Exhibit of the week
Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., through July 7
The Deposition of Christ (1562): The hands tell the story.
Don’t be surprised if either of Tintoretto’s best-known self-portraits seems to be staring back at you, said James Panero in The Wall Street Journal. The great Venetian painter (1519-1594) was more aware than any artist before him of the viewer’s experience, and “his achievement was to break the fourth wall of Renaissance art.” In the large, action-filled scenes from the Bible and myth that he’s best known for, “he brought narrative art down to the real world with figures that look, fly, and flop out of his paintings into our own space.” As you wander among the 46 paintings and 10 drawings at the first substantial Tintoretto retrospective shown in America, you’ll never wonder why Jean-Paul Sartre dubbed him “the first film director.” Tintoretto didn’t idealize his godly or saintly subjects and set them at a remove. He put us nose-close to figures in swirling, cinematic motion; “his high-wire scenes dare us to look away.”
It has been tempting to see Tintoretto as a working-class rebel who vanquished all doubters, said Maria Loh in Art in America. He was born in Venice when Titian was already a recognized master, and his adopted name, which means “Little Dyer,” sounds like a hat tip to an ink-stained father. But Dad was actually a manager of a dye works, and both father and son married well enough that Tintoretto didn’t have to break down any doors. Still, he was a hustler. Working tirelessly from his late 20s until his death, he and his assistants produced more square footage of painting than any other Renaissance-era Venice studio, and Tintorettos covered the walls and ceilings of the city’s most prestigious churches and fraternal societies. The artist’s reliance on underlings eventually diminished his reputation, said The Economist. But the curators of this exhibition have recently reduced the accepted Tintoretto catalog by 150 paintings, and here they present the artist at his authentic best. In his “audacious” circa-1564 take on the Last Supper, for example, Jesus earns a few shocked reactions from his apostles as he predicts that one of them will soon betray him, but “it looks as if they have not been stinting on the wine.”
But brashness wasn’t Tintoretto’s only mode, said Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post. Consider a small detail in 1562’s The Deposition of Christ: Mary’s hand brushing against her son’s foot. Is it an accident? Jesus is dead and Mary has fainted as his body is being lowered from the cross. Is it a symbol of Mary’s humility—“a subordination of mother to her divine son?” Or could it be a remnant of her maternal intimacy with Jesus, “as though she unconsciously reaches out to wiggle the little piggies of her dead boy’s foot?” Take your pick: “Whatever it means, it has impact.” ■