Exhibitionism

The Suida Manning Collection: the Renaissance Is Here

Harry Ransom Center, UT
Permanent display

Sample from The Suida Manning Collection
Claude Vignon's
David With the Head of Goliath,
circa 1616-22

With springtime in the air, there is a genuine feeling of rebirth in Austin these days. The city is building stadiums and museums. The University of Texas is bursting with youth and philosophy. Our athletes are winning national awards. If you didn't know any better, you'd think this was the Golden Age of Athens or the Italian Renaissance rather than the dawn of the 21st century. Why, we could even compare our own Governor Bush to Louis XIV if it weren't for the fact that the French King was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and was rumored to have had late-night parties and unsavory vices. Truly, Austin is coming of age.

However, nowhere is the local renaissance more evident than at UT's Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, where 50 of the 700 Renaissance and Baroque masterworks that comprise the much-talked-about Suida-Manning collection have made their local debut. Walking among the immaculately kept paintings that the university purchased late last year for $35 million not only transports you back to the Italy, France, and the Netherlands of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, it reminds you of the present, very healthy state of Austin's art scene. Last Sunday, the crowd of people milling around the rooms was so large that I actually found myself vying for position in front of a painting. In another that-never-happens-in-Austin moment, I witnessed a 10-year-old boy break away from his parents, rush up to French painter Claude Vignon's elegant Baroque work David With the Head of Goliath (1616), point at the canvas and say, "Cooooool." It was a bit of childhood enthusiasm that more than a few of us were feeling last Sunday, including the guard on duty, who was sneaking peeks at the detailed and masterful portraits.

The excitement came in part because the paintings on display represent the best of what the Suida-Manning collection has to offer, beginning with a tempura on gold ground panel from the International Gothic Style by the Italian Bolognese artist Del Crocifissi from the 1360s. The small, gold-encrusted religious panel with two hinged doors depicts a Madonna with child flanked by Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Moving through the gallery, we enter the 1500s and the Renaissance paintings, which are dominated more by realism and a return to classical Greek humanism than the religious subject matter of the Middle Ages. Del Piombo's Portrait of a Man (1516) is a gorgeous example of Renaissance attention to the common man. Likewise, Veronese introduces the sublime ceremony of humanity in his work The Annunciation (1585).

That said, the collection seems to be dominated by the Baroque period (roughly 1600-1750). These paintings are lavish and colorful oil on canvases with incredible use of the light and shading technique chiaroscuro. The paintings portray mythic landscapes and allegorical references and while the realism of the Early and High Renaissance remains intact, the paintings are far more sensual and emotional than their precursors. Perhaps the most famous painting in the group is a small portrait by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens called Study of the Head of a Youth from the 1620s. The masterfully detailed painting is full of tiny flowing brush work and rich colors, a feat all the more incredible when you consider that the piece is nearly 400 years old.

The exhibit finishes nicely with some late Baroque work, namely Donato Creti's Lady With a String of Pearls (1710), which begins to show yet another change in the direction that painting will follow -- to the Neoclassic and Romantic schools. Here the brush strokes are hidden in favor of a higher, smoother finish and clear light that seems to bathe the subject in a much more mythic aura.

In all, the exhibit on display now is a bit of a teaser. After all, the Suida-Manning collection was the last and greatest privately held collection of its kind in the world before the Blanton acquired it, and some have even said it remains the most important and intact collection of its kind in the country. In addition to paintings by Veronese, Rubens, Guernico, Lorrain, and Poussin, we have some 400 drawings and 20 sculptures to look forward to when the Blanton's new museum goes up in a few years. For now, however, it looks as though the Austin renaissance and the Suida-Manning Renaissance will make fast friends.

--Sam Martin


TOSCA: ROMAN SUNRISE

Bass Concert Hall,
March 8

Austin Lyric Opera brought the curtain down on its 1998-99 season Monday with a lovely, simple production of Puccini's Tosca before a sold-out house of thrilled audience members. Puccini's opera has a political current running through it, but it is the love story between opera singer Floria Tosca; her beloved, the artist Mario Cavaradossi; and the evil Chief of Police, Scarpia, that turns the wheel of this renowned piece of musical theatre.

It is 1800, and Napoleon is laying waste to European monarchies, replacing them with citizen-controlled republics. He has set his sights on monarchist Italy, attacking cities in the north. In Rome, a Republican named Angelotti escapes from imprisonment in the Castel Sant'Angelo and seeks shelter in a church: Sant'Andrea della Valle. Cavaradossi is painting a portrait of the Magdalene for the church when Angelotti descends upon him. A longtime friend and political ally, Cavaradossi agrees to hide Angelotti, and from then on, the lives of he and Tosca are at extreme risk. Scarpia uses Tosca's love for Cavaradossi to learn the whereabouts of the fugitive, torturing her lover until she can bear it no longer, revealing Angelotti's hiding place. Scarpia then offers to exchange Cavaradossi's freedom for a night of love with Tosca, for whom the wicked Chief of Police has developed a brutal, sexual interest. As he approaches the seemingly acquiescent Tosca, she plunges a knife into him and makes her escape. Unknowing, Cavaradossi awaits execution by firing squad at dawn. He is met near the Castel ramparts by Tosca, who tells him that she manipulated a promise out of Scarpia that the execution be a ruse: Cavaradossi need only fall down when he hears the guns fire. Then the two lovers may escape Rome, to live together forever. But when the execution takes place, real bullets are used; Cavaradossi falls, dead. Tosca realizes that she has been found out for murdering Scarpia and plunges to her death over the parapets of the Castel Sant'Angelo.

From the opening moments -- the abbreviated blast of sound that serves as the introduction, the ornately painted drops with practically no set pieces, the simple costume and lighting design -- the production focused on the music and the characters. From tenor Carl Tanner as the bold hero Cavaradossi to Steven Condy as the Friar Tuckish Sacristan (whom Condy gives a mischievous air), all the singers provided noteworthy performances. Tanner was especially lovely with the Act One aria "Recondita armonia," but his reading of the equally lovely "E lucivan e stelle" was just as heartfelt. The duets sung by Tanner and Victoria Litherland's Tosca -- first the "Non la sospira la nostra casetta," in which they make up, then the haunting, a cappella moments of Act Three's "O dolci maniæ" -- were exceptional. Litherland was an impish, peevish, sultry, and fiercely loyal Tosca; she sang a beautiful "Vissi d'arte," a gorgeous aria where she describes her life in art -- so far removed from the rough political world she must operate in now. Kristopher Irmiter was a gleefully wicked Scarpia, who cheerfully acknowledged the boos and hisses he received at the curtain call. Act Two saw the sinister plotter in his element (after a rather odd conclusion to Act One in which Scarpia seemed overwhelmed as much by the music as by the gathering throng in the church). He sang the brutally honest "Ha più forte sapore" with a matter-of-fact air -- he has neither the gifts nor the inclination to woo; he just takes what he wants. ALO Young Artist Program members Brett Barnes (Angelotti) and Rafael Davila (Spoletta -- assistant to Scarpia) acquitted themselves with solid displays of skillful acting and singing.

Cal Stewart Kellogg led the orchestra through the passionate, sometimes dark, sometimes playful score with apparent ease. Puccini's score includes several long transitions of music that stage director Marc Verzatt seemed intent on filling, not always to good effect: Scarpia's manipulation of the jealous Tosca was undermined by the constant movement of supernumerary visitors to the church in Act One; and the somnambulistic entrances and exits of the firing squad at the end of the opera added little tension despite Tosca's description. Angelotti's escape and the Sacristan's puttering about were woven into the fabric of the music with much more success. David Nancarrow's sunrise (an effect one has come to anticipate from this gifted Austin lighting designer) at the start of Act Three was a welcome opportunity to hear the glorious music without ambulatory distraction and allowed the audience to feel the sun coming up in Rome, with the gray silhouette of St. Peter's in the distance. --Robi Polgar

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Dance, Painting, Drawing, Sculpture, Museum, Robert Faires

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