Sunday, 9 November 2014

Bartholomeus Spranger

Picture: Yale University Press
Bartholemeus Spranger: Splendor and Eroticism in Imperial Prague Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York until 1 February 2015

This beautiful show of madcap mannerist Bartholomeus Spranger does justice to an artist who has languished at the margins of art history. Many of his pictures are in obscure places and most remain in central and eastern Europe. Spranger started out apprenticed to minor Dutch artists before moving to Italy where he responded enthusiastically to mannerists like Parmigianino. But he came into his own in Prague, where his brand of sexy and subversive distortion was attuned to both the intellectual and  the libertine strands of court culture. The coincidence of an artist like Spranger at the court of Rudolf II in Prague was uniquely fortuitous. The Rudolfine court is a historical and art historical cul-de-sac, but one of the most fascinating and, one imagines, congenial places in history where pioneering scientists worked alongside alchemical charlatans, and fascinating artists produced some of the most eccentric masterpieces of European art. 

The exhibition is beautifully displayed, with one wall given over to a kunstkammer where paintings and drawings hang below shelves of shells and curiosities. It sounds a bit hackneyed, but they carry it off nicely. There are some sculptures in the show, and I wish there were more (Van de Vries, for example), but as the Rudolfine sculptors are already given their due it's perhaps right to shift the focus more decisively towards pictures. The chronological presentation mixes drawings and paintings showing his evolving response to artists around him, some of whom are exhibited. The early works are striking close to sources like Giulio Clovio, which is somewhat surprising for an artist who later painted with such quirky pizzazz. The exhibition is sensibly skewed towards the brilliant late works.  
Picture: Wikipedia
Spranger picked up the visual repertoire of high renaissance and the stylish exaggerations of mannerism, but his wicked characters and vivid motifs are his own. The catalogue entry for the Blindfolding of Cupid, above, is oddly humorless for such a conspicuously funny picture, describing its sources and formal characteristics. But it's the witty characterisation that's really striking, the resentful naughty boy and the coquettish Mercury. The gender reversal of the woman meting out punishment must have appealed to Spranger.
The most attractive picture in the show is this Hercules and Omphale. It's rather better preserved than many, showing a fine feathery technique with softened contours appropriate to the ironically dainty subject matter. We see Hercules punished by being made slave to Omphale, put in a pretty pink dress and made to carry out the feminine job of spinning while Omphale wields Hercules' club and poses seductively with his lion fur. A maidservant mocks him in the background (and doesn't she look a bit like a Jan Steen?). Spranger contrasts the pink dress hanging loosely on Hercules, barely covering his rippling torso, and the lion fur clasped closely to Omphale's bosom but leaving us voyeurists to see her naked from behind. The delicate curves of Omphale belie the power of the club she wields; the finicky task of spinning calls attention to the emasculation of the great muscle man subdued by feminine power. Its a delicious little summary of Spranger, a tightly composed and beautifully coloured scene of role reversal and sexual tension with exaggerated mannerist gestures staged for private enjoyment of his court patrons. 
Spranger came too soon to Parmigianino, absorbing his stylishness without ever fully mastering the underlying forms. The presentation drawings are very beautiful, but in some of the figure studies and compositional sketches he sometimes struggles, especially when attempting dramatic foreshortening. I found the occasional awkwardness more jarring in the drawings than the paintings. The vibrant colour probably helps, and the characterisation is stronger too. But I think he takes more risks in the drawings, adapting the final paintings to cover up difficulties with foreshortening. The cupid above is significantly different from a presumed preparatory drawing that shows a trailing left leg looking awkwardly elongated relative to the foreshortened right leg. In the painting both legs are kicked back, a less ambitious but more satisfying solution. I was struck by the contrast with the Moroni show that I recently reviewed. I liked Moroni a lot, and he's a technically excellent artist. But his range was limited and he took few risks. Spranger made mistakes, but he took more risks and was more daring and subversive. I admire Moroni, but I love Spranger.

This is one of the most purely pleasurable exhibitions I've seen, presenting beautiful pictures with intelligent wall text. Of The Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist they write, "Spranger infused this seemingly static, conservative composition with portentous religiosity". It's the kind of thing you never see in British shows; neat phrases like 'portentous religiosity' are ruthlessly culled by 'experts' in visitor experience who insist that everything should be written for seven year olds. And the outstanding exhibition catalogue is a full catalogue raisonnĂ© of Spranger's paintings, drawings and etchings, written by guest curator Sally Metzler. It's quite an achievement, overshadowing the gift shop souvenirs that pass for exhibition catalogues at many London shows. An excellent review in The Art Newspaper speculates as to the fate of exhibitions of not-yet-famous old masters amid the rush to 'modish contemporary' shows. I do hope there is still room for exhibitions like this.

Looking through the illustrations I'm struck by how poorly Spranger reproduces. The small copper of Hercules and Omphale positively sings in the exhibition, with radiant light and gorgeous diaphonous dress. In pictures like The Blindfolding of Cupid the characterisation comes across much more strongly in the original, but is dulled in reproduction. Unfortunately quite a few pictures have suffered abrasion from harsh cleaning, which is especially cruel to Spranger's dainty colours and soft contours. But seeing the originals is the only way to see Spranger, and I'm delighted the Met had the courage to exhibit this delectable yet neglected master. 

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