A New Madonna for Our City of Angels

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So, ladies and gentlemen, if you, like me, have been procrastinating on filing your taxes until the very last moment, then today – April 15 – is your Atonement Day. Why this Christian reference? Probably it has something to do with the deep impression left on me by the spectacular works by Anselm Kiefer and their religious symbology that I talked about last week. Or, maybe I was swayed by the purity and beauty of the Madonna, not the one on the cover of Vanity Fair, but the 500 year-old vision of her that I saw last Sunday.

at080415a.jpg The heat wave was unbearable that day, and the coolest place I could escape to were the galleries of LACMA. There, among the familiar works by Renaissance artists, I discovered a beautiful new painting by Italian artist Cima da Conegliano, an image of the Madonna and Child in a Landscape. The announcement about the purchase of this masterpiece was made by the museum in February, and it took some time before this small jewel of a painting was put on display. While many paintings of this era do not survive well the passage of time, this oil painting – with its delicate translucent pinks, blues, and greens – appears to be in perfect condition. Works by this Venetian artist are rare, and most of them, like this one, are a variation on his favorite subject: poetic and deeply meditative image of the Madonna and Child. If you've seen a few of them, you will start to recognize a very particular and very Venetian type of young woman he tended to paint throughout his career. I wish I could see the Madonna at close range, to enjoy the tantalizing details of the landscape behind her, but the way it hangs – high on the wall with a massive piece of furniture in front of it – puts too much distance between the viewer and the work of art.

at080415b.jpg And now about Madonna, the author of several children's books, the one who is neither shy nor virginal, the one who appears not only on the cover of Vanity Fair, but stares at us from a full-page ad in the New York Times. Here she is, surrounded by the painfully banal images which serve as illustrations for her books. The prints with these illustrations are offered for $500, but if you want one with the artist's signature, you have to shell out another $150. Whoever is responsible for the peddling of these so-called 'limited' edition prints as works of art should be ashamed, not only because an edition should not be called limited when it consists of 500 copies, but also because the promised certificate of authenticity doesn't have the magic power of the kiss to turn this ugly ‘frog' into a real work of art. So again, buyer beware.

at080415c.jpg And here is another warning against the misguided campaign of some famous museums to capitalize on their brand name by opening satellites in faraway places. In 2001, with great fanfare, the Guggenheim Museum opened not one, but two branches in Las Vegas. The larger one, intended for big traveling exhibitions, lasted for just over a year. The smaller one, a promising collaboration between the Guggenheim and the famous Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, has also failed to attract an audience, so the recent announcement of its closing did not necessarily come as a big surprise.

at080415d.jpgSome people say that Las Vegas was not ready for serious art, but I believe that it was the string of halfhearted, unimaginative exhibitions that should be blamed for the demise of this project. But nothing can stop Thom Krens of the Guggenheim Foundation from his obsessive campaign to build yet another satellite; these days he is negotiating with the city of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. What a sham.

Banner image: Cima da Conegliano, Madonna and Child in a Landscape (detail)