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."
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."
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."
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.