Sunday, 19 April 2015

'From Giotto to Caravaggio' at the Musee Jacquemart-Andre, Paris

When in Paris a visit to the Musee Jacquemart-Andre is almost mandatory. I went there to see the marvellous exhibition about Fra Angelico a few years ago (indeed, that exhibition was the sole reason for going to Paris) and, last year, the exhibition about Peregrino (Rapheal's master).  A visit to the cafe is also mandatory for delicious cakes (my favourite is a raspberry and cream cake with a macaroon base and topping - yum!).

This time it was an early evening visit (since the museum stays open late on Mondays) to see the latest exhibition, 'From Giotto to Caravaggio'. The exhibition is based around the theories and collection of Roberto Longhi, a collector and art historian and many of the exhibits come from his collection. The focus is on Caravaggio and his many followers and imitators who played with the dramatic light and shade and almost theatricality of his subjects that are central features of his work.

As well as the 'Boy Bitten By A Lizard' in the poster for the exhibition, the other main painting by Caravaggio was 'The Crowning with Thorns', a dramatic painting of the thorns being forced onto Christ's head, too thorny for the guards to touch so they ease it on with sticks. This painting was then followed by a room of similar paintings, all with the crown of thorns and sticks, all dramatically lit and all very derivative if you've seen the Caravaggio.

The depiction of the crowning looks painful - as it must have been - but I had difficulty in seeing Christ in that painting. He was 33 when he died and that face is of a man who is definitely in his 50s. The trials of his last days couldn't make him age so quickly so I wonder what the artist was trying to say by making him look so old. And yes, the aged face is also copied in the other paintings.

The essays in light and shade by the followers of Caravaggio were all very well but the highlights of the exhibition for me weren't those of the 16th and 17th Centuries, but rather the beauties of the 14th Century.

As everyone knows, Giotto invented art and it's always a thrill to see his paintings. I've never been to Sienna to see his chapels but I have seen the two small chapels he painted in Santa Croce in Florence and they take the breath away. Such marvels and colour, such simple storytelling yet so powerful. There are two paintings by Giotto in this exhibition, St John the Evangelist and St Laurence and this is St John (which was my favourite). There were angels above both paintings and the one above St John almost looked bored - c'mon, get on with it, he's almost saying. I liked his wings.

Giotto's St John could almost have been a real person, drawn from a model with a baldy head and a great two-pronged beard. There's probably a thesis in there somewhere, but when did artists start depicting saints with bald heads? It's the attention to the 'real' as well as the artistic license. On closer inspection you can see the wrinkles around John's eyes, bringing yet more realism to the painting. By comparison, St Laurence is more theoretical and less based in the reality of what a man looks like, but John is marvellous. Both paintings are dated as 1320.

Another favourite was by Masaccio and painted a few years later, a beautiful small Virgin & Child. It's much smaller than the Giottos, maybe about 12 inches tall and framed and the blue of Mary's shawl is incredibly vivid and attracted me from across the room.  It's a very calming painting and I can well believe it was used to aid quiet contemplation and meditation and it's almost like Mary is playing with the baby in her arms. The gold background with the imprint of haloes is reflected in the hem of Mary's shawl and you can easily see the folds and drapes in the material, an innovation back then. It really is quite lovely.

I've seen Masaccio's great frescoes at Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence and they are magnificent. There's also another version of the Virgin & Child in the National Gallery in London, surrounded by angels, but I think I prefer this version. It's simple and gentle and lovely to look at.

The exhibition ends with three large three-quarter length portraits of saints by Jusepe de Ribera and one of these I actively disliked - Saint Bartholemew wielding a knife and a flayed skin. What's that all about? Clearly I need to read up on the saints but this wizened, cruel old man isn't someone I ever want to know too much about. I don't like this painting despite the expert rendering and realism of the subject. I much prefer the painting of the young St Thomas with his staff, interestingly in profile holding his billowing cape. He looks slightly weather-beaten and unwashed and is very believable.

So there you have it, my latest trip to Jacquemart-Andre and, like the Musee Marmottan Monet, it also has an excellent book and gift-shop to pop into on the way out. Until next time...

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