Overrated Paintings: Botticelli, da Vinci and Picasso

Birth of Venus - Sandro Botticelli - c.1486

Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) - Leonardo da Vinci - begun c. 1503

Guernica - Pablo Picasso - 1937

Some paintings, like some people, are famous because they are famous. And, like some people, they might not be deserving of their fame. Consider the paintings shown above.

To begin, I assert that I have nothing against Botticelli's Birth of Venus. Well, I don't think his Venus is a real knockout -- but I can say the same about most other Venus paintings I've seen ... tastes do differ. Worse, the average viewer no longer can see the painting unhindered; the Uffizi Gallery has it shielded by a thick layer of transparent material (I'm not sure what it is, but it dulls down the painting considerably). But my core position is that the painting doesn't strike me as being superior to any number of fine Renaissance-era paintings that are better-composed and just as well executed.

Da Vinci's Mona Lisa is another painting in the same category: nothing wrong with it, but not outstanding compared to other works of its time. I first saw it in Washington, D.C. when it was on tour and manage to be in the same room with it when visiting the Louvre (though the crowds make it hard to get very close). In every instance I found it shielded like Botticelli's painting, so I can't claim to have really seen it in the sense of being able to do an examination.

Pablo Picasso's Guernica is another matter.

Five years ago when I was part of the 2Blowhards blogging team I wrote this post about it. Here are the relevant remarks:

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This is going to be difficult, but try looking at "Guernica" as if you had never heard of Pablo Picasso and knew nothing about what the painting was supposed to depict. Close your eyes, click your heels twice, spin around three times and pretend really hard that you're seeing it for the first time. Okay?

Open your eyes. What do you see? It's a value-painting: no real colors, just various shades of gray with tendencies towards brown or blue. There are straight lines serving as edges of flatly painted or patterned areas. In the top-center is a crudely-drawn light bulb and reflector. The rest of the painting is populated by images of people and animals that are crudely-drawn, distorted. A hand attached to what might be an arm is clutching what seems to be an oil-lamp. There is a crudely-drawn woman at the left who might be screaming while holding a crudely-drawn baby who is sick or dead. On the right is an extremely crudely-drawn human with raised arms. To the lower right is a very crudely-drawn woman leaning forward. Along the bottom is a crudely-drawn man on his back whose eyes are at angles to each other. He seems to be grasping a broken sword in his right hand and might well be dead. There are three creatures depicted. The smallest could be a bird whose head for some reason is raised to the sky. Towards the left is what seems to be a bull gazing back at the viewer: it too is crudely drawn. At the center is what might be a horse.

The compositional effect is jarring, not placid or soothing. Composition aside, the painting has whatever impact it has because it is large, being a mural.

A curator or art historian would likely pigeonhole "Guernica" as a mix of Cubism and Expressionism.

Asked to tell what the painting represents, an ignorant viewer might stumble on the fact that it has to do with war (there is that possible broken sword) but might well come up with a different interpretation.

When I viewed "Guernica" I knew its background and knew that it was supposed to be a masterpiece of Modernism. I tried really hard to like it. But I failed.
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I'm far from being the first to lament about works of are that are so famous that people feel compelled to love them. I saw Guernica once again last October and the crowds were cooing over it. That seems to be the nature of things, so all I can do is shrug my shoulders and write the occasional blog post pointing out that there might be less than meets the predisposed eye.