Barry Schwabsky reviews the exhibition Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino: Diverging Paths of Mannerism at Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, on view through July 20, 2014.
Schwabsky writes: "it’s precisely because Mannerism flirts with bad taste that it can also be seen as the first avant-garde. It’s a curious thing, when you think about it: medieval art, even with its naïveté and grotesquery, is never kitsch; rather, there is an admixture of what might be called healthy popular taste with more refined elements. In the Renaissance, stricter stylistic canons came into force and the popular elements receded. A second-rate Renaissance painting is just bland, but there’s never anything trashy about it; at worst, you get the slightly queasy mix of materialistic trompe l’oeil and overstated emotionalism in some of Carlo Crivelli’s paintings (no wonder the Pre-Raphaelites liked him). But in general, the inherent restraint of quattrocento style kept these kitsch tendencies in check, and only rarely did Crivelli achieve anything like truly bad taste. ... What I am calling 'kitsch' is just that clutching at the viewer’s heartstrings, the sense of what Keats called a “palpable design” on the beholder... But whatever is cringe-inducing in Rosso’s pictures is more or less inextricable from what sometimes makes them so breathtaking."
Ingrid D. Rowland considers the life and work of the Cretan painter Domenikos Theotokopoulos, called El Greco. In celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of the artist's death, the exhibition El Griego de Toledo [The Greek of Toledo] is on view at the Museo de Santa Cruz (and other venues) in Toledo, Spain (through June 14) and a book, El Greco: Life and Work - A New History by Fernando Marías, translated from the Spanish by Paul Edson and Sander Berg, has been recently published by Thames and Hudson.
Rowland writes: "Titian may have been El Greco’s model, but the Cretan’s adventurous handling of oil paint also reflects his close study of Tintoretto, whose bold, brilliant slashes of paint could even imitate the falling rain. The painter of icons tried his hand at portraiture, exchanging the supernal faces of Christ and his All Holy Mother (as she is called in Greek) for the imperfect details of personality. His skill as a Western painter swiftly proved as exceptional as his skill as a creator of holy images whose every movement of the brush had been an act of prayer. From Tintoretto, especially, he learned to use black, to darken his reds, and to model figures in three dimensions. Icon painters worked up from pure color to light; in Venice, El Greco began to paint darkness as well... El Greco, as Fernando Marías puts it, was a consummate painter of unreality, who never let go of an icon painter’s task of committing heavenly visions to a play of colors distilled from earth."
Sadie Stein considers the mysterious subject of Parmigianino's painting Schiava Turca (c. 1531–34), on view at The Frick Collection, New York through July 20, 2014.
Stein writes: "The painting, a 1530s Mannerist masterpiece by Parmigianino, is considered an icon of the artist’s hometown, but no one is sure of the sitter’s identity. Was it a noblewoman? A courtesan? Or just an ideal of feminine beauty?... [Curator Aimee] Ng makes a strong case for the literary overtones of the portrait—as she points out, the artist moved in these circles, and well-educated female intellectuals were by no means unusual in the milieu... In sum, whoever they portray, the portraits in the show manage to capture not just a subject, but a moment—and an artist at the height of his powers; not long after, Parmigianino would descend into madness, become obsessed with alchemy, and die in penury at thirty-seven."
Exhibition curator Aimee Ng's talk A Portrait's Mysteries: Parmigianino's Schiava Turca is online here.
Spence writes: "For both painters the challenge was to find a path through a culture whose Quattrocento blend of classicism and Catholicism had been rocked to the core... [Rosso relied] on the now-archaic style of the Quattrocento sculptor Donatello. It is stiff and awkward, neither real nor ideal. Pontormo, by contrast, paints his sacred conversation as if it was unfolding in front of his eyes. Babies wriggle; saints gaze upwards in despair; the Madonna’s outstretched finger vibrates with eloquence. Yet the classicism remains; his cherubs are from a pagan era; his figures enjoy Hellenistic substance. When the Medici needed an artist, Pontormo’s ability to innovate without sacrificing the dynasty’s humanist roots made him their man. Rosso, on the other hand, was championed by the Medici’s republican enemies, who read the painter’s rediscovery of early Quattrocento Florentine artists as a statement of faith in the city’s glorious, aristocratic past."
Blake visits the show seeking answers to the assertion, by the Director of London’s National Gallery, that "the now obscure Federico Barocci of Urbino, was a better painter than his contemporary El Greco."
Haber writes: "On loan from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, the Holy Family has not lost its strangeness. That may sound impossible after so many years. Now that anything goes, plenty of people have needed Robert Hughes to reawaken and then assuage 'the shock of the new' even for modern art, much less Renaissance Italy... Rosso starts with a tight-knit family right out of the High Renaissance, but after that, all bets are off. Only Jesus has anything to stand on, a green cushion way too plush for a manger, while John and Joseph without their lower bodies barely fit into the picture. An insensitive later owner—or a prankster like Rosso—might almost have cropped a much larger composition, but no, this is it. The background is dark, confused, and indefinite, and the foreground is insanely crowded. Jesus clings to Mary for comfort, while Joseph presses up against her in worship and fear. Revision of the past has slipped into subversion."
Of Rosso's Holy Family with the Young Saint John the Baptist (c. 1520), Kessler writes: "Rosso makes no attempt to create a plausibly real scene in a real space. What's being depicted is not ordinary human activity, and it's not an idealized scene either, but rather it's an almost hallucinogenic, spiritual ecstasy more akin to medieval mosaics in spirit than to the High Renaissance. This ecstatic emotion is conveyed by the glowing colors and the swirling, rhythmic brushwork. (The painting is unfinished so it's probably rougher and less polished than it would be if he had finished it — but still.) In the Rosso, St. Joseph and St. John are so emotionally overwrought they seem to be dissipating visually."
"As might be expected in a show that covers art from the late Middle Ages to the early 20th century, the styles and purposes of the drawings are all over the place. There are Leonardo's scribbled studies of Mary Magdalene, Pieter Breugel the Elder's detailed line drawing of a peasant scene that would be used to make a print, and a watercolor by Cezanne meant as a finished piece.... Exceptionally high quality is the glue that holds the show together. So this is an exhibit that presents art as pretty much ahistorical and at its most fundamental -- pure visual pleasure, of which there is plenty."
Although known for his printmaking, Booker notes that the "the sensuous and decadent allegorical themes would find bold expression in [Goltzius'] paintings, which he took up in his middle age. His extraordinarily sensitive sense of detail gives one the feeling that here's an artist using a brush with the same ease as he wielded the burin, his steel engraving tool."
Edited by artist Brett Baker, Painters' Table highlights writing from the painting blogosphere as it is published and serves as a platform for exploring blogs that focus primarily on the subject of painting.