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Art review: ‘Captured Emotions: Baroque Painting in Bologna, 1575-1725’ at the Getty Museum

December 29, 2008 |  5:25 pm

'Madonna Enthroned With Saint Matthew' Italy’s pantheon of celebrated artists is very crowded. Still, in the popular consciousness Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) should rank far higher than he does.

The first gallery of a new exhibition of Baroque painting at the J. Paul Getty Museum features one of Carracci’s greatest monumental altarpieces, plus a haunted, life-size depiction of a bereft St. Sebastian bound to a column, a single gruesome arrow piercing his groin. The arrow’s feather deftly functions as a fig leaf for the otherwise nearly classical nude, whose arms bent behind him give the figure the broken appearance of ancient armless statuary.

Meanwhile, a few rooms on in the show, a Carracci portrait of a lute player manages a sly and unexpected aura of spontaneity. Here, another feather does the trick: The musician’s quill, balanced at the table’s edge next to a slip of sheet music, helps to suggest he’s just laid down his pen mid-composition. Now he looks up to greet your arrival. Carracci will always remain in the shadow of his slightly younger and more spirited Roman contemporary, Caravaggio, but the erudite inventiveness of his best paintings is sensational.

“Captured Emotions: Baroque Painting in Bologna, 1575-1725” brings together 43 works by 12 artists who fused the naturalism of Florentine draftsmanship with atmospheric Venetian color to create a highly theatrical type of painting. Artists in Bologna — midway on the map between Florence and Venice — were ripe for the task.

Bolognagallery_2 When the Roman Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent to combat the rising tide of Protestant affronts to papal authority, it chose a retreat in northern Italy near the Dolomites, where council fathers could meet in relative peace and quiet. (It was also on the way to Europe’s increasingly Protestant north.) There was a lot to accomplish. Between 1545 and 1563 they met four times in 25 lengthy sessions. And the only five meetings that were not held in Trent to revise, specify and shore up learned doctrinal interpretation against Martin Luther’s vernacular challenge were held in the bustling city of Bologna.

By the time Bologna-born Carracci came along, the terms of the Catholic Counter-Reformation were pretty well set. Painting’s job was to sell its ideals to the people. With his brother Agostino and cousin Ludovico, Annibale opened an art school to train painters to do just that.

The Getty show focuses on the three Carraccis and their followers. Some actually studied with them, most notably Domenichino and Guido Reni. Others, like Il Guercino and, at the turn of the 18th century, Giuseppe Maria Crespi, were instead influenced by their prior achievements.

The arresting altarpiece in the first room is as ambitious as a Titian. Featuring half a dozen life-size figures, plus a slew of fat cherubs, it demonstrates the wildly complex yet easy-to-read visual rhetoric of Annibale Carracci’s  best work. And he ties it all together with rich, seductive, light-filled Venetian color.

“Madonna Enthroned With Saint Matthew,”  painted when he was 28, is divided into four equal quadrants. Sprawled at the bottom, an adolescent angel — Matthew’s symbol — invites you into the scene.

The lower half of the picture is reserved for the earthly saints — Francis of Assisi  and John the Baptist at the right and erudite Matthew at the left, with quill and tablet to write his gospel, which Mary holds in finished form. (Her hand that holds the book appears to emanate directly from the evangelist’s opened mouth.) Matthew’s side of the picture is filled with iconic symbols, including the distinctly plain and un-idealized Virgin dandling her effusive baby; sumptuously crafted tapestries and drapery and, beneath a massive column whose edge splits the scene down the middle, a carving of a winged sphinx, who holds life’s riddle in her wide grin. Appropriately, Francis and John, both rustic saints, stand beneath nature’s expansive landscape.

The painting’s upper half is the realm of paradise. The glowing infinity of sky at the right is matched at the left by the Queen of Heaven, enthroned with majestic pomp.

Smack at the picture’s center, Francis leans over to kiss Jesus’ foot. The prominently displayed stigmata on his hand anticipates what will happen to that foot later. The gesticulating child, who splays his legs toward the bottom two quadrants while pointing right and looking left at the top two, is the pivot around which all four sections revolve. He is of heaven as well as earth, both god and man.

'Saint Luke' Carracci’s masterpiece had been in the collection of the Duke d’Este, but in the 1740s it was bought (with nearly 100 other works) by Augustus III for his picture gallery in Dresden. The show is the Getty’s latest collaboration with the Dresden State Museums in Germany, co-organized by Scott Schaefer and Andreas Henning.

Twenty-seven paintings are lent by Dresden’s Old Master collection, including the five by Annibale Carracci, while the remaining 16 works are from Southern California. Works have come from the Getty, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Timken Museum in San Diego, plus one private collection (Lynda and Stewart A. Resnick; Stewart Resnick is a Getty trustee).

Given the limitations of its makeup, the show is a rich but not a full articulation of Bolognese Baroque painting. It accomplishes a lot, though, including provocative considerations of portraiture, the new technique of painting on copper and a look at some popular subject matter, as in three paintings of the Book of Genesis tale of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife.

The uses (and occasional abuses) of theatrical exaggeration are what come across most powerfully. Bolognese painting, like other Baroque forms, is a kind of “silent picture” approach to telling stories, and its narratives span compelling drama and cringe-inducing melodrama.

Some artists, like Guido Reni, can get rather arch. His oval devotional head of Christ with the crown of thorns is masterfully painted, the bluish tint of the skin evoking a deathly pallor. Based on a classical prototype — a famous Hellenistic bust in Rome showing a dying Alexander the Great — it moves an iconic image of victorious conquest of the known world forward in time to encompass the Christian epoch, with the 17th century colonial expansion of the Church of Rome also clearly in mind.

But Reni also repeated the figure’s open-mouthed swoon, upward-cast eyes and bobbing head in countless pictures of Madonnas, saints and ancient mythological figures. Ariadne, who helped Theseus slay Crete’s Minotaur, gets the treatment in a Reni painting nearby, as does poor St. Apollonia, who is about to be martyred by having her teeth pulled out with pliers. Reni’s extravagant stylization can be borderline camp.

Baroque theatricality also takes beguilingly unexpected forms. A gallery near the exhibition’s end features Crespi’s 1712 cycle of paintings of the seven Catholic sacraments, including baptism, confirmation, confession and the last rites. The sacraments themselves are a kind of theater, dramatic and carefully choreographed scenes that mark stages in life.

Crespi employs a painting style in which vivid highlights are laid over darker forms. Emphasizing bravura brushwork, he merges church ceremony with the pageantry of painting. And with that self-referential and aggrandizing flourish, the curtain came down on Bologna’s Baroque era.

-- Christopher Knight

J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and Sundays; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays. Ends May 3. Free, but $10 for parking. (310) 440-7300.

Top: "Madonna Enthroned With Saint Matthew" by Annibale Carracci; bottom: "Saint Luke" by Il Guercino. Credits: J. Paul Getty Museum

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