Boccioni’s Lost Sculptures Reborn

 

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The Italian Futurists set themselves one of the most impossible goals in sculpture—to capture movement itself, not just a moving body but the idea of movement transcending any actual movement. In painting this sometimes came out in stuttering images like time-lapse photography, so the moving body appeared in multiple images minutely separate from each other, more a conception than a depiction of motion, not Boccioni’s way, whose cyclist or footballer interpenetrated his surroundings via atmospheric planes until the very idea of distinct entities was called in question.

Baroque sculptors like Bernini had approached the problem through the sculptural group—Apollo chasing Daphne, who turns into a laurel tree before our eyes, a half-completed process in the resulting sculpture, which showed a set of intermediate stages all at once, a feat which required detailed inspection to appreciate the full complexity of the ‘movement’.

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Or in Bernini’s astonishing later work, the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, a combination of a violent frozen motion (the angel’s), and the liquefaction of a human body expressed as a lengthy tremor in her clothes (the saint’s), a piece of virtuoso carving which represents a spiritual orgasm as a rippling motion that one can hardly believe the sculptor has been able to render in stone, which doesn’t actually move.

This famous ecstasy perhaps comes nearest in earlier centuries to what Boccioni was trying to do in the series of striding figures who culminated in Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, an unwieldy title expressing the high metaphysical ambitions of this exorbitant work.

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In its bronze form (actually coppered brass in the two earliest cases), varnished deep brown or polished to a golden sheen, this is Boccioni’s best-known work and probably the most powerful thing any Futurist ever did. As far as most of us knew, Unique Forms of Continuity stood there in lonely eminence, a single outrageous extravagance Boccioni never tried to repeat.

A recent exhibition at the Estorick collection in North London restored the missing context of this well-known work in the most vivid way. It has long been known to students of Boccioni that at his premature death the sculptor left behind a studio full of large plaster sculptures which led up to or grouped themselves around Unique Forms.

Soon after his death his family moved from Milan to Verona and entrusted Boccioni’s unwieldy sculptures to Piero da Verona, apparently a friend, but not an artist who appreciated Boccioni’s work (Marinetti calls him an ‘envious passéist’). He kept them for 12 years, but then consigned them to the local dump where they were immediately broken up.*

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After learning of this, Marinetti let out horrified laments, bought the surviving plaster of Unique Forms in 1928 and commissioned the first bronze casts in 1931. Until now, that was that. About ten years ago, so I was told, the digital artists Matt Smith and Anders Raden got the idea of using surviving photos of the vanished works to reconstruct them. The useful pamphlet which accompanied the exhibition leaves out the genesis of the project in detail—who thought of it, how they gathered support and how the work proceeded. There are a few glimpses—apparently, important photos were discovered late in the process, but we don’t know which, or why they were important.

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Four sculptures were reconstructed, three large striding figures and a fascinating ‘portrait’, smaller and more self contained, which looks as if it’s based on Boccioni’s drawings and prints with his mother as subject. There are three other important missing sculptures and we can only guess why further reconstructions weren’t undertaken, a lamentably ungrateful response to one of the most imaginative applications of new technology to understanding works of art.

For this ingenious project, in some ways more like a geekish prank than solemn academic research, fills me with wonder, and I want to know more about it than the current publication allows. It’s no accident that none of the sculptures were cast in bronze or any other durable substance in Boccioni’s lifetime, and thus remained easy prey to destruction. In the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture Boccioni expresses strong aversion to both marble and bronze, which belong to the static sculpture of the past. In the Manifesto he lists his preferred materials (glass, wood, cardboard, iron. plaster, horsehair, leather, cloth, mirror, electric lights, etc) and mocks the idea that plastic works should consist of a single material.

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I think I can guess why Smith and Raden didn’t tangle with Head + House + Light or Fusion of a Head and a Window, both from 1911, which exhibit more unruly combinations of more diverse materials, like braided human hair to represent human hair and forests of wooden slats for the decomposing window frame.

The wilder assemblage of assorted materials seems a literalism Boccioni was leaving behind, but there are still inescapable paradoxes in reproducing his works in a single material. Old photos show that the jutting elements of Synthesis of Human Dynamism were carried out in painted wood with the nail-heads exposed not concealed.

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Synthesis is regarded by Smith and Raden as the earliest of the works they have reconstructed, furthest from Unique Forms, treated throughout as the goal to which the process of creation uniting the four striders always unconsciously strove, a teleology I tried to resist, wanting to find virtues in the ‘earlier’ ones which Unique Forms had to sacrifice in pursuit of its more philosophically pure notion of dynamism. In the end I relented, and admitted that the series made more sense as a single progress than as four paths to different goals.

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The results of the experiment, four three-dimensional digital models, are a modern equivalent of the plaster casts of the nineteenth century, which reproduce a work of art with uncanny accuracy in a different, preferably very different, place from its actual location. In the present case they replace not stone, but plaster, with… not plaster but a kind of ghostly, metaphysical plaster, ‘cast’ from the ‘originals’, which are photographs, taken from random angles and distances by a ragbag of photographers, whose own idiosyncrasies we (or the digital artists) must work out and try to take account of.

After dedicated efforts to get sizes and proportions right, all the data are converted by 3D printing into a kind of neoclassical perfection, or what Boccioni’s sculptures would have looked like if they were fabricated in the marble he despised. It turns out that the hardest things to reproduce in milled foam or neutral, anonymous laminate are the imperfections of the plaster, the scuffs and smudges left by the life of the studio, the gouges and tiny craters left by the sculptor’s tool or the space created by the falling-out of a minute pebble.

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Apparently Boccioni wasn’t above adding or deepening shadows on the plaster with grey paint. Once or twice in the old photos we catch him at it. In the Manifesto he explains how to make edges fade to infinity or forms pass through each other by such means, not major principles of his practice like centrifugal organisation, spiral rather than pyramidal form, or the abolition of the special value of the profile. Still, the grey paint played its part in the great Bergsonian drama and was sometimes the safest way to make sure a certain element appeared to move in two directions at once.

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The largest, earliest and gawkiest of the striding figures, Synthesis of Human Dynamism stands out among the four for lack of smooth synthesis, one of Boccioni’s watchwords, as opposed to the heartless analysis of traditional sculpture.   He is scathing about the conventional nude as a subject, the body stripped bare, which he intends to replace with atmospheric planes that connect and intersect, rendering the mysterious sympathies and affinities that create reciprocal influences between bodies. In this early stage there is a bulky muscular figure trapped in a geometric armature from which the bodily elements struggle to emerge. You keep recognising various components but don’t understand the logic that fuses them together or splits them apart.   The number of parts is overwhelming, and whatever Boccioni says, it feels just as disunified as analytical cubism at its most fractured.

12 DSC03074 copy.jpgFrom certain angles the ‘feet’ of the giant look covered in feathers, and the work’s whole effect seems one of the most disunified ever, diverse as only forms produced by a centrifuge could ever be in the real world.

The next figure, Speeding Muscles, seems less tormented or riven by conflict. The forms themselves and transitions between them are smoother and the motion is more like melting than breaking to pieces.

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Again there are surreal penetrations of one disparate form by another, in this case a skull and a multi-storey building, which can’t help looking comical in its slow collapse. Two of the striders are a stark plaster-white, while this one is the colour of pale brown sugar. We assume it has been coloured, while the other two have been left the natural colour of the material, milled foam or 3D printing.   It seems that the contrary is the case – the white is an added paint layer, and the pale sugar colour is ‘natural’.   The more granular texture of this one, which makes it look as if it were actually made of sugar, introduces the alien naturalism of a material never seen before.

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The idea of 3D printing will become more familiar, and then the laminate structure so easily visible in Synthesis–which makes me think it is the ultimate hypothetical object, more glue than primary substance, a truly metaphysical ‘thing’, ‘printed’ like a statement, whose nearest analogue in the real world is a living tissue made of words–then that self-division into a series of selves will seem the most normal thing in the world.

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The third strider, Spiral Expansion of Muscles in Movement, has trumped the more accessible lower-level transpositions and lost various resemblances to ordinary objects.   Yet Boccioni can’t escape entirely into his description of all his works as bridges between two infinities, inner and outer.   From the most comprehensive vantage Spiral Expansion still looks a lot like a muscular human body taking off its clothes, a more complex and articulated stage of existence than a nude just lying around, but another conglomerate that hasn’t really found a use for its complexity.

One of Anders Raden’s other projects gives back the Venus de Milo’s missing arms, while Boccioni removes the arms entirely from his figures, as largely extraneous to pure concepts of human dynamism. The number of copies of Unique Forms has crept up since the 1960s and is now hard to calculate, but Boccioni never pursued the idea of multiples, as Matt Smith has done for some time on his website, offering various sizes of one of the striding figures he has reconstructed. The display at the Estorick included a set of small models of all four striders, reproduced to a consistent scale and laid out in a diagonal line to make comparisons easier.  I wondered afterward how Boccioni would feel on seeing his difficult journey reduced to toy size.

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*This appears to be only the latest version of the sculptures’ fate. They’ve also been destroyed by a violent storm after the open-air exhibition of 1916, or turned over to the sculptor Virgilio Brocchi, whom Boccioni had portrayed in an important transitional work, who negligently let workmen clear them (Boccioni’s sister’s account). Further inconsistencies, like the various dates assigned to the destruction, remain to be sorted out by further research.

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Fourth reconstruction: Empty and full Abstracts of a Head, 1912/ 2019

 

Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit in the Cast Court at the V & A

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Something catches your eye that you’ve passed many times without seeing. Why now, suddenly?

The suddenness is wonderful and the work completely absorbing. In order to see it at all you have to block out a lot else, a diverting cacophony of other works, a jumble of forms and sizes never meant to be seen together, apparently assembled to no coordinate plan. That’s the beauty of the V & A Cast Court, of course, a host of juxtapositions only permissible because nothing here is real.

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But once you’ve singled one out, the unreality doesn’t count. The plaster isn’t dirty, but it isn’t clean—it does a reasonable job of imitating the worn and mottled look of marble. Sometimes there are signs of its having been coloured—mostly with stone colours, grey and brown. By a fortuitous twist, the roughness of plaster and traces of varnish suit this particular sculptor uncannily well, who was one of the first carvers to make something positive and expressive of irregularity and even of flaws in execution.  

Above all, my new favourite is a conglomerate and the separate parts aren’t precious individually. Not that there aren’t wonderful strokes of invention and plenty of arresting details. On that day it seemed the most gripping large work of sculpture in the world, challenging one of the most powerful plastic statements ever, the great altar at Pergamon, which it couldn’t match for scale and violence, but in narrative variety maybe it came out ahead and had the giddy spectator reaching for parallels like the dramatic profusion of all the novels of Balzac.

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The work I am looking at is Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit for Pisa cathedral executed in 1302-10 with a fair amount of studio help, a fact which makes some critics compare it unfavourably with an earlier, overlapping project by the same sculptor, a pulpit for the parish church of S Andrea in Pistoia, much smaller than this later work, with more of Giovanni’s own carving in the intimate reliefs, which are placed, as they are in Pisa, furthest from the observer.

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It seems that Pisano may have learned from the earlier experiment that the small scale work was somewhat thrown away when mounted well above head-height. So in Pisa he painted with a broader brush and put his energy into a greater proliferation of larger figures at ground level. That is where the best invention occurs in the Pisa pulpit.

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Pulpit is a seriously demeaning name for this marvelous crowd of carved figures who form a cross between a forest and a pavilion full of sculptural movement.

The whole is cylindrical in form, with a richly carved roof (the wide band that contains the reliefs) supported on 8 peripheral columns which converge on a single central support. There is a curving stair for reaching the roof attached to one end, the route which priests and deacons would use to turn the large construction into a humble pulpit, as if its whole purpose was to give them an elevated perch from which to teach and preach.

The phenomenal sculptural energy of the assemblage devotes itself to disguising the supporting columns with an ingenious set of caryatid-like beings. In two cases these are single human figures on pedestals who allow capitals to be planted on their heads.

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In the most thrilling instances – two of them, adjacent – a larger figure appears to bear the brunt but is surrounded by a crowd of four figures approaching life size. These two clusters are the most gripping or enigmatic elements of the whole, one composed of women, the other of men, many of them carrying emblematic objects, like a set of scales or a dead lion suspended upside down. The men are all accompanied by their daemons, three winged animals and an angel.

The moments before you figure out or are told what any of this means are precious, and something to hold onto, even after you have identified the four medium-sized women as Virtues and the four men as Evangelists, the larger female figure dominating the others not Charity – she suckles two infants – but Ecclesia, the Church, and the larger man, Christ.

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At the V & A Ecclesia has lost one of her main accoutrements, a big dove that whispers aggressively in her ear. This idea of inspiration from above occurs repeatedly in the smaller series of sibyls at the level of spandrels supporting the reliefs, one of which (in Pistoia) looks like the inspiration in turn of a memorable sibyl by Michelangelo on the Sistine ceiling.  Ecclesia may have got separated from her dove after the fire of 1595 when the pulpit was taken to pieces and radically deconstructed, when the parts got scrambled and relations between them were lost, at a time when other sculptural elements probably disappeared.  Interest in returning the pulpit to its original state grew in the 1860s, around the time this cast was made.  The current presentation of the work in Pisa (seen further below) dates from Bacci’s reconstruction of 1926.

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There are many satisfying symmetries buried in the scheme, one female nude and one male, the one based on a famous classical type of modest Venus, now representing Temperance (work out how), the other an unclassical, anxious Hercules, wiry not beefy, a striking antithesis to the familiar Neapolitan giant leaning on his club, worn out by carrying his huge muscles, set against our slender Hercules who contains a nervous soul.

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He is paired with St Michael, a Christian knight. They represent spiritual and worldly heroism respectively, we are told. The two are placed symmetrically in most reconstructions, but they make an odd pair. The saint is sleek and elegant. His wings take some working out and look unnervingly like living tissue. Common opinion holds that this figure cannot be Giovanni’s, and the  choice usually lands on Tino di Camaino, one of Pisano’s ablest pupils who went on to a successful career in which the smoothness of St Michael is frequently repeated.

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The earliest secure attribution to Giovanni Pisano consists of two eagles on the Fontana Maggiore in Perugia (see below) where he worked under his father Nicola. They are extraordinarily lively, engaged in harsh dialogue with each other. A similarly intense interest in the life of beasts keeps turning up throughout Giovanni’s career. In the Pisa pulpit we have the little winged sprites trapped between the Evangelists, the oversized eagles squeezed in between female Virtues and, most alarming of all, the two lions, caryatids, looking up from the prey they are in the middle of tearing to pieces. This ferocity extends the range of emotion captured in the monument to include vivid and convincing rage. Giovanni’s animals usually convey a serious interest in the place of primitive urges in the whole territory of consciousness, not just playing around the edges of the page as in medieval manuscripts.*

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Besides the wonderful replica of one of Giovanni Pisano’s crowning works in the cast court, the V & A possesses two precious fragments securely attributed to this sculptor whom Henry Moore ranked with Michelangelo as the greatest of Italian artists. The rarest is an ivory Christ from a crucifix, in which we find both the energetic movement familiar in his work in the writhing hair played against the crown of thorns, and his characteristic focus on the expressive power of the rib cage.

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The other fragment is a bust-length piece from the projects Moore regarded as the summit of Giovanni’s achievement. These were the figures, half-figures and sculptural groups which had been exposed to the weather on the Pisa baptistry and the façade of Siena cathedral.  The effects of weathering and the modern preference for Giovanni over his father Nicola are strongly connected.  Henry Moore almost admits to reading the wear and tear visible on the outdoor pieces as a kind of fortuitous boldness, as if Giovanni’s characteristic expressionist urgings are pushed further by the weather, as if its ferocity could be attributed to the sculptor, or was, without conscious agency or intention, causing the sculptor to become more himself than ever, or calling into existence the sculptor Pisano would have been if he were Moore’s contemporary. Something similar is at work in my fierce resistance to the idea that Giovanni Pisano is a Gothic sculptor.  He is so much fresher than that, and there is something  sound and true in the magic that weather has worked on the outdoor sculpture, which shows us the direction in which to push or read the indoor work to see the depths that lie there waiting to be coaxed forth by sympathetic, anachronistic eyes.

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Michael Ayrton thought the Siena figures the most philosophically ambitious and monumental in scale of all his work, a group of fourteen prophets and sibyls in dialogue and contention with one another, passionate, visionary drama of immense historical and psychological scope. The V & A’s chunk of the Hebrew prophet Haggai from that facade is a powerfully expressive piece in which discoveries made earlier in the project about how to convey intense meaning and precise impressions over distance were developed further, involving bold use of the drill to show agitation of the features, and especially the beard, which revealed the movements of the soul.

Along with these bold textural effects went the famous tensed and craning neck, which Moore was perhaps first to intuit was more than a means of projecting the head beyond the parapet on a façade, but a novel expression of a figure’s intellectual fire as well.  Pisano brought this discovery down from the higher reaches of buildings and we find it again in Ecclesia and a couple of her Virtues.

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And we even come upon a miniature equivalent of bold and sketchy textures for conveying expression from afar on the smaller scale of the relief, admittedly more tellingly present on the pulpit in Pistoia than in Pisa.

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Giovanni Pisano was a complex and fascinating character, revealed most nakedly in two features which were completely omitted when the V & A cast of his Pisa pulpit was made, long inscriptions which remain ambiguous and difficult to interpret to this day. The upper one, which appears just below the reliefs, is generally regarded as boastful. The second, longer and running at floor level, is seen by Pope-Hennessy as a complaint lodged against an envious world. Ayrton reads it very differently, as a despairing confession of failure by an artist who has fallen short of an unattainable goal. Did he end frustrated and defeated by the world, or tragically uncertain of his own genius?

 

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The two inscriptions are printed in full, in Latin and English translation, in Pope-Hennessy’s Italian Gothic Sculpture.  The translation of the second inscription in Ayrton’s Giovanni Pisano Sculptor, a rewarding collaboration with Henry Moore and an Italian photographer, does not come out in the same place and isn’t even spoken by the same imagined speaker. 

*One of the most surprising items in the Pisani literature is a 9-page analysis of the extra lion footprints on the lion’s pedestal, signs of a struggle, according to the authors.  Palozzi, L & Bergkvist, G, 2018, ‘A brief cross-disciplinary study of lion paw prints in Giovanni Pisano’s Pisa Pulpit (1302–10): On the seventh centenary of Giovanni Pisano’s death’, Source (notes on the History of Art), vol. 37, no. 4, pp. 215- 224. https://doi.org/10.1086/699963

Trying for the most ferocious illustration, I inadvertently chose the lioness.  My own inspection of these wonderful animals had not extended as far as the ground they stand on.  With understandable satisfaction, the authors of this article observe that they seem to be the first in its 700 years of existence to notice these features of the lion’s marble pedestal: two complete footprints, one facing in the lion’s direction of travel, the other backward, and various signs of the scuffle with the prey impressed in the soft soil, apt at recording such marks.  They analyse both the accuracy and the purposeful inaccuracy of this lion’s anatomy, and make a fascinating case for the significance of the two paw-prints in the history of art.  They see them as Giovanni’s way of releasing his lion from its limited role as a support for a pulpit by suggesting an existence for him outside the frozen posture over his victim.  The prints encourage us to imagine him moving as we do freely through the grove.  These easily overlooked traces of the activity of the lion, perhaps an afterthought of the sculptor’s, can be seen as one of his boldest subversions of the conventions of liturgical equipment, and a source of guilty enjoyment to those who happen to notice them.  Once again, Giovanni Pisano is moving toward freeing the artist and his work from subservience to a patron, the Church.

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Neither the makers nor the later keepers of the plaster cast seem to have noticed or taken care to preserve these paw-prints, which have evidently got further scuffed and filled in over time. Recent photographs of the indentations in the marble original in Pisa show another kind of defacement, which has smoothed whatever Pisano carved into a series of  blob-shaped hollows, in which it is remarkable that Palozzi and Bergkvist could recognise the lion’s prints.

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Fig. 3. Giovanni Pisano, lion hunting his prey, 1302–10 (top view with detail of paw prints below). Carrara marble; print A: 5 ⅛ in. (13 cm); print B: 4 . in. (12 cm). Pisa Cathedral. Photographs: Ivan Bianchini.  The detail shows the metacarpal pad (MC) and the pads of digits II–V of paw print A, and the metatarsal pad (MT) and the pads of digits III–V of paw print B.

Translation/ explanation of caption: Metacarpal = front paw, metatarsal = back paw.  The two prints almost touch at their back edges.  The left-hand, front-paw print faces inward toward the lion’s body, pointing upward toward 10 o’clock; the right-hand, rear paw points downward toward 4 o’clock.  The front paw is 5 inches wide; the rear paw 4 inches.  Unless the whole thing was a private joke, when new the prints must have been more detailed, and more recognisable.

It is a detail, and a small piece of the puzzle, but one more sign of Giovanni Pisano’s study of his subjects from life, centuries before this became commonplace.

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Soutine’s People

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Soutine’s portraits are a different kettle of fish from all his other work—his ‘portraits’ of dead animals, often hung up as if in a butcher’s window, his still-lives which can also have the air of crucifixions, and his tortured landscapes.

The portraits are different because we are less forgiving of liberties taken in representing the ‘human form divine’ (Blake’s piercing phrase). It appears that we have studied the human face more intently than any other aspect of the visible world, as perhaps comes home to us most sharply in front of art.

That is where the limits of an artist’s powers of observation are exposed most cruelly.  That is where Soutine’s ‘distortions’ are likeliest to seem arbitrary. He was reputed not to like portraits as a type. Perhaps it is truer to say he didn’t like commissions. He had his own peculiar way of choosing sitters. His preferred subjects are the weak and powerless — children, mad women, the village idiot, a gypsy boy, and the most consistent and fascinating series of all — lowly, serving occupations like pastry cooks, bell-hops and maids — all subjects easily exploited, who weren’t likely to complain that they didn’t like the results, because he was paying them, not the other way around. So these pictures are very different sorts of document from what we usually mean by portraits, and lack the stiffness and falsity common in the form.

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In Soutine’s hands even a child with a toy is an uncomfortable idea. Sitting can be a precarious activity in something which doesn’t look like a complete chair. Its top is glued to the child’s head, while its back seems to be trying to unseat him. His toy is another, smaller person falling backward or an angel pointing its wings downward. This is the part where Soutine’s famous abandonment of control in pursuit of the pure freedom of the brush breaks through.

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The next sitter is called Mad Woman but has been reduced to childhood by her madness, and wears another elf’s hat, another elf or gremlin not a citizen of the adult world. Soutine’s women are often marked by twisted shoulders, a form of wrenching, involuntary movement. This girl is more completely shrunken into herself through spider-like compression.

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The older woman protected by her hat carries a feature almost unheard of in Soutine, an emotive title–Desolation. Would we know she was heartbroken without the prompt? It takes us no time at all to figure that her lopsided shoulders and twisted arms do not mean a disease of the spine but an expressive lunge into an unstable mental state, the real question being whether the unexpected torque is a momentary or an essential condition. It would be a hard pose to hold—Soutine’s people twist from one uncomfortable position to another, but there’s unexpected freedom in the variety.

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While Desolation seems normative among Soutine portraits, the picture of his supporter and fellow painter Emile Lejeune stands apart for its light background and sprightly tonalities.   The sitter’s relaxed mood seems to have inspired confidence and made Soutine himself temporarily optimistic.   We read the dent in Lejeune’s face and his uneven ears as accident rather than meaning, a sign that the artist’s attention was focussed elsewhere, carelessness of a positive kind.

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By starkest contrast, darkness gathers round the gypsy boy like a portent. Maybe other observers wouldn’t have read extreme apprehension, vulnerability and the wish to disappear in the deep, dark eyes, but Soutine is alert to them, perhaps because susceptible himself.   This picture is usually dated to 1922-3, early for us already to be reading in it signs of what lies in wait for Europe in the following decade.

It isn’t just light and dark tonalities that make the mood in Soutine.   This picture of a very young pastry cook is the most tragic member of the most sustained series of Soutine portraits, devoted to a group with whom he has the most perfunctory relations, until he chooses to explore them, the service staff of the cheap hotels and restaurants he frequented in his summers in Cagnes on the south coast.

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Another triangular face which shrinks away to nothing, a stillness signifying exhaustion or a complete absence of hope, ears painfully exposed and defenceless features, and the wonderful blankness of all the white, concealing a being erased, with a body made of air, beautiful in its way, with especially delicate lines marking its divisions. The chair suggests the cage of a timid animal.

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A jauntier version of the same plight, striking a more assertive pose but paper-thin, and again the strange motif of the red handkerchief like a blood-stain semi-hidden.

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This outlying example in the pastry cook series from three or four years earlier cries to be included because it is the Soutine picture that the eccentric collector from Philadelphia, Dr Albert Barnes, saw in a dealer’s window, from which he found his way to Soutine’s studio and bought most of its contents (fifty-plus paintings) on the spot, bringing the painter to much wider attention.

It is the first of the group dressed all in one colour, or no-colour, which breaks out into a whole range of blue, purple, yellow, pink, registering light or recording creases, a crucial moment in Soutine’s attack on the coherence of objects, also seen in the ear that begins talking to its surroundings and finds itself resembling the chair back.

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At some time around 1924 or 5, Soutine began to frequent more expensive hotels but continued to enlist the most down-trodden elements of their populations, who sometimes pick up the pretensions of the posher premises, so that this ‘garcon d’honneur’ – a maitre d’ or a room-service waiter? it doesn’t seem clear – is able to sit with no visible means of support through a feat of belief, an acrobat-functionary.

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Another bellhop even turns his uniform into an identity, twisting it improbably into an imposing pattern.

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The third in this series of arms-akimbo poses – sitting in mid-air, sitting awkwardly, standing uncertainly – defensive and assertive, salvaging a self in unpromising circumstances – looks battered but cocky, and Soutine has again found human depth in unexpected places.

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The twists of these three poses say a great deal about the strains of these lives.   Even more complex and tortured flexions turn up in female subjects who twist this way and that, misshapen by the stresses of no job, but by the general facts of feminine existence, another, more unwitting mad-woman.

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The females among the hotel-staff portraits are the most abject of all, like this lady’s maid who melts, sliding downward, whose indecisive mouth is one of the saddest human features ever painted.

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This so-called English girl is one of the lucky ones, who makes a crooked pose into nonchalance.

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But best of all is the one most defaced by the painter’s wilful abandon, who drags strength from what should have been ugliness.   Like many of his unschooled subjects, she comes out of the battle an unlikely victor, where every error in the symmetry is a bit of hard-won depth.  Flesh of horrid orange-pink, clothes of stains and smears, like a surface given life by dirt, yet it’s the serpentine pose that tells us most persuasively that we are rushing somewhere significant, unheard-of till now.

Vuillard and uncertainty

 

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I didn’t intend to write about Vuillard again, but hadn’t anticipated how different the small (but much bigger) exhibition in Bath (appearing later in Edinburgh and Dublin) would be from the one last year in Birmingham. Birmingham was entirely caught up in the limited cast of characters of the household. Bath ranged outside and beyond the house, still keeping the view rigorously confined, Vuillard’s guiding feature being a voluntary confinement in which dislocations of vision can act with explosive force, freaks of perception which don’t necessarily lead to untethered or unfathomable emotions but into an emotional no-one’s land to which the right comparison might be Kafka.

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The exhibition began in the home, with an awkward family scene in the weird green light of evening. Three generations are gathered round the table, along with two looming bottles like extra guests.

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We recognise the mother, grandmother, and daughter from our last outing with Vuillard. We could mistake the lone orange-bearded male for the artist himself, but the label steers us toward his brother, an unknown quantity.   The sister dominates, in a grotesquely twisted pose which reveals depths already familiar to the others, less so to us. She is wearing a dress like one in a portrait nearby, in a pattern like a lot of lively worms. Maybe she will explode.

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Next to this dinner table is The Ear, one of the oddest little pictures Vuillard ever produced. It shows the head and shoulders of a young female bent over and concentrating on something on the floor. Is she tying her shoe or looking for something lost? We are already far ahead of ourselves, because she doesn’t really look like a person at all. Her ear we only recognise through the helping hand of the picture’s title: it looks more like a half-closed eye. Beneath it are two detached bits of brightly lit flesh which could be the tip of a nose and part of an upper lip. Otherwise, shadow, with traces of an eyebrow (doubtful) and cheek (obscured by strands of hair). Above the features, elements of a punk hairdo in black and orange stripes, plaited into a denser chequered pattern beyond. Over the invisible forehead dangles a big black spider of loose hair-strands.

Maybe this picture just goes to show how far Vuillard’s need to strangen the familiar features of the world could go. Here the supposed subject pretty well escapes, and solutions to the uncertainty leave plenty of uneasiness behind.

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Very soon after comes another conundrum-picture that has an easier resolution. Two men in top hats seen close-up from behind. The sheen on one of the hats completely bisects the black mass, making it into two separate hats. But the deeper weirdness of this picture occurs further to the left. Instead of a hat, a giant black hand with four black fingers extended upward. This turns out to be another hat (or hair-do) after all, though one like a finger puppet mounted on a woman’s head, whose fainter body appears beneath. Like the others, this picture comes close to a visual joke. How can such a tiny sliver of reality constitute a subject? Well, it seems to. You go on enjoying the odd leftover spaces between the hats, and the contrast between the ‘brims’, if you can count the most nearly horizontal ‘finger’ a brim. The overlapping of the three bodies makes a nice consistency against the wild variations overhead.

Except in a formal sense, to call these male-female divisions an antagonism would be going too far. More interesting confrontations tend to take place indoors. Of all the fresh Vuillards in Bath, one called The Manicure perplexed me most.

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The picture starts from another extreme lighting effect, with the source hidden between the two figures. It took me several tries to decipher the manicurist, whose face doesn’t really appear, though turned toward us.  Part of the explanation is that we are not on-axis with the couple, as we perhaps think, but skewed to their right. That is how the light can miss her face completely, leaving a dark mask more like a spinning top than a human head.

So the pleasure in this configuration comes from its inhuman weirdness. And then there’s the dark lump to the left of the central pair. In the end I see this lump as a balding father and his little girl, with a bright red ribbon in her hair. In the meantime I have thought her a pet monkey, or the two of them an African carving, or a piece of furniture with a cloth over it.

What is this love of occlusion, of hiding the subject in shadow, turning people into hulks or lumps, and blocking off the space between them? Wherever it springs from, it works. It invests humdrum activity with portent, in a space loaded throughout with inscrutable depths.

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Other Vuillards thrive on blankness, not density, for a sense of a lot going on beneath a sparse surface. At first I took one of the most uncanny to be an expanse of sand leading to the forest-edge, with a track skirting it. At some point it dawned on me that this sand was not a beach but a wall blocking us off from the forest. And the traces of erased figures in the sand must have been marks on the wall, not occupants of the flatland. The two contrasting realms remain, one featureless, the other impenetrable. We think of other artists who value walls for their lack of content, like the Welshman Thomas Jones and the Catalan Antoni Tàpies.

In the exhibition the still life below gave an exaggerated impression of horizontality and of emptiness toward both ends, which doesn’t survive when it is isolated. I still think it is an exercise in dispersion and weightlessness, in spite of its magical vacancy having partly evaporated when it is removed from the peculiar space of the exhibition.

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Publicity for the exhibition made a separate picture of the flowers in their  vase, a little composition which soon fell to pieces, set against the ‘flowers’ of the tablecloth — bigger, vaguer, more unstable. All the elements are spread wide, and won’t sit down or cohere. The satchel is the worst, levitating rashly in mid-air, deserting its rightful place.

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As in Birmingham, prints in Bath showed Vuillard dissolving reality’s there-ness even more radically than in paint. The cover of a set of lithographs has another strange confrontation between a hulking man (in pyjamas this time) and a younger woman. The girl by herself is a miracle of vagueness. In a couple of the prints in this series figures at tables merge magically into the setting and each other.

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One of the best discoveries of the exhibition was the reappearance of glue-based distemper, a medium first met in Vuillard’s work for the theatre and now, in its reappearance, freeing him back into the boldness of the 1890s with two paintings of 1910 and after, one of a Breton farmhouse above a garden like an embroidery, whose rich pattern dissolves into squiggles, separate segments, and finally into chaos.

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For Vuillard perception is always verging on disorientation. This flirtation with unreason is one of his deepest promptings, an escape down the rabbit hole of perception into a phantasmagoria of forms that have freed themselves from the restraints of sense.

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Looking closely at the work in distemper, you find such dissolutions as a children’s smock like icing on pastry, and its mother’s dress a snow flurry, in a familiar world become entirely strange.

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A Newly Discovered Bruegel

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A few years ago I stumbled across a reference to a new Bruegel which had been found in an obscure Spanish collection and, soon after its discovery, ended up in the Prado.

The first question was: could it be real? Could a very large painting by this painter go unnoticed for all those years?  Its subject was unheard-of and the composition inconceivably grotesque—it showed a tangled mountain of people glued together in an acrobatic mass. There were lots of them, of all different ages, trying to get their hands on wine squirting from a huge red barrel in a tiny stream, all the figures pushing forward a wide variety of containers, pitchers, bowls, hats, broken and intact, some just potsherds, the vessels a digest of the extreme human variety that jostled for space.

I was convinced almost at once of its authenticity and its large contribution to our knowledge of the artist. The painting is full of memorable poses, which fix themselves in the mind as weird but true snapshots of human types caught in extremis, stretched to the limit in pursuit of a clear goal near at hand. Typically, some of the best are seen from behind, a condition often treasured by Bruegel because it guarantees unselfconsciousness and thus a kind of authenticity. Maybe that is the main secret of the strange subject, that it combines people revealing themselves exuberantly while packed into unheard-of nearness, more like a nest of writhing snakes than any previously-known depiction of a human gathering.

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Bruegel has set himself an impossible, and, we might have thought before seeing how he would set about it, absurd, challenge—to build a multi-storey building consisting of human forms with no superstructure for them to cling to except the cradle on which the barrel is raised.

Bruegel uses a shifting perspective as he did in the Vienna Tower of Babel in order to show densely crowded figures viewed from above extending laterally and viewed head-on extending vertically. As in the Suicide of Saul it seems the most natural thing in the world for whole ranks of figures to be making the same gesture in series, reaching frantically upward to hold out their bowls toward the source of oblivion.

This is furthest from a still or quiet crowd–most of them are frantic–but there is also a complete spectrum of those turning away from the scramble because they are busy drinking, have already passed out or have noticed another goal, the knightly figure in the lower right corner, who is distributing something more valuable than cups of wine. St Martin on horseback has attracted a small crowd of cripples and the destitute anxious to get a piece of the voluminous cape he is slicing up with his sword.

In the distance are magical glimpses, caught as if through keyholes, of a rider at a gate and a scattering of tiny figures in the open space at the foot of the castle on the horizon. The most convincing and precious features of these sketched-in elements are the delicacy of the drawing and the transparent thinness of the paint.

One of the best discoveries of the magical enlargements on the Inside Bruegel website is seeing how often Bruegel puts the paint on so thinly it is like drawing itself and lets his underdrawing show through, invariably carried out with great confidence, without slips or mistakes.

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The Wine of St Martin’s Day is painted on linen with something like tempera instead of oil, a technique known from both the beginning and the end of his career in the Brussels Adoration and the Naples Blind Leading the Blind. It looks (and is) fragile and evanescent, the colour more transparent and fleeting than usual. Why he used this frail medium in his largest painting by far – 2½ times the size of the otherwise largest Procession to Calvary — seems impossible to know.

The subject is the least substantial:  an experience of passing intoxication, another instance of religion subverted by folk indulgence, human beings behaving with the carelessness of may-flies, aptly captured in the dodgiest, most ravishing form, a work that is at once the painter’s most daring and most throwaway.

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Ruskin in Sheffield

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Ruskin is the most sublime and in his visionary way the most practical of the great Victorian thinkers. To call him just a thinker or a writer is a drastic truncation of his scope. He is the greatest writer on art in English, and he is also a great artist who left behind many hundreds of electrifying drawings of architecture, townscape, landscape and all aspects of the natural world, which have the potential to wake up human vision in a life-changing way, but remain to this day virtually unknown and seriously undervalued.

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He was a mass of fertile contradictions whose life took a strange turn from the 1860s onward—the ‘violent Tory of the old school’ (a self-description) became a radical socialist (or should one more cautiously say, the inspirer of socialists?) whose greatest work (so Tim Hilton his most serious biographer believes) is an unruly series of ‘Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain’—that is the subtitle.  In its title proper, this book communicates Ruskin-fashion via a kind of incantation—it’s called Fors Clavigera.

A recent exhibition, which began in London in February and continues in Sheffield from 29 May, focuses on a single visionary scheme for changing all that Ruskin thought was unhealthy about the rapidly industrialising country in which he found himself. This was a plan to bring beauty to one of the most benighted of the mushroom industrial towns of England by forming a quasi-medieval Guild of St George, consisting of Companions (workers) under a Master (himself), and endowing it with a collection of paintings, drawings, casts of sculpture, natural specimens (gems, shells, minerals, birds’ feathers), illuminated manuscripts and books, which would be the means by which impoverished toilers would educate themselves, becoming an example which could spread to other deprived areas and eventually regenerate the entire country.

Ruskin’s own method in his books and drawings was intensely particular, maniacally focused on the physical presence of the Gothic cathedral or Alpine peak, pursued with a fierce and sustained attention never equalled by anyone else before or since.

To make such absorption in the greatest architecture, painting, sculpture and geological and botanical marvels possible in Sheffield, Ruskin had to bring Venice and the Alps, and Dürer and Carpaccio into the little rooms he’d acquired for the purpose in a nondescript street in Walkley, then on the edge of the city.

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As anyone who knows his writing might have predicted, his means of achieving this was emphatically literal. The exhibition is most interesting for showing how Ruskin’s various methods collided with and reinforced each other. The goals remained the same; the routes for getting there were diverse and overlapping. One of Ruskin’s favourite methods, taking plaster casts of architectural details, seems quaint and old-fashioned now, but had been important to him from long before he ever thought of using it to instruct the workers of Sheffield. It was a way of hanging onto buildings he had to leave behind in Italy, a way of bringing back some of the most powerful bits of carving to be studied and absorbed at home. He had always singled out details in a way of his own, had turned figures inhabiting the arcades of the Doge’s Palace into his familiar companions, for whom he elaborated characters, traits and lives. It was a gift that could get out of hand. He had always been haunted by figures he met in art: eventually they populated his deliriums.

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Some of the most moving inclusions in the exhibition are the plaster fragments of St Mark’s in Venice, little bosses with birds and berries, and a large figure of Prudence from the central portal’s arch which would normally sit high over your head. Now it has its own case with a glass door, in which it is mounted crookedly, because it is a curving piece extracted from a larger whole, so its truncation is significant, the clearest sign that it has been singled out by Ruskin’s vision. But it remains ungainly, really too large to be turned into this kind of ornament, and obscured by the mechanism needed to mount it as a display. Yet when you get closer you see the point, the intensely three-dimensional presence of carving that has its own interior spaces, which constitute momentarily its own vineyard or forest whose thrust-out elements modulate the light in places further within.

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Ruskin’s drawings of architectural details are among his most magical; these are under-represented in the exhibition, but there is a compensation, a selection of photographs commissioned or taken by him, including a wonderful close-up of carved foliage on a doorframe at Rouen cathedral. Ruskin’s own vision does somehow miraculously inhabit the images of things he wanted recorded. In this case a wonderful drawing by him of the top furl in this image survives, which must have been taken from this photograph; it’s unlikely he would have singled out just that, standing on the ground.

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This doorframe isn’t one of the most naturalistic bits of medieval vegetation, and we need to turn elsewhere to show how the connectedness of art and the natural world made itself felt to Ruskin. Art led him to study the growth of plants and the structure of mountains, but in the end which was the primary study, which a means to something else? Both the works of nature and of man occupied him wholly, and each continually illuminated the other. Ruskin’s famous drawing of withered oak leaves is one of the most striking in the exhibition, as is also the less familiar sketch of a spray of seaweed. Both of them are studies of rhythm and movement, strongly hinting at processes of decay and growth, and thus of life. His other botanical sketches also convey the tension in the bend of a stem or the torque implied by the disposition of separate thorns climbing the branch of the shrub. The thorn drawing looks boring at first, until one notices continual variation in what looked like sameness. This drawing isn’t Ruskin’s, but a task set by him to sharpen a student’s sight.

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He trained a group of younger artists to help him record monuments and townscapes which he feared were disappearing through neglect and, even worse, so-called restoration. The most poignant of these rescue-drawings shows an unremarkable set of tombs built into a wall in a Florentine square. It’s a place many visitors will know well, now a heartless and dreary expanse of smooth stone, but in the drawing of 1887 a vibrant stretch of carving full of life, before more recent mechanical replacement.

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Mountains, coins and birds’ feathers also appear in Ruskin’s drawings in the exhibition and include the ten-foot long horizontal profile of an Alpine range done when he was 24, and an analysis of a feather from a peacock’s back enlarged many times, entirely out of everyday recognition. Which brings me to the image at the top of the blog, an architectural detail enlarged so it could be seen from the back of the lecture hall, a close-up which looks blurred when you are too close to it.

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The last word on mountains can be left to Dan Holdsworth, whose Acceleration of 2018 was an inspired commission by the organisers of the exhibition, combining many detailed records of three glaciers to make a video that lets you see them coming into existence and disappearing again, a new use for a new-old visual medium which would have delighted Ruskin.

 

John Ruskin: Art & Wonder  29 May to 15 September 2019 at Millennium Gallery, Museums Sheffield

On not doing justice to Rembrandt

 

AN00163757_001_l.jpgRuskin’s strange boast ‘At least I did justice to the pine’ haunts me. He means ‘I may have failed, but at least I did justice to the pine’, ‘All the years I devoted to that enormous project, Modern Painters, were largely misspent, but at least….’

Reading over something I’d written and been happy with, I saw very starkly I hadn’t done justice to Rembrandt but missed the important things, like his radical conceptions of familiar subjects, and his abandonment of his earlier smoothness, trading it in works like the small Raising of Lazarus for a new harshness of line, quavering to express uncertainty, almost a confession of inadequacy in front of his high, difficult subjects.

13 25 b177 lazarus small AN00037930_001_l copy.jpgNot long ago they staged a competition between Rembrandt and Rubens—or was it just a comparison?—in the basement of the National Gallery. I remembered the time when I preferred Rubens, for his amazing fluency–he could show a lot of figures flying or falling through the air, each one perfectly turned, every limb twisted in a believably liquid way, such alertness, such energy in every bit of the scene that jumped with activity.

Now Rembrandt seemed the only serious one, really studying his subjects, burrowing into them, while Rubens skated over the surface, producing generic beings, and too many of them, like someone who can run back-to-back marathons without any sign of normal human tiredness. How long has it been since Rubens really looked closely at any particular feature of the world around him? His mind and hand are stocked with a thousand formulas that spring forth on demand.

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Rubens reeks of success and ease; nothing has ever been hard for him. Rembrandt drags richness and beauty out of awkwardness and failure, haunted by a deeply Protestant sense of being locked in a struggle that he may not win. To do justice to Rembrandt you would have to show him wringing defeat from the jaws of victory, pushing on in his revisions to find new difficulty in his subject, like a darkness so profound it takes an intrepid viewer to see the few traces left after most of what was there before has been subtracted.

AN00058994_001_l.jpgThe darker Entombment in the British Museum exhibition has swallowed up its subject so completely you have to hallucinate it. There is a whole case of little prints like photos taken in a dark room. I felt I was being sent to a demanding school, but the rewards could be wonderful when they came. The best of them was a black nude with her back to you, lying on a white sheet with lace edges. The richness of these contrasts, the subtlety of all the shades of black seen in darkness, the startling whiteness with its delicate inscriptions jumping out from under blackness—to find something so luxurious just exactly here, such paradoxes, such depths.

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Sadly, no reproduction can show these things, though of course the etchings are all reproductions in the first place. But we don’t know and often can’t fathom when we do, the lengths Rembrandt has gone to for his effects. He has printed the earlier Three Crosses in the British Museum on vellum, the skin of an animal; Christ in the re-worked Three Crosses jumps toward the viewer as if someone has pressed a zoom button, and the whole scene has miraculously shrunk up round him, sucked in by diagonal scoring of the reins of the main rider for instance that I didn’t notice last time, and which don’t show in the photo taken from the website. The tree behind St Jerome in the big print in an Italian landscape is of such richness you feel you could never see it twice, far less will it ever reach you via its shrunken replica.

I guess these are laments that could be applied more widely. Many things never look as magical again as they did the first time, as unforeseen, as electrifying, but on good days you will see features that you didn’t have time to notice the first time. Rembrandt is a painter for those who are willing to discard their old impressions and start again.

Orchids at Kew

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Every year in the early spring they mount a display of orchids in a greenhouse at Kew. This year it was Colombia’s turn, and around 6000 blooms of 150 South American species were crowded together in three different artificial climates under a single cascading structure resembling a landscape-form in steel and glass. The exhibition drew large numbers in search of beauty, oddity and natural diversity, who had to wait their turn at busy times of day, like bees clustering round a popular shrub.

What or who are orchids for?

In one sense they’re the commonest plant and at the same time among the rarest. They’ve spread everywhere and diversified into the largest number of distinct species (around 26,000) of any botanical tribe.

Yet they’re impossibly anomalous among plants, with some of the strangest life cycles of all, including parasitism and deceit, bizarre structures of great complexity seemingly designed simply to plant lumps of pollen on the head or tail of males of a chosen insect species. Many orchid species are not rooted in earth, but attach themselves to jungle trees and dangle their roots in air, ‘roots’ which do root-jobs of absorbing nutrients but violate the main meanings of the word, a kind of botanical outrage.

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Worst or most wonderful of all is what orchids do to their pollinators. Here exaggeration and deceit go together. Nectar or food or sexual gratification which doesn’t actually exist seems to require more grandiose sacs or pouches or replicas of the female insect in order to seduce the victim or dupe (what should we call him?). Even now moral disapproval creeps into descriptions of orchid ‘contrivances’, promising rewards but giving none. Charles Darwin, one of the most acute of early students of orchid pollination, couldn’t believe that orchids really had no nectar for their visitors, or that this was a system that would work.

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A suspicion lingers that orchids have fooled their human enthusiasts as well, luring them with complex forms that violate established norms of size and proportion and instil suggestions of resemblance to all sorts of non-botanical forms, so that, like the wasps, the orchid’s human fans are mistaking the blooms unconsciously for something else.

Popular names of orchids go on expressing the ancient folk-view that there are deep sympathies between the lives of human beings and those of plants. Modern names like ‘fried-egg orchid’ often stick out by their starkly comic intention; in Shakespeare even the most grotesque flower names, like ‘dead man’s beard’, feel like something more than a joke.

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‘Slipper’ orchids are not diminished by the name, which conjures up spaces of myth, into which victims fall in search of food and will only get out by doing the plant’s bidding, collaborating in the orchid’s plans for its own continuance. It feels absurd to talk as if we believed in the orchid’s agency, but it becomes more and more feasible to assume the intelligence of plants (see Colin Fudge on trees), insects (especially ants, bees and termites, including many pollinators) or birds (astonishing recent research on birds’ brains). And the stories people have told about plants couldn’t be more preposterous than the dramas acted out in the innermost chambers of certain orchid blooms.

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But to see, or even to imagine, these Piranesian spaces you probably need to blow up a photograph of an orchid interior to approximate the bee’s-eye view and then you tell yourself that you are approaching the true essential meaning of the orchid. At Kew I picked up The Book of Orchids, a life-size guide to 600 species from around the world illustrated with one photo of each, or sometimes with two copies of the same photo, one large and one small. I assumed that the small one was life-size and the big was a blow-up which let you see richness and complexity invisible to normal human sight. This is often but not always what the relation between the two photos is. Sometimes the little one shows the whole bloom for the first time, because this orchid is too big to fit onto the page-size chosen for this book.

Six hundred orchids has a magical sound, but the speed of the survey inevitably produces vertigo, and taking in so many almost requires isolating the blooms from their surroundings, and even from the stems and the leaves of their own plants. So you have cut-outs of the most compelling feature, a single flower, the orchid as logo, more or less. Some orchids, like the slippers, do occur singly in the wild or at least widely spaced on the stem, but these are likely to be the heavier blooms, which would drag the plant down in clusters.

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To understand orchid structure you probably need to isolate single blooms in this way, maybe even render them artfully through drawings. To see many actual examples on a single occasion you need to create something like a museum-situation, which if you’re lucky, as for example at Kew, will also feel like a habitat, a constructed jungle. Some orchids will sit in pots on the ground, but others will appear to have attached themselves to trees and spread their roots in air, far out of reach.

There’s a limit though, and some of the most precious, like most of the slippers, will appear behind glass to protect them from the attentions of the orchid-lovers. And if proof were needed, moving from cool and dry to hot and wet climates simply by opening and closing a door reminds you that you are crossing distances that would consume whole days outside the botanical museum.

So you continue your trip through this spectacle of the world’s diversity which is more like a visit to the National Gallery than an hour in an actual jungle. And the deepest involvement requires further manipulation of the images collected on the ‘journey’, carried out afterward at home, where you are continually noticing features that there was no way you could see on the spot, because you couldn’t isolate each bloom like a painting or take the time to walk round it like a sculpture. In certain respects the fullest plant museum exists only on a screen, best of all that of a small laptop, not a large television which cannot focus the subject or your attention nearly so tellingly.

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Surface patterns are among the most startling and mesmerising features of these blooms, endlessly attractive in a literal sense—the eye is helplessly drawn to them. Under magnification they become something different and then we can imagine the disorienting effect on the insect trying to keep its balance in the maelstrom of a centrifugal pattern which disperses itself more violently as you move in nearer. Petals and sepals that all look much the same to the human eye are strongly differentiated when magnified and depict radically different kinds of fragmentation, one alarming, the other reassuring. Seen close up, the overall effect is much more directional and thus coercive.

DSC06719 kew copy 2.jpgIn this species blooms often present themselves ‘upside down’ or cockeyed, meaning that to experience their symmetry or to recognise the typical orchid structure of three petals overlaid (in reverse) on three sepals, making a six-pointed figure, you need to reorient yourself bodily, and this leads us to imagine insects making aesthetic choices as they land on orchids.

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Other, blotchier patterns look to human eyes like stippling, a technique not a purely random occurrence, blobs trying to come together rather than simply spreading themselves, a focusing effect to which it would be hard to pay no attention at all. Is such visual complexity of no consequence to the insect, and the watercolour-like variations in intensity as you move from the centre to the edge of each blob? Human beings see faces everywhere, especially in whole classes of plant blooms. Is it fanciful to imagine insects having similar susceptibilities to certain combinations of dots, lines and concentrated forms? Not that we could easily guess what they remind the insect of, just that this sort of unconscious memory might be taking place.

Darwin was fascinated by insects’ responses to colour, a subject which goes on provoking research and remains almost as much of a mystery as ever, as is also the human response to colour in plants, though studied more thoroughly and for much longer.

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Human beings are also prone to see writing where there is none, in vegetable scribbling on leaves or tree bark. Some of the strangest surface pattern on orchids has evidently suggested lines of letters in a genus labeled ‘grammatophyllum’, which seems made to be puzzled over, trying to read something into the sequence of marks. Ruskin was always imagining that the world put a certain natural feature in front of him to say something meant specifically for him, perhaps a late, narcissistic rendition of the old belief that the Creator meant for us to find lessons in stones and instruction in storms. Watered down enough, something like this must be taking place in many people’s conversations with orchids, in spite of idealists like Kant who used flowers to preach purposiveness without a purpose.

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There is such diversity in orchids that we couldn’t possibly do justice to it here or anywhere else. There are the forms that for some personal reason disgust us, because they remind us of varicose veins or toothless mouths. There are orchids which don’t look like flowers at all, like the wonderful freaks called spider orchids, not because they actually look like spiders, but because they have long, ungainly features, and more than a few of them. Visually similar are around six species, two of whose sepals go on extending themselves from the main bloom until they hit a hard surface, thus producing streamers several feet long. I have captured only a junior version of this.

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There are furly copper-coloured species that perform the unnerving feat of turning themselves inside out, none of whose elements you can convince to stop shuddering, an insect-sized version of Baroque movement. And there is another orchid so magically translucent it is hard to believe it is alive and not something created just to show off certain properties of light, a task of too-refined focus to be entrusted to a creature. This species also exhibits one of the most high-handed divergences of sepals and petals, which now form two independent whorls, petals fused into one and sepals floating free, with nothing in common between them except that they are joined at the hip.

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Elisabeth Frink and British sculpture of the 50s

 

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I’ve broken off reading Thomas McEvilley’s Sculpture in the Age of Doubt to write about British sculpture of the 1950s, acutely conscious how timebound those works look now. McEvilley’s book is twenty years old but seems timely to someone freshly drawn to figurative sculpture by Elisabeth Frink, Henry Moore and their contemporaries, who still seem haunted by the experience of war, whose work is perhaps rawer and more deeply undermined than that of McEvilley’s doubters of the 1970s and 80s. He writes about work by Iannis Kounellis, Marina Abramovic, Michael Tracy and two dozen others, which is sometimes only sculpture because it isn’t painting, or just because McEvilley wants to see Happenings and Performance Art as sculpture, which seems an unnerving extension of the territory to me, but might be a commonplace to more up-to-date observers of the current scene.

Has he thought out all that this extension implies? Probably, for he’s a philosopher, which is to say always looking to wider ramifications and perhaps losing sight of the visceral presence of the piece, this in spite of being extremely good at explaining complex works of art. So his preferred instances often involve the participation of the artist, who is cutting herself methodically and bleeding on her immediate surroundings, or incinerating a huge painting which has been carried to a watery location according to a special liturgy. These are works that leave little behind after the scene is washed clean by attendants or the weather, except photos, videos and written descriptions.

How dispiriting after such disruptions to turn to lumps of bronze which raise no doubts about whether they are sculpture or not, just questions about why they aren’t more carefully finished or more complete, which often show plainly that they started life as plaster, and which bear an obvious though mildly obscure relation to the human form. It worries me slightly that I am becoming newly interested in these works of art produced when I was a teenager, worries which really take off when I think of trying to interest anyone else.

The first Frink sculpture I ever saw, knowing it was hers, was an incongruous green Christ mounted high on the front of Liverpool cathedral. It didn’t fit and was too far away, much too high for its welcoming gesture to make any sense. My next Frink was also green but in a gallery, so it wasn’t the weather that had coloured the bronze this time. It showed an oldish man falling backwards, shielding his face with one arm, leaving both his feet sticking awkwardly up. He was on the floor, below eye level. I am not even sure whether he had landed already or was about to. I have seen him many times since, but am still not sure if he has landed. The effect of the figure depends on the feeling of something in the course of happening, and on the extreme vulnerability of the raised arm and flailing feet. He is still in the middle of the violence of his fall.

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It didn’t take me long to learn from a label a few feet away that he was the work of Elisabeth Frink, a name I associated with dull public sculpture, and that he was called Dying King, apparently inspired by a scene in Shakespeare’s Richard III, where the great villain dies in the midst of battle, surrounded by his enemies. A bad man at his moment of greatest weakness—but it isn’t certain that this notion enters into our feelings about this sculpture.

What matters more is the rough hewn finish of the work. His shielding arm is a flat slab, like the outline of a form. His torso is eaten away by a natural process like decay, which isn’t decay of course, but a roughness and perforation that the sculptor has allowed to remain, rather than directly causing by a purposeful movement of her hand. The double nature of the material—so we need constantly to remind ourselves that these forms weren’t always metal, but something more malleable, even a runny almost-liquid for brief periods at least—is an endlessly involving feature of any bronze that lets its past as clay or plaster or even wood–Frink sticks on wooden slats to stiffen figures’ legs and doesn’t bother to hide them–show.

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So the shrunken Richard is a tragic figure, participating in the instability of the world and of its various physical components, instability that cooperates with whatever it is in him that brings him down. He is part of a larger natural process and encapsulates more than one moment in the history of matter.

At this point along comes a little display of British sculpture of the 1950s in the big hall at the centre of the old Tate, spaces designed by the most retardaire of American classicists, John Russell Pope, an embarrassing favourite of mine. The first piece I notice is a fragment, a figure without head, arms or feet lying on its side. Its back is the most eaten away part, which is what I come to first. Again, as before, I am enraptured by the way the form is both there and not there, threatening to lose its shape from all the gouging, and intrigued also by the way the legs are broken off, as by a violent rending. The genitals telling you the figure’s sex are indistinct but big enough that you won’t miss them: Frink usually makes sure of that, for this is Frink of course, and called simply Torso.

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DSC06230torso.jpgNext to it is another fallen figure who raises a little shield as he falls. His legs are pitifully shrunken, his torso misshapen like a rock which won’t bend itself completely to the human form. His head is more rudimentary than other Frinks, a stalk, an eye, a flat disk. I’m trying to take in the unmanageable variety of aspects I find in these forms, the great advantage of sculpture, that it can be a dozen different works in succession, depending on where you’re standing, or not standing but circling.

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It’s a long time after, when reading about another piece by a sculptor new to me, that I find the label for the Falling Warrior, for that is his name, and it is important to the sculptor that this is not a corpse stretched on the ground but someone who is still alive.

The sculptor is not Elisabeth Frink, though, but Henry Moore. How could I have made that mistake? in which there’s a lesson, that you tend to see what you’ve come to see. I look at this warrior again and see something different, cooler and more composed, a less immediate rendering of violence. Now I view the two figures, Dying King and Falling Warrior as opposites, several rooms apart, but wonderfully comparable, versions of the same idea seen so differently by two sculptors who enter deeply into their subject and make something unforeseen that grips you too. And I don’t know which to prefer, ‘inflections or innuendoes, the blackbird whistling, or just after.’*

 

Opening image:  In The Infield Was Patty Peccavi by Edward and Nancy Kienholz; metal, resin, cloth, wood, glass, paper, photomechanical reproduction, electric lights, stuffed bird and paint, 1981, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington

 

*Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
i
Among twenty snowy mountains,   
The only moving thing   
Was the eye of the blackbird.   
ii
I was of three minds,   
Like a tree   
In which there are three blackbirds.   
iii
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.   
It was a small part of the pantomime.   
iv
A man and a woman   
Are one.   
A man and a woman and a blackbird   
Are one.   
v
I do not know which to prefer,   
The beauty of inflections   
Or the beauty of innuendoes,   
The blackbird whistling   
Or just after.   
vi
Icicles filled the long window   
With barbaric glass.   
The shadow of the blackbird   
Crossed it, to and fro.   
The mood   
Traced in the shadow   
An indecipherable cause.   
vii
O thin men of Haddam,   
Why do you imagine golden birds?   
Do you not see how the blackbird   
Walks around the feet   
Of the women about you?   
viii
I know noble accents   
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;   
But I know, too,   
That the blackbird is involved   
In what I know.   
ix
When the blackbird flew out of sight,   
It marked the edge   
Of one of many circles.   
x
At the sight of blackbirds   
Flying in a green light,   
Even the bawds of euphony   
Would cry out sharply.   
xi
He rode over Connecticut   
In a glass coach.   
Once, a fear pierced him,   
In that he mistook   
The shadow of his equipage   
For blackbirds.   
xii
The river is moving.   
The blackbird must be flying.   
xiii
It was evening all afternoon.   
It was snowing   
And it was going to snow.   
The blackbird sat   
In the cedar-limbs.
                                                              Wallace Stevens

 

Mantegna / Bellini

 

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This exhibition at the National Gallery in London boasted an assembly of surprising loans from all over, paintings which you imagined could never leave their permanent roosting places, but there they were in front of you, collectively illuminating ten or twelve of the National Gallery’s own pictures in startling ways, spawning effects that would long outlive the exhibition.

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I still remember a single painting from a long-ago exhibition that marked an epoch in my life, after which my idea of what painting was for had changed. The present exhibition included one of those at its heart, about which, more later. The painting from years ago was Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas, one of his last works, visiting London from somewhere deep in Hungary, a painting of which I hadn’t any inkling previously, that seemed to consist entirely of clumsy scrapes and smudges, which came mysteriously together into a hallucination of the cruelest suffering that was at the same time the most persuasive urging of the richness of the physical world.

That was the experience that Mantegna/Bellini rivaled, in spite of the fact that its two painters are an impossible pair, confusable at the beginning of their careers, miles apart at the close, so that any notion of parallel courses is a recipe for frustration.

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When we first meet them, Mantegna is more assured, while Bellini is finding his way and leaning on the older artist, even so far as to trace Mantegna’s grouping for the Presentation in the Temple onto his own panel. The two paintings have never been in the same room before, and we expect a revelatory juxtaposition, but it is somehow disappointing, because Bellini is still struggling toward what will distinguish him as an artist, while Mantegna has already arrived, substituting a black background for the obsolete gold one familiar for so long with religious subjects, which has an immediate effect of secularising the scene by faintly classicising it with a new kind of artificiality. The half-figures form a frieze more like a shallow relief than a painting. Bellini’s group is already uncomfortable with sculpture as the model for painting, while Mantegna’s people look contented taking their places behind a stone frame within the frame, stone suggesting a kind of permanence to which painted figures can now aspire too. Mantegna’s muted tones, veil-like, institute a further distance, a further backing away from immediacy, which is not at all the way Bellini will move.

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Bellini’s figures are getting restive and beginning to break out of this planar order, which Mantegna’s are settling more comfortably into, as is most evident in a trivial sign: their halos are all in the same plane and collide with each other in unsettling ways. Bellini’s figures are springing into life, Mantegna’s are petrifying and turning to a more permanent material than flesh.

A fascinating if awkward further stage occurs in another pair, two Agonies in the Garden, both in the National Gallery, where Mantegna produces a pile of three sleeping bodies as a coagulate mass, which Bellini pulls apart, but doesn’t get the spacing right, and spreads them too far. This clumsy feature has always bothered me, until a painting in the exhibition fit it into a more inclusive sequence. The Resurrection from Berlin contains a brilliant breaking-open of the traditional soporific congestion of sleeping solders at Christ’s tomb. Bellini has split the three soldiers apart and spread them across the bottom of the picture, which hits the observer as a magical increase of light and air and makes them participants, not resistors, in Christ’s freeing from death. It felt as if I had stumbled upon a crucial clue to what Bellini is all about, and to the deeper significance of his opening up religious subjects into wider landscapes. Putting more space between the figures is following an unconscious urge toward a form of pantheism, a way of broadening Christian narratives into more inclusive unions with the external world.

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In this Resurrection the tiered landscape makes me wonder if Bellini has seen those Chinese landscapes on hanging scrolls where extensive horizontal vistas are turned into vertical ascents followed up the picture surface by tiny pilgrims. In this Bellini, Christ rises through the gauzy clouds of a sunrise that seem to offer him temporary footing along the way. The familiar figures, three Maries and John, are making their way across the spreading landscape to arrive too late at the tomb. Everything is comprehended at once in a transcendent instant.

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While Bellini is focusing on wider worlds, Mantegna looks with wonderful intensity at detail lying closer at hand, like the priest’s beard made of hundreds of separate curls and his brocaded cope, a whole universe of different shiny textures. As an instance of burrowing inward rather than expanding outward, we could set against the Bellini Resurrection Mantegna’s astonishing drawing of Christ breaking into Limbo (shown in Berlin but not in London). The foreground, a kind of landscape underfoot, shows a squared-off rocky shelf like architecture confused with or overlaid by ruined objects of human manufacture, wonderfully, even senselessly, complex, but also nothing more than the ineffectual door barring entry to this part of the underworld. In one compact display it sums up this artist’s fascination with the classical world and its survival into the present.

Bellini was captivated by this composition and copied it.  In Mantegna’s  Crucifixion now in the Louvre, we find the grandest example of paving underfoot raised to the level of landscape, even suggesting, through the magic of multiple vanishing points, infinite space (see opening image).

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When Bellini deals with death and the deathly we are likely to get something like Christ supported by four angels, where torment is drowned in a surfeit of sweetness, where the angels’ almost-grownup bodies are delightfully small, and the astonishing conceit of showing one of them in motion and about to disappear altogether behind Christ breaks up the immobility of death conclusively.

One of the most telling juxtapositions of all matched this painting with Donatello’s Christ supported by five putti or angels from the V & A, who are tripping over their more voluminous clothes and most of whom practically disappear at first because they are carved in miraculously shallow relief. Bellini’s equivalent for Donatello’s fade-effects is extreme delicacy of contour and faintness in his colours, which comes closest to grisaille in the right-hand angel, and in the prevalence of flesh tones that are like non-colours, even as, or partly because, they are so good at recording shadows. This will not be Bellini’s last brush with sculpture as the model for painting.

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Mantegna’s versions of a similar subject, the Lamentation over the dead Christ, are among his most radical, one could almost say his most alienated, experiments. A painting noticeably missing from the exhibition was the Dead Christ from Milan which shows him stretched out flat with his feet pointing straight at the viewer.

7 mantegna lamenta prone dr.jpgTwo fascinating drawings stood in for the absent painting, one with the three Maries bent over the prone figure in something like the Milan position, with feet pointing toward the viewer (actually at c 25 degrees angled left). Then, most surprisingly, another Christ is included, pointing the other way, at the same deflection to the right. The two dead bodies are parallel and would touch if the one further away were not raised a foot off the ground the nearer body lies on. It verges on two bodies trying to inhabit the same space, or slotting together like a puzzle.

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In the other drawing the figure is alone (with himself or selves) and identified as Christ by a halo on one of the three figures angled in a Z-sequence receding from the viewer and almost touching twice, when head meets feet and head meets head. It is a challenge trying to guess in which order they were put on the page. I would like to think the middle figure (the connecting one) was done last, but that would make the choice of location for the top figure unlikely, unless the sheet has been trimmed at the top. Certainly it all began with the lowest, largest figure. Why does this matter so much, and what does Mantegna’s fascination with this idea —as a corpse– mean?

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Bellini’s Lamentation, in black ink using a very fine pen or brush on a surface painted white, was one of the most unexpected exhibits. For this artist to deny himself colour has a very particular significance, a penitential one perhaps? Yet the result is luxurious, even sensuous.  He is surrounded by a varied group, three or four of whom are not even looking at him, not because their thoughts are elsewhere but to take the pressure off, to open up what is usually a painfully monotonous occasion. This distraction of view or looking in different directions with different intentions can be seen as another way of letting in air and widening space. The picture shows these people sharing the same experience though not all inhabiting the same part of it at any particular moment. Maybe the essential separateness of individuals is most undeniable in such intervals of closeness. The oddest thing of all is that Christ does not form a strong magnetic centre. In fact he seems uncannily to fade from view, and the responses of others become the subject.

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It is common for the Virgin to be overshadowed by the Disciples in depictions of the Death of the Virgin. Mantegna’s famous treatment of this subject goes further and overshadows both Virgin and Disciples by turning them into architecture, as if like a series of columns they existed only to demonstrate something about spatial recession. I thought I liked this painting, but in the context of this exhibition it gave out an alarming heartlessness, and all those halos, each teetering at a different angle, balanced on all those heads, what are we supposed to make of that?

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I had in mind a perverse comparison, between Mantegna’s indoor scene with the Virgin swamped by attendants, and Bellini’s Madonna of the Meadow, alone in a wide landscape of which she becomes a another feature, as if she were a hill herself, the spirit of the place. There cannot be many visitors to the exhibition who thought at this moment of Potosí in Bolivia, but I did. That is where I first saw the amazing Virgin of the Mine, a representation of the mountain on the outskirts of town which accounted for Potosí’s being there at all and for its incredible wealth. This painting showed the Virgin as a mountain, her dress forming a pyramidal mound brocaded with sloping paths and dotted with shepherds and their flocks, monks, pilgrims, and of course miners trudging back with sacks of silver. The magical gradations of size in Bellini’s painting between trees, a town, tiny figures, hills and the pair of huge human figures made the idea of the whole earth as a gigantic female body seem momentarily inescapable.

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That seems a special moment of balance in Bellini’s work, but there are others, like the wonderfully restored Attack on St Peter Martyr where grisly violence including murder and chopping down trees is played against a landscape background, and the violence becomes part of the rhythms of the natural world and even in an odd way musical.

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The Madonna in a Meadow was paired with Mantegna’s Minerva expelling the Vices, by comparison a harsh and hard-edged picture which takes place in a formal garden, which is also a swamp full of monstrous distortions of the human form representing various vices. It is packed full of grotesque invention in which I formerly delighted, but now found horrific. Then into my head came a line of Alexander Pope’s ‘Trees cut to statues, statues thick as trees’, meant as a critique of the artifice in formal gardens, which can be read instead as an ecstatic summation of the pleasures and confusions of artifice in gardens, where nature and culture are forever changing places. In its way this intended put-down summons up a vision of metamorphosis just as unleashed and phantasmagoric as anything a Romantic could think up. Mantegna is a magician too, and his drawings of vices and ancient squabbles (The Calumny of Apelles) were among the best things of all.

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The culmination of the exhibition included three of Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar, the final triumph of the individual detail, in compositions so dense and complex that trying to see everything they contain will keep you employed a long time. After all the stories of how ruined they are and what nightmares of misguided care they have survived, it was thrilling to see how fresh the paint remains for instance on the elephant’s ear and his embroidered cloak. Even on this scale (each canvas approximately 9 by 8 3/4 feet) Mantegna is still using egg tempera, an old fashioned choice by now.  Bellini had switched to oil decades earlier but Mantegna remained faithful to this medium which allowed a special sharpness and precision of detail and luminous transparency in the pigment visible even in the Triumphs. Incidentally, a recently discovered study for a Triumph on brown paper is an apotheosis of Mantegna’s insatiable thirst for ever finer, ever denser detail.

Matching these across the room were equivalent culminations of Bellini’s long quest, including a Feast of the Gods from Washington on which Titian is known to have collaborated. I tormented myself trying to see Titian’s changes or improvements in the figures and decided the fusion of the two hands was complete and I couldn’t see the joins. I resented Titian’s interference in Bellini’s harmonious clustering but the result was wonderful, more serene than any Titian, richer than any Bellini. Later I was relieved to learn I’d been barking up the wrong tree: Titian had only improved the wooded background, not the figures, making it darker and denser to match his contribution to the scheme it was meant for.

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Bellini’s other piece of lateness was another scene of carousing, or its pitiful aftermath, The Drunkenness of Noah, a work of which I had no previous inkling. It too has just been cleaned, releasing some wonderfully cool but lush tones from the mellowness of varnish. Here is a picture of malice converted to harmony in a garland of arms and hands strung out along the embarrassing (except not) spectacle of the nakedness of an old old man.