Saturday, December 8, 2012

Mannerism at the Morgan

By Charles Kessler
Eastroom, Pierpont Morgan's Library
If you’ve never been to the Morgan Library and Museum, go — you’ll love the over-the-top opulence of Pierpont Morgan's library and the lavish residence of his son, J. P. Morgan. (I wrote about the Morgan and some other small east-side museums here.)

I do have some mixed feelings about the new renovation. The Morgan used to be a secluded, scholarly place frequented mostly by print and drawing aficionados. I loved it, but I never felt quite comfortable there — it was a bit intimidating. The airy openness of the 2006 Renzo Piano expansion and renovation made the museum more inviting but also made it less of a special and hallowed place. It’s wonderful though, all the more so because of two exhibitions currently on view: Fantasy and Invention: Rosso Fiorentino and Sixteenth-Century Florentine Drawing (through February 3rd) and Dürer to de Kooning: 100 Master Drawings from Munich (through January 6th).

Lovers of Early Italian Mannerism (the few of us out there) shouldn't get too excited. The Rosso exhibition is modest; it has only one painting (an unfinished one at that) and about 20 drawings taken mostly from the Morgan's collection. The Drawings from Munich show includes a few Mannerist drawings as well. Nevertheless, there is more Mannerist art here than is usually available, so enjoy.

(There are only a few important Early Mannerist paintings in American museums. The LA County Museum has a great Rosso as does the Boston MFA; and the Met and Frick each have a portrait of a young man by Bronzino, here and here (although they're really more Late Mannerist); and the National Gallery has a Pontormo portrait; but that's about all that come to mind. Some museum needs to do a major Early Mannerism exhibition.)

Mannerism is indeed mannered in some ways: it tends to be idiosyncratic, artificial and contrived (as opposed to naturalistic), and it's sometimes over-elaborate. As a result, it takes a bit of getting used to. But it’s not mannered in other, more important ways: it's not stilted, affected or lacking feeling — at least not Early Mannerism as practiced by Jacopo da Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino in Florence, and Parmigianino in Rome. (Late Mannerism is where you might find empty virtuosity and bizarre, outlandish subjects that are meant to shock just for the sake of shocking. Sound familiar?) “Anti-Classical” or better “Anti-High Renaissance” might be a more descriptive term for it since it was a reaction against the restraining ideals of the Italian High Renaissance.

As great as Italian High Renaissance art is, it had a restrictive aesthetic ideal and limited expressive range, and it must have been difficult (or boring) for artists to sustain it for long. Images had to be convincingly realistic yet more idealized than real life; likewise space in paintings had to be rational yet removed from our own world. The art had to be balanced without being rigid, theatrical but serene, monumental but intimate — all that, and the subject matter had to be profound (think Leonardo’s Last Supper).

A case can be made that the artists most associated with the Italian High Renaissance, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, quickly tired of it in its purist form (from about 1495 - 1515) and launched the change to Mannerism.
Leonardo da Vinci, St. John the Baptist, c.1513-1516, oil on walnut wood panel, 27.2 x 22.4 inches (Louvre, Paris).
For example, a late painting by the master himself, Leonardo da Vinci, St. John the Baptist, is weirdly, and uncharacteristically, creepy. Rather than depicting St. John the Baptist as a wiry, haggard Old Testament prophet in the traditional manner, Leonardo made him androgynously effeminate, placed him in an indeterminate dark space, and gave him a mysterious gesture and smile. Not exactly High Renaissance traits.

Raphael too, in his later paintings, violated classical ideals. His Christ Falling on the Way to Calvary is highly charged emotionally (it's the moment when Christ falls and his mother pitifully reaches out to him); the figures are piled up into a crammed and hard-to-decipher space; the composition is not symmetrically balanced in the High Renaissance manner but instead it's a dramatic diagonal; and Christ isn't even the focal point of the composition.
Raphael, Christ Falling on the Way to Calvary, c. 1516, Oil on canvas (transferred from panel), 318 x 229 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.
And of course Michelangelo's Last Judgement, if not the Sibyls in his earlier Sistine Chapel, were models for the Mannerists.

So with Rosso’s Holy Family, the figures are attenuated and the proportions elongated; figures are pushed up to the surface in a tense and compressed space; the Virgin's nipples disconcertingly show through her dress; and there's an odd mix of Christian and pagan imagery (John the Baptist is wearing a grapevine crown like Bacchus). Most disturbing is the Virgin's 3-finger super elongated claw-like hand that's at once graceful, tender and sinister. (Someone I struck up a conversation with suggested she might be suffering with Morfan's Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes, among other horrors, long, thin fingers — not that Rosso required a basis in nature for his expressive purpose — unlike Leonardo.)
Rosso Fiorentino, Holy Family with the Young Saint John the Baptist, ca. 1520, oil on panel, 25 x 16 ¾ inches (The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Photo © The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore).
Compare this Rosso with a quintessential High Renaissance Holy Family by Raphael:
Raphael, Madonna of the Rose, 1516, oil on panel transfered to canvas, 41 ½  x 33 inches (Prado).
Rosso makes no attempt to create a plausibly real scene in a real space. What's being depicted is not ordinary human activity, and it's not an idealized scene either, but rather it's an almost hallucinogenic, spiritual ecstasy more akin to medieval mosaics in spirit than to the High Renaissance. This ecstatic emotion is conveyed by the glowing colors and the swirling, rhythmic brushwork. (The painting is unfinished so it's probably rougher and less polished than it would be if he had finished it — but still.) In the Rosso, St. Joseph and St. John are so emotionally overwrought they seem to be dissipating visually.

Detail, head of St. John The Baptist. 
One other thing. Rosso's Virgin and Child look at us; they address us. We're not just outside observers passively watching a holy scene, but instead we are made to be active participants — and that's unsettling.
Jacopo da Pontormo,  Male Nudes, c.1520, red chalk on paper, no size given but about 18 x 10 inches.   
Also in the exhibition is a drawing of male nudes by Pontormo. Like Rosso's painting, the figures are  elongated, placed in a shallow space and pushed to the front; in addition, the figures are in precariously balanced poses and have spooky vacant eyes (probably an exaggeration of the manner of his teacher, the High Renaissance painter Andrea del Sarto). As a result, the figures have a haunting ethereality and otherworldliness about them.

And in the Dürer to de Kooning: 100 Master Drawings from Munich exhibition there are some other terrific Mannerist or proto-Mannerist drawings:
Fra Bartolommeo, Self Portrait, 1510/12, black chalk heightened with yellow wash on gray paper, 15 x 10 ½ inches.
Jacopo Pontormo, Two Standing Women, after 1530?, red chalk on paper (Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich).
There are other great drawings in the Munich show that have nothing to do with Mannerism, including this marvel:
Rembrandt (1606–1669), Saskia Lying in Bed, a Woman Sitting at Her Feet, ca. 1638, pen and point of brush and brown ink, about 9 x 7 inches.
And finally, there's this:
Willem De Kooning, Standing Man, c.1951, graphite on card, 20 x 32 inches.


Kyle Gallup said...

Charles, thanks for this post. I need to get over to the Morgan soon! I'm reading the great Ross King's "Leonardo and The Last Supper" right now and this work would fill out my reading nicely.

Carl Belz said...

Wonderful commentary on Mannerism, a topic clearly relevant to our times and deserving of renewed and closer scrutiny. Yet pretty wonderful in and of itself, as you make clear. I also appreciate your cautionary distinctions between early and later Mannerist style. All good stuff, thanks.

Carl Belz said...

Wonderful commentary on Mannerism, a topic clearly relevant to our times and deserving of renewed and closer scrutiny. Yet pretty wonderful in and of itself, as you make clear. I also appreciate your cautionary distinctions between early and later Mannerist style. All good stuff, thanks.

Charles Kessler said...

WOW! This from one of the art historians I most respect. Thank you.