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All right, things have now gotten a little less crazy around here, and I finally see a window for getting some thoughts down on Tintoretto, inspired by the big retrospective in Madrid that I had the pleasure of seeing a few weeks back, and which closes on Sunday. So, over the next few days, I will be posting on Tintoretto here.

As I wrote back when I was in Madrid, I found the exhibition a little underwhelming, overall. Which is perfectly natural I suppose; putting together a retrospective on Tintoretto is a rather thankless task because more or less all the best work is unavailable, tied as it is to its locations in the Venetian churches, public buildings and the Accademia. Probably the main reason why no one has attempted it since 1937. Compounding the problem in this case is the fact that the Prado houses one of the most amazing collections of European painting in the world. When adjacent galleries display some of the best work of painters such as Titian, El Greco, Rubens, Velazquez and Goya, only the rare exhibition is not naturally upstaged.

On the other hand, Tintoretto is Tintoretto, and the exhibition had no shortage of interesting work to look at. As is often the case with retrospectives, it provided a singular chance to compare, assess and discover. Especially since the works were displayed in the long central gallery of the museum, one of the great display spaces for art in Europe, where they could be seen up close and in natural light. And as such it was a great show.

The exhibition was accompanied by a lavish catalogue, edited by curator Miguel Falomir, with important legwork on chronology and attribution provided by Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman, informative entries, generally good reproductions and a very helpful compendium of documents in the back. The first new finding that struck me (and probably a lot of scholars) was the discovery of the document that cast new light on Jacopo Tintoretto’s (c. 1519-1594) family. It turns out that what has generally been understood as his family name ‘Robusti’ was actually a nickname bestowed upon his father and uncle for their steadfast effort in the defense of Padua against Imperial troops in 1509. Additional research carried out in connection with the exhibition has tended to verify this account and the real name of the family, Comin. Also, the National Gallery’s Jill Dunkerton has, as always, produced a thoroughly informative and useful article on Tintoretto’s technique. At the occasion of the opening, a conference involving many of the world’s premier Tintoretto scholars was held, the results of which will be published later and is surely going to be a must-read.

Here are some of my thoughts on individual works:

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Christ among the Doctors (c. 1542)
A thoroughly astonishing testament to the young Tintoretto’s ambition, this painting serves it up frantic. Anticipating a lot of the work he would go on to do, it is almost bursting at the seams with painterly enthusiasm. As the quickly blocked-in, stylized receding columns attest, Tintoretto was clearly impatient with the nuts and bolts of perspectival rendering and the space suggested by the perspective of the composition is indeed not fully convincing : how far away from us, exactly, is the young Christ? : but it is deliriously effective, bringing figures ostensibly far from each other into seemingly close proximity, as if shot through a telephoto lens. It makes giants of the foreground figures, handling these enormous, almost animated books that seem to be struggling against the laws of perspectival foreshortening.

Their gestures are animated to the point of exaggeration. The hunched man leafing through his book in the foreground is an evocative depiction of intellectual involvement, while the one reclining on the stairs eagerly trying to get Christ’s attention with what appears to be a troubling point is delightful. Also, the hand disappearing awkwardly behind the head of the seated man on the far right is one of those details that gives the picture is crackling energy, and of course the latter figure has to point his foot at us. Nothing like a little foreshortening to demonstrate that you mean business.

Saint Augustine Healing the Lame (c. 1549-50)
Another fascinating composition, in this case of a rather obscure subject: Saint Augustine appearing to, and healing, forty cripples on a pilgrimage to Rome, as told in the Golden Legend. Tintoretto has Augustine suspended in the air : why should he be walking? : emerging from a vigorous puff of cumulus. The grand figures strewn about in recession is a strong pictorial invention, and the elongated, ephemeral body of the saint with his translucent cover of white that looks as if it were shaving foam applied with a soft brush is a joy. But most of all, there is the colour : the basic tone of richly luminous greyish blue, on which the utterly remarkable purplish puff discharges. Proof, if anything is, of Tintoretto’s at times astonishing acuity as a colourist.

Check back over the following days for more thoughts on individual works in the exhibition. And if you happen to be in Madrid over the weekend, it’s the last chance to see the show as it closes on Sunday. Be warned, it’s going to be crazy; this is what it looked like on the Sunday three weeks ago.