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Old Masters In Transition To Modernism

March 22, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON

Put simply, Modernism was the epochal style that took art apart. Modernism was a brilliant seer in Coke-bottle glasses and a sorcerer's hat analyzing structure in Cubism and Purism, probing fantasy in Surrealism and feeling in Expressionism. Now this historic task of matching distilled form with expressive vector appears to be complete. Now we are well into the next thing which everybody calls Post-Modernism. It's a creature with a name and we know what it looks like but we certainly cannot tell what it will look like to the future.

Were it not for this persistent wonder about ourselves and where we going, a massive Old Master painting survey that opens at New York's Metropolitan Museum on Tuesday might pass for a model of monumentally boring old art--the type one trudges past in provincial European museums to get to the good stuff. Ponderously titled "The Age of Correggio and the Carracci," it surveys painting emanating from the northern Italian province of Emilia in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Previewed recently during its stay at the National Gallery, the exhausting 200-work, 50-artist compendium proves it possible for one's own culture to leave a legacy that is--initially at least--more impenetrable than African tribal art, more irrelevant than an Albanian income-tax form. Is there a reason on Earth why a secular American artnik should care about the martyrdom of St. Ventantius of Camerino?

For anyone suckled on Modernist aesthetics, it seems inconceivable that the audience for these pictures was not bothered by their making. The work's main visual message often indicates that the artist was just scrubbing away to fill the space of some pretentiously oversize hunk of canvas that was just too big for him. The Mannerist Parmigianino is one of the stars of this show and even he often expresses less of his fabled elegance than how tired he got filling up the space.

And what about all those lumpy forms we are supposed to accept as flying bodies swathed in drapery. . . ?

Wait. Calm down. Before you rant any more you have to tell people why this is an important exhibition and often a thing of beauty.


Even casual students of art history remember that the peak of the Italian High Renaissance was achieved by Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael working mainly in Rome. All that came to a definite halt when the armies of Charles V sacked the city in 1527. Then there is a little historical blur and the next thing we know the curtain is up on the gritty realism of Caravaggio and the trumpeting Baroque of Peter Paul Rubens. The trouble is that it is now roughly 1600. A century went by during that little blur and that was the age of Correggio and the Carracci.

Where has it been all this time?

Not entirely ignored. Mannerism appealed to the modern eye with its crisp contours and exquisite neurosis, so we tend to know about Parmigianino, Bronzino, Pontormo and others mainly suckled on the aesthetics of Florence. But that is not what the present show is about. It is about another line that arose in Bologna, the Emilian capital. Its painters were revered by posterity up to the dawn of Modernism when they suddenly became curiously impenetrable and old-fashioned. Between the once-great names of the exhibition's title are others like Guido Reni, Guercino, Domenichino and Primaticcio.

The major historical theme of the show is how these various talents interwove to finally flower--with the Carracci family--into the full-blown Baroque. The major aesthetic questions are why are they so hard to appreciate and what do they have to tell us about our own Post-Modernist situation?

One answer for both questions. Bolognese art flowered during a long transitional period following an epoch of great creativity, and so does Post-Modernism. Bolognese art of the time was trying to synthesize aspects of existing art into a new art that would appeal to a broad audience. So is Post-Modernism. (The Baroque was the Counter-Reformation style intended to inspire the Catholic faithful. Post-Modernism wants everybody.)

No wonder we have trouble with Emilian art. By Modernism's purist standards it is incredibly funky. The great innovator Correggio was supposed to be a standard-bearer of natural observation against his polar opposite, the artificer Parmigianino. But Correggio's "The Martyrdom of Four Saints" is full of woozy mannerist pouts and sadistic obsession while Parmigianino's great "Portrait of a Young Woman" is a model of observation and empathy.

The thing that throws the modern eye about these guys is that they tried to resolve their pictures by including everything-- naturalism, mannerism, humanism and classicism all in one package--while the modern artist resolves through exclusion.

The Emilians were very catholic. They also had something like a local temperament, which the exhibition's fat catalogue describes as combining sweet sensuality, tender naturalness and elevated lyric tone with inversion, melancholy and hypersensitivity.

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