The great Barocci show at the National Gallery in London closed last Sunday. I’d been meaning to write something about it here since I saw it in its first weeks, but things got in the way and I never got around to it. The show, however, has stuck in my memory as a particularly exhilarating one, an excellent combination of great art and curatorial rigor, as well as a discovery for many, I’m sure. I had long admired Federico Barocci (c. 1533/35–1612) as a draughtsman, especially after the exquisite show at the Fitzwilliam in 2006, but had remained more tepid on his paintings. This show changed that, revealing as it did the simultaenously searching and visionary qualities of his work.
I still don’t have the time for a thorough write-up, but here are some scattered notes, written from memory:
– Barocci as a searching artist. An extremely prolific draughtsman, Barocci would work out, edit, and redact his compositions at great length before starting to paint. While careful preparation was not unusual at the time, his seems particularly thorough, almost neurotic in its zeal. Studies of particular parts of the figure, such as hands, are reworked again and again, with minor adjustments each time. According to his 17th-century biographer, Bellori, Barocci’s prodigious output as a draughtsman was due to his sickly condition, which made it impossible for him to paint for more than a couple of hours a day. While this may be correct, one suspects that the reasons were as much psychological as physical. Barocci famously left Rome in 1563 as a still fairly young man to return to his native Urbino, claiming he had been poisoned by jealous colleagues. He remained there for the rest of his life, allegedly suffering chronic after-effects of this attempt at his life. One can only speculate, of course, as to whether this is true or not and whether real physical ailments lay behind his relative lack of productivity as a painter, but ultimately it is a chicken-or-egg discussion: the impression remains that he worked with great uncertainty — almost as if with with a kind of “painter’s block” — if always also with consummate skill.
– The show maintained a perfect balance between drawings and paintings, achieving successfully the always difficult task of exhibiting the two alongside each other. In its previous incarnation in Saint Louis, the exhibition included many more drawings, which must have made the overall experience very different. Anyway, the low light necessary for displaying drawings suited Barocci’s paintings perfectly well — painted for display in dark church interiors, their saturated, sharp colouring does not benefit from strong light, turning out rather harsh. Here, however, their luminosity was brought forward to great effect. The selection of drawings was judicious, with only one misstep — the large Amsterdam cartoon related to the Entombment of Christ altarpiece in Senigallia (1579–82), which appeared dull and mechanical next to the drawings around it, such as the Getty chiaroscuro study for the same composition. Surely not by Barocci, it must be a workshop copy or something like that.
– Speaking of the Senigallia altarpiece, it had travelled without its original frame, as had the breathtaking Urbino Crucifixion (1566–67). Both had been furnished with new frames, expertly carved and entirely unnoticeable as new additions, unless one examined them more closely. This cannot have been cheap, but was emblematic of how classy the installation was.
– Barocci is often accused of sentimentality and excessive sweetness. To me, this is off the mark. He is sweet, yes, but never sentimental and this sweetness is integral to his spiritual endeavour. His paintings are religious visions made for contemplation, and empathy — Not of the sentimental one-to-one kind, but rather a religious empathy for the beauty of human experience and its foundation in faith. His pictures are meant to invoke in us the feeling of belonging to the world through our faith, in a kind of oneness.
– To this end, he is not a sensual painter. His figures are not engaging as such, and his paint surface is ephemeral, never tactile. He appeals mainly, and prevailingly to one sense: that of vision. If he conveys one physical experience, it is that of seeing the world. In this, he is incredibly intense — his large-eyed characters look at and see each other, almost bursting with sensation. Clever eyeline matches and effective use of framing devices and contrasting shapes guide the eye. One of the most beautiful instances is his Prado Nativity (1597), which is all about seeing. Us seeing the Child, indicated to us (and the arriving shepherds) by Joseph, and mediated by the rapt, lustrious figure of the Madonna. But most importantly, the Child, nestled in the nook defined by the soft contours of the cow’s neck, emitting inner light, embodies vision. His benign, concentrated stare reveals an intelligence beyond his age and evokes the at times almost overpowering, very physical sensation of experiencing the world through our eyes. The intensity of childhood experience becomes representative of Christ’s benign presence in our lives, his sacrifice as per standard iconography connoted by the dried wheat in his manger.
– And, yes, Barocci’s pictures are visionary in ambition. For all the naturalism of individual details — details emphatically seen — his environments are vaguely defined, evanescent, as if experienced in a dream. He concentrates his intensity on the specifically visionary aspects: the Madonna and Child in the Heavens, the apparition of Christ, the Virgin, individual saints or angels, who appear radiantly, at times almost as if emerging from the canvas, with the ground level tilting towards us, as my colleague Chris Fischer has pointed out to me. (He traces this invention back through Raphael to Fra Bartolommeo, most pertinently in his groundbreaking Lucca altarpiece (1509), where God the Father seems to project beyond the saints below).
– The shape of a vision in Barocci’s eye tends toward the circular. Especially his mature compositions are often organized in the round. His heavenly visions, from Christ striding forward in the Perdono (1571-76) to the Senigallia Madonna of the Rosary (1589–93), sadly absent from the London show, are generally spherical in form, with the hemisphere closest to us seemingly protruding beyond the frame. But some of his more complex figural compositions are also planned around circular movement, notably the centrifugal force weighing down the pall-bearers of Christ in the Senigallia Entombment, threatening at any moment to let go and have them spill over into our world. Most impressive in this respect, however, is the massive Last Supper from the Urbino cathedral (1590-99), the largest painting Barocci made. Here, the heavenly choir forms a circle vertically parallel to the surface, situated under a round opening into the heavens, perpendicular to the picture plane. Christ, his apostles, and the servants in the foreground, for their part, form two perpendicular circles, the resultant figure ‘8’ lending depth to the composition, while the circle of servants — when considered parallel to the surface — matches that described above by the angels. Add to this the many finely observed, round containers being cleaned and filled in front of us (this must have been one rich last meal!), with especially the circular motion of the servant cleaning the large silver dish at right providing a key to what is essentially — and poignantly — an ocular revelation in paint.
– And what paint. I could attempt to describe Barocci’s colour, but would find it hard to do half as well as Paul Hills in his excellent April 19 review of the exhibition in the TLS:
Barocci, working a century after the renunciation of backgrounds in gold leaf, was exploring with great originality the chromatic values of a spectrum of tints running from lemon yellow through warmer tones of straw, auburn and golden brown. He sets these colours amid an unprecedented range of light greys and floats them over pools of charcoal darkness. Like El Greco, though without recourse to his rough impasto, he discovered how grey beside yellow takes on a complementary tinge of violet. Barocci’s handling of colour diffuses and redistributes attention. By its optical dynamic it loses its close identity with physical particulars, whether flesh or fabric, and becomes the sign of shared grace.
– Right. There is a close kinship with El Greco. Barocci may have learned much from such forebears as Perugino, Raphael, and Correggio, but he belongs most with the passionate visions of the Greek master, even if he is ultimately more concerned with Central Italian harmony and decorum. Another touchstone would be Parmigianino, although Barocci’s visions are benign where the former’s are troubling.
– A word about the portraits. They consistently amplify the size of the sitter’s eyes, emphasising once again their nature as repositories of (visual) sensation. The acute sensitivity implied emphasises their spirituality and inner beauty. Most touching of all is the late self-portrait, which is almost completely unfiltered, showing a man who seems haunted by his own sensitivity. Framed by a collar essentially defined by an few strokes of white, streaked with dry black, this is a nervous, harrowed being, born to see.
I would like to dedicate these scribblings to Paul Hills in his recent retirement. I hope he’ll forgive me for cribbing his beautiful piece of criticism above. The writing of this piece was stimulated by my being bummed not to be able to attend the upcoming conference in his honour at the Courtauld.