Saturday, February 10, 2007
Tintoretto’s fitful brilliance
by PETER SCHJELDAHL
Tintoretto was too good an artist for his time’s uses; he still clamors for a proper role, seeking affirmation, four centuries later. This thought came to me as whimsy, and stayed as conviction, at the Prado, in Madrid, which has just opened the second-ever retrospective (the first was in Venice, in 1937) of Jacopo Comin, who was also known as Robusti, and called Tintoretto, or “Little Dyer,” after his father’s profession. Tintoretto (1518-94) is the most mercurial of the five undisputed immortals of Venetian painting—the others being Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and Veronese—and I was eager to see the Prado show, because I have never managed to get a satisfying fix on him. How could someone so great, able to summon the world with a brushstroke, be so inconsistent in style, and, on occasion, so awful? Stupefyingly prolific, Tintoretto garnished the walls, ceilings, altars, exteriors, and even the furniture of Venice, performing commissions for free when that was what it took to edge out a rival. (He was not popular with his fellow-artists.) He brought off one of the world’s largest paintings—“Paradise” (1588-92), in the Ducal Palace, which, at seventy-two feet long and twenty-three feet high, is so vast as to be essentially unseeable—and perhaps history’s most sustained demonstration of sheer painterly talent, brimming the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, between 1564 and 1588, with pictures whose profusion and intensity burn the most concerted effort of looking to ashes. But he and his populous workshop also perpetrated some of the grimmest daubs—murky and slack—that you ever rushed past with a shudder. I realized, too late, that my puzzlement was a warning. Now I feel that I have acquired a brilliant, neurotic, exhausting friend who enjoins me to undertake on his behalf campaigns that he bungled when their conduct was up to him.
Nothing inferior taxes the eye at the Prado, which augments the cream of Tintorettos in European and American collections with a few loans from Venice, where hundreds of his paintings—including his greatest works, such as “The Miracle of the Slave” (1548)—reside immovably in churches, palaces, and galleries. The show more than overcomes doubts about presuming to assess the artist outside his home town, which he is known to have left just twice, briefly, in his life. The well-restored canvases, shown in good light, sparkle and blaze. Some make plungingly deep space with muscular figures of different sizes; your mind provides perspective that the artist didn’t deign to chart. Others array action on intersecting diagonals, along which someone is apt to be arriving from somewhere at terrific speed. (There is an old line that Tintoretto invented the movies; his ways of enkindling routine scenarios, with thrilling visual rhythms that seem to unfurl in time, endorse it.) He drew with his brush, light over dark—so that shadings came first, imparting a sumptuous density to forms that are hit with highlights like spatters of sun. He is supposed to have said that his favorite colors were black and white, but he could be every bit the startling and seductive Venetian colorist when a commission required it. With abject competitive fury, he was not above imitating the grand dragon of the Venice art world, Titian, and his designated successor, Veronese.
“As a matter of fact, he almost never takes the liberty of being himself unless someone builds up his confidence and leaves him alone in an empty room,” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in a 1957 essay, “The Venetian Pariah.” For Sartre, Tintoretto is an avatar of existential anguish, who was both behind his time—as the last native-born master on a scene ruled by a cosmopolitan élite—and ahead of it, as the ideal artist for a rising bourgeoisie that was too intimidated by the pomp of the ducal republic to recognize itself in his demotic trashings of aristocratic decorum. Intellectuals of the era, while in awe of Tintoretto’s gifts, scolded him for being too fast, careless, and insolent; when Vasari credited him with “the most extraordinary brain that the art of painting has ever produced,” it wasn’t meant as unalloyed praise. (Vasari also called him the medium’s “worst madcap.”)
As a boy, Tintoretto is said to have entered Titian’s workshop as an apprentice but was thrown out after a few days, having either frightened the master with his aptitude or irked him with his personality; at any rate, Titian’s attitude toward him was plated with permafrost. Little is known of Tintoretto’s subsequent training. His earliest surviving work, from the early fifteen-forties, is anti-Titianesque—radically sculptural and draftsmanly, embracing Central Italian influences. Then something happened which the art historian Alexander Nagel compares to the bluesman Robert Johnson’s “going down to the crossroads and coming back with scary new powers.” “The Miracle of the Slave,” made for the Scuola Grande di San Marco, electrified Venice. Its unprecedented range of spatial, chromatic, and kinetic effect suggested a synthesis of “the disegno of Michelangelo and the coloring of Titian”—a contemporaneous formula, often cited, for ultimate greatness in painting. He was roundly hailed, though Pietro Aretino, Titian’s literary ally, added a caveat about his lack of “patience in the making.” Commissions came in bunches to the new hero, but solid status skittered out of reach.
He compensated by striving to engulf the town. Meanwhile, Titian refused to slacken his grip on preëminence, let alone die. When he finally expired, at the age of eighty-eight or so, in 1576, it brought Tintoretto no peace. Though he was now, by general consent, Italy’s leading painter, he responded with pictures as flailingly ambitious and various as ever. Three from the late fifteen-seventies triumph in as many styles. In “The Rape of Helen,” the hauntingly lovely captive languishes in the corner of a churning land-sea battle scene, with scores of figures, ranging in size from huge to tiny, which you can all but hear and smell. In “Tarquin and Lucretia,” the naked, lividly fleshy protagonists struggle at the edge of a bed, toppling a sculpture and breaking a necklace that rains pearls. The woman’s right hand seems to extend from the canvas, as if to be grasped by a rescuing viewer. (The Baroque, which took hold two decades later, with Caravaggio, can seem an edited ratification of tendencies already developed by Tintoretto.) “The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence” is a sketchy and fierce nightmare of death by roasting, with an anticipatory whiff of Goya. Tintoretto strongly influenced El Greco, blazed trails for Rubens, and fascinated Velázquez, who acquired his paintings for Philip IV.
“What is a Tintoretto?” the art historian Robert Echols asks in the show’s catalogue. The answer might be almost anything touched with genius and a strange, thorny, dashing humor. Tintoretto was reported to be a witty man who never smiled. What is his “Susannah and the Elders” (1555-56) if not a grand lark? A luxuriant, glowing nude sits outdoors, surrounded by a glittering still-life of jewelry and implements of beauty, and is ogled by dirty old men (one pokes his bald pate, at ground level, practically out of the canvas) from behind a hedge that forms part of a corridor-like recession into the far background. There are distant little ducks, and the rear end of a stag. But the picture’s form is too disorienting to sustain any particular response, including amusement. The backstage space outside the hedge ignores the unity of the central perspective, bespeaking a world that rolls away in all directions, indifferent to pocket realms of mythic anecdote. The effect is stirring and confusing. “Who is Tintoretto’s viewer?” strikes me as the really compelling question. No other great artist before modern times, in which shifting contingency affects every enterprise, seems less certain of whom he is addressing, and why. It might as well be you or me as some cinquecento ingrate, and, if we happen to think of people we know who may be interested, the artist encourages us to contact them without delay.
Geplaatst door anonymous op Saturday, February 10, 2007