blood red in the vest of the executioner. This drapery, which is so loose and bunched up that it is difficult to read the bodies behind it, makes a loop which crosses the linear pattern of arms and shadows and surrounds the central figure of Agatha. Her face, bare shoulders and right arm are the eye's starting point and final resting place.
LRB 12 January 1995 | PDF Download