Thursday, June 30, 2016

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum

Sicily: Culture and Conquest

British Museum, London 

April 21 – Aug 14, 2016 

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The island of Sicily is the subject of a fascinating exhibition currently at the British Museum, Sicily: Culture and Conquest. Like Sicily itself, the exhibit dazzles the imagination. And like this ancient land, there is much about the exhibit that does not "meet the eye." 

Strategically set in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily is a land of opposites. Bursting with fertility and abundance, the island is haunted by violence and death. It is the birthplace of some of the most creative masters of European culture: Archimedes of Syracuse (d.212 BC), Antonello da Messina (1430-1479) and Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936). It is also the homeland of the Cosa Nostra. 

In antiquity, Sicily was the setting for one of the most significant Greco-Roman myths, the story of Demeter and Persephone. When her daughter, Persephone, is abducted by Hades,  god of the underworld, Demeter wins her release for part of the year. In spring and summer, Persephone is free. Nature blooms, crops ripen - and then comes winter. This, to the ancient Greeks, explained the regenerative cycle of nature. 

But how evocative is the myth of Demeter and Persephone of the fate of Sicily! Joy mixed with an equal portion of sorrow, salvation and damnation forever linked. 

There are two hundred works of art in the British Museum exhibition, covering Sicily's history from antiquity to the Renaissance. Two periods, the rise of the Ancient Greek city-states and the Norman French rule during the Middle Ages, are extensively covered. Other eras, notably the long period of Roman rule, are illustrated with only few works of art. Given the thousands of years covered by the exhibit, this imbalance was perhaps necessary. But it does have some unfortunate consequences.

An excellent place to start grappling with Sicily: Culture and Conquest is the Terracotta Altar with Three Women. 

The altar comes from the Greek colony of Gela on the south coast of Sicily. It dates from around 500 BC, well after the first Greeks beached their galleys on the coast at Naxos in 735 BC.  In terms of style, this terracotta statue is early in the Greek artistic tradition and it represents religious and social themes even earlier - much earlier.

Terracotta Altar with Three Woman and a Lioness Mauling a Bull, 500 BC

Here we see Demeter and Persephone, along with another goddess, Hecate, who cared for Persephone in Hades during her months of wintry exile. Hecate was a goddess of very ancient origin. The three goddesses represent the Mother Goddess cult which preceded Zeus and the Olympian gods. 

Above the three goddesses on the Gela altarpiece is a depiction of a female lion or panther savagely killing a bull. Is this violent scene a reference to the female-male conflict implicit in Persephone's abduction by Hades? Does this  bloody encounter recall a myth from the pre-Greek people of Sicily, the Sicels? We are unlikely to know with certainty.

Gela was a major site of terracotta production in ancient times.The British Museum exhibit also displays a  terracotta roof ornament with head of a gorgon from a temple in Gela. Gorgons were fearsome female deities in Greek myth whose very look could turn a person to stone. This one was likely placed to protect the Gela temple in time of war. 

Antefix in the form of a Gorgoneion, c. 500 BC

Sadly, Sicily was to figure as a battleground from antiquity to the 1943 invasion by Allied forces in World War II. The principal combat in ancient times was between the Greeks in Sicily against the Phoenician maritime power, Carthage. 

The Phoenicians, originally from Lebanon, had established the major city-state of Carthage in North Africa and settlements in Sicily during the 9th century BC. These Semitic peoples were intrepid seaman, creators of the alphabet we still use and tough fighters. But they were merchants first of all. The Phoenicians preferred the art of the deal to the art of war.

There is but one work of Phoenician art in Sicily: Culture and Conquest, a mask designed to protect graves at Carthage from evil spirits. This does a disservice to Phoenician culture. Compared with the Greek art on view, it is easy to look at this grimacing image and conceive of the Phoenicians as an alien civilization.

Grave Mask from Carthage, 5th Century BC

The Greeks had early developed a jealous dislike of the Phoenicians. Sicily represented  the promised land to the Greeks and they were not prepared to share it with Carthage. Syracuse, with one of the most superb harbors in the Mediterranean, became the superpower among the Greek city-states on the island. The rulers or tyrannoi of Syracuse were determined to expand their territorial holdings over Sicily.

The British Museum exhibit displays several outstanding works of "the art of war" recalling ancient bloodshed in Sicily.  A marble statue of a warrior from the city-state of Akragas (modern-day Agrigento) was created around 470 BC. It was certainly part of a monument celebrating the resounding victory over Carthage ten years before by the Greek forces commanded by Gelon of Syracuse and Theron, the ruler of Akragas. 

Statue of a Warrior, c. 480 BC

This great battle in 480 BC, Himera, was won at the same time as the victories of Athens and Sparta against the Persian invaders, 480-479 BC. The Akragas war monument was clearly intended by the Greeks of Sicily to remind their boastful cousins in the ancestral homeland that they had triumphed over the "Barbarians" as well.

After the battle of Himera, the Greeks in Sicily followed the example of Athens, Sparta and Corinth by fighting endlessly among themselves. Carthage regained much of its strength and began to reassert its power in Sicily. After a deadly chess match lasting over two centuries both the Greeks and Carthaginians were checkmated by a new player, the Romans.

Amazingly, Carthage had been an early trade partner and ally of the fledgling Roman Republic, founded in 509 BC. It took many years for the Romans to bring the Italian peninula under their rule. All the while, they watched Carthage and the Greeks wage costly wars without either side gaining hegemony  over Sicily.

In 264 BC, the Romans made their move, clashing with Carthage in the first of the three Punic Wars. The British Museum exhibit displays a truly remarkable piece documenting the "art of war"  during those terrible conflicts. 

Bronze Rostrum or Roman naval ram, 243-241 BC

Normally,  I would hardly consider the rostrum or battering ram mounted on the prow of Roman warship as a work of art. But this menacing weapon illustrates perfectly the relentless warfare that turned Sicily into the gate of Hades for thousands and thousands of war victims, not merely for Persephone in the myth. 

The rostrum was excavated from the seabed in 2008 near Levanzo, on the western tip of Sicily. Here on March 10, 241 BC, the Roman fleet smashed the naval squadrons of Carthage in the climatic battle of the war. The rostrum came from one of the 30 Roman ships lost in the battle. 

Detail of Bronze Rostrum, showing figure of Victory, 243-241 BC

It is a measure of Roman determination and confidence that the bronze ram had been cast with a winged-figure of Victory. 

Rome was to sustain further losses in the Second Punic War, when Hannibal invaded Italy in 218 BC. But Rome won in the end, destroying Carthage in 146 BC. Sicily was reduced to vassal status. Its rich lands were turned into vast, grain-producing estates called latifundia

Apart from this bronze naval ram, Sicily: Culture and Conquest presents few works of art or artifacts from the Roman era. Since this period lasted for an entire millennium, up to the brief Arab conquest in 965 AD, this is a debatable curatorial decision. Indeed, it may well be a serious omission preventing a proper understanding of Sicily's history.

Sicily is the site of the greatest surviving mosaic installation of the Roman era in Europe. This is the great series of mosaic pavements at the Villa del Casale near Piazza Armerina in central Sicily. Created early in the  fourth century AD, it shows wild animal hunts and bikini-clad (or at least the Roman equivalent) female athletes. 

What the mosaics of Villa del Casale really depict is the staggering difference between the privileged lifestyle of the elite of Roman society, the honestiores, and those who served them. The grinding existence of the humiliores is notably absent from these mosaics.

It is missing too from Sicily: Culture and Conquest.                                                                                                                                                                                              . Yet, without some acknowledgement of this centuries-long impoverishment, the rise of the Cosa Nostra cannot be understood. Indeed ,the first Mafia were the Gabellotti. These were the managers whom absentee landlords during the 1800's - descendants of the honestiores - relied upon to run their estates.  The Gabellotti, with no Roman legions to fear, seized power themselves. Sicily and much of the Western world, is still dealing  with the deadly legacy of the Gabellotti.

If the British Museum exhibits skims lightly over the Roman domination of Sicily, compensation is abundantly made in the galleries devoted to the Norman Kingdom and the the reign of Frederick II. These incredible episodes from the Middle Ages are brilliantly explored, presenting art and literary treasures of a unique realm, tolerant, multilingual and open to new ideas. 

Bronze Falcon from Norman-era Sicily or Southern Italy, c. 1200-1220

The Normans arrived in Italy as mercenary knights in 1016 AD, fighting for and against just about everybody including the Pope. The Normans, descendants of the Norsemen who had raid the north of France, were mighty warriors. Christian baptism had changed them barely at all. They were Vikings on horseback. 

In  1061, the Normans launched a thirty-year campaign to "liberate" Sicily from the Arabs. The details of their campaigns and their later rule has been memorably chronicled by the great historian, John Julius Norwich in his books, The Normans in the South 1016-1130, and The Kingdom in the Sun, 1130-1194. We will concentrate on the amazing  - and unexpected - flourishing of culture under the Normans.

Like the Carthaginians, the Normans in Sicily had limited manpower. Instead of hiring mercenaries to wage war, they used others, Greeks and Arabs, to build churches, create works of art and manage the economy. 

The Virgin as Advocate for the Human Race, c. 1130 AD

The exquisite mosaic, the Virgin as Advocate for the Human Race, was made by Byzantine Greeks around 1130 AD. This was the era of King Roger II, the greatest Norman ruler. Originally from the Cathedral in Palermo, the Virgin as Advocate for the Human Race beautifully evokes the toleration that was the foundation of Roger's tremendous achievements.

The compassion and empathy in the Virgin as Advocate is reinforced by a work which symbolizes the spirit of "coexistence"  that marked the era of Roger II. It is easy to miss this funerary piece, insignificant in size, but it is key to the medieval galleries of the exhibit.

Tombstone with Eulogy to Anna, Written in Four Languages, 1149 AD

In 1149 AD, a clergyman named  Grisandus set-up this memorial plaque for his mother Anna. The eulogy was  written in the four languages used in Norman Sicily: Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic written in Hebrew script) on top, Latin on the left, Greek on the right, and Arabic below.

If only this touching, multi-language work of art could have characterized the whole course of Sicily's development from the Norman era to ours!

Unhappily, this is an "exceptional" work of art because it is an exception. Sicily's golden age came to an end when Frederick II died in 1250. The "wonder of the world" to some, Antichrist to others, Frederick was a rare example of a brilliant, tolerant and effective ruler during the Middle Ages - and today. 

Sicily: Culture and Conquest concludes with a painting believed to be a work by Antonello da Messina. One of the earliest Renaissance artists in Italy to use oil paint, Antonello was a master of psychological depth as well. His Madonna, from the collection of the National Gallery of Art in London, is vastly different from the Virgin as Advocate for the Human Race.

Antonello da Messina, Virgin and Child, c. 1460-9

The eyes of Antonello's Madonna are firmly closed. She does not look at Jesus, who is not a child but rather a weird, doll-like man. As the angels lower a glittering crown on the Madonna's head, we become aware of the dread anticipation she feels. The pain on her face reminds us of Antonello's depictions of Christ being crowned by thorns before his crucifixion. 

This jewel-covered crown may not have skin-piercing thorns. But Mary's sorrowing countenance conveys the pain it will bring. This disturbing work is entitled  - most inaccurately - The Virgin and Child

A much more appropriate name for this strange, haunted painting springs readily to mind:    

The Madonna of Sicily's History.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. 
Images Courtesy of the British Museum, London, UK

Introductory Image:  
Fragment of a Metope from Temple C, Sicilian Greek, Limestone, c. 540 – 500 BC, H: 460 mm, W: 470 mm Lent by: Palermo Museo Archeologico Regionale, Antonio Salinas, Via Bara All'Olivella, 24, 90133 Palermo, Italy, museum # NI 3899                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Terracotta Altar with Three Woman and a Lioness Mauling a Bull, Sicilian Greek, 500 BC, Terracotta H: 1140 mm, L: 750 mm, D: 350 mm Lent by: Museo Archeologico Regionale Di Gela, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 1, 93012 Gela 

Antefix in the form of a Gorgoneion, Sicilian Greek, about 500 BC, Terracotta, H: 385 mm, L: 380 mm, D: 880 mm Lent by: Museo Archeologico Regionale Di Gela, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 1, 93012 Gela

Grave Mask, Carthage, North Africa, 5th Century BC, Baked Clay, H: 17.7 cm © The Trustees of the British Museum, British Museum # 133128

Statue of a Warrior, Sicilian Greek, c. 480 BC, Marble, H: 861 mm Lent by: Lent by: Museo Archeologico Regionale di Agrigento, Contrada San Nicola, 12, Agrigento, 92100, Italy, Ag 217

Bronze Rostra from Levanzo, Roman-era Italy, 243-241 BC, Bronze, H: 700 mm, W: 500 mm Lent by: Soprintendenza per i Beni culturali e ambientali del Mare Palazzetto Mirto - Via Lungarini, 9, Lungomare Cristoforo Colombo, 4521 (Istituto Roosevelt) Palermo 90100, Italy  # Egadi 4

Bronze Falcon, Norman-era Sicily / Southern Italy, 1200-1220, Gilded Bronze, H: 279 mm, W: 165 mm, L: 79 mm Lent by: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York  Metropolitan Museum # 47.101                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
Mosaic of the Virgin Haghiosoritissa, Norman-era Sicily,  12th Century, H: 750mm, W: 620mm Lent by: Museo Diocesano di Palermo, Via M. Bonello, 2, 90133 Palermo, Italy, museum # 6

Tombstone with Eulogy to Anna, Mother of Grisandus, Written in Four Languages, Church of  St. Michael the Archangel, Palermo, Sicily, 1149, Inlaid Marble, W:  410 mm, L: 320 mm, D: 45 mm max Lent by: SoprIntendeza di Palermo, Soprintendenza BB.CC.AA. Via Calvi, 13, 90139 – Palermo, museum # 19304

Antonello da Messina (Sicilian, 1456-1479) Virgin and Child, c. 1460-9, Oil on wood, 43.2 x 34.3 cm National Gallery, London, UK, Salting Bequest, 1910, NG2618

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Celebrating Charlotte Brontë at the National Portrait Gallery, London

Celebrating Charlotte Brontë: 1816 – 1855

National Portrait Gallery, London

 February 22 - 14 August 14, 2016

Reviewed by Ed Voves

In 1847, a novel by an unknown author, Currer Bell, was published to wide acclaim in Britain. From the first, there was considerable speculation whether Jane Eyre: an Autobiography was written by a gentleman or a lady.

"Currer Bell" was of course Charlotte Brontë. This year marks two hundred years since the birth of this woman of great heart and towering talent. 

Anne Lloyd, View of Celebrating Charlotte Brontë at the National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London created a special display in her honor. Celebrating Charlotte Brontë: 1816 – 1855, is based on two of the NPG's most famous works and a sampling of artifacts on loan from the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, Yorkshire. 

Anne Lloyd, "Little Books" by the Brontë children, one on left by Charlotte, c.1826 

These Haworth treasures include several of the incredibly small books which Charlotte and her siblings created as children, and a pair of her shoes. Charlotte Brontë stood four feet, ten inches, tall and must have had the narrowest feet in Yorkshire. But genius is not subject to physical measurement.

Anne Lloyd, Charlotte Brontë's Ankle Boots, c.1854, Brontë Parsonage Museum

Celebrating Charlotte Brontë is anchored by the group portrait, The Brontë Sisters, painted in 1835 by their brother, Branwell Brontë. This oil painting, also called the Column Portrait, is almost always on display at the NPG. 

The second highlight from the NPG collection is a skillful drawing of Charlotte Brontë, posing alone. It was created in 1850, using colored chalk on beige paper. Known as the Richmond Portrait, it is seldom displayed because of its sensitivity to light.

A copy "after" the Richmond Portrait was used to illustrate the 1857 biography of Charlotte Brontë written by Elizabeth Gaskell. This work established the conventional image of Charlotte Brontë, as there are no other authenticated  portraits, including photographs, of this great author. 

Branwell Brontë, The Brontë Sisters (Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë), 1834

While the Column Portrait has been the subject of recent analysis and commentary, the Richmond Portrait is constantly viewed at second hand. It is used as a book illustration, museum print and digital jpg. - without comment.

Thanks to the NPG exhibit, the Richmond Portrait can be seen at first hand. The effect is electrifying. 

When my wife, Anne, and I visited Celebrating Charlotte Brontë, we could scarcely believe our eyes. We were stunned that the incredibly "alive" Richmond Portrait on the wall was the same as the picture that we have seen time-after-time in books. Even the excellent copy on sale in the NPG gallery shop does not do justice to  the Richmond Portrait.

George Richmond, Charlotte Brontë, 1850, (National Portrait Gallery reproduction) 

When Anne and I entered the gallery, I was particularly disoriented by the experience of seeing the Richmond Portrait at close hand. Being less expert in Brontë history, I asked where the "other" version was. Anne quickly asserted that this was THE Richmond Portrait.  

Anne took numerous photos of the Richmond Portrait. Without being able to use flash, it was difficult to get high-quality images. But what really compounded the difficulty were thin reflections of light on the glass that seemed to appear regardless of the angle of the shot.

Not to be thwarted, Anne was able to take several photographs that reveal the difference between THE Richmond Portrait and the copies on sale in the NPG shop.

Anne Lloyd, Photo of the Richmond Portrait (Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond)

Both Anne and I immediately sensed a spiritual resonance in the Richmond Portrait which does not translate into copies in any format. I really cannot account for this but some research into the history of this famous work may offer a clue.

In 1850, Charlotte Brontë was persuaded by her publisher, George Smith, to have her portrait created during a visit London. The incident is described by Juliet Barker in her definitive book, The Brontës. It was a "nerve-racking" encounter for Charlotte, ill-at-ease after a tense, unpleasant dinner party hosted by William Makepeace Thackeray.

Charlotte twice burst into tears as she posed for her portrait. The second time occurred when she saw the finished work and felt that portrait resembled her recently-deceased sister, Anne.

Charlotte was hyper-sensitive  about her looks. But she was very fortunate in Smith's choice of an artist. George Richmond (1809-1896) was a society portraitist with a talent for creating a likeness that was more than the sum of the parts.  Barker notes perceptively of his session with Charlotte:

Richmond captured the beauty of her large hazel eyes, her one redeeming feature, and played down the size of her prominent nose and mouth.With subtle shadowing too, and by turning her face slightly to one side, he reduced the squareness of her lower jaw. The resulting portrait was like and not like, a faithful reproduction of the separate features but a more harmonious rendering of the whole.

Anne Lloyd,  Photo of the Richmond Portrait (Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond)

Richmond created not an idealized portrait but an "identity" portrait of Charlotte Brontë.  

The Richmond Portrait really is an amazing image. The vitality and changeability that can transform the human countenance - and a Brontë face, to be sure! - are there. But the core values of humanity, the essence of one's individuality, the original Irish name, Brunty, lurking beneath the English Brontë are present too.

I believe that an object can retain traces of a person's soul or being. I believe that this "resonance" can be appreciated when in close contact with the object. Skeptics will say that this is superstition or impressionable behavior at work. Yet the difference between Richmond's actual portrait of Charlotte Brontë and high-quality reproductions confounds all expectation.

Exhibit B and Exhibit C in the investigation are Richmond's portraits of Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Martineau on display next to Charlotte's. Both are excellent works, executed with the same colored chalk on beige paper. Both date to the same period, Gaskell's in 1851, Martineau's in 1849. However, what you see on the wall of the National Portrait Gallery with these two portraits is what you get in reproductions.
The key to this difference may well be elements in the character of George Richmond which enabled him to achieve an emotional affinity with Charlotte Brontë. Both artist and subject were charter members of the Romantic generation, rather than eminent Victorians. The Brontë family saga is the last flourish of the passionate and tormented age of British Romanticism. 

George Richmond, George Richmond (Self-portrait), 1853
Not on view in Celebrating Charlotte Brontë exhibit

As a young man, George Richmond had been a disciple of William Blake, the great pioneer of Romanticism. Richmond, Samuel Palmer and Edward Calvert banded together in 1824 to form a group called "the Ancients." Blake was their muse, their "interpreter." Like the art of Blake, the Ancients evoked spiritual qualities in their work, rather than naturalistic detail. 

Richmond compared Blake to the prophet Isiah and named his son after Blake. Richmond was present at Blake's death and wrote a moving letter to Samuel Palmer in which he said that Blake had died, hoping for redemption through Christ.

"Just before he died His Countenance became fair," Richmond wrote of Blake. "His eyes Brighten'd and he burst out Singing of the things he saw in Heaven."

Those "eyes Brighten'd" are what we see in Richmond's portrait of Charlotte Brontë. He positioned her, as Barker notes, to accentuate the positive, but the "portals to the soul" will make their presence felt however the sitter is placed for her portrait.

In 1831, Richmond married and the demands of providing for his family set him on the course of society portraiture to earn his living. In 1833, Richmond did a watercolor portrait of the great Abolitionist, William Wilberforce, which was then engraved and became a hugely successful print. With that, the spiritual influence of Blake receded, replaced by Victorian respectability and financial success.

Then in 1850, the publisher, George Smith, came knocking on Richmond's door, bringing Charlotte Brontë for her portrait. The Romantic Age had returned and Richmond responded with the radiant, haunting "identity" portrait of Charlotte that is on view in the NPG exhibit. 

The Romantic Age remains, resonating from the wall of the Celebrating Charlotte Brontë exhibit. The spiritual force that beams from those eyes is still here, still greeting those fortunate enough to see it.

Generally, I dislike using the adjective "iconic" except when discussing actual religious icons. But for that very reason, I believe that such usage in this review is appropriate indeed.

Anne Lloyd, Close-up of the Richmond Portrait

Look into the eyes of Charlotte Brontë in George Richmond's portrait. Those are the eyes of an Icon.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images courtesy of the National Gallery, London, and Anne Lloyd   
Introductory Image:
Anne Lloyd, Photo of the Richmond Portrait (Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, National Portrait Gallery Collection, London), digital photograph, 2016

Anne Lloyd, View of Celebrating Charlotte Brontë at the National Portrait Gallery,London, digital photograph, 2016

Anne Lloyd, "Little Books" by the Brontë Children, Brontë Parsonage Museum Collection, Haworth, Yorkshire, U.K., digital photograph, 2016

Anne Lloyd, Charlotte Brontë's Ankle Boots, c.1854, Brontë Parsonage Museum Collection, Haworth, Yorkshire, U.K., digital photograph, 2016

Patrick Branwell Brontë (British, 1817-1848) The Brontë Sisters (Anne Brontë; Emily Brontë; Charlotte Brontë) oil on canvas, circa 1834, 35 1/2 in. x 29 3/8 in. (902 mm x 746 mm) Purchased, 1914. Primary Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 1725

George Richmond (British, 1809-1896) Charlotte Brontë, 1850, chalk on paper, 23 5/8 in. x 18 3/4 in. (600 mm x 476 mm) Bequeathed by the sitter's husband, Rev A.B. Nicholls, 1906. Primary Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG  1452

Anne Lloyd, Photo of the Richmond Portrait (Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, National Portrait Gallery Collection, London), digital photograph, 2016

Anne Lloyd, Photo of the Richmond Portrait (Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, National Portrait Gallery Collection, London), digital photograph, 2016

George Richmond (British, 1809-1896) George Richmond (Self-portrait), 1853, oil on canvas laid on board, 1853, 13 7/8 in. x 10 3/4 in. (352 mm x 273 mm) Given by wish of the sitter's son, Walter Richmond, 1931. Primary Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 2509

Anne Lloyd, Photo of the Richmond Portrait (Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, National Portrait Gallery Collection, London), digital photograph, 2016


Sunday, June 12, 2016

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Maniera: Pontormo, Bronzino and Medici Florence

Maniera: Pontormo, Bronzino and Medici Florence

Edited by Bastian Eclercy

Prestel Publishing/304 pages/$60

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The Städel Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, is one of Europe's most innovative museums. The recent Städel exhibition, Maniera: Pontormo, Bronzino and Medici Florence, presented art works from one the most contentious periods of European history, Italy during the mid-1500's.

The accompanying volume to this exhibit, published by Prestel, is a work of art in itself. The abundant illustrations include copies of paintings not on display at the Städel, thus enabling more thorough comparison with those on view. The perceptive essays in the book, edited by the noted historian, Bastian Eclercy, raise many important questions - and answers -  about this controversial chapter of the Renaissance.

Gallery view of the Städel Museum exhibit, Maniera

Why Italian art of the 1500's should be a "difficult" subject can be explained in one word: mannerism

The Städel exhibit uses the Italian word, maniera, rather than the more familiar and dismissive Mannerism. In modern scholarship, maniera points to the many and varied interpretations of art that flourished in Italy during the 1500's. 

This change of terminology and the inspired efforts of the Städel Museum curators redirect our attention away from theories about Italian art of the 1500's to the art works themselves. It is a noble endeavor, a much needed one and it almost succeeds.


Mannerist art gained its clouded reputation because decisive changes were held to have occurred in Italy during the 1520's - and not for the better.

Raphael, Esterházy Madonna, c. 1507-08

Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael were dead by 1520 and art was at an impasse following the death of these inimitable masters. Likewise, Italy was ravaged by war, climaxed by the sack of Rome in 1527. The art that was created following these terrible events was held to reflect a devastating emotional malaise.

Some of the masterpieces displayed in the Städel exhibit and the Prestel catalog show the impact of the Italian Wars. Jacopo Pontormo's St. Jerome as Penitent was painted a year after Protestant troops employed by the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, pillaged the city of Rome. Charles V aimed to teach Pope Clement VII a lesson about power politics. Eight thousand people were murdered and the holiest city of  Christendom was desecrated.

Jacopo Pontormo, St. Jerome as Penitent, c.1528-29

Pontormo's St. Jerome beats his chest with a rock, having flung aside his cardinal's robe. It is one of the most searing images of a soul in agony in Renaissance art. Utterly realistic, yet surreal in its effect, Pontormo's St. Jerome powerfully evokes physical and spiritual torment.

How different is Pontormo's St. Jerome as a Penitent to the absorbed, scholarly St. Jerome of Albrecht Durer's famous engraving, dating to 1514. Nor does St. Jerome's companion, the lion, sleep contentedly as Durer depicted him. Instead, the lion in Pontormo's version looks upon the naked, suffering man with a look of incredulity... as we are likely to do, the more we study this amazing painting.

However much the tragic slaughter in Rome oppressed the minds of Renaissance painters, the sad fate of Florence had a profound effect as well. The headlined artists in the Städel exhibit, Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1556) and Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572), were both Florentines. They witnessed the destruction of the political liberties of Florence, crushed by the resurgence of  Medici power - glittering, bountiful and despotic.
Pontormo learned his craft in the studio of Andrea del Sarto, one of the greatest Renaissance masters of desegno or drawing. This was the specialty of Florentine artists and Pontormo took del Sarto's lessons to new levels of excellence. One of the outstanding works in the Städel exhibit is a drawing in red chalk which for many years was mistakenly ascribed to del Sarto.

Jacopo Pontormo, Study of Two Standing Women, c. 1515

Study of Two Standing Women was proven, as far back as 1958, to have been drawn by Pontormo. It has still to be properly acclaimed, for as Eclercy writes in the Prestel catalog, "it has not received the attention it deserves: it is, after all, one of the single most virtuoso drawings of Pontormo's early phase."

The sense of energy, potential and kinetic, of this drawing, dated to 1515, is incredible. We can see a prefiguring of the writhing movement of the tormented St. Jerome in this drawing. Even more remarkable, is the way that we sense the flow of power, of vigor, that will propel the bodies of these women forward and off the page.

If a thread of development can be traced from Pontormo's early sketches to his St. Jerome as Penitent, that is a rare case of continuity. Pontormo was one of the most searching and eccentric artists in history. His famous Deposition from the Cross - which did not appear in the Städel exhibit - has a brilliant color scheme totally at odds with its somber subject. Nothing in Pontormo's variegated work, however, prepares us for the mythology-themed paintings which he created in the 1530's.

Whatever their style, Pontormo's works prior to 1530 had been notable for their religious feeling. His Venus and Cupid, though based on  a drawing by Michelangelo, is alarmingly erotic. 

Jacopo Pontormo, Venus and Cupid, c. 1533

Venus and Cupid is a "pagan" work of art, not unlike the first century frescoes that would be discovered in Pompeii centuries later. But Pontormo was a Christian artist and so was his disciple and student, Agnolo Bronzino. Here was "mannerist" art that was a radical departure from anything that had come before.

Bronzino painted his version of Venus and Cupid, even more sexually charged, around 1545. It did not appear in the Städel exhibit. Instead the exhibit wisely focused on Bronzino's portrait painting. During the 1530's, portrait commissions shifted from providing images of saints or clergymen to "power portraits" - Medici power.

Florence was a city with a strong tradition of civil liberties. Around the time of the sack of Rome, the Florentines took advantage of the turmoil in Italy to re-establish their cherished Republic. But a catastrophic outbreak of plague claimed 36,000 lives.

Alarmed at this resurgence of political independence in Florence, Charles V, Pope Clement VII and the Medici staged a rapprochement. They conveniently "forgot" about the sack of Rome. The desperately weakened Florence was besieged by their forces and fell after a heroic resistance in August 1530.                                                                      

Political liberty was dead in Italy and artists like Pontormo and Bronzino had to adapt.

Bronzino was a brilliant portrait painter, as can readily be seen in his Portrait of a Lady in Green, painted between 1530-32. It is a work in the evolving tradition of Renaissance portraiture whereby the life-like image of the sitter permits insight into her inner character as well. 

Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of a Lady in Green, c. 1530-32

Psychological insight of the kind that Bronzino showed in Lady in Green in 1530 was no longer desirable in 1537. The Medici, restored to power, wished to be depicted as austere, unflinching authority figures. Having little real power, these Italian nobles wished to be seen as all powerful.

Bronzino's Portrait of a Lady in Red, which serves as the introductory image of this review, is believed to represent Francesca Salviati, the aunt of a Medici duke, Cosimo I. It is tremendously accomplished in many ways. Yet, it is a disturbing work, very much of the kind that has raised "red flags" about Mannerism.

The impassive, "ice goddess" countenance of the Lady in Red is really a mask rather than an accurate likeness. The face is almost androgynous and is drained of individuality, empathy and the marks of life experience. Lady in Red is a Renaissance Athena, a personification rather than a person. 

Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of a Lady In Red, (detail)

Looking closely at the charming, skillfully-modeled lapdog held by Lady in Red, I wonder if Bronzino was making a sly comment on the restored Medici regime in Florence. As Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, used to say of the treacherous backstabbing in Washington D.C., "If you want a friend in this town, get a dog."

Debate has long raged over whether Mannerism represented a decline in standards or a reformulation in Renaissance art. These shifts in appraisal are examined in an excellent essay in the Prestel book.

During the 1500's, it was the judgment of the Catholic Church on the merits of Mannerist art that carried the most weight. When a Christian martyr, St. Sebastian, was depicted by Bronzino as a smiling, beautiful, nearly-naked boy, pierced by a Cupid's arrow, the reaction of the Catholic Church was not hard to predict.

Agnolo Bronzino, St. Sebastian, c. 1528-29

In 1545, Church leaders convened the Council of Trent to reform  Christendom following the Protestant Reformation. Religious art was a major agenda item.

Religious art, according to the Council of Trent must affect the emotions of the Christian faithful, not provide erotic enjoyment or cerebral reflection. In his wonderful book, Renaissance, Andrew Graham-Dixon quotes Gabriele Paleotti, the bishop of Bologna, on the Catholic Church's zealous attitude to art.                                                                                                    
Paleotti wrote in 1582 that the aim of religious art is to  leave Christians feeling "shattered" by depictions of Christ's crucifixion or a saint's martyrdom.

If a work of religious art fails to stimulate a Christian's ardor, then Paleotti wrote "we must be made of marble or wood if we do not feel deeply moved, if our piety is not stimulated afresh and our inner being is not deeply affected by remorse and devotion."

In the eyes of the Church, a statue or a painting that remained "marble or wood" rather than a testament of faith was deeply offensive.  Artists who created such works were censured, even the great Michelangelo.

Bronzino's Portrait of Eleonora di Toledo at the Städel Museum exhibit, Maniera

The debate over Mannerism which began with the Council of Trent has continued to this day. It is never likely to be resolved because the issues involved were meaningful  in the 1500's and remain so. True religious art cannot remain a thing of "marble or wood." Yet artists must have the freedom to create works in their own "manner."

The outstanding effort that went into Maniera, both the Städel exhibit and the Prestel catalog, represents a major step in judging this key episode in the story of Western art. In the future dialog about Mannerism, Maniera will serve as a long-standing point of reference.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

Introductory image and detail:
Agnolo Bronzino (Italian, 1503–1572) Portrait of a Lady In Red (Francesca Salviati?), c. 1533. Oil on poplar, 89.8 x 70.5 cm. Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main. Foto: Städel Museum – ARTOTHEK

Gallery view of the Städel Museum exhibit, Maniera.  Photo: Städel Museum 

Raphael (Italian, 1483–1520) Esterházy Madonna, c. 1507-08. Oil on panel, 29 x 21.5 cm. Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest, 2016

Jacopo Pontormo (Italian, 1494–1557) St. Jerome as Penitent, c. 1528/29. Oil on poplar, 105 x 80 cm. Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum Hannover. Photo: Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum Hannover – ARTOTHEK

Jacopo Pontormo (Italian, 1494–1557) Study of Two Standing Women, c. 1515. Red chalk on paper, 39,3 x 26,1 cm. Munich, Staatliche Graphische Sammlung. 

Jacopo Pontormo (Italian, 1494–1557) after a cartoon by Michelangelo Buonarroti.
Venus and Cupid, c. 1533. Oil on panel,  128 x 194 cm. Galleria dell’Accademia, Florenz
© Foto: Antonio Quattrone

Agnolo Bronzino (Italian, 1503–1572) Portrait of a Lady in Green, c. 1530-32. Oil on poplar, 76,6 x 66,2 cm. Windsor Castle, State Apartments, Windsor. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

Agnolo Bronzino (Italian, 1503–1572) St. Sebastian, c. 1528-28. Oil on panel, 87 x 76,5 cm.
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Portrait of Eleonora di Toledo at the Städel Museum exhibit, Maniera. Photo: Städel Museum 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Russia and the Arts at the National Portrait Gallery, London

Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky  

National Portrait Gallery, London

17 March - 26 June 2016

Reviewed by Ed Voves

"Once in a Lifetime" is an often used expression to describe art exhibitions. In the case of the twenty-six masterpieces of Russian painting on view at London's National Portrait Gallery, this sense of unique opportunity is particularly appropriate.

Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky is part of an exchange program between the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the National Portrait Gallery. Unless diplomatic tensions between the West and Russia relax, the incomparable Russian portraits currently at the National Portrait Gallery are unlikely to make further visits to Western Europe or the United States in the near future.

Both the State Tretyakov Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery trace their roots back to 1856. But what happened one hundred sixty years ago differed dramatically, reflecting the cultural identities of the respective nations.

London's National Portrait Gallery was founded in a display of public-spirited action by such eminent Victorians as Thomas Carlyle, Thomas Macaulay and Benjamin Disraeli. In Russia, it was one man, acting alone and using his own financial resources, who created the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

Pavel Tretyakov,1871

Pavel Tretyakov (1832-1898) was a visionary figure - but a quiet hero. Tretyakov came from a merchant family, whose moderate wealth derived from the textile trade. Significantly, Tretyakov's family were "Old Believers." 

Dating back to a religious schism in the mid-seventeenth century, the "Old Believers" had been persecuted and banned from privileged ranks in Russia's government and military. The social position of the "Old Believers" may be compared to that of the Quakers, Methodists and other Dissenters in Britain. Both excluded groups looked to trade and industry and, having made fortunes, reinvested much of their profits into community-minded enterprises.

For Pavel Tretyakov that entailed collecting works of art created by Russian, not foreign, artists. Tretyakov was determined to show Russia in all its astonishing variety and complexity. He also wanted to encourage cultural achievement in a nation where a vast number of people had just shaken-off the shackles of serfdom in 1861. 

Nikolai Kuznetsov, Petr Tchaikovsky, 1893 

Portraits of Russia's "great and good" featured prominently in his collection, like this striking depiction of PetrTchaikovsky which shows his fearful, careworn face looming like an apparition rising from a sea of blackness.

Eventually, Tretyakov established a gallery at his home on Moscow's Lavrushinsky Lane to preserve these masterpieces of Russian art. Now called the State Tretyakov Gallery, the museum and the nearly two thousand paintings collected by Tretyakov were bequeathed to the city of Moscow in 1892.

Ilia Repin, Pavel Tretyakov, 1901

Tretyakov's embrace of art works created by his countrymen was a major shift from earlier patronage in Russia. 

Prior to 1856, Russia's ruling elite heeded the example of Tsarina Catherine the Great. Huge sums were lavished on paintings by Western European Old Masters. Portraits, for the most part, were commissioned from visiting foreign artists, notably Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun. And most shocking of all, when a special gallery was created to honor the heroes of the war against Napoleon, the architect was an Italian, Carlo Rossi, and the bulk of the portraits were painted by the English artist George Dawe. 

Russia did not lack for native talent in the arts during the 1700's, but most of these artists were serfs, like Ivan Argunov (1729-1802). It took a patriotic Russian from outside the privileged  elite to counteract the callous indifference to Russia's heritage.

The young Tretyakov's first two purchases in 1856, a moralistic genre scene and a battle piece, were hardly impressive. But Tretyakov, self-taught though he was, quickly developed into shrewd judge of talent. 

Tretyakov soon amassed an astonishing collection of every genre of Russian art and, in a bold move, began commissioning portraits of his nation's leading writers. Quite often, Russia's literary lions proved difficult to "tame." Count Leo Tolstoy, the greatest of all Russian authors, resisted for years in sitting for his portrait. Finally the threat of inferior, unofficial portraits gained his compliance.

Nikolai Ge, Leo Tolstoy, 1884

This superb portrait, by Nikolai Ge, dates to 1884. Around that time, Tolstoy renounced literary writing for philosophical works. Ge, a personal friend of Tolstoy, shows him absorbed in editing the manuscript of What I Believe. When published, this book was banned and Tolstoy spent the rest of his life opposing the authoritarian dictates of the Tsarist government and the deeply conservative Russian Orthodox Church.

Ge's portrait of Tolstoy illustrated the fracture in Russian society between its rigid governing elite and the intelligentsia. Percy Bysshe Shelley had declared in 1821 that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." Nowhere during the 1800's was that more true than in Russia.

In one of the most significant blunders in world history, Tsar Alexander I failed to liberate the serfs of Russia in 1818, despite their loyalty and heroism in resisting Napoleon's legions. Many of the Tsarist officers supported such a liberal political agenda. Alexander's brother and successor, Nicholas I, crushed a mutiny by a band of these reformers, the Decembrists. Nicholas ruled Russia from 1825-1856 with the mindless brutality of a drill sergeant.

During this woeful time, only Russia's writers opposed Nicholas I. Some, like Alexander Herzen, (1812-1870) lived as emigres in Western Europe, exiled from the land they loved. Others, notably Fedor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), endured brutal imprisonment in Siberia.

The effect of long years of hard labor in Siberia, followed by forced service in Russia's army, can be seen in the face of Dostoevsky. The portrait was painted by Vasily Perov. An early favorite of Tretyakov, Perov painted a series of controversial genre scenes, critical of church and state. But with this profoundly moving image of a human mind and soul, locked in upon itself, Perov delivered a powerful rebuke to the corruption and cruelty of the Tsarist prison state.

Vasily Perov, Fedor Dostoevsky, 1872

Except for Albrect Durer's Praying Hands, I don't think any artist ever depicted two hands, clasped together, better than Perov. The fingers, intertwined, evoke the lock on a prison cell. This is a brilliant counterpoint to the introspective gaze of Dostoevsky, separating us from this tortured man, who can only be reached via the pages of his classic novels.

Psychological insight is the keynote of the portrait of Modest Mussorgsky by Ilia Repin. Frequently reproduced in art books, Repin's Mussorgsky is an unsettling image. Here we see a man of genius at the brink of death.  It is a challenge to our powers of comprehension for Mussorgsky was not wasting away from tuberculosis. Instead, he was brought low by inner contradictions and unseen weakness - like Russia itself.

Mussorgsky came from a wealthy and influential aristocratic family. He was a pianist of dazzling talent and a brilliant composer.  But Mussorgsky, tormented by inner demons, succumbed to drinking binges, alarming even by Russian standards of excess.

In the late winter of 1881, Ilia Repin hastened to paint Mussorgsky, who was being treated for acute alcoholism in a military hospital. Just as the painting session commenced, the staggering news of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II was announced. Alexander II had bravely tried to correct Russia's despotic misrule, liberating the serfs in 1861. The Tsar was just on the point of creating a national legislature, when assassins attacked his carriage with hand grenades.

During the confusion and grief following Alexander's death, a medical orderly slipped Mussorgsky a bottle of cognac. He died from its effects and Repin never had the chance to formally complete the portrait. 

Ilia Repin, Modest Mussorgsky, 1881

Repin's insight into the complex character of Mussorgsky is so compelling that we scarcely recognize any lack of finish in the picture. Here is life and talent - mortality itself - disintegrating before our very eyes.

Repin's portrait of Mussorgsky is sensational. It is easy to see why Tretyakov favored his work. Of the twenty-six art works in Russia and the Arts, eight are by Repin. These include his portrait of the great pianist, Anton Rubenstein, scowling with a mass of hair billowing like a lion's mane. 

Repin outlived Tretyakov by three decades. He lived to see the conflagration of the Bolshevik Revolution and the flight into exile of many of those whose portraits he had painted. Repin himself fled to Finland where he died in 1930.

One who stayed - and incredibly survived - the purges following 1917 was the poetess, Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966).  The "mouth though which a hundred million scream," Akhmatova is celebrated with one of the final portraits in the exhibition.

Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaia, Anna Akhmatova, 1914

An incandescent work, the portrait of Anna Akhmatova was painted in 1914, as the storm clouds gathered for the terrible upheaval that was to sweep away the brilliant, yet fragile world of Tolstoy,Tchaikovsky and Pavel Tretyakov.

Just before he died in 1898, Tretyakov commissioned a portrait of Anton Chekov (1860-1904), which serves as the introductory image of this review. In 1898, Chekov was known primarily as a writer of short stories. In the few years remaining to him, Chekov the dramatist would achieve a level of theatrical genius not seen since Shakespeare.

But for that brief, eternal moment in 1898, Chekov sits there, peering into the spirit of the cosmos, into the soul of all humanity.

I wonder if Chekov had ever heard the now-famous stipulation of Pavel Tretyakov to one of the painters he commissioned to paint landscapes. If so, I'm sure that Chekov would have agreed. These words of Tretyakov ring like the bells announcing a new day, a new life, a new art.

"I don’t need beautiful scenery, a magnificent composition, brilliant lighting or miracles," Tretyakov declared. "Let it be a dirty pool, but let it be real and poetic. There is poetry everywhere – and the task of an artist is to see and show this."

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London                                                

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Iosif Braz (1873-1936), Anton Chekhov,1898. Oil on canvas, 1020 x 800 mm. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. 

Pavel Tretyakov, Unknown photographer, 1871.

Nikolai Kuznetsov (1850-1929), Petr Tchaikovsky,1893. Oil on canvas, 960 x 740 mm. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.  

Ilia Repin (1844-1930), Pavel Tretyakov,1901. Oil on canvas, 1110 x 1340 mm. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.  

Nikolai Ge (1831-1894), Leo Tolstoy,1884. Oil on canvas, 962 x 717 mm. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. 

Vasily Perov (1834-82), Fedor Dostoevsky, 1872. Oil on canvas, 996 x 810 mm. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Ilia Repin (1844-1930), Modest Mussorgsky,1881. Oil on canvas, 718 x 585 mm. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaia (1875-1952), Anna Akhmatova, 1914. Oil on canvas, 860 x 825 mm. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.