Talent and Worldly Pleasures

John Haber
in New York City

Bartholomeus Spranger and Tullio Lombardo

Bartholomeus Spranger was talented, and he knew it. As a boy in Antwerp, he had paid his dues with two different teachers, and he felt equal to them both. He was seventeen, and it was time to see commissions coming in.

But no, nothing. What to do? Hit the road—and the cultural capitals of Europe. And why not? If there was an international style in the 1500s, it was Flemish Mannerism, with gem-like colors and sophisticated stories suiting a ruling class. Besides, if anything was an important as talent, it was networking, and it was time to extend his network. Tullio Lombardo's Adam (Metropolitan Museum of Art, c. 1490–1495)

Sound familiar? Spranger has never entered the textbooks, although he served one pope and a Holy Roman emperor. Yet he has an obvious parallel in today's global art world. His retrospective may not convince more than hard-core supporters, but its worldly pleasures shine light on both the late sixteenth century and today. The Met calls it "Splendor and Eroticism in Imperial Prague."

Hard to believe, but the guard watching over Adam by Tullio Lombardo has to remind people not to touch. Hard to believe, because the sculpture fell to the ground in 2002, shattering into hundreds of pieces. It has taken twelve years and incredible expertise to restore it. Who would wish to be responsible for anything like that again? Yet its unveiling at the Met makes the impulse to touch understandable. This art is about touching quite as much as looking, but it, too, touches on the politics of art.

The gleam and the darkness

One can get to know Bartholomeus Spranger on the way in, past a self-portrait from around 1585. He depicts himself in the smock and cap of an artist, in service to others and to his craft. Yet he does not dwell on the act of painting or the tools of his trade. Nearing forty, he looks younger and hipper. His gaze could be penetrating or just slightly drunk. If one had any doubt that he was building an image, he painted another version nearly identical to the first.

One hits the second in the third of three rooms, square galleries used more often for drawings, prints, and photography. They are low-ceilinged, large, and awkward for paintings alone, but then Spranger was at ease in whatever medium it took to succeed. He supplied models for sculpture and for Hendrick Goltzius, whose prints helped to define the late Renaissance. The curator, Sally Metzler, stages his success in Prague with a wall set out as a kunstkammer, or cabinet of wonders. Works of art rest on their shelves along with taxidermy, a skull, and a skeleton. She draws knowledgeably on rarely visited European museums for his first major show in America.

Born in 1546, Spranger studied with names even more obscure than his own. One belonged to the fashion for imitations of Hieronymus Bosch, but without Bosch's introspection and breathtaking imagination. The other introduced the younger man to Flemish landscape for its own sake, with rocky leaps from foreground into depth and with acid blue skies against a muter earth. Spranger's early paintings adopt enamel on metal, popular for its electric hues and aura of rarity, and neither changes all that greatly when he turns to oil on canvas. Only the shadows darken and the flesh comes to gleam. One could well imagine that he had never left Antwerp.

His later work will be all about the gleam and darkness of the flesh, especially in the bodies of gods. First, though, he had to pass through France, Italy, and Vienna, picking up more lessons along the way. He stops in Parma, the hometown of Parmigianino, but he shows little interest in Parmigianino's portraiture and Italian Mannerism, with their emotional turmoil and psychological penetration. He prefers simpler pleasures. He does, however, find his first success in Rome, with a new mentor and the patronage of a pope. Both instilled a piety that survives his later worldliness.

The pope was Pius V, on the side of the Inquisition, and the mentor was Giulio Clovio, sometimes called the Cretian Michelangelo. If that sounds like lukewarm praise, it may as well be. Still, that artist knew his times. Michelangelo lies behind a Conversion of Saint Paul and Raphael behind a Saint George and the Dragon—both after the famous painters had themselves moved toward Mannerism. Giulio had also given El Greco a career boost, and one can see hints of El Greco when Spranger takes on the life of Jesus. For the first time, actors encounter one another in the colonnaded architecture of public plazas.

Still, Spranger's tone is more gentle, whether by nature or in order to please. Some early enamel could almost be watercolor. Characters sway in gentle curves, feet barely touching the ground. The Holy Family cherishes a rest on the flight into Egypt, and Jesus as Man of Sorrows turns inward in thought. Joseph folds himself within his cloak. Even after the artist's arrival in Prague in 1580, a penitent Magdalene looks as bookish as she is sincere.

Those in the know

Spranger in central Europe can seem like a new person. He finds favor from Rudolph II and an empire. Figures grow more massive and close to the picture plane. Their poses grown more fanciful, locked in each other's arms or, above, in the trees. Their flesh grows rustier, and the shadows truly gleam. Most of all, the painter of the Gospels discovers pagan myth and sex.

No doubt his audience began to change during his brief stay in Vienna, and so in response did he. One can see a growing drama in a Resurrection, with coffins at provocative angles and Jesus not so much ascending to heaven as floating above the earth. One sees, too, his first in what will be a repeated subject, Venus with a significant other. Whether Mars, Vulcan, or Mercury, he has to submit his impressive anatomy to her demands and her charm. He also has to navigate around a third party, Cupid, wrapped up in their desires and their legs. Sex here is emasculating and inevitable.

Bartholomeus Spranger's Jupiter and Antiope (Kunsthistorisches, Vienna, 1596)It is also for those in the know. This aristocratic audience wants an art up to its sophistication, including tales from Ovid or Ariosto, the author of Orlando Furioso. When death appears, as an emblem of Vanitas, he looks much like another Cupid. Jesus appears as the shepherd of humanity, peasant hat on head and crook in hand—but one can forgive the Met for seeing him instead as a gardener, when buyers had estates to cultivate. And when Jesus says Nolo Mi Tangere, or "do not touch," he comes so close that Mary can hardly avoid touching. The viewer can do little better.

Yet Spranger's accommodating nature remains, because he is at heart a conservative. He left Flanders already behind the times, just when Pieter Bruegel was bringing a greater sweep and an earthier realism. And he spent his last years before his death in 1611 just as Caravaggio and the Baroque were turning Flemish Mannerism into history. One should not mistake more massive actors for a new century's clarity and freedom of movement, and one should not mistake voyeurism for female empowerment. Judith with the head of Holofernes executes less an act of shocking violence, as for Artemisia Gentileschi in 1612, than a pas de deux. This sexual tension will not upset an empire or an art.

It is also stunningly familiar from the "Neo-Mannerism" of today. One can see art's reflection then on the Renaissance as akin to Postmodernism, in what I like to call a Post-Renaissance. One can see, too, why artists had to be too smart for their own good, much like Jeff Koons now. One can see why polish mattered more than insight or a greater skill. In sketches, Spranger's line moves by fits and starts, with little cross-hatching. It will translate easily into fluid washes and glossy oils.

Yet the tension is real, then or now. In another Holy Family, Jesus comes so close to the picture plane as to lose his legs, and an infant John the Baptist could already have his head on a platter. There are hints of danger, like drops of blood for Mary or of hot wax for Cupid. Come back any moment, and they will seem forebodings of a whole new century. The news may take a little more time to reach the Holy Roman Empire, and audiences may have to broaden past the high end once more, but they will. Can change still come to art today?

Touching on the Renaissance

Not that anyone pushed over Adam by Tullio Lombardo. A plywood pedestal collapsed, at six on a Sunday evening, leaving a formidable challenge. Luckily the head and torso suffered least, among the twenty-eight most identifiable fragments, and conservators have greater resources nowadays as well. Laser analysis could help with the 3D jigsaw puzzle, and computers could help identify points demanding extra reinforcement. Metal pins, which place their own stresses and strains on marble, have given way to Fiberglass, and adhesives have improved as well. Video accompanying the exhibition does a tremendous job of explaining the process.

The video alone brings out the impulse to touch, only starting with the work of hands. It is not a touch screen, but it engages visitors all the same by taking them behind the scenes. It also argues for conservation as the work not of a lone artisan but a team of scholars and scientists, with Carolyn Riccardelli as principal conservator, Jack Soultanian responsible for cleaning and surface integration, and many hands present at once. You may want to touch, too, out of sheer disbelief at their achievement, for not a crack remains visible in the smooth surface of Carrara marble. The impulse is all the greater for a figure almost larger than life. Born around 1455, Tullio designed the statue for a tomb for the doge of Venice filling an entire wall, and at six foot three Adam still towers over the viewer.

The sculpture, too, is all about touching—and not just because of its nude flesh. Tullio worked in the early 1490s, as the High Renaissance was taking shape, with its ideals of balance, mass, and motion. One foot rests firmly on its base, the other on a triangular support so that Adams seems to be stepping forward on one toe. For now, he is on display fully in the round, in a small room off a new gallery for the period's sculpture and decorative art (rest assured, a perfect cube). And the sculptor lavished equal care on the rear, which admirers of the tomb could never see. He also tells the story of a fatal touch.

Adam holds the apple in his raised hand, at the very moment between his taking what he should not and the Fall. No doubt the doge claimed for his domain all of humanity, warts and all, although the tomb also included an Annunciation, to frame the narrative as one of redemption. Meant for a niche to one side of the coffin, opposite Eve, Adam looks as much forward as toward her, while the other arm rests on the forbidden tree. Maybe the text requires Adam's temptation to come from Eve, but this way his dilemma directly addresses the viewer. And maybe his gaze looks less anxious, as the Met claims, than vacuous. But then he is surrendering his perfection to the serpent and the woman.

Vacuity and sexism are very much part of the story as well. The Met has owned the sculpture since 1936, and many have walked past without even noticing it. The exhibition title speaks of "a masterpiece restored," but then museums dish out the word masterpiece these days like candy on Halloween. The Frick's loans from the Scottish National Gallery are all "masterpieces," and The Crusader Bible at the Morgan Library is "a Gothic masterpiece." They have a duty to drum up visitors, and they have a point, too, about shows too good to miss. The Met, though, has a singular talent for self-congratulation—and a disturbing one.

Time and again it has boasted of a curator's pet project as central to western civilization, and time and again it has asserted its attributions without a hint that others may disagree. Those attributions also have a habit of involving an upgrade. Speaking of walking past without noticing, visitors to that new gallery seem to ignore a sculpture attributed to a young Michelangelo, as was a painting not long before. Young Archer has much the same languor as Adam, in both modeling and expression, rather than Michelangelo's propulsive tension. And then there is the careerism and museum politics behind them—not all that far from the hype and money trail in contemporary art as well. For now, though, the Met has redeemed itself with a magnificent restoration, a commitment to education, and that impulse to touch.

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Bartholomeus Spranger ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through February 1, 2015, Tullio Lombardo through June 14.


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