I wanted to discuss a couple of my favorites from my recent trip to Italy. When you’re there you become keenly aware of the differences in the feel of each city, each cuisine, each dialect – your senses change. These differences define the cultures and the artists. I am always happy to look at painting in Venice (in fact I’m most happy to do anything in Venice.) Even the bad stuff is fun – in Rome & Florence I get tired. It has to do with sensibility. Don’t get me wrong – there’s great stuff everywhere – but I have my favorites. So we’ll discuss a couple here –
Tintoretto painted St. Roch in the Hospital in 1549. Here you can see all the working spaces that Caravaggio would explore 50 years later. This long low painting is a marvel of compostion, light and form. The figures all emerge from the darkness of the room, bathed in that flash of raking light, they are common men and women worked from models, the perspectives – pushing into our viewing space. It is a controlled directed moment, and we are meant to focus on the Saint who preforms the healing miracle, but we are constantly pulled back to look again at the figures surrounding this defining moment and see the lives that are to be affected by this miracle. The event remains at a distance as all eyes look up to take it in – you could miss it otherwise – it just sort of happens in the darkness. Roch would be lost except for the bright Hollywood glow about his head – just another dude in a room. Tintoretto, who painted for the believers, did what was required for his patrons and viewers – he wasn’t above a cheap visual effect. But from our current perspective just look at the forward visual thinking going on in this painting – miles ahead of the Mannerists in Florence and Rome. The figure seated on the lower right pushes his leg into our space – a wonderful foreshortening of the form – the exhausted woman being picked up to witness the miracle pushes us further into the composition as we follow the folds of her red dress. In the deep background on the left we see light behind some dark figures hinting at further intrigue. It’s like we walked into something momentous by mistake.
This is Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. It’s one of the paintings that turned Rome on its head. According to Peter Robb “M in his first essay at Matthew Killed took an approach that had nothing to do with his own instincts and everything to do with the fluent and graceful and very mannered fresco style which Cesari was just then covering the walls all over Rome. It was a mistake… it implied a deployment of all those geometric arts of perspetive and proportion that Del Monte and Galileo were so concerned with in painting… and that M had pointedly ignored – defied – in working out his own optical sense of bodies in space, modelled by light…”
This is the difference between Venice and Rome – physicality, light and space. Caravaggio was all about being in close, and he could find precedent for this visual idea not in the mannered figure/landscape models of Florence and Rome, but in the visceral, fleshy incarnations he had seen in Venice. The Romans who had admired Titian and company, but with qualifications, were suddenly confronted by this visual affront to their very well mannered sensibilities. It’s also interesting to blow up the figure groupings in the above Tintoretto – you will begin to get an even more thorough understanding of the spaces Caravaggio would later be exploring. This is a vision of touch and a vision of intimacy. Robb quotes Mancini –
“You can’t put the whole crowd of people enacting a history in to a room lit from a single window. You can’t have someone laughing or crying or walking and get them to freeze while you copy them. Figures done like this are strong but they lack movement and feeling and grace…”
The distance required to find grace and movement is the key to Mancini’s lack of vision. When you’re in close you see none of that refinement. When you’re in close you’re caught, part of the expression, and you are not above the frey. Caravaggio’s work implicates the viewer, just as Tintoretto’s work does as well. For the refined to be “knee deep in it” is just too much visual impact to bare. Regardless of Mancini’s criticism, the paintings of Matthew were a huge success – they sent the flacid art world of the time into a tizzy. The Mannerists knew that their jig was up, and those who wanted to survive tried to change their style over night. The idea that painting was now tied to a more tactile sort of vision shook the courtier artists right down to their fashionable coulottes. The truth is that periodically painting has had to relive and adapt to this sort of changing of vision as well as the changing of the garde (avante – that is). For those of us involved in abstract painting – we know that these times, our times, are demanding that we find our way.. It’s an exciting moment and long overdue.