by Gabrielle Euvino
Most of us know when we have witnessed a masterpiece, even if we can't describe why. Seeing the seductive smile of the Mona Lisa, you can't help but wonder what she is thinking. Standing at the foot of the Sistine Chapel it can be difficult to breathe—how did he do that? Stare at van Gogh's Starry Night and feel the vibrating sky. In all of these cases, you know you're in front of a one-of-a-kind, not to be replicated experience.
A masterpiece makes us forget the artist, instead directing our attention to the artist's work. We may wonder how the work was executed, but for the time being we are transposed, so deeply brought into this creation that our consciousness is actually expanded. No one walks away from a Rembrandt unaffected.
Art appreciation has had its peaks, but never before have so many people had the fortune to witness the world's masterpieces. The scene has gone from the banquet halls of Europe's richest to the computer screen in your living room. In today's electronic age, in a manner of seconds it is possible to visit the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet with all this exposure, we still remain mystified in front of a great work. We may have seen countless reproductions of the Mona Lisa on everything from greeting cards to coffee mugs, or the dressable David statue as a magnet on our refrigerator, but we're still turned on seeing them up close.
So what makes an art masterpiece? Webster's defines it as a "supreme intellectual or artistic achievement." Anne Richter, an artist and educator in New York City, has this to say: "You know when you've encountered a masterpiece because it stays with you the rest of your life. It's like chewing gum on the inside of your brain and it sticks there, becoming part of a private reservoir of things that take you away from yourself and your environment. It's just you and the masterpiece and the mystery. It grabs you. Often you don't know why."
A masterpiece should transcend its subject matter, expanding the viewer's concept of art, becoming a marker, a buoy, a reference point. There's no better example of this than Giotto, who departed from stylized Byzantine conservatism and revolutionized the art world of his time by using foreshortening to create the illusion of depth. His use of perspective paved the way for all masters that followed, making him one of the founders of Western painting as we know it today.
We admire the masterpiece because it pretends to have been effortless, its seams invisible to our adoring, hungry eyes. Take Diego Velazquez's Las Meninas (Maids of Honor), considered to be one of the greatest paintings in the world. As seen from the perspective of the king and queen being painted, we are given an intimate viewing of everyday royal life. The artist stares at the viewer from the canvas, leaving us to ponder who is watching who? It is painting as photograph, telling a story and inviting us to listen.
Through the imagination of the artist, what had only lived in the realm of dreams and nightmares is finally given a form we can see and experience in the company of others. From the prancing virgins of Botticelli's painting Primavera (Spring), to the grotesque figures of Paradise and Hell by Hieronymous Bosch (a forerunner to surrealism), to the distorted imagery in Salvadore Dali's The Persistence of Memory, a masterpiece shows us what can be brought out from deep within.
Although there are differentiating criteria on the exact elements involved in selecting a masterpiece, there are common qualities that every masterpiece shares. Some sort of feeling must be evoked, whether it's curiosity, awe, or disgust. There should be style, technique, balance, and harmony. It is helpful to discuss perspective and form, but still, this would not describe that elusive element essential to any moving work. And let's not forget motive; one cannot deny the impact religion held for Fra Angelico, the insatiable curiosity of Leonardo, the rebelliousness of bad boy Caravaggio, or the insanity of van Gogh.
A master is a visionary capable of materializing his own vision while currently expanding our own. David Stoltz, an internationally educated sculptor who considers himself more a "twentieth century alchemist than an artist," put it simply: "Essentially, a master gets out of his own way, leaving his ego to the side as the creative process takes over."
A masterpiece will instill in us a sense of the infinite, the feeling that anything is possible. We idealize the genius that the master—through his toil and struggle, agony and ecstasy—has managed to extract, the genius we would like to believe exists inside all of us. And because the imagination knows no limits, art offers the mortals a chance to become immortal.
Sometimes, as in the case of Michelangelo's statue of the Virgin Mary holding her dying son (Pieta[ag]) a masterpiece is a work that is simply perfect in the same way a rose is perfect. We can add nothing nor do anything to improve it.
A masterpiece serves as a window to the past. The Greco-Roman period has given us great works that have miraculously survived intact through the ages. Sculptures depicting the human form—often young hunky males such as the Roman Discobolos or powerful winged goddesses like the Greek Nike of Samothrace—are vivid examples of the importance beauty, strength, movement, and athletic ability played in Classical times. We may not know who the masters were, but their mastery communicates universal values that have not faded with the passage of time.
Let's flash forward a few generations, where oils are not the medium and animation is. With Disney's coup de grace Fantasia—who could deny the mastery there? The one thing modern art has given us is that there are no rules. With mediums and styles as diverse as ever, anything goes. From Calder's mobiles to Picasso's disembodied portraits, to the dancers in a Matisse collage, mastery goes beyond technique and style, offering entertainment, an opportunity to pause and ponder, and perhaps see ourselves.
Artists have been as prolific in the last hundred years as they ever have. Having entered the new millennium, art is still challenging us to decide what is great and what is schlock. How about when Christo dressed the Statue of Liberty? And what of Mark Kostabi's assembly-line style painting, or the more recent uproar over Nigerian born artist Chris Ofili's use of elephant dung in his Holy Virgin Mary. Masters or Muppets?