Renaissance Siena: Art for a City
National Gallery, London
24 October 2007 - 13 January 2008
In Siena in 1348, estimates of mortality due to successive waves of bubonic plague were up to 80% of the total population. Divine wrath was added to the depressions of the time, leading to a massive kind of urban self-flagellation amongst the clergy, city fathers and citizenry. Both Bernard Berenson, earlier in this context, and the present acting Director of the National Gallery, in turn considered Siena's relegation by art historians over the 20th century both unjust and unwarranted. But history has shown that for Siena, both culturally and politically, the decline was irreversible given the circumstances; the game was up.
It was perhaps symptomatic of this insecurity that as early as 1359 the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena acquired from Constantinople tangible relics of the Virgin Mary: her presumed girdle and a veil, but predictably no bones. This may have bolstered Sienese sensibilities. It also created a notable cultural shift towards a particular ethos of femininity and expanded the cult of the Virgin. This mood can be seen at its peak here in Domenico Beccafumi's 'Tanaquil' (1520-1525), as distinct from the same Sienese artist's 'The Stigmatisation of Saint Catherine of Siena' (mid-1540s), a work which seems by contrast utterly unconvincing in subject or treatment: how could stigmata be portrayed? Surely not with what appear to be tracer lines, impacting upon a blandly unfeeling figure. Perhaps the decline of Beccafami's success between the dates of these two works pinpoints more persuasively than anything the final decline of Sienese art. However, one of the highpoints of this exhibition - and all credit to the National Gallery - is the superb altarpiece of the church of St. Agostino, Asciano, a small community outside Siena, by Matteo di Giovanni (1474). This work was originally in five panels and the central panel, 'The Assumption of the Virgin', was acquired by the National Gallery in 1884. The panels have now all been reunited for this exhibition from various sources; this proves to have been a major curatorial and diplomatic triumph for the National Gallery and its curator Luke Syson. The collective nightmare once the exhibition closes in mid-January will be to observe the necessary dismantling and dispersal of this totality. Who in those circumstances would not be made sleepless, indeed?
How did the Sienese ascendancy begin? Rolling back from the late 1400s, by a span of two centuries or so, it really began with an initiative by the distinguished Florentine family, Rucellai, who were looking for a way of improving their family chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella, and who in 1285 succeeded in poaching the Sienese painter Duccio to execute a new 'Madonna' there. This was to be no ordinary Virgin. The Rucellai saw Duccio abandon the normal gold striation convention employed hitherto by Italo-Byzantine artists to indicate drapery. Duccio brilliantly transferred this gold electrical charge with all its energy to form a golden fringe. Duccio then established a colouring and tonality of softened lavender, yellow and rose, amid a mixed luminosity of grey-blue and grey-lavender hues to the actual folds of the Virgin's mantle. Duccio had actually broken new ground for the Rucellai, astounding their peers and leaving behind established Florentine precedent. Florentine pride was not sustained, however, since this virtuoso move had only followed the military defeat of Florence by Siena at the battle of Montaperti by a few years (1260). Five years later a strong precedent for Duccio was set when the Sienese painter Coppo di Marcovaldo, who had as a soldier fought at Montaperti himself, painted his 'Madonna and Child'.
Siena soon reclaimed some of the glory of her son Duccio by having him commissioned in 1308 to undertake a massive altarpiece for the famous marble-striped Cathedral of Siena, which was largely completed in 1264. This work, known as the 'Maesta', was subsequently removed and located in the Cathedral Museum. Duccio's influence was powerfully communicated to a series of Sienese 14th century artists, including Simone Martine and Sano di Pietro, but Siena, without Duccio, could not ultimately maintain such a peak of achievement and, on the whole, standards dropped. This is not to deny the curators their claim entirely; witness the superb Asciano altarpiece by di Giovanni. Even the presence of the aging Donatello (a late arrival in Siena) and his masterly relief, 'The Lamentation over the Dead Christ' could not stem the irrevocable decline in Sienese creativity. One has to compare this triumph with the somewhat mediocre bronze reliefs of Francesco di Giorgio. Donatello returned to Florence in due course. The dedication of an entire room to Domenico Beccafumi, a minor if talented artist destined to figure latterly amongst the Sienese lesser artists, seems accordingly appropriate. This was also contemporaneous with the humiliation of the City State itself by Florence, leading to the formation of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, and no amount of revisionism can change the judgment of history. What happened to the economically ruined Siena? The City State reverted culturally to an avowedly non-commercial attitude, anachronistically reflected in a revival of the power of the old feudal and landowning nobility. Yet was there not perhaps also a romantic regression to her ancient Etruscan roots, stronger here than in Florence, more important even than Rome.
In 2000, the National Gallery mounted a superb exhibition curated by Richard Morphet and under the aegis of Neil MacGregor entitled 'Encounters: New Art from Old', in which leading contemporary artists were invited to select a preferred historic work from the collection, and produce work of their own inspired by this. Notably, Sir Anthony Caro chose a single panel from Duccio's 'Maesta' entitled 'The Annunciation' (1311). (This and two other panels from the Maesta remain, as here, in the National Gallery's collection.) Caro's several 'Variations' on Duccio's work captured that exercise in spatial architectonics brilliantly, exploring the interplay between container and contained. Caro's 'Variations' are not a grand symphony; rather they express the spirit of Duccio in what is more of a chamber music suite. Furthermore, Duccio's work has encouraged Caro to explore the frontality of his sculpture as a direct reaction, a direction which continues.
The lesson of the current exhibition is, however, that one cannot do more than adjust for the unavoidable effects of history. This exhibition does precisely that, and improves our cultural awareness of the remarkable phenomenon that has been Siena. Berenson was well intentioned when he pushed for Siena, but he was also at times wilfully inclined to move for the unorthodox reappraisal of circumstance as it affected Renaissance art. The sad reality of Siena's decline as compared to Florence's resurgence under the Medici rule cannot be denied. This exhibition reminds one of how remarkable Siena became in her art, albeit for a limited shelf-life only. But there can no longer be many sleepless nights in Siena - today a uniquely beautiful microcosm of Renaissance culture, art and architecture - other than about its conservation as a timeless gem. But there can, nonetheless, be one or two contemporary worries. The curators of the National Gallery, past and present, are to be congratulated on their willingness to take risks and explore new directions in exhibiting and reviewing the works which they hold under trusteeship. In that respect, this exhibition is exemplary.Michael Spens
Sickert Today Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec: London and Paris 1870-1910
In 2005, two events coincided to provide us with the best opportunity to assess Walter Sickert's stature since his death, at the age of 82, in 1942. The first was the publication of a superb biography by Matthew Sturgis,1 and the second, the remarkable exhibition 'Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec: London and Paris 1870-1910', currently at Tate Britain until 15 January 2006.
Leon Kossoff: Drawing from Painting
Leon Kossoff is one of Britain's most significant artists. The National Gallery, London is showing an exhibition devoted to his drawing from painting, which is fundamental to his oeuvre. In the same vein as the National Gallery's millennium exhibition, 'Encounters: A dialogue with art from the past' (2000), the Kossoff exhibition addresses the creative process itself.
Joan Eardley's life was cut tragically short by cancer in 1963 at the age of 42. Born in England she spent her life in Scotland, after studying at the Glasgow School of Art. Two subjects dominate the retrospective exhibition at the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh this winter - paintings of children from Glasgow's tenement blocks and the land and sea around Catterline, a village south of Aberdeen on Scotland's east coast. Douglas Hall, Keeper of the National Galleries of Scotland described Eardley in 1969 as being a painter of world class.
Home and Garden: Paintings and Drawings of English Middle Class Urban Domestic Space 1914 to the present
On 20 February 2007, a remarkable exhibition opened at the Geffrye Museum in East London, accompanied by an excellently researched and produced catalogue. This venture is as rigorously defined by the curators as its title implies, but to the proverbial 'visitor from Mars' it provides a superbly informative and revealing investigation, anthropological in its scope and yet rich in contemporary art.
Mediators and Messengers: Contemporary Art in the Landscape
The entire agenda for painting about landscape has shifted in the 21st century. Concepts and readings of the land have a weighty and protracted precedence but in the 1970s, far-reaching revisions were explored by artists. These have generated a powerful volume of new work by painters, and installation and land artists.