|Giorgione, The Tempest, c1506-8|
But of course there are other ways of looking at this. When Peggy Angus visited Soviet Russia in the early 1930s she was struck by the way artworks were arranged at the Hermitage, not by movement but by patron. The artistic identity of different ages was moulded not by the artists but by the people and organisations who paid them - the Christian church in 15th century Italy, or the wealthy burghers of Vermeer's Holland, or the rich men who paid Thomas Gainsborough to paint their women.
This is a bit reductive, but it does make you think. Why, I sometimes wonder, is there such an obsession with progress in art? At any one time the vast majority of artists (and their patrons) are conservative. Techniques evolve, but the wealthy still like to have their portraits painted and London galleries are filled with attractive pictures of landscapes and picturesque places. Meanwhile, the unique expression embodied in a really good painting is likely to be missed, as we pin it to our art history map.
|Titian, Pastoral Concert, c1509|
In strict art historical terms the relationship between these two wonderful artists is debatable. When
he first decided to paint a naked woman, Manet did go off to consult Giorgione, but the painting he studied - 'Pastoral Concert' - has since been attributed to Titian. So he may have tried to be influenced by Giorgione but wasn't, except sort of second-hand, via Titian.
But I think there's a more important connection between these two painters, though divided by the centuries: they both painted pictures that resist being pinned down. In Manet's case I'm talking particularly about 'A Bar at the Folies-Bergere', which I never tire of visiting at the Courtauld Gallery, and in Giorgione's 'The Tempest', aka 'The Soldier and the Gipsy', which I was hoping would be featured in the current RA show, but isn't.
|Manet, Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe, c1862|
It's hard not to feel that there's a story here, but what is it? Is the girl being propositioned? Is she suffering existential ennui? Or is the sinister cove a reference to mortality, Manet himself being close to death? The distorted reflection demands an explanation we can't give, while the young woman's expression is unreadable.
|Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1874|
So what makes art historians tear their hair out over this charming but innocuous little picture? The absence of a story. Convention tells us that Italian artists of Giorgione's time did not paint anonymous figures in fields - as 19th century French artists did. They painted scenes, mostly from the Bible and sometimes from Classical mythology. A man in a painting other than a portrait was a saint or a Greek god or a hero; a woman was Mary or Venus or a nymph. Yes, there were other, more obscure characters, and some fairly recondite Biblical scenes, but the idea of placing a random person in a landscape was unthinkable.
The business of interpreting this painting has kept generations of scholars busy. One version sees the baby as Dionysos, who is being cared for by his aunt Ino after Zeus killed his mother Semele with a thunderbolt, while Hermes stands by. There's one potential problem with this interpretation, since X-rays show that the male figure was painted over the figure of a second woman, but a classically educated person might well have seen lightning and thought, aha, Zeus. Others see a Christian story here, such as the rest on the flight into Egypt, although the late addition of the male figure is problematic again.
What I love about all this is the fact that so many people have spent so much time looking at this little painting. To my mind, the main reason for studying art history in the broad sense is to get more pleasure out of individual works of art. It's fun to pick out influences and guess at relationships, but in the end it's the looking that counts. And the pleasure of looking.
In the Age of Giorgione is at the RA until June.