Art makes its own truth

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Portrait of the blogger as a young man.

This is a photograph taken during the summer of 1981, shortly before I started my senior year in high school. It’s an adequate portrait, and took its place in the yearbook with the rest of my classmates. But, in a subtle way, it is a lie. Up to that point I had always worn my hair parted down the middle. The side parting seen here was an experiment for the summer; by the time school started I was back to the center part. Thus my senior year portrait shows a look I never wore in school. I didn’t try the side part again until my forties, and have kept it since.

Lie is too strong a word, since there was no intent to deceive, merely the shifting and searching that teenagers go through to find their own self. But artists have lied, sometimes with harmful intent, but most of the time without. Let’s look at two such benign deceptions here:

St Benedetto, Looking towards Fusina exhibited 1843 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

St Benedetto, Looking towards Fusina Collection of Tate Britain. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

J. M. W. Turner first showed St. Benedetto, Looking towards Fusina, in 1843. What has raised eyebrows in viewers ever since is the false element in this Venetian scene – namely, the non-existent St. Benedetto’s church. It’s too late to determine Turner’s motives, or what processes caused him to make such a mistake, if mistake it was. Turner gives us a look into an alternate universe wherein Venice has one more church, but he paints the scene from that vantage point, leaving us to wonder what St. Benedetto’s looked like.

Again, to call this a lie is harsh, and probably a disservice to a great artist. A mystery then, an invisible church, only visible to those with the eyes of a painter.

Albert Bierstadt was one of the great landscape painters of the later 1800s. His idealized, even downright fictionalized, scenes of the American west are grandiose, beautiful, and patriotic almost to a fault. His scenes became accepted as quintessentially America, although Bierstadt himself was from Germany, and, as one wag put it, his Rocky Mountains always look like the Alps. But Bierstadt knew how to get a painting noticed. He wanted to sell a painting to Corcoran Gallery’s founder, William Wilson Corcoran. How to sweeten the bait? Perhaps claim that the majestic peak in the upper center is called Mount Corcoran? And just to make it credible, name a peak Corcoran in case he looks it up. It worked. The painting remained in the Corcoran’s collection until that was absorbed into the National Gallery of Art, where it now resides.

Was that a lie? Absolutely. Bierstadt was found out, and it made no difference. The mountain had been named, after the painting as much as after the man, and he had his sale. The variance from fact mattered little, though more than the Turner – and Venice has yet to build a St. Benedetto’s church to bring itself in line with Turner. Someone should get on that.

As for myself, I see the difference between my photograph and the way I really looked in school that year as a nod to memory. We forget easily and often, especially the little details. Unless you’re solving a mystery, the trivia don’t matter. Let people see whatever hairdo they think they remember.

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Mount Corcoran, c.1876-77 National Gallery of Art; formerly Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., USA; Museum Purchase

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