Tintoretto’s Symbolic Imagination on Display at National Gallery Exhibition

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The Deposition of Christ, c. 1562. Jacopo Tintoretto. Oil on canvas.
(Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice)

The Venetian painter combined a monumental portrayal of the human body with beautiful recreations of the natural world.

In his studio, Jacopo Tintoretto — whom some consider the greatest painter Venice ever produced — was said to have displayed a motto calling for the draftsmanship (disegno) of Michelangelo and the coloring (colorito) of Titian. The idea was to combine the monumentality of the Florentine’s human figures with the Venetian’s virtuosity in the handling of paint.

A landmark exhibition on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., until July 7 shows us that the mingling of these two artistic ideals, unquestionably evident in Tintoretto’s work, was complicated by his impetuous sensibility and inclination to speedy execution. The scale of the man’s output was prodigious, and because so much of it involved the decoration of palaces, churches, and other institutional buildings, a gallery exhibit cannot do it full justice. Even so, the National Gallery show is a revelation.

Paintings by Tintoretto (1518 or 1519–1594) often reveal faults in detail and some are simply unsatisfying. The Florentine architect and painter Giorgio Vasari, in the second volume of his Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1568), described Tintoretto, the low-born, fiercely ambitious son of a Venetian cloth-dyer, as “swift, resolute, fantastic and extravagant, and the most extraordinary brain that the art of painting has ever produced” — before lamenting that his work displayed more in the way of bold imagination and manual skill than diligent execution. Vasari zeroed in on an inevitably highly dramatic evocation (given the apocalyptic theme) of the Last Judgment that Tintoretto produced for a Venetian church, Santa Maria dell’Orto, around 1560–1562. (Tintoretto is buried in the church.) The large, vertically oriented, lancet-shaped painting was, Vasari observes,

painted with an extravagant invention that truly has in it something awesome and terrible, by reason of the diversity of figures of either sex and all ages that are there, with vistas and distant views of the blessed and the damned. There, also, may be seen the boat of Charon [who ferried souls to Hades], but in a manner so different from that of others that it is a thing beautiful and strange. If this fantastic invention had been executed with correct and well-ordered drawing, and if the painter had given diligent attention to the parts and to each particular detail, as he has done to the whole in expressing the confusion, turmoil, and terror of that day, it would have been a most stupendous picture. And whoever glances at [the painting] for a moment is struck with astonishment; but, considering it afterwards minutely, it appears as if painted as a jest.

A Florentine devotee of Michelangelo, Vasari highly valued meticulous execution and finish. Our age does not, and is therefore more than ready to indulge the rapid brushwork Tintoretto not infrequently deployed. But even those who share Vasari’s reservations to some degree might regret he did not offer a detailed description of Tintoretto’s majestically panoramic, utterly riveting Crucifixion (1565) in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, the Venetian lay confraternity to which the artist belonged and where he decorated three large chambers with many scenes from Christ’s life and passion — some of them very powerful — as well as their Old Testament antecedents. The emphatically horizontal Crucifixion, measuring 17-and-a-half by 40 feet, is possibly Tintoretto’s greatest work.

The Scuola is the best place to appreciate Tintoretto’s achievement. But the National Gallery exhibit nonetheless allows us to take stock of his artistic development, his formal technique and pictorial outlook, his gift for the vivid depiction of movement and action, and above all the richness of his symbolic imagination, grounded first in a deep Christian faith and second in the legacy of classical antiquity, and revealed through the monumental portrayal of the human body as well as beautiful recreations of the natural world.

Tintoretto’s early work was strikingly uneven as well as stylistically varied. A large canvas portraying the mayhem surrounding the blinding of Saul on the way to Damascus (ca. 1544) amounts to a botched attempt at portraying a world out of joint, with Saul sprawled on the ground and his company, horses included, scattered hither and yon. The undeniably disjointed landscape reads as an odd collage, and the picture, hardly notable for fine draftsmanship, looks as if it was churned out in a rush. Though a much earlier painting, it belongs in The Last Judgement pile. There are even pictures in the Scuola di San Rocco, such as The Massacre of the Innocents (ca. 1582–87), in which the somewhat amorphous physical setting and numerous more or less spectral figures composed of rapid, swirling brushstrokes leave us wondering where to draw the line between tempestuous creativity and the press of business. In these cases, however, the collage effect of The Conversion of St. Paul is lacking, as it is in another scene of pandemonium, in which Helen is abducted by Paris and the Trojans in a sea battle evoking Venetian clashes with the Turks. This painting, painted three decades after the Conversion, also appears in the National Gallery exhibit.

The meticulous draftsmanship in two early, highly finished mythological scenes painted for a nobleman’s ceiling, The Judgment of Midas (a musical competition involving Apollo) and The Fall of Phaeton (both from 1541–42), is so far removed from the Conversion that one might think they were painted by a different artist. And one might think a third artist was to be held accountable for the partially clad allegorical figure of Spring (ca. 1546–48) perched on a tree bough with a chain of flowers in her hand. Her anatomical construction is astonishingly inept, with her upper arm out of scale with the shoulder, her head out of scale with her chest, and her clothed leg disengaged from the overall structure of her body. Yet the nearby Summer, from the same cycle of seasonal paintings, is better handled and woven into a pleasing scene fetchingly incorporating natural forms, including the grape vine in whose shade she reposes, a brilliantly colored parrot, and, in the near background, a luminous array of wheat stalks. The tribute to nature’s beauties in this picture is magnified enchantingly in Tintoretto’s Creation of the Animals from the following decade, in which the Creator, accompanied by a stunning panoply of birds and fish, wafts across the canvas, parallel to the picture plane, leaving a terrestrial menagerie in his wake. Apart from visual richness, Tintoretto achieved an arrestingly rudimentary pictorial effect in this picture.

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Much of Tintoretto’s mature work reflects the studio motto attributed to him — though a striking variety in conception and execution would remain a hallmark of his career. The rich reds, greens, golds, and blues and luminous flesh tones associated with the Venetian school and Titian in particular are much in evidence, but in his religious pictures especially Tintoretto ventured into a distinctly atmospheric realm demanding a distinct palette.

The connection to Michelangelo is also complicated. From him, Tintoretto derived an idea of monumentality but not the Florentine master’s highly resolved and extremely demanding (and time-consuming) formal technique. That technique was grounded in Michelangelo’s profound study of Greek sculpture. Anatomical pyrotechnics geared to pictorial effect, especially in the rendering of the male nude, were one of the Venetian school’s stocks in trade — its way of getting even with the Florentines. A striking example in the National Gallery’s permanent collection is a highly finished but deeply flawed work from the late 1530s by an eminent Venetian, Paris Bordone (1500–71), The Baptism of Christ. Here the musculature of the Baptist’s back is preposterously overwrought. We encounter such pyrotechnics in the National Gallery exhibition in undated, formally discombobulated drawings Tintoretto made of reduced-scale casts of sculptural works by Michelangelo. And they appear in some of Tintoretto’s paintings, for instance in the foreground sledgehammer-wielding figure with his back to us in The Forge of Vulcan (1578), but they are far more restrained and much less distracting.

There are no pyrotechnics in Tintoretto’s great Crucifixion. The picture immerses us in a twilight world replete with dramatic action emanating from the static, radiant figure of Christ. In the exhibition’s powerful Deposition of Christ, painted at the same time as the Last Judgment ridiculed by Vasari, what holds our attention are the skillfully interlaced figures, including the three Marys and the disciple supporting the monumental figure of Christ, with the rendering of the latter’s shaded head skillfully punctuated by highlights. In The Flagellation from the late 1570s, Christ and his principal tormentor are astutely arranged on a diagonal in a dim, infernal space, with the latter figure in the foreground with his back to us while the Savior — his shoulders, torso, and upper legs in highlights — draws the eye. In his Apparition of the Virgin to Saint Jerome (ca. 1580), Tintoretto meets the daunting challenge of portraying an aged but still heroic male body in a complex pose with limited success, but, even so, the painting as a whole, with its irruption of the Virgin and her angelic retinue in a spatially compressed composition, succeeds brilliantly, with the divine figures not only startling the saint but bursting into our own perceptual space.

In these religious paintings we see forebodings of the spatially compressed world of the Italian baroque — the twilight world created by Caravaggio and his followers, the fallen world in which Christ’s ministry unfolds, a world frequently populated by superb classically informed but realistically conceived figures.

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There are a number of portraits in the exhibition, most of them underwhelming for the simple reason that Tintoretto did not invest much labor in them. An early self-portrait revealing a handsome young man with his intense gaze turned to us is fine but nothing exceptional by the standards of the Italian Renaissance. A frontal self-portrait showing the artist at age 70 is full of world-weariness and is effective as characterization, but the visage is crudely executed, apart from the exquisitely silvery beard. There is, however, one great portrait in the show, and the National Gallery owns it: A Procurator of St. Mark’s (ca. 1575–85). Its excellence is paradoxical because the sitter is rather poorly put together. Tintoretto has reduced the scale of the head in line with the Hellenistic sculptural practice of reducing its proportion to the body to make the figure more monumental. But because Tintoretto conveys no sense of the body beneath the procurator’s majestic crimson robe with its luxurious ermine lining, the head reads as if it were just tacked on. Our gaze fixes on it even so, for a memorable evocation of spiritual melancholy materializes within its soft outlines. The spatial depth of the procurator’s head is subtly reinforced by the backlit contour on its left side, making it much more vivid. Otherwise, only the hands, resting on the arms of a chair, are exposed.

The final portion of the exhibit includes, along with religious works, pictures inspired by pagan mythology that are noteworthy for their gorgeous female nudes, such as The Wedding of Ariadne and Bacchus (1578). Perhaps the most noteworthy of these mythological pictures is The Origin of the Milky Way, from the late 1570s, in which the galaxy is portrayed as the creation of milk shooting from Juno’s breast, to which Zeus directs the infant Hercules so that he can be endowed with immortality. You do not need to be familiar with the picture’s theme to be mesmerized by it. Swirling arrays of rich fabrics intermingle with clouds, golden stars in a deep blue sky, signs of the zodiac, peacocks, an eagle, and winged putti whose bows and arrows signify desire as a cosmic force as well as a source of torment. Here we have the cosmos recreated on human terms, with the human body nature’s supreme symbolic form. This marvelous painting ranks among the truly canonic works of Western art.

In the final room we have an unforgettable pair of pictures from the 1580s with the Virgin situated in landscapes, painted for the Scuola di San Rocco. In one she is reading next to a stream, with a large bay tree close by. In the other she is turned away from us, gazing out over a winding river toward a distant town and the mountains beyond. Near her a large palm looms. The paint in both  works has discolored over time, but without obscuring the Virgin and her garments and aureole. The result seems providential, as the landscape is imbued with an unearthly beauty, and her presence in it is all the more magical. In these pictures, the Virgin might remind us of a hermetic Chinese sage cutting a tiny figure in a vast mountainous setting, yet Tintoretto’s loose but effective handling of the landscape is anything but oriental.

Separately from the main exhibition discussed here, the National Gallery is displaying drawings by Tintoretto and other Venetians as well as prints from his era, including one based on his Crucifixion by Agostino Carracci. They are on view until June 9. The numerous drawings by Tintoretto reveal a formidable mastery of graphic technique while showing us how he worked out the structure, poses and lighting of figures in his paintings.

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Mankind as the cosmic point of intersection between the realms of matter and spirit is the supreme theme of Western art, and it dominates Tintoretto’s paintings — which also incorporate nature’s manifold beauties to a degree Michelangelo’s oeuvre, so closely focused on the human body, most assuredly does not. But it is also important to bear in mind that the prodigious scale of Tintoretto’s output reflects the foremost practical task confronting the Renaissance artist, that of decorating the structural world, as the late painter and critic Pierce Rice would put it.

The National Gallery exhibition thus shines a bright light on the cultural and even spiritual impoverishment of our own epoch. These days the idiosyncratic expressionism of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night — in which the humanized cosmos, not to speak of the technical competence, of Tintoretto’s Origin is no more — is bound to attract a critical esteem uninformed by a sense of the measure of things. As for lack of finish, Tintoretto’s more problematically dashed-off canvases might be hailed these days as harbingers of, say, the slapdash mutations of the female figure by the modernist “master” Willem de Kooning, who seems to have been more interested in splattering the contents of his tormented id on his canvases than revealing the beauties in nature that were once taken for tokens of celestial beauties.

Modernism, in short, has brought about the abandonment of a symbolic realm that nourished the imaginations of great artists for thousands of years. Modernity’s adepts would appear to have succeeded in politicizing that metaphysical realm, stigmatizing it as an intrinsically reactionary, as well as hopelessly obsolete construct, rather than recognizing it as an invaluable component of the emotional life that sustains not only art worthy of the name but civilization itself. Needless to say, modernity has not devised a sustaining, normative superstructure of any kind to inform contemporary art. Instead, it has merely succeeded in narrowing its imaginative horizons.

Catesby Leigh writes about public art and architecture and lives in Washington, D.C.

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