Jacopo Tintoretto at The National Gallery, Through July 7th
June 10th, 2019
Jacopo Robusti was a phenom in his time. Short, strong and energetic, he painted big, ambitious pictures, and he painted them fast. He was self-taught and, as they used to say, “self-made,” an entrepreneur of tremendous ambition. His paintings are full of the traces of his physical energy, but they are also packed with depictions of intense spiritual energy breaking out into the physical world, as though he believed the Renaissance duality of sacred and profane could be bridged by pure grit and determination. Jacopo was a powerhouse of the classic era of Venetian art and an important player in the development of European painting. Yet his pieces are rarely seen outside his home city. Surprisingly, the current National Gallery show is his first retrospective in America. This is due to the fact that much of his work is site-specific and outright huge. His largest painting, Paradise, measures 74 by 30 feet, the world’s largest painting on canvas. You can imagine how hard (or impossible) something like that would be to stuff into a cargo jet and send off to America. While Paradise doesn’t appear among the 46 paintings at the National Gallery, many of the canvases on display there are quite large.
No doubt the effort to put together this show was a monumental task as well. Convincing historical churches and other small entities to lend enormous pieces, especially when those pieces can be such an important part of their identity, must have taken quite a lot of planning and negotiation. I’ve heard critics who’ve excoriated this exhibition for not being a true retrospective, a broad representation of the artist’s total output. But taking into account how many Tintorettos will never leave Venice, I’m not sure such a retrospective on US soil would even be possible. Despite the reality that this isn’t a full spectrum retrospective, the six rooms of paintings that we do get still represent a very important selection from his oeuvre. They begin to give us a real taste of the spirit of the work, and of the man himself.
The son of a commercial dyer, or tintore, Jacopo was caught as a boy scrawling pictures on the walls of his father’s workshop with his fingers and those commercial dyes. Thus, he earned the name “little dyer” or Tintoretto. Jacopo’s father, sensing the boy had some degree of talent, managed to get him into the studio of Titian. By then Titian was over 40 years of age, famous and revered. As the story goes Jacopo got kicked out of the studio after only ten days. There are two conflicting explanations regarding how this happened. The version coming from Titian’s side draws us a picture of a sloppy, undisciplined pupil, unable to be taught. The other account, more sympathetic to Jacopo, runs more along the lines of old man jealous of new genius. After getting the boot from Titian, Tintoretto went about teaching himself to paint, eventually scratching and clawing his way into the Venice art market by pure energy, determination and intelligence. He lived frugally, collecting plaster casts of classical statues so he could draw them from any angle. He obtained access to classical marbles and dissected corpses, using them to gain knowledge of anatomy.
In order to create reference models for incoming commissions he learned to sculpt his own figures in plaster and wax. Shut out from the upper levels of Venetian cultural circles early in his career, Tintoretto’s peers were lower tier fresco and furniture painters. These painters dashed off cheap landscapes and figures with gusto and speed in order to get by. Tintoretto would adapt this approach to large scale narrative works, developing a technique that came to be called presetsa. Starting with the darks and working up to the lights, he would paint quickly, correcting as he worked over the canvas, sometimes roughing in large, general areas of paint.
Given a “high art” license by Titian to work with bravura brushwork, and taking an interest in Michelangelo’s twisting, muscular figures, Tintoretto threw himself into the enormous task of melding these two things together. He famously scrawled on his studio wall “The drawing of Michelangelo and the color of Titian,” and throughout his career we see him striving to collide the heroic figures and perspectives of the Florentine School with the freer brushwork of Venice. The results belie the myth that artistic genius always produces consistent results. Some of his works are overwhelmingly good, while some fall quite flat. Still others are audacious messes, like brilliant pyrotechnics going off in an enormous dumpster fire. A good deal of his painting (and the painting of his workshop) is a mash-up of all these three.
Titian already dominated the upper end of the market in Venice, but Tintoretto aimed to push his way into high-level, large-scale commissions as well. The only question was how. The solution was to undercut other artists, working fast and cheap, sometimes even for free to get his foot in the door, especially early in his career. While such tactics earned him a meteoric rise and a large workshop of helpers, it also engendered him to censure. Titian’s circle kept their distance from him. There was a general feeling among some artists and critics that Jacopo was something of an unrefined hack. Considering the breadth of his output and the long-lasting effects of his influence we might find that hard to wrap our heads around. On the other hand, certain passages I saw at the National Gallery show had me thinking the same thing at times.
The first room shows us a self-portrait of a young man in his late 20’s, with a confident, intense, un-yielding stare. The drawing is solid and so are the tones. The forms are believable. The brushwork is visible, in the Venetian style, but there is a simple pragmatism to how the strokes are applied. They are often very directional and literal. There is no attempt to blend or hide the paint.
Nor does there appear to be any effort to dazzle us with slickness of execution. Noticeable strokes of red appear on the lower lids of the eyes to draw our attention to the potency of the artist’s stare. There is a coherence between content and style here, a correspondence between the brusque, unapologetic demeanor of the subject and the take-it-or-leave-it handling of the paint. It’s the kind of style that makes you think, “I could do that,” but then you can’t when you try because it’s actually quite hard.
There are passages where this un-fussiness has a striking resemblance in attitude to how Manet would paint some 320 years later.
Some paintings seem even more naive or perhaps unfinished, almost as though the artist ran out of time on a deadline, threw up his hands and hung the painting. Or perhaps some were painted by workshop assistants. Summer in particular made me think this.
Further through the show and into the third room there is painting entitled Saint Augustine Healing the Lame. Augustine floats above an arid landscape that dissolves into a cool light as it recedes. The Saint is clad in ecclesial hat and robes, but he exudes a kind of supernatural blue cloud from the area of his heart. Under him, the lame and their caretakers are scattered throughout the landscape.
The afflicted twist and writhe in a variety of animated positions, compositionally they lead our eye back, overlapping and reducing in scale they create a zig-zag path between them, taking us far into the background. The haze, the building, the mountains, and Augustine are all painted with thin, transparent strokes. The painter is not trying to hide corrections or underlayers. Light is on the verge of dissolving the form. The total effect is forceful and bold, but delicate and ethereal, as though any attempt by the viewer to touch these wispy, attenuated marks would cause then to float off into oblivion. The theme of the spiritual world merging with the physical one is not only depicted by the imagery, but also evoked by the picture’s painterly qualities.
But even in this painting there are bits that stumble or seem amateurish. While figures like the woman caretaker on the right are masterfully done, the one on his side just to the left of center seems to be made by someone with little knowledge of anatomy, and without the light painterly touch seen in other areas of the piece.
Once again, is this the hand of an apprentice, or a clumsy attempt at depicting some sort of illness?
The fourth room of the exhibition contains monumental works of portraiture and group portraiture, including the extraordinary Madonna of the Treasures.
In the past I have sometimes felt ambivalent toward Tintoretto. His colors have appeared dingy and acrid to me, his drawing confused and overly dramatic. Doubts about his greatness still lingered with me through the first three rooms. Madonna of the Treasures put those doubts away for good.
Madonna stretches eighteen feet across and measures seven feet high, a medium size painting for the artist, but still large enough to command the room. The Virgin and child seem firmly ensconced in their position close to the left-hand border, surrounded by solid structures in the background. Behind the supplicants we have a landscape, framed into three rectangles by a series of columns. The sections of of revealed landscape between the columns spread to the right at an increasing interval, at a rhythm that gives us a sense of space continuing out indefinitely in that direction. All the approaching worshipers have heads angled toward Mary and the Christ child, creating the sensation of energy pressing in from the right and up against the solidity of the holy group on the left.
The brushwork in many places appears to be done at a break-neck speed. The Christ child is suggested masterfully in long, bold strokes, and the artist has the confidence to place him almost entirely in the shadows, something that may have no prior precedent.
The maroon garments of the approaching men are roughed in and then details laid over the top in various blunt strokes, some impasto, some with loaded or dry brush. It is as though the painter is testing his audience and his own eye: how far can this go and still hold as an illusion?
The faces of the approaching men are thoroughly developed as forms and individuals. The sky is done with loose strokes of sulfuric beige, white, and grey. There is an amazing unity and coherence in the suffused, brownish-yellow light emanating from those clouds, and filling the picture. Not un-like our experience of photos from Mars, it is as though we are witnessing light as it appears on another planet, with a different, but real atmosphere. Light I had thought dingy and acrid in the reproductions now struck me as other-worldly, almost apocalyptic, but not in the precipitous sense of that word, instead as though the end were coming slowly, with the burning out of the sun, or perhaps an incremental, creeping toxification of the air. Is this how our world feels to the Christ child, as he has just descended from the glory of heaven? Or perhaps there is a premonition of his returning to “judge the living and the dead.”
This painting is startling, overwhelming, forceful, contemplative and corporeal all at once. It feels very present in the room with you. Its otherworldliness has strong spiritual implications, but its physicality brings it right into the real world. Once again, there is a seeming parallel here between the psychological effect of the painting’s form and its theme, i.e. the incarnation.
The following rooms contained more gems, some of them very eccentric: A loose, energy-packed study for the enormous Paradise, at 14 feet wide and almost 6 feet tall, this preparatory painting is an ambitious undertaking all on its own.
In The Nine Muses Tintoretto creates a more directional sense of light, experimenting with how it plays over a group of figures floating in a celestial sky.
Like El Greco there is something both old and very modern at the same time with Tintoretto. We have that realm of mysterious, classical-and-Medieval-like spiritual forces inhabiting his painting, ready to break out into our own mundane world. But also like El Greco, what gives us this sense of the modern (beyond his entrepreneurial energy), is the bold, evocative nature of his brushwork and process. Jacopo took the door that Titian had opened and pushed right through it, providing an example to painters like Velazquez, Rembrandt, and eventually whole groups of artists in the late nineteenth century including Manet. Tintoretto not only merged Titian with Michelangelo, but also with the craft painters of the streets of Venice. From them he learned that fast, incisive brushwork could transform where painting might lead. That willingness to fail, to fall flat on one’s face in the painting process, and to let motion and energy become part of one’s painterly content rather than exclusively perfection of form, is one of the main and lasting legacies of his work.
Unless you plan on visiting Venice any time soon, this may be the vary rare opportunity for you to see 46 Tintorettos all together in the flesh. You have until July 7th, 2019.
Miles Hall is a painter and art educator. He has taught Drawing, Painting, Color Theory, and Modern Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia State University. He has an MFA in Studio Art and an MA in Modern and Contemporary Art History Theory and Criticism.