PaperCity Magazine

September 2019- Houston

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78 BY BILLY FONG MASTERPIECE DISRUPTED this page image courtesy Detroit iNstitute oF arts T he word "masterpiece" carries substantial weight. No term c o n f e r s g r e a t e r credibility when it comes to art, literature, film, music, and architecture. Throwing the term into a marketing strategy is often all one needs to create a blockbuster. Yet the foundation of the word, "master," ultimately denotes the masculine — and the definition of masterpiece often makes reference to "outstanding craftsmanship." All roads within this word seem to point to the male gender. Over the past few years, undoubtedly due to the current wave of new feminism and the women's equality movement, the art world has expressed renewed interest in conversations surrounding female artists, whether known yet under- recognized or previously undiscovered. Museums have embraced this urgency, consciously organizing exhibitions featuring women artists. But in marketing these female-centric shows, where lies the word masterpiece? Even today, it's rarely found when describing the work of female artists. The notion of what defines a masterpiece and the era of #MeToo are set on a collision course. Art- world insiders are abuzz that institutions as well as the art market are finally compensating for the omissions of the past. But, the question remains: Is anyone confident enough to proclaim works by the new canon of great women artists as masterpieces? And furthermore, what truly makes a masterpiece — made by man or woman — worthy of our utmost attention and praise. All of this came to mind while examining the promotional materials of the Dallas Museum of Art's new exhibition of a work by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The press release read: "Dallas Museum of Art presents a rare opportunity to see a masterpiece by Caravaggio." It declares the single work on display, Martha and Mary Magdalene, 1598, a "masterpiece from Caravaggio's early career in Rome." Caravaggio was active in Italy between 1592 and 1610. Most would count him as one of art history's most important artists, alongside da Vinci, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Michelangelo. Less than a dozen of Caravaggio's works exist in museum collections in the United States, adding to the allure of the great master — and this exhibition, in particular. The show is the first exhibition led by the DMA's new assistant curator of European Art, Julien Domercq, who joined the museum this spring from the National Gallery in London. Entering a hushed, darkly painted gallery at the DMA, the dimly lit masterpiece hangs in what feels like a sacred space. The 16th-century painting looms, depicting the parable of Mary Magdalene — who the Catholic Church had long considered a prostitute — undergoing a spiritual epiphany as her sister, Martha, counts the reasons for Mary converting on her fingers. Being in the presence of Martha and Mary Magdalene recalls the solitude of a religious sanctuary. Museum guests appear to be in a trance-like state, and any speaking is done in a hushed tone. A cell phone rings, shattering the silence — nearby guests glower at the phone's owner. It's as if someone has spat on the Mona Lisa. Domercq discusses the criteria defining a masterpiece as it pertains to Caravaggio's Martha and Mary Magdalene. Here, it is the artist's brilliant use of light, he says. Caravaggio was known for his expertise in chiaroscuro, a painting technique that creates theatricality through its strong contrasts of light and dark. In this case, the artist has cast a divine light upon Mary Magdalene, the now reformed sinner. Domercq also remarks on the painting's ability to convey an extremely complex story in a particularly subtle and deft manner, another criteria often used among art historians and curators to distinguish a masterpiece. Our focus then shifts to the topic of dominant masculinity in the world of known masterpieces. Even the most casual museumgoers, we both agree, would likely only be able to name male artists when questioned about artistic masterpieces. Furthermore, he says, most of the world's masterpieces would be "works depicting women." Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Titian's Venus of Urbino, and Rembrandt's Danaë immediately spring to mind. "There is a problem that the history of art has been written by men for men," Domercq says. Call it an affirmation: When a major museum curator speaks of gender disparity in

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