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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Baroque Art

The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, 1652, Gian Lorenzo Bernini--sculpted and staged.
The "beams" of light are gold leaf, highlighted by a hidden window above.
The marble sculture, though weighing tons, appears to float.
All to often, art historians, critics, and others who write about art toss out labels and terms to their readers with all the uncaring panache of a farmer feeding chickens. They illogically assume their readers know as much about art as they do. As any art student will quickly tell you, it's not a safe assumption. I've undoubtedly been guilty of this at times and likewise, I've certainly been on the receiving end, plucking up such scattered morsels of art jargon, hoping to digest them later. With that in mind, I've decided to back off and do a series of posts which take up some of the more common such golden kernels and grind them up a bit, tasting them and checking their "list of ingredients."

The Baroque Ludovica, 1674, Gian Lorenzo, Bernini--Michelangelo on steroids.
I've chosen to begin with the term "Baroque." Although art eras are among the most likely to stick in one's intellectual "throat," they are by no means the worst offenders in this regard. Anyone care to define "tenebrism" right off the top of your head? I didn't think so. The second term is an attribute of the first (insofar as painting is concerned). And the first term, "baroque," is so often used because it's both a noun and an adjective, though if you understand it as an adjective, the noun usage is a given. Likewise, the term transcends mere painting and sculpture to lend it's adjective presence to architecture (man, does it ever) as well as music, literature, drama, and humor--"If it ain't baroque, don't fix it."
Gian Lorenzo Bernini Self-portrait, 1623
There are several long, technical, often convoluted descriptions and definitions of baroque art, but the best and easiest one I've ever heard is simply, "theatrical." One might assume that such a term might also imply "dramatic," but theatrical and baroque go well beyond that. Most art, if it's any good at all, could be termed dramatic. Baroque art is dramatic, to say the least, but it's dramatic italicized, underlined, UPPER-CASE, and set in bold face type. If one went in search of an antonym, "subtle" might be a good choice. Of those descriptions, "italicized" may be most apt. The baroque style was born in Italy, though it by no means grew up there. It would be fair to say that the Italian sculptor and architect, Gian Lorenzo Bernini was the father of the Baroque style, while the mother was the Catholic church (don't press that analogy too far). The church needed a style of art and architecture designed to impress (even intimidate) the masses at mass, and Bernini was only too ready, willing, and able to supply it.
Three eras, three centuries, three artists--Parmigianino, Caravaggio, Fragonard.
If you're confronted with the Baroque in terms of art history, the era pretty neatly fits into the 17th century--1600 to 1700, before it degenerated (or blossomed, take your pick) into the Rococo style in France and numerous other decadent manifestations elsewhere in Europe. The Baroque era stands out in art history mostly by way of a favorable comparison to what came before and, as I've implied, what followed (above). Mannerism came before it, a pretentious, failed attempt by 16th century artists to surpass the High Renaissance. The Rococo era occupied most of the 18th century and might be thought of as a "pretty," somewhat effeminate, version of the Baroque. Think of the three eras as a meal--a Mannerist salad, Baroque meat and potatoes, followed by a light, fluffy, French Rococo souffle.
The Taking of Jesus, 1602, Caravaggio--tenebrism and chiaroscuro

Michelangelo Caravaggio Self-portrait
If Bernini is deemed the "father" of the Baroque, the style's stepfather in painting would be Caravaggio, through which the earlier term, "tenebrism" comes into play. Likewise, while we're tossing out painting terms, let's add "chiaroscuro" to the mix. I'm tempted to simplify and say they mean the same. They don't, but they are related. Chiaroscuro largely refers to figures while tenebrism is broader, referring to the overall stark contrasts between extremely dark areas of a painting and brightly lit areas which employ chiaroscuro. Chiaroscuro involves gradations of light and dark as reflected, usually off limbs, and rounded objects as seen in his Incredulity of St. Thomas (bottom). Chiaroscuro was not new to the Baroque, but tenebrism was, and Caravaggio brought them together. Chiaroscuro gave the illusion of three-dimentional shapes while tenebrism added steroids.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini's 1615, Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, burned alive on a grate.
How many other sculptors have attempted to depict fire in marble?
Bernini was more than a great stonecarver--more even than a great sculptor. Michelangelo was a great sculptor. Bernini went beyond that. He was like a film director using marble. He "directed" his figures to depict emotions, action, and dramatic special effects, all of which he then "staged" to employ the most advantageous angle, lighting, and theatrical effects. His Ecstasy of St. Teresa (top) is his most impressive example. Bernini didn't have spotlights or floodlights, but he did have windows, and he knew how to use them. In creating his Martyrdom of St. Matthew (above) Bernini attempted to render fire in marble. There are dozens of other outstanding painters and sculptors I might point to as able practitioners of the baroque, but in virtually all cases they were mere students (if not in fact, then in essence) of one or both of these two fathers...and the "mother chuch." I wonder if they ever fought over custody.

The Incredulity of St. Thomas, 1602-03, Caravaggio
--his peasant models outraged the church.


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