IM­MAC­U­LATE CON­CEP­TIONS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

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-

Raphael’s

(c. 1517)

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