Real Sex and Ideal BeautyJohn Haber
in New York City
Once, almost out of nowhere, a city became the capital of art. Thirty years later, its art is in a mess, antiquities are looted, and its artists are in exile. Their art appears derivative, ironic, or both at once. Critics proclaim the death of painting. Some might consider it a compliment.
An emerging artist makes a splash by old skills and an old-fashioned style. He even accentuates its odd proportions. His subject matter becomes ever-more risqué, and his sitters flaunt their wealth and taste, along with their bare skin. One face keeps recurring, and insiders claim a resemblance to the artist's significant other. Defenders, however, insist that he values ideal beauty and painting itself, not portraiture or porn. Defenders say all sorts of things.
A tale of two cities
I read that story again just the other day, in a New Yorker profile of John Currin. Who else gets to run on about his sincerity and his spiritual debt to his wife and model, right after a show with "porn" in the title? Who else gets to confess his humility before the Old Masters? Who else can count on a doting arts writer not to ask what his relationship to the past actually means for his work?
Once, though, artists flocked not to New York but to Rome, where fans were calling a young artist named Parmigianino a second Raphael. Now Parmigianino returns to the Frick with a single painting, on loan from Naples. It shows a woman known only as Antea, but who is she? Currin made a splash imitating Lucas Cranach, a German painter who marked the transition from a hearty but courtly naturalism to Mannerism. Parmigianino made it happen in Italy, but independently and with an even greater shock. Textbooks describe Cranach's art as a sensual fantasy, which could almost excuse Currin as well. Now the Frick interprets Antea as exactly that.
Currin got noticed at the 2000 Whitney Biennial for nudity, properly accessorized. Antea lets slip only a breast and a bare hand holding a glove, and one has to look carefully to spot the cleavage. One has to know the conventions of the time to associate the hand with sex, but one finger does point to her heart and another, wearing a ruby ring, to her private parts. Currin started with ostentatiously slim, long-limbed women. Antea looks more natural, but the woman's long neck and slim face do not match her ample body, and every part of her anatomy speaks of sex. Currin has painted women laughing in an Upper East Side restaurant, but the only clues to this woman's society reside in her busy wardrobe—and the virtuoso painting that describes it.
Parmigianino's admirers loved surprises like these. They fell for a youthful grace akin to Raphael, but they did not mind his subjects' oddly extended limbs, abrupt shifts between foreground and background, and increasingly dark oil colors. They did not mind that the base of a colonnade in his Madonna of the Long Neck ends as in an M. C. Escher print, in a single column—which supports exactly nothing, not even a capital. In the division between classical architecture and its eerie fate, people then would have felt a parallel to the Madonna's promise of the Old Testament giving way to the New. Parmigianino himself stood for a break between classicism and a new age of modern art. After the sack of Rome in 1527, Parmigianino made a stop in Bologna, returned to his native Parma, won and lost some major commissions, and became more notorious than ever along the way.
In Parma he completed several Renaissance portraits before dying young in 1539. Few would call Antea his greatest painting, but one could easily call it his most elusive. Not long ago, the Frick allowed a fuller and more intimate look at Parmigianino and Mannerism. In a 2004 exhibition of mostly drawings, it argued for the late Renaissance as extending a great era. Yet one could hardly miss the strangeness of the new style and its parallels to Postmodernism. This time the museum unfolds a mystery.
Again the Frick makes the case for an artist of tradition, daring, and skill. Maybe it should have borrowed the painting three years ago. It could have displayed it alongside a Mannerist portrait in the permanent collection, by Bronzino, or a portrait by Pontormo that escaped to the Getty some years ago. Instead Antea hangs amid much later works in the grand manner, by Anthony van Dyck and Thomas Gainsborough, and it looks fascinating enough on its own. The curator, Christina Neilson, places Antea in the tradition of ideal beauties, going back to women from Sandro Botticelli or Petrach's Laura. She may have solved the mystery—or deepened it.
A name and a gift
Who is Antea then, besides a name? Even that hint appears well over a hundred years after the artist's death. The writer identifies her as Parmigianino's mistress, but that story presents further puzzles. The story cites no evidence, and rumors about an artist's sex life have a way of circulating, as with Raphael's Fornarina or celebrities today. Antea named a famous Roman courtesan whom Parmigianino may or may not have known—in turn named after a goddess (of, naturally enough, fertility)—but he painted this some years later in Parma. Even if he had a mistress back home, the name Antea had not spread through Italy as quickly as Dylan on the Upper West Side.
Other theories abound, and the curator gamely runs through them all. The nuttiest calls the subject Parmigianino's daughter, which means that he would have fathered her around the onset of puberty. Besides, he did not have a daughter. Others have called her a courtesan, a noblewoman, or a bride. And the painting supports them all—up to a point. Antea remains an enigma wrapped in a riddle shrouded in mystery.
She also comes extremely well wrapped. Her layers include a gold blouse, a decorative white apron, a still more elaborately embroidered undergarment visible at her wrists, a satin dress in shimmering yellow, a fur stole, and fine gloves. Her jewelry adds to the interlacing of costume and human flesh. Her left hand fingers a gold chain, and more decoration holds up her hair. All these comport with any theory one likes. Lovers made such gifts to mistresses, clients to courtesans, husbands to wives, and families to prospective brides.
The theories all run into a few glitches, however, starting with patronage. Who paid for all this? Did the artist have the means to buy all this for a mistress—or the time to spend painting her? If not, who asked for it? Presentation portraits helped in negotiating weddings, and other portraits commemorated marriage. Antea certainly has the youth and means for a noble bride, but nothing in her attire has the specificity of a family crest. I have trouble, too, imagining a bride carrying so many emblems of sensuality rather than innocence.
The painting first turns up in an inventory, but again only after the artist's death. The Baiardi clan stuck by Parmigianino through thick and thin, they had a bride of about the right age, and they could have commissioned this. They were patrons for Madonna of the Long Neck, too. In fact, the angel closest to the Madonna has Antea's face. It seems reasonable to conclude that the painter based her on a family member. On the other hand, the inventory refers to Antea only as a woman, and if she had a closer connection, surely the family would know.
The Frick, then, comes down for another common theory, Antea as ideal beauty. The genre was popular, and Parmigianino liked Petrarch enough to write out a sonnet in his own hand. Sex now enters the picture naturally. Antea invites any viewer's contemplation—or at least any male viewer. She invites him to imagine that she wears his gifts, because like an anthropologist she accepts every gift as an implicit exchange. She wants him to hope for sex in return, and she expects his love.
The curator does a splendid job assessing the evidence, and I have borrowed freely along the way. (If an observation sounds silly, attribute it to me.) However, Neilson has to play down plenty of ambiguity. Again, the same face recurs elsewhere. If Parmigianino painted an ideal beauty, did he base her on someone real? Could she really have sprung from his imagination and then stuck with him intact over the years?
Too much of the conclusion comes down to a lack of anything better. Once one has tossed out other hypotheses, how about an ideal beauty? Even the most telling evidence points every which way. Based on its lush handling, scholars traditionally dated the painting to the artist's last years. Neilson prefers a year between 1531 and 1534, based on a surviving drawing of a hand. In this theory, Antea's beauty does not age a bit by the time of the Madonna, perhaps as late as 1539. Besides, Parmigianino could have reused an earlier study at any time.
More dramatically, the curator relies on an exquisite drawing of a young man—again with Antea's features. I should have liked to see it in this exhibition. It may prove that Antea does not depict an actual woman, but that, too, is ambiguous. The drawing could amount to a family resemblance, in which case a brother strengthens the case for a Baiardi portrait. It could mean that Parmigianino based the man on a real woman. Either way, he carried with him a very concrete image, even when he attempted the ideal.
The Frick grants that the whole question of Antea's identity is a bit artificial, because so are the genres. Not just the Mona Lisa or Girl with a Pearl Earring, but every portrait presents an ideal—a patron's, a sitter's, and an artist's image of what this person should be. A bridal portrait, for example, states what a family demands of a bride and of itself. If Antea instead represents an ideal beauty, that, too, only begins an act of interpretation. One then has to ask just what the ideal entails, right down to the apparent cross-dressing. By focusing so much on identity, the show carries the story only so far, so let me continue it a bit.
In Parmigianino's hands, an ideal beauty means something real, just as all the competing theories suggest. Botticelli's ideal beauty resembles his Venus—an object of worship and a personification of love, not sex. One may worship Antea, too, but with a very different kind of worship. Her unreasonable bulk alone insists on her physical presence. At the same time, this ideal embodies androgeny, artifice, and a painter's art. One can see it in the distortions, and one can see it in the painterly flair that lets silver bands ripple through yellow satin.
Even a promise of sex leaves the outcome uncertain. Antea invites love, but one can see her pursed lips and wide eyes as self-contained or forbidding. One can also see a parallel in the object closest to the viewer—the head of a marten at the end of its brown fur. In those days a marten stood for luxury, but it gives me the creeps. This art, so fluid in the drapery, becomes cool and precise in in the eyes of a woman or a wild animal. With Parmigianino and Mannerism, one can no longer separate reality and artifice, physical entrapment and the imagination of angels.
"Parmigianino's Antea: A Beautiful Artifice" ran at The Frick Collection through May 1, 2008. A related review looks at the "A Gracious and Beautiful Manner: The Art of Parmigianino," at the same museum in 2004.