Thursday, October 14, 2010

435 Years After His Death, Bronzino Gets His First Solo Show

Bronzino, the painter of the don't-fuck-with-me, self-possessed portraits of the Medici court circle, has finally been given his own show.

"Bronzino, Artist and Poet at the Court of the Medici" in Florence, Italy (it will not be traveling), is the first show, ever, that has gathered together most of the artist's paintings -- 63 of them, with others by his workshop, his contemporaries, and his teacher, Pontormo.  It includes two works that had been presumed lost, works never before exhibited, and a number of paintings that have been cleaned and restored.

The show is, by any measure, historic, and offers a unique opportunity to look at this artist afresh.  Having seen it in Florence, I can state it's magnificent.

Affectation or Naturalism?

Bronzino (1503-72) has had the misfortune, art historically, of being lumped together with artists called Mannerists, who have, fairly or not, borne the pejoratives of that word -- i.e., affected, artificial, insincere.

The curators here -- Carlo Falciani and Antonio Natali -- try to push back against this history.  They urge the viewer to see Bronzino more as a naturalist and through the eyes of his contemporaries, who they claim saw him differently.  Vasari wrote of his portraits, for example, that "they were most natural," "appear to be living, and want nothing but the breath of life."

Alas, the curators go a bit too far.  One look at Bronzino's enigmatic allegories of love puts the lie to their argument -- the contorted poses copied not from life but from Michelangelo's art, the weird sensuality, the lack of atmosphere that might make the figures inhabit some semblance of space.  It's not the mythological subject that does in their position:  Caravaggio's "Amor" is, after all, just around the corner.

The portraits too are highly stylized.  They yield not a hint of inner emotion, vulnerability, or personality.  We see instead a characterization of power, studied propriety, emotional distance, and control.  Like Ingres, Bronzino has his distortions that make sense in the artwork but that no human being could possess as flesh and blood -- the elongated torso, the boneless tapering fingers, the impossible elegance.

At the same time, the appearance and texture of things are convincingly and meticulously rendered.   The hyper-reality of the detail is extraordinary, but his very commitment to the hyper-real at the expense of atmosphere sucks the life from the painting.  A comparison with Raphael's portraits decades before, where the figures inhabit a moment in time and take a breath, makes us appreciate how deliberately Bronzino rejected the naturalist approach for a more abstract rendering.  Indeed, this was one of the lessons of the Met's recent xerographic study of its Bronzino; the underpainting of the face shows an individuality that was idealized in the final result.

Bronzino's art is just plain gorgeous and doesn't need any naturalist hook.  The paintings are knockouts.  As a colorist, he has few rivals.  His colors are intense and rich, bold in their simplicity, unusual in their juxtapositions.  As an oil painter, he was a master technician -- not a brushstroke visible, even in the smallest detail, and he was able to reproduce with exactitude the surface qualities of silk or wood or velvet.

Bronzino should be celebrated for the brilliant Mannerist he is.  He was a court painter, and his art has the cultivated, hothouse feel of aristocracy.  Subject and style coalesce perfectly.


A few of the revelations in this show:
  • The "Double Portrait of the Dward Morgante," which shows the nude dwarf front and back on the front and back of the same canvas, is being shown publicly for the first time since the 18th century.  Newly cleaned to remove the grapevines that had covered his genitalia, the painting is an example of the virtuosity so prized by Mannerist artists.  It also shows Bronzino's involvement in a frequent topic of debate in Florence's academies -- which was the "nobler" art, painting or sculpture?  Here, painting like sculpture can show more than one aspect, but painting can also depict the passage of time: the front of the canvas shows Morgante before the hunt, the back shows him with his catch.
  • The "Crucified Christ" had previously been thought lost but has now been identified as the crucifixion mentioned by Vasari that Bronzino painted for Bartolomeo and Lucrezia Panciatichi, who were tried for heresy in 1551.  This painting may be an important indicator of the Reformation views current in 1540s Florence.  The curators assert that the almost abstract depiction (rather than a suffering Christ) expresses a belief in salvation by faith alone.  Even here, using a muted palette, Bronzino shines as a colorist, with the pale pink drapery against pallid flesh, brown cross, and gray niche.
The show begins with works by Pontormo, Bronzino's teacher, and ends with works by Bronzino's student Alessandro Allori.  In between the paintings are sometimes organized chronologically, sometimes thematically.  It works, superbly.

The exhibition is at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy, through January 23, 2011.