Saturday, July 9th, 2011

Art is for Everyone: Caravaggio and Street Protests in Louisville, Kentucky

Report from… Louisville, Kentucky

Members of the Louisville arts community protest the actions of Fund for the Arts CEO Allan Cowen, Louisville, Kentucky, March 11, 2011. Courtesy of Travis K. Kircher / WDRB 41 News
Members of the Louisville arts community protest the actions of Fund for the Arts CEO Allan Cowen, Louisville, Kentucky, March 11, 2011. Courtesy of Travis K. Kircher / WDRB 41 News

Louisville, Kentucky has something that other cities covet. Unlike the countless urban centers praying that an eleventh hour investment in the creative sector will deliver them from an ailing economy, Louisville’s support and (blue) grassroots enthusiasm for the arts is well established.  Recently, the local arts community, displaying impressive vitality and channeling their own brand of the Arab Spring, took to the streets in a protest that helped unseat the reigning CEO of the city’s Fund for the Arts.

The confrontation began in February with a seemingly innocuous letter extolling the virtues of public support for the arts.  In addition to the well-worn tack of linking arts and culture to everything from higher math scores to economic expansion, the letter, signed by the directors of the Speed Art Museum, Frazier History Museum, and the Louisville Visual Art Association (LVAA), suggested that simply donating to the Fund for the Arts (FFA) wasn’t enough. Not all arts organizations benefit from FFA funding, the statement continued, and some that do, do so only very little.

Shortly after the letter’s publication in the weekly Louisville paper Business First LVAA director Shannon Westerman received a terse voice-mail from FFA CEO Allan Cowen which included, among other things, a perceived threat to Westerman’s status as director.  Apparently angered by Westerman’s signature on the open letter, Cowen ended the message by wishing him “good luck in (his) future career”.  On March 11th, after Westerman went public with the intimidating voice-mail, incensed members of the Louisville arts community staged a lively protest outside the offices of the FFA and demanded Cowen’s ouster.

Though he’s been viewed as a mercurial figure, Cowen’s accomplishments at the FFA speak for themselves.  Under his watch, the annual campaign grew from a lightweight $600,000 to a staggering $8 million. Cowen is also credited for increasing FFA assets from $43,000 to holdings worth over $25 million today.  But less than two weeks after the demonstration and subsequent internal debate, on March 21st, the FFA announced that Cowen would be retiring after 30 years of service.  It seems fitting then that a city whose recent intrigue would make the House of Borgia proud should play host to an important work by the Italian artist known for his tumultuous life.

Caravaggio, The Fortune Teller, 1594. Oil on Canvas. Courtesy of Scala / Art Resource, NY, Pinacoteca Capitolina, Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy.
Caravaggio, The Fortune Teller, 1594. Oil on Canvas. Courtesy of Scala / Art Resource, NY, Pinacoteca Capitolina, Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy.

The Fortune Teller by Caravaggio is the heart of an exhibition at The Speed Museum that examines the lasting impact of the Milanese master’s accomplishments by juxtaposing The Fortune Teller with works from the Speed’s permanent collection. (The Speed Museum’s exhibition of the painting is the second of three stops in North American following the Italian Cultural Institute in New York in May, and a last stop at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa) .

Dated 1594, The Fortune Teller depicts an alluring gypsy entrancing a young cavalier while purloining his golden ring. It’s an image that possesses an eerie, almost modern quality. The surface, devoid of any trace of the brush, is free of craquelure and is gently speckled as if pigment were mixed with sand.  Cropped scarcely below the pelvis, the actors in this tale of beauty and betrayal inhabit a space just beneath the surface of the picture plane, resulting in a photographic quality that makes The Fortune Teller appear more akin to a grouping of figures by Degas than Caravaggio’s contemporaries.

Speculation about Caravaggio obtaining his heightened realism via the camera obscura has grown in the past decade and an x-ray image also on display does nothing to dispel the conjecture.  In addition to exposing the remnants of a subsurface painting by another artist, the x-ray reveals a total lack of underdrawing. It’s not only the composition that gives this work an incredible sense of veracity, but also the subtle facial expressions and the studied gestures of the figures. It’s little wonder that this picture was eagerly sought out by painters of the time; its space and sharp naturalism must have been startling to 17th century eyes.

The most notable examples of Caravaggio’s influence in the show are two early 17th century paintings; Ecce Homo, attributed to Gerard Douffet, and an image of St John in the Wilderness by an unknown painter.  Douffet’s Ecce Homo depicts Pontius Pilate presenting Christ to the mob, (a theme tackled by Caravaggio himself around 1609) A brilliant, single-source light illuminates the flesh of a tormented messiah, drawing the eye down and across the surface to the posed hand of Pilate.  The figures, carved out of light and dark, are close-cropped below the waist and pressed against the surface of the picture; all traits that give Caravaggio’s work its characteristic vérité. Douffet’s homage falls short only in his handling of the skin. In contrast to Caravaggio’s mastery of delicate shifts of hue that contribute to a depiction of life-like flesh, the figures in Ecce Homo seem to be made of wax. The unknown artist’s St John in the Wilderness shares similar qualities, but where Douffet’s composition benefits from areas of bold color, St John’s limited range of hue gives the sense of being a provisional, if refined, study.

Also on view, works by Rembrandt and Johannes Verspronck are compelling examples of Caravaggio’s impact across Europe. Compared to the previous paintings however, the execution of these works show the reach of Caravaggio in a diluted fashion.  Is the emphasis on contrasts of light and dark descended from the earlier master’s innovation? Undoubtedly, but these artists paint too much with their own brush to be considered followers in any meaningful sense of the word.

The Speed Art Museum is just one of Louisville’s varied and growing arts institutions. The city, home to the boutique 21c Museum Hotel, the prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays, and the aforementioned dynamic local scene, is fast becoming a cultural hub that eclipses neighboring large cities.  And despite the somewhat tense atmosphere generated by this year’s public row, the parties involved have agreed to put their difference aside and are moving forward for the greater good of the community.  If not, expect artists in the streets.