Saturday, 6 April 2013

Barocci: Brilliance and Grace

National Gallery, 27 February - 19 May 2013

Sublime religious proto-rococo that always delights and sometimes moves.

Annunciation, from the Vatican Museums. Taken from here.

The weather in London at the moment suggests winter rather than spring, but I left this exalted exhibition staring fondly into the pink clouds of sunset with renewed vision.

Above all, this is a delightful spring of a show.

An artist I'd not encountered before, Barocci is in the sixteenth century Italian Mannerist tradition of Correggio, but rather than being a precursor of the seventeenth century baroque he is rather a precursor of the best of eighteenth century French Rococo, all smudged outlines and an emphasis on simple joy.

Graceful joy is conveyed in every piece in this collection of oil-on-canvas alterpieces and preparatory sketches, along with subsequent engravings and etchings.

I refer to the devotional works: the formal portraits are more restricted, and without the blushing reds in the cheek, do not create the distinctive effects of the religious works.

That tint in the cheek, so dangerously twee, works really well here. As the sketches show, the composition of each oil painting was scrupulously perfected, and this sense of supreme refinement carries through to colour harmony, lighting effects and the smudging of the line.

To appreciate that, the etchings and engravings are enormously helpful. When reduced to line, however skillfully, something vital is robbed from the oil paintings, where everything has been carefully chosen to create a sense of almost ethereal spirituality.

A wonderful chalk sketch for the Annunication emphasises this sense of unreality, making the most of the blue paper upon which the drawing is sketched to present an almost abstract blur, with warmth centred on Mary and the angel.

A series of paintings and drawings related to Francis of Assisi present the artist at his most dramatic, while the two versions of the Last Supper are fascinating for the way they relegate this dramatic event into the background of a busy urban tavern scene.

Overall, while it is easy to see why Caravaggio eclipsed this painstaking painter both in prestige and influence, the sketches alone seem to me of permanent interest, and some of the oils are of unmatched spirituality.

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