Saturday, 29 December 2012

Federico Barocci at St. Louis

I can't remember how long it's been since I fell in love with the work of Federico Barocci, the late 16th century painter from Urbino, and I can't remember what was the first painting that caught my eye, although it might have been the breathlessly activated Deposition in the Cathedral of San Lorenzo in Perugia. I remember walking into that church and being stunned by the brilliant colors and frantic motion of that composition. I loved his brillant and unusual colors and unusual poses of his somewhat too sweet Madonnas. So I had been wanting to see the Barocci show at the St. Louis Art Museum for a while and am delighted that we finally got there yesterday. Indeed, New York and the East Coast should be mourning the fact that they didn't get this gorgeous and thoughtfully organized show, the first one in this country since a small one of Barocci drawings and prints in 1978 (I already loved Barocci then and was happy to be able to see it.)

Barocci was born around 1533-35. He made a couple of visits to Rome, where he would have seen Renaissance masters and even met Michelangelo. He became sick there, possibly poisoned, and returned to Urbino, where he stayed, continuing to suffer ill health, till his death in 1612. Nonetheless he painted altarpieces and other religious works for patrons across Italy.

One might have a few quibbles with the St. Louis installation:  I wished for a bit more information about the subjects of the paintings, for example, explaining why Joseph hands Jesus a branch of cherries in the Rest on the Return from Egypt or telling exactly how each of the apostles in the Last Supper is identified. I might have liked to have a biography or clearer sense of chronology in the installation. Maybe the four very nice videos could have been run without such long credits between them. But  really I didn't much care about those details.

The exhibition is organized around the fact that Barocci was an untiring draughtsman; I was surprised that 1500 drawings by him survive. There are enough paintings in the exhibition to provide a really good idea of Barocci's work, including some large altarpieces that we were surprised the churches and museums lent. Each painting is surrounded by studies for it and the labels provide explanations of how the drawings were made, how Barocci modified his designs from one to the next, and how they relate to the finished painting.  By organizing the exhibition in this way, the curators, I think, make it much easier for a general audience to pay attention to a series of drawings and to take the time to look at them closely. It's not just one painting after another, but each gallery containes one or more painterly problems to be solved and you watch Barocci solving them through drawing.

There are sketches for various body parts, touching in the warmth of their handling and the slight movements of toes and fingers depicted. The drapery studies are luscious. Two drawings of the head and rear of a donkey (in the Rest on the Return from Egypt) capture the animal and seduce one with the texture of black and red chalk with white highlights on beige paper. (And of course I'm always interested in donkeys.) I kept looking at the drawings and wondering exactly why I was so transfixed by their beauty. Barocci captures the textures of warm flesh, soft fur and shimmering drapery without obsessive detail. The multiple lines of chalk and ink activate his forms, but are also just wonderful to look at as you watch him observing and re-observing body parts, poses, and compositions. You feel that he loves what he's doing, loves his subjects, and is just exuberant about life.

The exhibition contains a range of drawing types. The ink sketches usually seemed to be quick ideas, several on a page, for compositions or figures. Chalk, often on blue paper, is used for these quick sketches but also for more detailed investigation of exactly how a foot or two clasped hands look. He works out several individual heads using colors. Some of the drawings are squared for transfer, suggesting that he transferred the images in them to a larger scale drawing or painting. And some have the marks of incision, indicating that they were full-sized cartoons, laid on the surface to be painted and incised so the outlines would transfer and could be followed in executing the final painting.

In the context of the drawings, the paintings remain amazing. Details like the odd pose of the Madonna del Gatto, with her legs straight out and crossed and her transparent sandals; the little window bench from the Palace at Urbino in the background of that picture; the possibility that the cat and the cross above it refer to the patron's coat of arms (a lion rampant below the cross); the way the Madonna is nestled into a niche and sitting close to the floor like a Madonna of Humility, with Joseph leaning in from the shadows;  the cat wanting the European goldfinch that is the symbol of Christ's martyrdom; the green shawl around her shoulders and her green sleeve, the yellow drapery below her blue mantel, the contrast between her childish youth and Joseph's grey age; the little book in the basket on the floor, all just happy discoveries.

On Friday evening the exhibition was pleasantly occupied by attentive people. I was glad it was attended but not crowded. The exhibition is in St. Louis till January 20 and in London from Feb. 27 to May 19.

No comments:

Post a Comment