Monday, 21 March 2016

Hooray for Giorgione the Unknowable

Giorgione, The Tempest, c1506-8
Historians explain the past in terms of cause and effect, art historians in terms of innovation and influence. Work your way through one of the enormous books on the subject (billed as the definitive guide or THE story) and you come out the other end with the feeling that human culture is a sort of long distance railway journey from a remote and primitive region to the bustling metropolis. One thing follows logically on from the next: Giotto... Titian... Rembrandt... Manet... Warhol... It makes sense. It's reassuring, in the same way that knowing the English kings is reassuring.

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
Rather than exemplifying the fashion of their age, exceptional artists tend to transcend it. Frank Auerbach made the point in an interview last year that Giotto and Cezanne have more in common than Cezanne and Pissarro, because the former both painted pictures that 'work'. In the same way it makes more sense to think of Manet in relation to Goya than as an Impressionist. Better still, look at Manet next to Giorgione.

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
I don't know what either artist intended, but both works play with our ideas of art history. In Manet's case, the painting seems at first sight to be pretty straightforward. The young barmaid belongs to the 19th century tradition of French realist painting. She's from a humble background and so anonymous that she's not even mentioned in the title of the painting, which is more conventional than, say, 'Dejeuner sur L'Herbe'. At first sight, that is. Look more closely and we realise that there is a mirror behind her, and that her reflection is not where it ought to be, ie behind her, but off to the right. And then there is a sinister-looking cove in a hat who appears to be standing where we stand, in front of the picture.

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
In fact it's not unlike the expression of the young mother in 'The Tempest', a painting which must hold some sort of record for the number of different interpretations it has inspired. To the non-art historian this must seem puzzling. After all, there's nothing immediately odd about the painting. In fact the scene is rather ordinary. There are no mythical beings or monsters or people wandering around with severed heads, just a woman breastfeeding a baby while a man stands nearby. There's a town in the background, over which a storm is breaking, but not very dramatically.

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.

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