(National Gallery, London, 27 February-19 May 2013)
What a difference a name makes. Just over a year ago, it was virtually impossible to get into the National Gallery’s Leonardo da Vinci exhibition (and even when you were in, you could hardly see anything for the crowds). When I popped over to the National Gallery this lunchtime, however, to see their new Barocci show, I didn’t even have to queue for a ticket. In one way, this is marvellous: it’s so much more pleasurable to visit an exhibition that you can actually see; but at the same time my heart sinks a little. It’s a depressing indication that exhibition attendance isn’t really anything to do with the quality of the show or the beauty of the exhibits, but on how famous the ‘brand’ of the artist is. And in this particular case, if people decide not to bother because they haven’t heard of Barocci (which, you might think, is the perfect reason to see an exhibition), they’ll miss out on a stunning and superlatively well-organised show.
This is how a monographic exhibition should be: focused and clear, bringing together as many as possible of the artist’s paintings and, crucially, presenting each picture in a dedicated section next to preparatory drawings and oil sketches. I can’t exaggerate how helpful it is to be able to follow the progress of a composition through the initial stages to the final work (as was also the case in the Late Raphael show in Paris): you learn so much about the artist’s working methods and you come away with a much better idea of him as an artist rather than simply as a painter. In one review of the exhibition (I’m afraid I don’t remember which), I read that the critic felt the general lighting levels were too low and the spotlighting too bright; but I thought this worked well. In such conditions, surrounded by a plain dark wall, Barocci’s colours leap off the canvas: pastel pinks, yellows and blues, warm crimsons and greens.
So, for those who are less familiar with him, who was Federico Barocci? He was born in Urbino in about 1526, the son of a sculptor and nephew of a painter. Like all ambitious artists of the period he made his way to Rome, where he worked in the studio of the brothers Taddeo and Federico Zuccaro. His talent was noticed by Pope Pius IV, who commissioned him to paint a fresco in the Belvedere at the Vatican. But then Barocci fell ill: he suspected that jealous rivals had poisoned him, and so returned home to the provincial safety of Urbino. Here he grew into an imaginative and experimental artist, representing sacred events with a humanity and warmth that was quite different from the harder, more distorted Mannerism of the time.
In many ways he foreshadowed the painters of the Baroque, a hundred years later. He shared his contemporaries’ taste for unusual poses, for twisting, turning and extravagant gesture, but he managed to make these positions look natural and engaging rather than contrived. The exhibition notes that he was influenced by Raphael, but Barocci’s sweetened sfumato actually reminds me more of Correggio. He occasionally strays too far over the line between sweet and saccharine, and he was entirely too fond of rosy highlights on cheeks, nose and forehead, which sometimes make his opalescent figures look sunburned. Unlike most artists of the time, he was almost exclusively a religious painter and his pictures offer a Counter-Reformation view of the scriptures: chaste and slightly sugar-tinted but, in Barocci’s case, strengthened with a profoundly dynamic visual imagination.
Almost all of Barocci’s best-known paintings are here, save a couple which are too fragile to travel. I was delighted to see The Rest on the Return from Egypt, which stunned me when I saw it in the Vatican Museums a couple of years ago, standing out with its freshness and colour among the gritty swirl of martyrdoms and transfigurations. It has such serenity to it, such a compositional calm, that I could lose track of time in front of it, even though the Madonna and the Child have facial features that veer into the saccharine. The same is true, incidentally, of the key figures in virtually any painting by Barocci: the protagonist acquires an idealised, slightly simpering look that completely fails to convey the full range of the artist’s skill. I found myself shying away from the main figures, instead looking at the secondary figures – the apostles, the servants, the figures who pause at the edge of the painting for no other reason than to invite us, as viewers, to absorb the action with them.
While their features are still softened and irradiated by Barocci’s instinctive sympathy for humanity, these faces held greater interest for me than the Christs or Madonnas at the centre of the picture. The most splendid face in the exhibition, in my opinion, was that of Anchises, who peeps over his son Aeneas’ shoulder as he is carried away from the ruins of Troy clutching the household gods: aged and wrinkled, this head is a superb character study. I knew most of the pictures already, but one of those I didn’t know so well was the Last Supper, which is tremendous both in scale and impact, with its array of brightly-clothed figures and the impressive recession of perspective, shown in the circling angels above the table (once again you’ll notice that Christ is idealised to the point of blandness). Coming upon it suddenly and unexpectedly, I was left breathless.
Among the several variations on St Francis, I preferred the newly-discovered painting from the Met, whose half-length format brings the saint right up against the picture plane, his left hand thrusting out towards us, pierced with a startlingly realistic nail, his eyes glittering with (literal) compassion. I found this much more powerful than the full-length Stigmatization from the Galleria Nazionale in Urbino, which I felt was let down by the rather stiff figure of St Francis (Brother Leo in the foreground, however, is a very accomplished figure and once again draws the viewer into the story as he twists round to witness the miracle).
Then there are the drawings, which tend to be more naturalistic than the slightly sugared figures for which they are preparatory, and which show off Barocci’s abilities with aplomb. There is a beautiful study of a baby’s head, which was used for the Child in the Nativity; while the Child in the painting has little discernible character, Barocci’s infant model is painstakingly replicated in chalk, down to the crease of a slight frown on his forehead. One of the most wonderful drawings was a sheet of studies of foreshortened feet, for the Christ in Il Perdono: a simple subject, but something that it’s incredibly difficult to draw well. The drawings take in a range of mediums, from pen and ink sketches which spiral across a sheet like something by Leonardo, to chalk figure studies, to the highly-finished drawings of heads in coloured chalks with which Barocci prepared the main figures in his paintings. The latter are particularly characteristic of the artist, as are the few oil sketches of heads which he sometimes produced (the curators wonder, persuasively, if Barocci made some of these after the painting, as ricordi which were works of art in their own right).
Two oil sketches survive for the Head of St John the Evangelist, a study for the monumental Deposition. One of them, from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, is displayed on all the London posters and is typical Barocci, with melting lines, sweetness and reddish highlights to the features. The second sketch, which was on the art market a few years ago and is now in a private collection, is less characteristic, being more forceful, more virile and less pastel-hued. Although the colours of the Washington sketch are simply gorgeous, I have to confess that my ‘take home’ item from the show would be the second study, from the private collection. I’d seen it in a catalogue when it was sold at auction and, even though I hadn’t seen it in the ‘flesh’ until today, I’ve thought for a long time that it’s one of the most ravishing studies you could find. This is one of the studies that’s thought to have been made after the painting and it shows a different, stronger aspect of Barocci’s art.
In the final room you find a small portrait, thinly painted and without any of the idealism that you’ve come to expect in Barocci’s faces. It shows a man on the verge of becoming old: balding and grey-bearded, with strikingly intelligent eyes. His face, cradled by a loosely-sketched ruff, emerges from a dark background and there’s something diffident about the way that half his face is still lost in shadow. He’s slightly off-centre, as though he’s been caught in the process of sidling off the canvas. This frank and unusual picture is a self-portrait of the artist, who faces his public not with the triumphant self-assertion of many artists, but with wariness and a hint of defensiveness. I found it a deeply moving conclusion to the exhibition – as if, at the final moment, the curtain has been whisked aside and we can come face to face with the quiet, rather nervous man who has been responsible for all these beautiful pictures.
If you’re in London or within a reasonable distance, I urge you to go. This is already being talked about as one of the great exhibitions, not only of the year but of recent times, and of course it’s a fantastic opportunity to see great works by an artist who is very much underrated. I urge you to buy the catalogue, too, which has splendid reproductions and (what look like) very perceptive entries.