Masters of Light
by Mark Calderwood
The prosaically-titled exhibition Italian Masterpieces from Spain’s Royal Court, Museo del Prado does what it says on the tin, offering the historical “core” of the Prado as Spanish kings from the fifteenth to nineteenth passionately collected and patronised Italian masters. In a way, the most remarkable aspect of the exhibition is how unremarkable it is; it fits in with the National Gallery of Victoria’s well-established, well understood collection of old masters so well that two ringers slide into the exhibition seamlessly.
But although the collection reflected the changes in connoisseurship and taste over the centuries, I saw a different exhibition that might have been; those that (personally and subjectively) stood out, were consummate masters of painting light.
Antonio Correggio’s Noli me tangere (1525) balanced on a knife edge between the crisp linear detail of tempera and the softness of oils, and between the medieval tradition and the smoky “high renaissance”. The smooth ivory of Christ’s body and the light softly washing over the drapery of his dull-blue cloak is set off by fussy line work on the Magdelene’s gown and the crisp, hyperreal landscape and town, blued but not blurred by the distance, like a Flemish landscape from the previous century. Rather than immediate emotion, the painting’s moment of luminous, crystal clarity has its own touch-me-not-reserve.
Another standout in the “Foundations” room was this saucy fellow, a vivacious Chimera by Jacopo Ligozzi (c 1590). Aside from the supreme confidence in placing ink washes to create light and shadow before building fine detail, the unexpected glint of silvered fangs on the lion and gold shimmering in the beast’s eyes is a masterful articulation of medieval drawing treatments in a late renaissance way.
In the Titian Room, it was clear why the he was an artist no self-respecting emperor or pope would be without- especially for the Prado, which holds the largest collection of the Venetian’s paintings in the world. Although the newly-cleaned, glowing Salome with the head of John the Baptist triumphs over the portrait of Filippo II, for me the highlight was Jacopo Bassano’s The Israelites Drinking the Miraculous Water (1563-1565). Not for the stock-standard Biblical subject, or the comgested composition, but for the orchestration of light playing across colour in the Isrealites’ garments, that brings out the depth of the pigments: rubia clara, verdigris, azurite, orpiment. As much as its skilled handling, the painting’s materiality reflects, refracts and glows with light.
The Room of Arcadia was featured two striking works by Francesco Albani, the Judgment of Paris and Toilet of Venus, both saturated with jewel-like colours and elegant classical poses: Botticelli for the 1600s. But another pair demonstrated light (and mastery), as Guercino’s (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) Cupid spurning riches (1654) ran roughshod over Guido Reni’s insipid Cupid. Beyond the play of light on flesh, for me it was the way the light struck the coins being shaken from Cupid’s purse, and the delicately toned, almost monochrome vellum globe by his feet.
The Room of Gloomy Catholicism showcased the dramatic highlighting of the Caravaggisti coming from the Rome and Naples school, but here the standout was Guardian Angel with Saints Ursula and Thomas (1615) by Francesco Buoneri (formerly known as Cecco del Caravaggio). The flat, harsh light and equally flat, starkly decorative treatment of the saints lends an eerie, pre-Raphaelite feel as the saints and angel, unusually lit from behind, look up not into divine light, but into gathering darkness.
The trend toward art as spectacle came to fruition the the next bay, the Room of Large and Portentous Classical History Paintings. But again, the show was stolen by light, this time the lambent glow of the westering sun on water in Landscape with the embarkment of Saint Paula Romana in Ostia, by Claude Lorraine (painted in Italy 1639). Commissioned by Philip IV of Spain to decorate the Buen Retiro Palace, Lorrain’s fading light captures the deep sadness of Paula, the Roman widow bidding farewell to her home to seek something better for herself. Although (relatively) small, the melancholy light of evening conveys private emotion far more poignantly and intimately than the more grandiose paintings could.
Passing quickly over the Room of Still Not Life, the Rococco Room is the eighteenth century in luminous, pastel colour. Although Jacopo Amigoni’s The singer Farinelli and friends (1750-1752) dominated the room in relaxed fashion (and the less said about Tiepolo’s lurid Immaculate Conception, 1767, the better) but again, the sea light of Venice is what catches the eye. Giandomenico Tiepolo’s The new world and The Venetian charlatan were both worked in Spain in 1765, showing a costumed Carnivale crowd watching a threadbare show and enraptured by a foppish mountebank; with their backs to the sea, and the decline of Venice.
But for me it was a humble drawing that bookended the exhibition, Young man smoking by Lorenzo Tiepolo (c1770). Worked quickly but accurately in red and white chalk on darkly tinted green paper, it reinforces the sharp observation of light, the sheer technical skill and the careful thought that made mere pictures into great and enduring art.
But there were many missed opportunities, both for immersion and education without impacting the aesthetic engagement; certainly some deeper discussion of how to read the paintings and their iconography from within their historical context, or the work of a professional painter, would have been warranted. So too the workmanlike premise and presentation lacked the opportunities for more tightly curated and imaginative exhibitions that had characterised the Winter Masterpieces series under previous Gallery director Dr Gerard Vaughn’s guidance, and is now conspicuous by its absence.
As a blockbuster exhibition it was, obviously, a spectacle: the very names Raphael, Titian and Tiepolo are themselves spectacles, and here, had to pay their way as cultural bling to bring in $360 million tourist dollars to a city with an event-centred economy. More bang for the buck would have been expected for an exhibition of this standard, but given the way some have in the past been mishandled and over-curated, taking the safe route of bare aesthetics seems like a win. It’s extremely fortunate that in this case, where the curation falls short, the paintings are masterful enough to easily make up the distance.