This week's New Yorker has two very good pieces of art criticism. The first, and probably the more valuable, is Calvin Tomkins's write-up of the Met's new Madonna, attributed to the early Renaissance master Duccio di Buoninsegna. Tomkins writes:
Small as it is, the painting has a powerful presence. It captures the eye from a distance, and commands, up close, something like complete attention. Holding the Christ child in her left arm, the Virgin looks beyond him with melancholy tenderness, while the child reaches out a tiny hand to brush aside her veil. Centuries of Byzantine rigidity and impersonal, hieratic forms are also brushed aside in this intimate gesture. We are at the beginning of what we think of as Western art; elements of the Byzantine style still linger—in the gold background, the Virgin’s boneless and elongated fingers, and the child’s unchildlike features—but the colors of their clothing are so miraculously preserved, and the sense of human interaction is so convincing, that the two figures seem to exist in a real space, and in real time. Candle burn marks on the frame, which is original, testify to the picture’s use as a private devotional image. It is dated circa 1300.From here we get an account of the painting's not-always-certain provenance and how it came into the Met's hands. Tomkins gets additional kudos for giving a fairly dull and pro forma set of meetings and transactions a little of the dramatic urgency of a good spy movie.
The second of the two articles is perhaps more notable, however, if only for its vocabulary. I'm a pretty well-read guy and something of an armchair etymologist to boot, so I was impressed to see not one but four words in Peter Schjeldahl's "Two Views: Cézanne vs. Pissarro" that sent me to the OED.
The four stumpers are as follows, listed with their definitions. (Note: Don't try following any of the links here -- they're just dead-ends.)
I. scintillant, a.
II. echt, a.
Authentic, genuine, typical. Also as adv.
III. obstreperousness, n.
Originally: vociferousness, clamour, noisy behaviour. Now (chiefly): unruliness, aggressiveness, argumentativeness.
IV. nugatory, a.
1. Trifling, negligible; of no intrinsic value or importance; worthless.
2. Invalid; inoperative; useless, futile, unavailing.