Goya and Dix Just Needed a Rainbow

VENICE — W. Bruce C. Bailey, philanthropist and collector, is pacing up and down the nave of the Venetian church of San Samuele, telling all who will listen about the exhibition we are so looking forward to seeing. We? At this moment about six of us are at the press opening, and I have just deposited my bag on the long, narrow bench at the church’s entrance (right next to Bruce’s own silver-headed cane, I notice). 

Bruce wants to talk to me individually too, both about this show of works, all chosen from his own Bailey Collection — whose theme is the miseries of war — but also about such wider matters as the extent of this great collection of his, which currently consists of 16,000 objects, and about how much good his philanthropical efforts are doing for poor artists — especially perhaps those he took on a trip to Padua to see the Giottos at the Scrovegni Chapel.

I get none of this information from Bruce’s own mouth, I hasten to add, because as soon as he strides toward me in his striped pants, quoting words by Marcel Duchamp, I brutally cut him off by explaining that I find it best to look at the art first. Words spoken too readily and too soon by an eager curator eradicate at a stroke the tender thoughts you may begin to form when standing in front of the works themselves.

So I get myself off the hook, and Bruce, ever the glittery-eyed Ancient Mariner trying to stop at least one in every three (as Coleridge tells it), quickly finds someone else to talk to. Thus in spite of my best efforts, and much to my irritation, I learn a great deal of the information about himself and his endless good works that I had been trying not to, because no matter where I choose to stand, his great, booming voice echoes through the capacious nave of this church.

Still, I do my best to shut him out and simply look. At precisely what? Well, certain artists attach themselves to the theme of the miseries of war like iron filings to a magnet, and we all know their names: They are Callot, Goya, and Dix, all representing different centuries of barbarity. And Brucie, having a deep philanthropic pocket, has got full sets of the lot of them: Callot’s The Great Miseries of War (1633), Goya’s 82 etchings collectively entitled The Disasters of War (1810–20), and Dix’s The War — a portfolio of 50 etchings of World War I, published in 1924, dubbed the “antiwar anniversary year” in Germany.  

The difficulty is that this show does not quite hang together as it should because when Bruce asked the Bishop of Venice about renting the space, he had to settle for a condition that has led to a bit of poor decision making. The bishop made it clear that he could only dispense so much misery. There had to be a bit of hope too — and the hopeful element of this show is feeble, if not schmalzy. A rainbow. A comet. And a trio of guileless shepherds. 

There are two other problems, too. Bruce has included a series of etchings by the Chapman Brothers, who long ago decided to characterize themselves as the tasteless bad boys of British art. They so love to offend. One thing they have been doing for years is re-working Goya’s great suite of etchings, whether by buying and defacing their own set or taking it as starting point for acts of ribaldry and tastelessness at Goya’s expense. The inclusion of an entire wall of their work is a great failure of tact and taste on Bruce’s part. 

And, oh yes, I almost forgot to mention that there is a very inane antiwar poem by Margaret Atwood on one of the walls to drive your eyes across. It’s called “The Disasters of War: A Sequel,” and it does not deserve to be quoted from.

Beati Pacifici: The Disasters of War and the Hope for International Peace continues at Chiesa di San Samuele (San Marco 3227, Venice, Italy) through September 29. The exhibition was curated by W. Bruce C. Bailey from the Bailey Collection.

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