Everything old is new:♦
An idiosyncratic tour of the National Gallery
I recently found myself in Washington for a weeklong conference. During my intermittent spells of inactivity I decided to visit the National Gallery of Art. I’d never seen its collection, although I live close enough to it and it’s considered one of America’s premier art collections. Perhaps the National Gallery’s very cachet as “the nation’s picture gallery” put me off a bit. I can only add that I was amazed and delighted by what I found there. What I chose to write about here doesn’t begin to do justice to this collection, which fills two buildings and is spread out over multiple floors in each.
As the elevator doors open to the main floor of the older West Building, you encounter Francisco Antonio Gijon’s gilt and polychrome wooden effigy of St. John of the Cross. The great Spanish mystic appears to have been to a smorgasbord and overreached himself, as he holds a thick plate with a small mound of food on it. The “plate” is, of course, not a plate but an open book. The “mound” reveals that the book is his masterpiece, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, as the average person who encountered this image as a newly created work (circa 1700) would have recognized immediately. While art remains ageless, its context— the context that can hold the secret to its deeper meaning— becomes lost in the flow of time. What remains is the look of ecstasy on the saint’s face. This is a man on the brink of a great discovery— and, as such, will serve as my Virgil on a tour that’s aimless by design.
While the gilt and polychrome glories of St. John of the Cross cause the actual work to seem less mystically inspired than Gijon might have intended, as I enter the first room and encounter El Greco, the mysticism is almost palpable. It should come as no surprise that the men of the 19th Century, that most materialistic of centuries, thought “The Greek” a madman. What is one to make of those figures so contorted that they seem more flickers of flame than flesh-and-blood, or the colors so acidic that they almost hurt the eyes?
El Greco’s mind vs. El Greco’s hand
Some artists have the gift of making their paint seem alive. El Greco’s gift is the strange flat quality of the work. It is visionary art precisely because it’s more vision than artifact. It doesn’t seem hand-made. It seems to emanate from the artist’s mind.
There’s a nice selection of work in this room. The St. Jerome is a fine example of El Greco’s plastic treatment of the human body. Laocoon, the centerpiece of the El Greco group, is at once impressive and a disappointment. Its size alone confers pride of place upon it, but it’s a curiously uninvolved work. Lesser Baroque artists will do much more with the chaos of writhing flesh and the voluptuousness of death than El Greco is able to accomplish.
The odd couple
In a real masterstroke, the walls of this gallery are split between El Greco and— Tintoretto! This sounds at first like a real odd couple: the Spanish mystic and the Venetian mythologist. But then the inescapable visual similarities between El Greco’s Laocoon and Tintoretto’s Christ at the Sea of Galilee hit you. Their common characteristic is, to use the academic term, “mannerism.” Both artists trade in the selective, effective distortion of the human body to achieve an emotional end. Mannerism is not about “beauty recollected in tranquility”; it’s about feeling it here and now. Tintoretto’s Sea of Galilee looks almost like a dark green meadow. Only after reading the signage and carefully looking at the work do you realize that Christ is so confidently walking on water, not land.
The anonymous Landscape With Figures, an Emilian work from the late 16th Century, resembles molded wax and manages to look simultaneously old and new— do I dare say, eternal? There will be other encounters along the way with minor works that have probably been branded as minor because they’re out of time and place. They just seem too strange to properly fit in with their fellows. What they prove, in fact— what Landscape With Figures proves in fact, is that a romantic impulse persists in all times and places. Sometimes it will gain the ascendancy, other times it will function almost as an underground stream.
Of course Mannerism was conceived in a period of romantic ascendancy, so I suppose one might argue that the anonymous Emilian work is not quite as bizarre as it might at first appear. Conversely, the work of the great Titian seems very much a Renaissance affair. Does familiarity breed contempt? Or was Titian so thoroughly encompassed the virtues and values of his age that he could no longer escape its pull?
Murder and its aftermath in a single painting
Veronese’s The Martyrdom of St. Lucia (1582) offers a good example of the importance of detail reading in looking at art. At first glance, it’s unclear: Is the saint simultaneously receiving the Eucharist while being stabbed to death, or is the dark fellow to the right helpfully trying to remove the fatal blade? No, the empty scabbard hanging from the dark man’s belt clearly marks him as the murderer. Veronese is demonstrating The Old Masters Time Warp by simultaneously depicting the moment of the martyrdom as well as its aftermath: The dying saint receives the Eucharist from a priest, who, presumably, arrived upon the scene after the killer departed.
This incredibly sophisticated technique of depicting, in a single plane of vision, events that have happened or are happening at other times and places has pretty much been killed off in our time by movies. It becomes increasing difficult for people to decode what’s happening in a static image because we’ve grown too accustomed to film’s spoon-fed chronology. Without noticing the empty scabbard, I would have assumed that everything was happening in real time, with the expiring saint receiving both physical and spiritual succor.
Spectacle on the ceiling
Saint John the Evangelist on Patmos (1547) is an interesting piece from Titian. It’s the first of many examples of ceiling art that I’ll encounter at the National Gallery. These works were meant to be seen by viewers looking up at them. They naturally lend themselves to visual spectacle, and Titian’s painting is a very stormy and stressful affair. But it is imposing, even hanging at eye level on a gallery wall.
I’ve always liked Portrait of a Gentleman (1510)— not because it’s a painting by Titian and Giorgione, but because the subject’s sneer so perfectly sums up the age in which subject and artists lived. Yes, the Renaissance was a period of great accomplishment, but it was also a period of great self-satisfaction. Its subject looks as though the term “celebrity” was invented just for him. And what is his hand grasping so tightly—a pair of gloves, a bag of gold or the handle of a knife?
Cephalus at the Temple of Diana— one panel of Bernardino Luini’s cycle of frescos, The Story of Procris and Cephalus (1520-22)— looks uncannily like the fresco art of Ancient Rome that would lay undiscovered for centuries until the villas of buried Pompeii were unearthed. It makes one wonder if certain ways of seeing are not imprinted “in the blood.” Certainly it demonstrates that everything old is new again.
(First of several articles.)
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