Exhibition on Competition in Art: The Favor of Eris

Exhibition on Competition in Art: The Favor of Eris

Who is best at deceiving? A Viennese exhibition shows how competition drove ancient and modern art.

Two half-naked women in fur coats, painted by Titian and Peter Paul Rubens

Similar: Titian’s “Girl in Furs” (left) and Peter Paul Rubens’ “Helena Fourment” Art: KHM Museum Association

Almost nothing works without motivation. Equipped with an inexhaustible will to survive, we fight our way through, outsmarting fate here and there, and particularly willingly and imaginatively avoiding our competitors. Polarized in this way, we seek comparison, measure the achievements of others, choose role models and enter into fruitful, often hopeless, sometimes bitter competition with them.

With the exhibition “Idols & Rivals” and using 120 outstanding works as examples, the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien has put together a panorama that takes a differentiated, non-teaching look at the artistic competition from antiquity to the 18th century.

The tale of Pliny the Elder by the Greek painters Zeuxis and Parrhasios is the starting motif. Which of the two could represent an object so faithfully that an animal, let alone a human being, would be deceived? One’s painted grapes attracted the birds, the other asked the competitor to draw aside the curtain in front of his work. What this did not succeed, because the curtain was painted.

The trompe l’oeil, the perfect deception, was alluded to by many artists, particularly in the Renaissance, with sumptuous still lifes and draped curtains. Sometimes, even centuries later, with a joke. At the beginning of the 19th century, the American painter Raphaelle Peale hid the goddess Aphrodite, who was frequently depicted at all times, rising from the sea behind a white, deceptively “real” cloth. Only her wet mop of hair and bare feet on a carpet of flowers can be seen .

Competition led to innovative pictorial inventions

Michelangelo was the paragon par excellence (after all, he the “first art historian”, Giorgio Vasari, while still alive to the measure of all). Annibale Caracci based himself on his Pietà, Titian with his “Danae” to Michelangelo’s displeasure on the “Allegory of the Night”. The Ganymede motif, the kidnapping of the shepherd boy to Olympus by the eagle sent by Jupiter, was taken up by Rubens, following Michelangelo, in high baroque drama.

painting or sculpture? In the 16th century, the competition (Paragone) for the ranking of the arts gave impetus to both genres and led to innovative pictorial inventions of traditional themes. The three-dimensionality of the sculpture triumphed, Painters like Lorenzo Lotto accepted the challenge. He portrayed a renowned goldsmith both in frontal view and in left and right profile.

multiview? Please. Of course, it was always about outdoing, for example in the teacher-pupil relationship with Rubens and van Dyck, but occasionally about signs of appreciation. Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini were related by marriage – and on friendly terms. They dealt with the same pictorial themes and stylistic elements.

The same applies to the two artists Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana, twenty years her junior, who says she felt honored when she was asked in 1578 for a self-portrait to hang next to that of the older celebrity. However, Lavinia presents herself as an elegant, learned lady, while Sofonisba presents herself as simple and high-necked with a little book in her hand.

mockery and melancholy

A very macabre tradition tells of Luca Giordano, the baroque painter also known as Fa Presto, that he rivaled the leisurely painting style of his colleague Carlo Dolci. Soon after, he became depressed and died. For real? Be that as it may, the comparison of both depictions of Saint Rosalia demonstrates her mastery of composition – and the unmistakable contrast of verve and care.

Gudrun Svoboda, the curator, has succeeded in telling a vivid story about the artistic competition of all kinds with excellent material and loans from the Louvre and the Vatican, for example. But couldn’t perhaps, despite strict conservational reservations, a brighter room design convey a more contemporary spatial experience without violating the sublime atmosphere?

The customs of the time are followed by the opportunity to vote by admission ticket and digital station in the halls. It encourages visitors to take a closer look and even more to check their own criteria. May the favor of Eris, the goddess of competition, be upon them. She is present in the beautiful form of a winged young woman – at the center of a drinking bowl from the mid-6th century BC.

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