Religious icons tweaked by Renaissance masters

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Until 9 April Canberra's National Gallery plays host to the collection of the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo. The byline for the expansive Renaissance exhibition touts Raphael, Botticelli, Titian and Bellini. This is a little misleading — of the four, only Bellini is represented with any justice; and while the show opens with a fine selection of early Renaissance works, it's the prodigy from the North who catches the eye.

The astonishing lustre of Bellini's Madonna and Child (1475) is capable of vivifying even the most jaded pair of eyes. Schoolchildren, at their wits' end in the face of the fusty piety of Lorenzo Monaco and his ilk, cling to the exquisite folds of the Madonna's cloak. Compared to the alpine frostiness, the inert Gothicisms of an artist such as Fra Carnevale, the young Venetian, painting at a time of great social and political upheaval, must have seemed like a gift from God; the profane world made blessed again through the divine alchemy of the brush.

Bellini's command of oil painting, his mastery of the subtleties of tone, light and shade, was its own form of sorcery. In a typical case, successive layers, often of wildly contrasting colour, were administered by an artist, before a glaze was applied, and voilà: a human form, the face of a Saint or an Olympian, emerged with the kind of verisimilitude unthinkable a century before.

Yet the Renaissance, as everyone knows, embodied a revolution not only in form, but in content: this is what makes an artist like Bellini so good. A genre, an established visual code — in this case, the Madonna and Child, of which the exhibition furnishes no fewer than eight examples — is subtly tweaked, enlivened by a crisp, even zesty piece of human theatre. The Madonna contemplates the sublime countenance of the Father, while the bambino, clearly anxious to be on its way, raises one leg in a gesture of defiance, a perfect half-scowl etched onto his tiny features.

A sole, pitch-perfect early Raphael adorns its own wall in the second room. His Saint Sebastian, painted in 1501 is, in a twist on the familiar pathos, superbly beatific, wholly unruffled by the prospect of a coming martyrdom. The portrait is elegant, supple, hyper-refined — a blend of Raphael's master Perugino, and the beginnings of the trans-Italian beau idéal that would feed academic painting for four centuries. The sort of thing we generally associate with Raphael in other words, although completed a full five years before his famous 'Florentine period'.

Of his contemporaries on show, it is the brutal choreography of Bernardino di Mariotto's Lamentation, with its whiff of the coming Counter-Reformation, which forms the most pungent rejoinder to the wunderkind's arch-humanism. Mariotto took his task seriously — none of the voluptuous piety of Bellini here — his figures mourn with their bodies.

Lorenzo Lotto, the other hero of the exhibition, dazzles with a handful of portraits — 1500's Young man is mesmerising — and a large canvas of strange power. His Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine, completed in 1523, is the most unusual painting in the exhibition, a kind of lightning bolt that harangues the viewer in the final room.

Four figures arrayed under a brute rectangle — formerly a landscape, cut from the painting by a French soldier in 1527 — which hangs precipitously over the canvas, drawing our eyes down to baby Jesus, his delicate fingers clasping the ring in front of Catherine, poised to effect the mystical union. A certain fevered energy animates the scene, divided between the astonishing figure of Lotto's patron who stares directly at us, and the sensuous allegory of the marriage scene. The effect, taken as a whole, is intoxicating.

Lotto spearheaded the exaggerated forms and fluorescent hues of what would come to be known as Mannerism, and his pictures make you wonder why the movement has always had such bad press. It is hard to imagine a painting like this, a formal exercise of great beauty anchored by a self-reflexive gesture of striking power, being executed at any other point in history. The line between tradition, and a bold rewriting of its rules — a line which a painter such as Velázquez would later tread so beautifully — is blurred here to thrilling effect.

As the Renaissance waned in Italy the focus shifted north. Titian, outliving, at 88, the great flowering of central Italian art, is a case in point. His paintings, monuments to sensuous colour, hit you chiefly in the gut. The sole work in the exhibition is a small, exceptionally lovely Madonna and Child painted in 1507. Absent the breathless calisthenics of his later altarpieces, the painting embodies, nevertheless, the dazzling potential of the burgeoning Venetian style.

Indeed, although it was completed at the tender age of 19, no doubt under the watchful eye of his early rival and great influence Giorgione, the intent is everywhere clear. The canvas smoulders with colour — the deep reds and velvet blues of the Madonna's cloak — balanced by a sublimely soft rendering of family affection: the infant, newly entered the world, tugs playfully at his mother's hair, a gesture almost absurdly touching (this was painted by a 19-year-old boy, after all).

So seductive is Titian's colore, the master's portrait of the Spanish king Phillip II was later used by the monarch to woo his bride-to-be Marry I of England. Not content with being a painter of genius, Titian was that peculiar breed, together with the titan of the North, Peter Paul Rubens, of artist-statesmen. A friend of kings and princes, his position, far removed from that of the artisan-cum-hustler common to the painters of the period, was the envy of artists across Europe.

It was of a piece, all the same, with the new status of painting which, while still bound by the structures of the medieval guild in much of Italy, had attained a kind of preeminence in the arts. This change, driven in part by a dazzling expansion of patronage throughout the peninsula, fuelled a host of new and extraordinary forms of expression.

Alexander McPhee_BrowneAlex McPhee-Browne is a BA student at the University of Melbourne and a freelance critic with a particular interest in Renaissance art.

Topic tags: Alexander Mcphee-Browne, Renaissance painting, National Gallery



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Ah..... what a delight to read about paintings being pungent, zesty, crisp, supple. To be hit by a kind of lightning bolt when viewing a painting is a rare and precious experience. Alex, may you be in the midst of many more electrical storms, and take many readers and listeners along with you.
Anna | 21 January 2012


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