To paraphrase Marx (Groucho), the critics all say that this is a brilliant show, but don't let that fool you - it really is a brilliant show. It's a serious, well-curated retrospective that's also a great visual feast. By concentrating on a relatively small number of major paintings it gives room to show the development of ideas through preparatory drawings, pastels and oil sketches. It's tightly defined and nicely integrated; in the large central gallery you can look up from the preparatory sketches in a central display case to see the finished works on the wall. Best of all, few have even heard of Barocci, so it's not too crowded and the people who are there want to see the art rather than to have seen the must-see show.
The studies in pastel and oil are the stars of the show. He produced brilliant head studies for the figures in his altarpieces. I find it hard to believe that this effort was just an integral step in creating the altarpiece; the look like ends in themselves, labours of love and great works of art in their own right. I'm persuaded by the catalogue's assertion that some of these were produced for sale to private collectors. Raphael loved to experiment with heads in different dramatic positions. Barocci took the results of that experimentation and produced studies of immense beauty, dramatically lit and stunningly coloured.
The life studies and compositional sketches do give a slightly one-sided picture of Barocci's art, emphasising its rootedness in nature and his individual creative energy. The other side is the way he borrowed from other artists. Dramatic gestures and bravura foreshortening draw directly from other High Renaissance innovators; it's no surprise to learn that Barocci owned a collection of Raphael drawings. He seemed to be putting together elements of earlier art, taking individual figures and gestures and fitting them into new compositions. I struggle to accept the grand claims that the catalogue makes on behalf of these compositions. The combination of elements sometimes seemed less than the sum of parts, and the parts themselves are of variable quality.
The critics have understandably sought to rehabilitate Barocci and emphasise his greatness, but I do fear that reading some of the reviews out of context could give a false impression of his relative excellence. For all the attention he paid to faces, hands and feet, his grasp of anatomy seems sometimes sketchy. The most silly example is the cat in the Annunciation (worn away in the painting, but visible in the etching); the leg is in entirely the wrong place. The early sketch for the composition of the Visitation is oddly hesitant in depicting bodies. Where Raphael captured human forms with graceful ovals, Barocci drew scrappy outlines. Although hands and feet are beautifully rendered, knees and elbows are more summarily treated. And sometimes his drapery doesn't so much reveal underlying forms as hide them away.
For all the effort that went into individual hands and feet, they don't work together to integrate a composition in the way that Raphael and Poussin mastered so well. The Entombment is the best, I thought. Some of the others seem an undisciplined agglomeration. The Idle Woman astutely notes that the primary figures are often idealised to a point of saccharine sentimentality that's offputting; often the secondary figures are more compelling.
One thing that I haven't seen mentioned in reviews is the often execrable condition of the larger paintings. Parts are very abraded, there are obvious areas of repaint, no trace of impasto (although this may largely be attributable to Barocci's technique), and odd patterns of craquelure that suggests in some cases that the canvases may have been rolled up or damaged by heat. In some cases the condition may mislead us in assessing quality. In the Last Supper, for example, there seems to be a fairly broad area of repaint in the horizontal arm of the servant in the foreground, giving a false impression of the contour. The catalogue reproduces a drawn study that shows far more clearly defined muscles, which in the finished painting have perhaps been blunted by cleaning. I would have appreciated more technical information in the catalogue; discussion of condition is very limited.
I wish I could have seen the St Louis leg of the exhibition. St Louis has a fine permanent collection including a Holbein, a late Titian, an important Michelangelesque sculpture by Montorsoli and some great Beckmanns. I'm very impressed that this unfamiliar Midwestern museum collaborated on such a serious and impressive exhibition. The catalogue isn't always reliable on which paintings were shown in each location (the Met's St Francis is in London, catalogue says St Louis only), but I'd love to have seen the small version of Il Perdino, and even more so the small version of the Entombment, in an anonymous private collection and looking ravishing in the catalogue. It's a shame that provenance is provided only for the main catalogue entries, and not for any of the studies or replicas.
I always get a season ticket to the exhibitions I want to see, so that I can go little and often. I was in Madrid for the opening weekend, so my first chance to visit was late night opening on Friday. I was so impressed that I went back on Saturday and again on Sunday. Unfortunately the finger prints smeared across the glass protecting the drawings hadn't been cleaned at any point over the three days; it just got worse. Given the astonishing resources devoted to a conservation department that's endlessly scrubbing away at the surfaces of paintings, it's very disappointing that they can't keep the glass clean. Can't they give the conservators microfibre cloths and get them to spend twenty minutes in the exhibition before it opens each day? They'll do less harm polishing glass.
My gripes are just an attempt to bend the stick away from the slightly one-sided criticism that I've read elsewhere. This is a fantastic and joyful exhibition. The only ones from the last decade at the NG that are comparable are The Sacred Made Real and the Rubens exhibition in 2005, which I reviewed at Culture Wars. I rarely encourage people to go to exhibitions; spending time in permanent collections is often more rewarding. But really, you should go to Barocci.