A funny thing happened to me on the way to the RA
Chance meetings are one of the little pleasures that enrich life. As the streets grow ever more crowded and their occurrence thus rarer, they become all the more precious. And as, we are told, our population increase is, in part at least, thanks to immigration and so, as a society, we want to reflect on the benefits that brings, let us add this to the blessings it offers our island.
And so, stepping onto the pavement near Marble Arch in the days before Christmas, I happened to meet my friend of many years, now the reviews editor for History Today, Philippa Joseph. She was off to the office, while I was on my way to the Royal Academy and the exhibition on the mid-sixteenth century Bergamese artist, Battista Moroni. On hearing this, Philippa asked me whether I had seen the review of the show by Piers Baker-Bates – that I had not was not a surprise, considering it appears in the January issue of History Today at that point just being published. As we boarded the Underground, Philippa, with characteristic generosity, presented me with a copy of the magazine and left me to do my homework on the tube, during the short trip to Piccadilly.
This was a moment of triple serendipity – seeing Philippa, reading a review of an exhibition I was about to see, and that written by another friend, for Piers and I have crossed paths both in subterranean pizza joints in Cambridge and before the fire-place at the British School at Rome. His review (I hope this acts as no spoiler to those who have not read it) is effusive in its praise and I can certainly see why: there is much to enjoy in this densely packed exhibition. It has some gorgeous works on display, skilfully presented with a strong logic to the arrangement – in fact, too strong. That, as I will explain, is one reservation I have, but all my comments are intended not to denigrate what is there and, rather, to suggest how we can deepen our appreciation further.
As Piers points out, Moroni was once a painter in fashion – not only in his lifetime in Bergamo in the 1560s, but also when the Victorians bought up his portraits. That his name is less known now has made some newspapers call the decision to put on this show ‘brave’, though I am not sure the element of virtus that is courage has much to do with it and, certainly, on my visit, the subject’s relative obscurity did not seem to have dented the exhibition’s popularity. It had, though, affected some of the choices of how to present the material. It seems that, concerned to sell their painter to an audience that they appear to feel needed direction, the curators allowed the caption-writer to descend into an imperiously didactic mode which wreaks of old-style connoisseurship. ‘No detail in the painting can divert attention from the piercing gaze fixed on the spectator by the young woman’, the visitor is directed in front of the Rijksmuseum’s ‘Portrait of a Young Lady’. Well, for this viewer, there are details that capture the attention and – I submit – enrich the portrait. Bear with me for a while before I explain why.
‘The exhibition takes us chronologically through Moroni’s career and illustrates clearly how his artistic trajectory developed’ – thus Dr Baker-Bates in History Today. This does, indeed, seem to be the rationale, except that the last room, packed with impressive pieces, breaks the logic. It includes the portrait of a doctor or magistrate leaning back in his chair (there is something of Lorenzo Lotto here; it is now in Brescia); it dates itself by the ruse of a note on the letter the sitter holds to the year 1560 – that is, at a time when Moroni was the in-vogue painter of Bergamo, as shown three rooms earlier in the exhibition. The title for this last room provides another explanation for its organisation: it is called ‘The Beginnings of Modern Portraiture’. Here grand claims are made for Moroni’s achievement, explaining that in his ‘final decades’, when he had returned to the town of his birth, a few miles from Bergamo, he mastered the production of portraits ‘with [such] startling realism, tonal effects and strong characterisation [that they] anticipate the work of such seventeenth-century artists as Caravaggio and Velázquez, through to Ingres, Degas and Manet in the nineteenth century’. Is this sort of writing still acceptable in art history? It sounds more like journalese, where the newspaper has required an ex cathedra statement from an academic because that is what they are meant to say. It ignores causation – did Caravaggio, let alone Velázquez, study Moroni’s work? – and context – were there no artists from whom Moroni adopted techniques?
It also, of course, assumes a ‘progress’ towards later-life perfection. How we all hope we can achieve that! Yet, the exhibition itself suggested something else to me. The captions repeated talk of the intense gaze of the person portrayed but I must say that it seemed to me that Moroni was a master of the dead eyes – there is rarely an attempt to bring the irises alive; his art is more in the posture, the inclined head and the hands. These are figures which are, most often, statuesque, painted as if they are patiently positioned very still. But not always – for me, those portraits which come alive are those that depict not as much the person but a moment: the second, for instance, at which the Lateran Canon turns to the painter and his lips being to curl in a smile. Or the portrait of the child (surely a difficult subject to keep in one position) which captures her playing with beads. Or – to return to one which we have mentioned before – the portrait of a young lady at the moment she is about to spread her fan to cool her face.
None of the three paintings just mentioned is firmly dated: the latter two are tentatively attributed to the early 1570s, while the Lateran Canon (now in Rotterdam) is thought to be about 1558. That is to say, there is no certain line of development: we are not necessarily seeing increasing skill or deepening insight over time, but rather an artist who can ‘do’ both the statuesque and the more informal, the more human. Even this dichotomy does not sum up a range which also, as this exhibition shows, includes altarpieces with at least one very striking ‘Last Supper’ (from Romano di Lombardia) where the servant pouring the wine – with all the theological implications invested in that vase – upstages the central figure of Christ. There is not a single style on display in these rooms – and there is not a single way in which they should be viewed.
This is a stimulating exhibition, for more reasons that I have had chance to explain here. It is about to close – so, go now, and help convince the Royal Academy that it is such a success they did not need to patronise the viewers with de-haut-en-bas captions and an over-simplified narrative. The curators and the Academy are to be thanked for arranging it – and, myself, I have to thank Piers and Philippa for increasing my enjoyment of my visit. And, of course, the benign gods that bring us immigration. Long may it continue.