Lost among Words

A few days ago I visited the exhibition Tancredi: a Retrospective, hosted by the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. It revolves around the works of Tancredi Parmeggiani (1927-1964), an Italian painter close to the abstract movement. A considerable number of his creations are inspired by Venice and the charming aura of the lagoon around it. Here, he met Peggy Guggenheim who gave him a proper studio to work and express his vivid creativity. Indeed, Venice is a recurrent theme in his paintings, which reproduce the sombre atmosphere of its alleys and canals in a non-figurative way. In today’s post, I will not discuss much the figure of Parmeggiani, rather I will make some considerations about the exhibition itself.

A Propos of the Lagoon

Tancredi’s oeuvre delves into questions about space and its definition. The variety of his creations testifies the width of his interests, which evolved constantly throughout his tormented life. In fact, he committed suicide at the age of thirty-seven. Unfortunately, I believe that little of this emerged throughout the exhibition, which offered a confusing presentation of Tancredi’s theoretical background. While reading the paintings’ entries and taking a look at the captions in each room, I could barely related their content to what I was seeing. The language was obviously very formal, if not academic. This is not a problem per se. Rather, I feel that the erudite words, the circumlocutions of formal appreciation and the refined aesthetic regards made the substance difficult to grasp. I do not want to appear pedantic, but an example may help:

He [Tancredi] developed his own view of painting: “spatial landscape” or “vedutismo spaziale”, in which each touch alluded to an image that emerged, in a rain of iterated gestures, as if from a disintegrating galaxy.

I believe that the image of a “disintegrating galaxy”, though powerful, may confuse the reader rather than helping him to navigate the show. Even though education is not the only purpose of a museum, it should be kept in mind that people from various backgrounds visit an exhibition. Some of them may know literally nothing about art history and need thorough guidance. Others may be familiar with the field but it is still necessary to provide a general framework for them to enjoy properly the oeuvre of an artist. In fact, throughout the experience I could not see this kind of targetted support. I perceived the desire to provoke a strong impression but I left knowing little more about Tancredi and his style.


Another interesting example is the caption of two untitled works. I apologise for the unflattering images, but the room they occupied was so narrow that I could barely look at them properly with my own eyes (the exhibition’s layout was sometimes problematic too). Here a fragment of the text:

Their superimposition [of dabs of colour] creates an image filled with vibrations, evoking the use of colour in traditional Venetian painting and the exquisite and glittering luminosity of Byzantine mosaic, so important in the Venetian Middle Ages.

What strikes me here is the author’s ease in casting such bold categories onto the artworks without adding a proper explanation. Indeed, comparing a contemporary painter such as Tancredi to the great masters of the Renaissance tradition is a daring operation. It is not a matter of value, rather of aesthetic categories. The two works present plain colours, arranged in a rather free geometrical pattern. Honestly, I cannot see anything of the thick impasto of Titian’s works. These pieces totally lack the material substance of the “traditional Venetian painting”, they do not share the same tints, and the employed techniques are far from being similar. So then, where is traditional Venetian use of colour evoked? I am afraid the caption may look slightly preposterous.

Untitled and Untitled 

I truly appreciated several of Tancredi’s works. Nonetheless, as a viewer I was not supported in this process of discovery. Rather, I had to unravel on my own the knots of words scattered throughout the rooms. In fact, the texts presented a fundamental flaw: they gave the impression of mistaking complexity with depth. After a few months spent studying art history, I understood that conveying the same immediacy of an artwork through words is a desperate quest. Trying to let the work of art speak and communicate through few precise prompts to the viewer in an adequate setting is the complex and difficult task of a curator.  If this does not happen, the viewer will easily get lost among words and maybe even miss the sense of an otherwise excellent gathering of pieces.



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A Propos of the Lagoon


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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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