Wednesday, October 3, 2012

"Bernini: Sculpting in Clay" at the Met: How'd He Do It?

Bernini, Charity with Four Children, ca. 1627-34
This knockout, old-style exhibition which opens today at the Met yields up plenty to learn about Bernini, the greatest sculptor of the 17th century, whose work -- from the double colonnade in front of St. Peter's to the fountains that dot the city -- changed the face of Rome.

The show gathers together some 50 clay models and 30 related drawings for many of Bernini's sculptures, and traces the artist's thoughts as he rejected some ideas and developed others.

Bacchanal, ca. 1616-17
Forget fancy curatorial theorizing.  This show has science combined with solid art historical analysis, reflecting the unusual collaboration of Harvard Art Museums conservator Anthony Sigel, who studied, stabilized, and conserved much of the work; Frick director Ian Wardropper (ex-chair of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Met); and C.D. Dickerson III, curator of European art at the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas, the exhibit's only other venue.  It was Dickerson's work with Sigel on Bernini's model for the Moor that sparked the show.

The exhibit begins with a marble sculpture, a bacchanal with a faun teased by children, by a young Bernini and his father.  It gives just a glimpse of what's so appealing in much of Bernini's work -- a dynamic liveliness that makes the viewer want to walk around the statue and a total mastery of the human figure, as though the artist were painting in stone.

Lion (Four Rivers Fountain), ca. 1649
Bernini quickly became a favorite of Rome's most powerful patrons, including a few Popes, and became in turn the city's most powerful artist -- and with commissions for massive projects in St. Peter's he employed a lot of other talents, including Borromini, who would rival him as an architect.

The bacchanal is the only finished sculpture on view (it's from the Met's own collection).  The rest are small models that show Bernini working out his ideas, both the rough models early in the process (called bozzetti) and the more finished pieces that might be shown to the client or serve as a guide for Bernini's workshop (called modelli).

Some of these are wonderfully expressive -- St. Longinus, for St. Peter's; the lion and the Moor, for the fountains in the Piazza Navona; Charity with four children; Daniel, for Santa Maria del Popolo; a life-size head of St. Jerome.

St. Longinus, ca. 1628
Made of extremely fragile terracotta, a type of red clay, relatively few models have survived -- the artist Joachim von Sandraert saw 22 in Bernini's studio for his statue of St. Longinus, but only two are known today -- and many of those that have survived bear the damage of a hard life.

Additional insight into Bernini's thinking and working methods can be had from his drawing, and the fullest demonstration of Bernini's process is where both drawings and clay models have survived.

One example is the preparatory studies for the ten angels that line the bridge from Rome proper to the Castel Sant'Angelo and Vatican City, a Papal commission that Bernini undertook when he was 70.

Angel with Superscription, ca. 1667-68
He seems to have begun by drawing a live male model -- you can see his jockstrap -- and then sculpting a nude figure in clay to which he attached wings before developing the drapery and instruments of the Passion.

Those seeking the dazzle of Bernini's finished sculptures -- the portraits that seem to breathe, the female saints in an almost sexual ecstasy -- may be disappointed.  Those works that take your breath away are here only in large black-and-white photographs.

But if you want to see the modeling done by a supreme artist's bare hands, facial expression masterfully made with wooden tools, and surfaces sometimes smoothed with wet or dry brushes or the artist's own fingers, the intimacy gained from that experience will be ample reward.

St. Jerome, 1661
"Bernini: Sculpting in Clay," Metropolitan Museum, Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, through January 6, 2013.

Text and images (c) Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert