Hundreds of years ago in Europe, long before the time of selfie sticks and digital cameras and the internet, artists were commissioned to document major rituals, religious processions and events of the day.
“Eyewitness Views: Making History in 18th-Century Europe,” a big exhibition opening Sunday at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, focuses on the epic works of celebrated view painters such as Canaletto, Giovanni Paolo Panini, Francesco Guardi, Bernardo Bellotto, Hubert Robert and Luca Carlevarijs. These painters captured such events as a procession through Venice’s canals to welcome a foreign dignitary; the eruption of Vesuvius, or the annual Bucintoro festival, celebrating the ritual marriage of Venice and the sea.
Though many credit these paintings as being akin to photojournalism before the age of photography, events often were stage-managed with an eye toward the paintings that would result.
“The Venetians were great at staging events, which is why these paintings were so popular,” said Patrick Noon, chair of the museum’s paintings department.
The show first opened in May at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, which organized the exhibit with the institute and the Cleveland Museum of Art. More than 50 paintings are on display — many never before exhibited in the United States — divided into four thematic sections. “Memory and Manipulation” questions whether the painters were “honest” in their creation of images, since events often were reshaped to present an idealized view.
The second section, “Civic and Religious Ritual,” captures events such as a religious procession. “Festival and Spectacle” focuses more on entertainment in Venice and Rome in the 1700s, while “Disaster and Destruction” highlights scenes of chaos, either of a political nature (war, for example) or natural (fire at a Paris opera house).
I toured the galleries with Noon, who helped present the exhibition in Minneapolis, to learn more about the types of view paintings and what they can teach us about the ways that history is manipulated and, ultimately, portrayed.
Q: Is this a romanticized view of history?
A: It’s not necessarily romanticized so much as it is exploitative, for the purpose of the patron [who commissioned the work] and the grandeur of the site.
Q: When did view painting begin?
A: View painting really started in the 17th century. You see it in Holland and you see a lot of it in England, where you get these bird’s eye views of houses. But in the 18th century it becomes incredibly fashionable because of the number of spectacles, and the rising interest in classicism and Renaissance art.
With the Vatican and the Holy Roman Empire, there were a lot of reasons for people to go to Italy. If they were there for an important mission, they wanted it recorded somehow. Sometimes you could get it done with drawings. But if you were a very important person, you would commission somebody to paint this at a very large price. It would be the most important event of this guy’s life.
Q: Historically speaking, it seems there’s no real comparison to this today, other than a staged photograph of an event, like the two huge crowd photos you display at the beginning of the exhibit [of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 speech in Washington and Pope Francis’ 2013 visit to Rio de Janeiro].
A: There is no [contemporary] fine arts version of this. If you are going to record this kind of event today, it’s going to be video or photography. To give people an idea of the iconic significance of these paintings, we wanted images that showed important people with mass crowds meeting for a very special purpose.
Q: Can you offer a bit of historical context?
A: These pictures do show you a really great view of cultural history and architecture. If you are at all interested in the history of painting or art, these are the pinnacle of that kind of painting. You could see how people lived and entertained. People would come — rich tourists, like the aristocracy — if they knew there was going to be a regatta for the king of Denmark in Venice. From wherever they were, they would make the effort.
It was staged grandeur really, that you didn’t see anywhere else. And it didn’t die out until the end of the 18th century.