Art critic Christopher Knight wins LA Press Club award

LA Times art critic Christopher Knight just won a Los Angeles Press Club award for his review of the 2008 Bernini exhibition at the Getty Museum. Perhaps not accustomed to reading art criticism on a regular basis, the judges commented that the “crisp, clean words painted a picture in one�s mind of being at the exhibit.” Argh–art crit doesn’t get any more hackneyed than that. Nonetheless, congratulations to Knight, whose excellent writing appears frequently on Two Coats of Paint. Here’s an excerpt from his award-winning review.

“Nothing would seem more dull than an exhibition of portrait busts, those stone-faced dust-catchers representing obscure generals, long-dead clergymen, government functionaries and preening aristocrats that one sometimes encounters tucked away in museum hallways or lobbies but rarely in prominent galleries for painting and sculpture. Typically, the sitter’s wearisome vanity outdistances the artist’s skill with a chisel and a drill. But then there is Bernini — Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), the brilliant and prolific sculptor, architect and painter who more or less invented Italian Baroque art. Along the way he also transformed the dreary portrait bust, a tradition largely inert since ancient Rome. He made it into something dynamic and, on occasion, even spellbinding.

“Opening today at the J. Paul Getty Museum, ‘Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture’ traces that improbable phenomenon with style and intelligence. There has never been a major Bernini sculpture show in the United States. His astounding life-size marble figures and narrative works, such as ‘David’ and ‘Apollo and Daphne’ are unlikely ever to be moved from their Roman museums. Others, such as the spiritually delirious and frankly erotic ‘Ecstasy of St. Theresa’ or the Piazza Navona’s ‘Fountain of the Four Rivers,’ obviously can’t be moved, since they are parts of permanent architectural ensembles. That leaves the portrait busts. In 2000 the Getty acquired a flashy Baroque bust of a young noblewoman that is now attributed to Giuliano Finelli, a Bernini studio assistant and later rival. The acquisition evolved into an exhibition idea.

“But the show was almost derailed by the volatile looted antiquities dispute between the Getty and the Italian government, which in 2007 threatened to forbid loans to the Los Angeles museum if certain works were not returned. At least eight of the show’s 20 Bernini sculptures come from Italian public and private collections, including the three most critically important portrait busts. Last summer’s resolution of the antiquities brawl allowed the exhibition to proceed.

“Bernini was a child prodigy, completing his first commission at 10. (A small marble figure of a chubby infant Hercules slaying a dragon, which Bernini began at the ripe old age of 16, is in the Getty’s permanent collection galleries.) At 24 he began work on ‘Apollo and Daphne,’ a tour-de-force depiction of a life-size nymph escaping rape by a lustful god through her miraculous metamorphosis into a laurel tree. The transformation is uncannily embodied in marble, and the sculpture was instantly the talk of Rome. So extraordinary was Bernini’s achievement that he was dubbed ‘the new Michelangelo.'” Read more.

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