Friday, March 12, 2010

More Artifice and Less Pretence please.

I found this great photo today while going through some boxes. It is a photo of my Great-Grandmother dressed as a Gothic cathedral. I am assuming that it was for Mardi Gras or a fancy dress party, but with my family it could have been anything from a bris to a royal wedding. *sigh*
Taking a break from whatever it was I needed to take a break from today, going through old photos and such, I decided to trot over to the National gallery while I'm here in DC to look at some of the Bronzino's.
I find it quite amusing that 25 years or so ago I felt so differently about his work- or any of the other Mannerists for that matter. I found an old VHS tape from 1985 of me at a speaking engagement at the Junior League (of all places) talking about how one can learn all sorts of decorative tricks and somehow develop a broader taste for the "Nature morte" tableaux by studying artistic masterpieces through the ages. I seem to have gone off on a tangent, from singing the praises of Flemish Vanitas paintings and how much fun it is to recreate them for your centerpiece at your next dinner party, ("Rotting fruit and human skulls can provide a certain element of surprise for your dinner guests...") then changing the subject and preceding to give my personal opinion ( to audible gasps and clutching of pearls) on how much I detested the Mannerists, everything Picasso and the current unnecessary incessant praise for blue and white Chinese import porcelain.
Although since that time I have softened my opinion- only slightly- on Picasso and blue and white porcelain- I find over the years I have developed quite an appreciation for the Mannerist movement. I discovered that how like the Fauvist, Dada and Pop art movements, the punk phenomena in the seventies or even the couture created by people like Gareth Pugh, Gaultier or the late Schiapparelli, Franco Maschino and Alexander McQueen, the Mannerists were renegades, wishing to change the idea of what is beautiful. (In his day, the then idealized beauty was being created by the "High Renaissance" artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and so forth)
As a stylistic label, "Mannerism" (also referred to at the time as "abrasive art") is not easily pigeonholed. It was used by Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt and popularized by German art historians in the early 20th century to categorize the seemingly uncategorizable art of the Italian 16th century — art that was no longer perceived to exhibit the harmonious and rational approaches associated with the High Renaissance.
One of the examples of Bronzino's work at the National Gallery is this painting:

The boy’s ghostly paleness—he is painted over the green background—and his compressed position reflect the painting’s history as much as they do the artist’s decisions. What is typically mannerist, however, is the sitters’ reserved elegance and, for Bronzino, their cold hardness. The woman appears invulnerable behind her detachment. No enigmatic smile here Mona. In the cruel intrigues of the Medici court, this was a useful, perhaps even necessary, protection. It has been said that the typical Bronzino portrait contained figures seemingly made with steel on the inside encased with ice, and was notable for its intellectual sophistication as well as its artificial (as opposed to naturalistic) qualities. (More Artifice and less Pretence I always say, I should have that engraved on something, hmmmm?)
The great Bronzino's so-called 'allegorical portraits,' such as that of a Genoese admiral, Andrea Doria as Neptune is less typical but possibly even more fascinating due to the peculiarity of placing a publicly recognized personality in the nude as a mythical figure:

Bronzino was commissioned to paint Andrea Doria for a gallery of portraits of great men. Indeed, there was no more illustrious man of war in the 16th century than this famous Genoese admiral. (Doria (c1466-1560) had a dramatic effect on European history when in 1528 he abandoned his ally, the king of France, and sided with France's enemy Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and ruler of Spain. He put his galleys at Charles's disposal, and the Genoese fleet became the dominant power in the western Mediterranean on behalf of the Habsburgs. In 1535 Doria and Charles V conquered Tunis in a daring attack on the Ottoman empire. In his power over the sea, Doria seemed comparable to the god Neptune, with whom he is equated here)
Among the distinguishing features, Bronzino has the mighty admiral tantalisingly exposing his pubic hair behind the cloth he holds, which just barely conceals his penis. The painting consciously equates naval and sexual prowess, as Neptune/Doria holds aloft a thick-shafted trident in front of a powerful mast. (oink)
His richly flowing grey beard has the florid abundance of a fertile deity of the green waters; his chest and arms twist, ripple and flex like the rigging of a ship rolling into battle. He is old but his flesh is still supple. There is massive muscular force in his right hand, which shapes itself against the wooden shaft, almost like a crab or a coiling seashell. His beard, too, belongs in the sea, like weeds waving in the water.
He looks as if he has posed - as if Bronzino had painted Doria naked, from life - but this is not the case. And yet the provocative sense of nude posing, and the danger this brings to the image, anticipates Caravaggio in making us aware of a strong frisson of sex and power. Bronzino's admiral on the deck of his ship looks out of the picture, ready for anything, and convinces us that the sea is his to command.
Of course there were other and more "over the top" painters in the Mannerist style, why look at El Greco! He attempted to express the religious tension with exaggerated Mannerism. This exaggeration would serve to cross over the Mannerist line and be applied to Classicism. After the realistic depiction of the human form and the mastery of perspective achieved in high Renaissance Classicism, some artists started to deliberately distort proportions in disjointed, irrational space for emotional and artistic effect. There are aspects of Mannerism in El Greco such as the jarring "acid" color sense, elongated and tortured anatomy, irrational perspective and light of his crowded composition, and obscure and troubling iconography.
Whats not to like?
I could simply go in for hours about him too, but I bore easily, so here is a recap: We are totes Team Mannerist but as far as Blue and white porcelain, meh.

Neptunes Banana
2 oz gin
2 oz Pisang Ambon® liqueur
fill with Sprite® soda
Mix gently, and add ice cubes. Serve with a straw.

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