THIS is quite a remarkable exhibition. We have become all too accustomed to blockbusters in which a few masterpieces are padded out with minor things, but here we discover something quite different: a great many very fine works and even the secondary pieces of considerable quality and interest. The exhibition is a credit to Tony Ellwood and to the generosity of the Prado: both seem to have learned the lessons of the earlier Prado exhibition, Portrait of Spain, in Brisbane in 2012.
Here the focus is on the Prado’s extensive holdings of Italian paintings and drawings of the Renaissance and baroque periods; and indeed the Spanish royal collections virtually began, as the catalogue acknowledges, with the monarchy’s commissions of paintings by Titian, the greatest painter of the mid-16th century and an artist regularly referred to as divine in his lifetime. Thereafter Raphael and other High Renaissance and mannerist painters were collected and contemporary acquisitions were made up until the end of the 18th century and the time of Tiepolo, with whom the exhibition concludes.
There is much that could be said about all of these masters or indeed any of the works in the exhibition, not only from an art-historical point of view but also from the perspective of a practitioner. What is perhaps most striking is the artifice, one may almost say the abstraction, of the way that drawing and painting are practised: on even a superficial glance, for example, one can see how differently Guercino draws in red chalk, in ink and wash, or in pen.
The making of the image, in other words, arises integrally out of the practice of the medium. In Guercino’s wash drawings, everything is conceived as patterns of light and shade; in the ink line drawings, the image arises out of dynamic scribbling; in a red chalk drawing there are no outlines, and contours are defined by the boundary of adjacent shadow. All of this makes us realise how very pedestrian our own ingrained way of looking has become: we think that we understand abstraction, but all too often picture the world as though slaves to the mechanical view of the camera.
I was looking at a 19th-century Last Supper in a church in Italy recently and realised that what was wrong was that the artist imagined he was looking at a scene literally before him. There is no such illusion in, for example, Correggio’s Noli me tangere; although the artist seeks to produce a vivid impression of presence, he begins with picture-making, not with the fallacy of representing something that already exists. He starts with figures in the foreground, then he builds enchanting space around them. Italian Masterpieces from Spain’s Royal Court, Museo del Prado National Gallery of Victoria to August 31
Opposite is a Raphael Holy Family, again starting with entirely conventional elements but animating them in a way that is all the more effective when you realise the formal constraints of tradition: the Christ child grasps at John’s ribbon with the words ecce agnus dei, behold the lamb of God, not understanding their meaning. Mary looks down from above with serene resignation; Joseph’s face is shadowed and melancholy on the left. The picture appears
Holy Family with St John or Madonna of the Rose to have been completed from Raphael’s design by his leading assistant, Giulio Romano, and perhaps significantly Christ’s thumb is on the letter G.
In contrast to the firm contours of this work, typical of what came to be called the Roman School, those of Titian are deliberately elusive, so that there is never a clear line demarcating figure and ground. There are enough of his pictures, too, to follow his style from the beautiful early Madonna with San Rocco and St Anthony of Padua, still showing the influence of his master Bellini and his fellow student Giorgione, to the late Religion Succoured by Spain, in which his palette becomes more muted and more harmonious, as he pursues the synthesis of colour and tone.
From a century later, an intriguing little picture by Livio Mehus combines a self-portrait with a putto painting a copy of Titian’s Death of St Peter Martyr (destroyed in a fire in the 19th century); the painter’s palette is displayed in the foreground, and we are invited to muse on the alchemy by which pigments are turned into the colours and animation of the world.
Caravaggio is not present in his own work — he is barely represented in the Prado — but his influence is conspicuous in the work of a number of imitators. One of the most original is Valentin de Boulogne, a Frenchman who lived in Rome and died there prematurely in 1631. Like all the Caravaggisti, he painted directly from models, which allows us to recognise many of them, like a cast of characters, from one picture to the next, and in some cases sort out the chronological sequence of works.
Here, for his picture of the martyrdom of St Lawrence, who was burned alive on a grill, he has chosen a solidly built young man for the nude that dominates the composition, while other figures are visibly portrait studies, and there is possibly a self-portrait in the shadows on the upper left. Next to this is a Raising of Lazarus by the technically accomplished but less imaginative Novelli, and viewers may be struck by a similarity in the gestures of the raised arm. Both are probably echoes of the unforgettable and dramatic attitude of Lazarus in Caravaggio’s great painting of the subject in Messina.
Before his death, Valentin was considered, together with another young Frenchman, Nicolas Poussin, one of the two most promising new painters in Rome, and Poussin, who died in Rome in 1665, lived to be one of the most im-