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Friday, September 3, 2010

A Tough Act to Follow

We've all, no doubt, heard the phrase, "That's a tough act to follow."  Of course the reference grows out of the Vaudeville era of entertainment when some lesser act dreaded following a great crowd-pleaser and suffering by comparison.  And, of course, the reverse of that was considered ideal.  Since then, the phrase has been applied to similar circumstances in a great many other situations.

How would you like to have been a painter in the late 1500's? How would you like to have followed an act like Michelangelo or Raphael, or Leonardo Da Vinci. That was the plight of painters like Tiziano Vecellio and Jacopo Robusti, better known today by what amount to "stage" names--Titian and Tintoretto respectively. All about them were the much-heralded glories of the high Renaissance, the Sistine Chapel, and the Mona Lisa. They were left in the unenviable position of having to at least match the God-like painting masters of their recent past just to attain some measure of respectability in their own time, and they were burdened by the knowledge that if they were to be remembered beyond their own time, they would have to somehow surpass them.

Actually, art historians would tell us today that they, in fact, did neither. But, it wasn't from a lack of trying. The artistic era following the Renaissance has come to be known today as the "Mannerist" period, a kind of poor stepchild in the artistic scheme of things, sandwiched in between the colossal periods of the Renaissance and the Baroque eras--a somewhat weak and unstable bridge between the two. Artistic themes fostered in the Renaissance played themselves out during this period while the dramatic seeds of the flamboyant Baroque style were planted and germinated. Meanwhile, in the midst of this, painters struggled to be themselves, and to be more than the sum total of their work.

Venus of Urbino, 1538, Titian
In Venice, Titian strove to cap the work of his immediate painting predecessors by shifting from fresco to oils, from wooden panels to stretched canvas, from chiaroscuro to compositions created by color and glazing in place of sculptural draftsmanship. His exquisite Venus of Urbino painted in 1538 capitalizes on all these factors. Tintoretto, on the other hand, supposedly a pupil of Titian, built on his master's love of color, but combined it was a dynamic draftsmanship that in fact went well beyond anything created during the Renaissance.

Miracle of the Slave, 1548, Tintoretto
 Also a Venetian, Tintoretto's working techniques were unique, to say the least. He even went so far as to arrange doll-like figures on a small stage and hang flying figures by wires in order to draw them in correct perspective, first executing them on paper, then transferring them via a precise grid to darkly primed canvases. He then quickly painted in dramatic light areas with loosely-handled paint, bringing nineteenth-century art critic John Ruskin, to suggest that he may have painted with a BROOM.

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