Il più terribile: Tintoretto at the National Gallery

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Seeing works by the Italian Renaissance painter Tintoretto can leave a person slightly shaken, or even awed. “I always thought of him a good and clever and forcible painter,” the English critic John Ruskin wrote his father in a letter from Venice, after closely studying a number of canvases by Tintoretto. “But I had not the smallest notion of his enormous powers.”

And, happily, those powers are now on vivid display at the National Gallery of Art through July 7, in a lively show conceived to mark the 500th anniversary of the artist’s birth. Born Jacopo Comin and nicknamed after his father’s dye shop, Tintoretto grew up venerating the work of Michelangelo and Titian, and went on to head one of the most successful workshops in the highly competitive artistic arena of Venice. Curated by Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman, and featuring nearly 50 paintings and more than a dozen pieces on paper, this is the first major show of work by Tintoretto since a 2007 exhibition in Madrid, and the first North American retrospective ever devoted to him. In other words: If you care about the history of painting, it’s a virtual must-see.

That’s not to say, though, that it’s exhaustive. No show of Tintoretto’s work could be. His frantic pace of production—a sort of scattershot business model, which impressed even his rivals—resulted in a vast output. (Quite literally: his Last Judgment, executed for the Doge’s Palace and more than 74 feet tall, is sometimes said to be the largest work ever executed on canvas). Many of his paintings, moreover, were what we would now call site-specific, designed to work within built environments in particular ways. Understandably, few of those works are here at the National Gallery. But many of his best-known transportable paintings—The Miracle of the Slave, say, or the San Giorgio Last Supper—are also noticeably absent. Getting to know Tintoretto fully still hinges on a trip to Venice.

Still, the nine galleries of this show offer a tangible sense of some of his primary tendencies, and of his general accomplishment. Even his earliest works presage his lifelong interest in dynamic figures and pronounced outlines. In The Fall of Phaeton, for instance, the protagonist is awkwardly inverted as he falls from his father’s chariot, but the uninterrupted contour of his muscled frame forms a rippling and varied line. There is a potent play between outline and form, between mass and pattern. Tragedy, here, becomes a basis for calligraphy.

Tintoretto, Venus and Mars Surprised by Vulcan, c. 1555, photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The first work that really impressed me, though, was the Venus and Mars Surprised by Vulcan, painted around 1545 and characterized by an earthy, bawdy humor. The jealous god of the forge, suspecting hijinks, has placed a fine net over his marital bed—and entrapped his wife as she hosted Mars. On one level, the painting is a study in influence: Scholars have noted Tintoretto’s allusions to Michelangelo, Titian, and contemporary print culture. It’s also a virtuosic exploration of texture: The metallic sheen of Mars’ helmet contrasts with the shimmer of a glass vase and the creamy pliability of Venus’ skin. And, finally, it’s a piercing, deflating satire. Rarely have the Olympian gods looked so vulnerable, so mortal.

The third and fourth galleries focus largely on portraits—and challenged my general sense of Tintoretto as a rather wooden observer of human psychology. Sure, some of the works in this show confirm that tendency: In Saint Louis, Saint George, and the Princess, the princess is dumbly enraptured by her own reflection in George’s armor, and her awkward pose—she straddles the slain serpent in a bluntly sexual manner—is flatly inappropriate. But other works imply a more thoughtful attentiveness. Mary’s stunned, lolling, comatose face in the Accademia Deposition is a harrowing study of maternal grief. And a portrait of an unnamed man with a white beard is remarkable in its psychological complexity. We can sense, in both his guarded expression and his hand, which nervously clutches at his robe, his attempt to compose himself in a moment of vulnerability. Painted in an appropriately fluid but controlled manner, it’s a disarming image of a powerful man engaged (and only partially succeeding) in keeping up appearances.

 Detail of Tintoretto, Portrait of a Man with a White Beard, c. 1570, photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Over the remainder of the show, our sense of Tintoretto’s artistic personality grows even firmer. In the wall texts, the curators point to his use of bold, long strokes, with which he effectively drew on the canvas: a process explicitly visible in a stirring oil sketch. His taste for chiaroscuro is also evident, as brightly lit forms stand out against murky grounds and dramatic nocturnal shadows. Interestingly, though, recent conservation work implies that that effect may be partially due to his use of cheap pigments, which have browned over time. The Tintoretto we know may be one seen through a glass, darkly.

Even so, it’s clear that he was never an entirely consistent painter. Perhaps it was his breakneck speed of production, or perhaps it was his over-reliance on assistants; regardless, even his admirers have had to acknowledge his occasional failings. (As the painter Annibale Carracci once wrote, to his brother, “I have sometimes seen Tintoretto as equal to Titian, and at other times inferior to Tintoretto.”). Thus the rather vacuous face of Christ, in a Last Supper, or the bizarrely contoured chest of Saint Lawrence; thus the unrealistically small leg and seemingly disjointed upper leg of Venus. And you would probably never turn first to Tintoretto for memorable environments or subtle natural landscapes. Settings, for this painter, seem to have been interesting mostly in that they could frame his studies of motion and gesture.

Detail of Tintoretto, Tarquin and Lucretia, c. 1578, photograph courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

But these are ultimately forgivable lapses, when there’s so much to admire. Consider, for instance, the pearls that tumble, mid-air, from the ruptured necklace of Lucretia as she is subdued by Tarquin. It’s a remarkable detail that arrests the narrative and acts as an oblique metaphor: Soon the pearls will clatter to the floor, and Tarquin will force Lucretia onto the bed. Violence and chaos are imminent—but for the moment, a delicate equipoise governs. And indeed, several of the strongest works in the show are two- or three-person narratives. In executing crowd scenes, Tintoretto often relied on generic or formulaic figures; his more limited narratives, though, reveal a talent for tension and intricacy.

But even incidental details suggest that painting was always on his mind. In Venus and Mars Surprised by Vulcan, the far wall supports a mirror. Its polished face clearly reflects both Vulcan and Venus, offering us a second angle onto the action—and constituting a contribution to the paragone, a lively Renaissance debate about the relative merits of sculpture and painting. Painting, Tintoretto implies, can give us multiple views at once. Or it can remind us, coyly, of its own manufacture. In a choice detail in the large Creation of the Animals, a curious little hedgehog stands near the center of the canvas. Look closely, and you’ll find an echo of the animal’s spiky hair in the adjacent landscape, which is built out of visible brushstrokes. The painted animal resembles the painting—which makes a satisfying sense, when we realize that the brush used to render the animal’s hair was made of animal hair, too.

Detail of Tintoretto, Creation of the Animals, 1552, photograph by Kerr Houston

The Renaissance painter and biographer Giorgio Vasari wrote that Tintoretto possessed, as he put it, il più terribile cervello che abbia avuto mai la pittura. English translations vary; it’s hard to know exactly what he meant by terribile—was Tintoretto’s brain the most extraordinary, or fearsome, or tremendous, that painting had ever produced? For the next two months you have the opportunity to decide for yourself. The pearls hang, suspended in mid-air. The man with the white beard is readying himself. Tintoretto awaits.

Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice is on view at the National Gallery of Art through July 7. For more information, visit the NGA’s website.

Featured image: Jacopo Tintoretto
The Origin of the Milky Way c. 1576/1578
Oil on canvas
Overall: 149.4 x 168 cm (58 13/16 x 66 1/8 in.), framed: 179.3 x 197.3 x 11.5 cm (70 9/16 x 77 11/16 x 4 1/2 in.)
The National Gallery, London. Bought, 1890
© The National Gallery, London.

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