Published  07/06/2007



Museo Nacionale del Prado, Madrid
30 January-13 May 2007

The Prado Museum in Madrid has stolen a march on all other competitors in achieving a major new retrospective on the Venetian painter Jacopo Tintoretto (1519-1594). Tintoretto occupies a key position in the history of art in that he pursued both technical and conceptual innovations which only an artist of his prodigious talent could ever achieve. This exhibition comes just before the opening of the Prado's major new extension by the renowned Spanish architect Rafael Moneo.

The painter Jacopo Tintoretto (1519-1594) was, above all, a Venetian born and bred. He hardly ever in fact left Venice all his life. His greatest group of works, a truly Herculean labour, was executed over a long period (1565-1588) for the religious community of the Scuola di San Rocca, spreading across the walls and ceilings on two principal floors of the building. These paintings are too fragile and too extensive to be removed elsewhere for exhibition.

They remain in Venice, the true measure of Tintoretto's talent. The massive 'Crucifixion' (1565), for example, is the ultimate celebration of Christianity's penultimate climacteric, but also of Tintoretto's own genius and over 30 feet in width. Tintoretto was a remarkable talent, an innovator in technique as well as conceptualisation. His 'Self-Portrait' (1546/7) brought from Philadelphia Museum of Art for the exhibition at the Prado reveals a characteristic talent, both rumbustious and challenging, and also intellectually driven and a painter with a unique talent. The sleepless eyes stare out impassively, tirelessly observing every visual detail of what is before him. For John Ruskin, Henry James, and Bernard Berenson, the comparisons were beyond painting, within great literature. Tintoretto might have been thought unworldly, since he never travelled, except once, to deliver a painting to Mantua, to the Gonzaga Palace. Even then, he would only go if accompanied by his wife, as well as their eight children. He lived in a fifteenth century Gothic house in Cannaregio, on the Fondamenta dei Mori: here he lived close to his parish church, of Madonna dell'Orto, where three of his masterpieces hang, 'The Worship of the Golden Calf' (c. 1560), 'The Last Judgment' (c. 1562), and the 'Presentation of the Virgin' (c. 1546). Tintoretto was in search of fame always, but not fortune. The late Peter Fuller was fascinated by the effect that a joint visit by John Ruskin and Holman Hunt to view works by Tintoretto conveyed. Both were profoundly affected. Ruskin himself placed him on a unique pinnacle of painterly achievement.

The allegorical, beautiful rendering of 'Summer' (c.1546), on show at the Prado, from the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, was painted at the same time as this self-portrait. Here exotic birds seem to have flown in, to perch in an instant close by the simultaneously stirring image of a fulsome beauty. All is movement, nothing static. In the same way, even the dog in 'The Washing of the Feet' (1548-9) is both relaxed and alert, ready with a stroke of the brush, to leap forward. This immediacy in Tintoretto's work, is all pervasive. It is most evident here in 'The Origin of the Milky Way' (National Gallery, London) and 'Christ carried to the Tomb', (National Gallery of Scotland), (c.1564-5).
In the former work there seems to be an amazing lack of gravity, one might add of the standard achieved by NASA products, no less. The painting 'Venus surprised by Vulcan', (1545), despite the urgency of a reality check, really is the product of the fervent imagination of a Venetian who never left his home city all of his life, it was all there to be found in Venice too. But what distinguished Tintoretto from other compatriots, as this exhibition reveals, is a subtle lightheartedness of being, for Tintoretto had also a remarkably balanced sense of reality.

Above all, as appropriate in the Prado, one finds that, notwithstanding the unavailability of key ecclesiastical works to travel from Venice to Madrid, Tintoretto's supreme focus on religious art is still born out with great effect. 'The Last Supper' (1594) (on loan from the church of San Trovaso (Santi Gervasio e Protasio) from its north transept, hangs replete with telling detail of the impoverished circumstances of the apostles and their fare. Tintoretto actually created models to aid his composition, moving the tables around. All this is shown, in a special adjunct section of the exhibition, a thoughtful implementation by the Prado curators of considerable value to art historians and students alike.

The exhibition now mounted by the Prado comes after the important exhibition in the National Galleries of Scotland (2004) on 'The Age of Titian'. It helps to re-assert the importance of Tintoretto within this Venetian context, and in terms of the Enlightenment cultures which later on swept across Europe. It is particularly fulfilling, and encouraging to observe how the Prado authorities have chosen to expand their exhibition space in the twenty-first century. The architect Rafael Moneo was clearly the right choice, despite trendy criticism within the world of architecture and critics. As with the great British Library building designed and executed over decades now, by Colin St John Wilson, a certain degree of dogged persistence on the part of Moneo here, was required to see this outstanding project through to successful completion. Tintoretto was never short of courage and displayed also the vital quality in pulling it off. Wilson and Moneo could both be said too, to have taken a leaf from Tintoretto's book.

It is opportune to mention here that currently the Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace, London, is exhibiting three works by Tintoretto. 'Esther before Ahasueras',(1546-7), 'Man from Behind', a drawing in mixed media (c.1555); and 'Muses'(c.1578). The latter is a richly turbulent painting of nine muses seen as emblems for all the liberal arts. Tintoretto has applied widely sweeping strokes of paint to articulate the surging nude figures against a background of swirling waters. This work was purchased by the 3rd Duke of Mantua direct from Tintoretto, visiting him in Venice, and originally then hung in the Palazzo Ducale, Mantua. This painting would have well graced the Prado show. It should also be mentioned that the self-portrait by Tintoretto executed in old age, from the Uffizi, Florence, Galeria di Auto Ritratti (Gallery of Self-Portraits) is currently on show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in their exhibition 'Artists' Self-Portraits from the Uffizi', through 15 July. These two exhibitions currently in London provide a rare opportunity to view the artist's works not normally viewable in London (Studio International will review the Dulwich exhibition later in June.)

Tintoretto now serves to emphasise, with this exemplary showing in Madrid, the vital importance of the leverage exercisable by the new building. It frees up the Villanueva galleries' congestion, meaning that their key works such as these by Velasquez can at last breathe in space. Moneo's 'cloister' is inserted close to the Los Jeronimos church, rebuilt stone by stone, just across from the Velasquez room where the most famous painting 'Las Meninas' (1656), now hangs. The new building provides now a further 183,000 square feet of building to the existing 312,000 square feet Prado building, no small addition as extensions go. All this is a remarkable achievement in curatorial terms, and profound congratulations are due to the Prado Museum and to their architect Rafael Moneo.

Michael Spens

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