"A Beautiful and Gracious Manner: The Art of Parmigianino," Jan. 27-Apr. 18, 2004, at the Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021.
Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, or Parmigianino (1503-1540) as we now know him, is best remembered for frescoes in his native Parma and his altarpiece, the unfinished Madonna of the Long Neck, now in the Uffizzi Gallery in Florence. In college, I can remember referring to illustrations of Parmigianino's chef d'oeuvre as the Madonna of the Impossibly Long Neck.
At the time, this hallmark of Mannerism, a style wedged between the classicism of the High Renaissance and the Baroque, seemed too distorted for me to enjoy after studying the refined works of Raphael and the robust forms of Michelangelo. But Mannerism's distortions look altogether different to me now, and I relish the swanning grace of the Madonna.
You can see a study for the Madonna and about 70 other drawings, plus prints and a few paintings by Parmigianino at the Frick Collection. The Frick is the only American venue of "A Beautiful and Gracious Manner: The Art of Parmigianino," an exhibition in honor of the 500th anniversary of the artist's birth, organized by the National Gallery of Canada and seen there last year.
Mannerism's distortions may be an acquired taste, but the popularity of John Currin's work at the Whitney Museum of American Art proves that there's a broad audience for this type of work. While Currin might be a considered a contemporary Mannerist, his often vulgar distortions usually result in social satire, while Parmigianino's twisted and exaggerated anatomy and unusual, often unbalanced compositions result in a subtly concocted grace.
Currin does share, however, an interest in sex and flirtation that runs through Parmigianino's secular output. If you think Currin's paintings sexy, you might want to travel a few blocks south of the Whitney and take a look at Parmigianino's Venus and Cupid in red and black chalks from around 1527-30 at the Frick.
The energetically sketched rivulets of flesh of the spread-legged nude Venus are bursting with a totally non-ironic freshness and vitality. The playful vignette of Venus holding Cupid's bow out of reach is a carefully organized tease -- look at that delicately placed left foot, the way the body is angled, Venus' eyes turned down, the better to not disturb your peering at her.
Parmigianino's compositions almost always have surprises in them. His Man with a Book, an oil from 1523-24, seems pretty straightforward until you stop and feel the vaguely malevolent gaze of the painting's raffishly handsome subject. The slightly low viewpoint, the dark background (with luxurious and beautifully painted details), the whole left back being a black hole that seems ominous, and the blocking of the figure from the viewer by a bit of chair build up to a sense of discomfort as well as intrigue.
Think of all the static Madonna and Child scenes that there are, then glance at Parmigianino's studies of the virgin and child for his Madonna of the Rose, an oil from around 1529-30. The child is being slippery and sprawls backward on his left side, his right leg lifted, practically horizontal to his mother in a red chalk drawing.
In a black chalk version, the two figures are subsumed with drapery amid ever-changing whiplash curves. The final painting, equally imaginative or bizarre depending on your point of view, has the nude child staring out, propped on his side like a beauty queen on the beach.
Parmigianino started out in good company. He came from a family of painters, was considered a prodigy, and worked on frescoes under Correggio, Parma's leading artist in the early 1500s. Correggio specialized in organizing huge numbers of swirling holy figures in church domes. They do not levitate but ascend as if being caught in an updraft. Parmigianino learned drama from his mentor, grace from Raphael, the fleshy wonders of the body from Michelangelo, and a love of the antique from spending time in Rome.
What makes Parmigianino so unique is his creative reimagining of every subject. He literally saw things differently. Working on frescoes required him to think about spatial distortions early on. He was also fascinated by mirrors, painting an early self-portrait on a specially made round panel as if he was being reflected in a round mirror. Whatever the ingredients of his genius, he shook them up and got wilder as he got older.
At the Frick, a late drawing of a Huntsman with his Horn (ca.1534-8) contains a gorgeous male figure seen from the back. His one-footed, knock-kneed yet harmonious stance is almost as miraculous as the fantastic instrument he plays. Its gigantic bell resembles an elephant's trunk.
From the same period comes a brown ink with brown and grey washes of Ganymede Serving Nectar to the Gods. Here the nude figure, facing away from the viewer, takes up the entire center foreground of the composition from top to bottom. Ganymede is made even more imposing by his left hand moving beyond the sheet. The gods' revelry is arranged in the middle ground behind him.
Parmigianino was almost too imaginative. He took too long, never tiring of taking different approaches, on a major commission back in Parma, and was jailed for breach of contract in 1539. Bailed out by a patron, the artist fled into exile, dying shortly thereafter in 1540 at age 37.
Parmigianino is considered one of the great early Mannerists, along with Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino, Beccafumi Pordonone and Michelangelo in his late work on the Medici Chapels.
The artist only left about 50 paintings, many of them small, so the handful at the Frick and the wonderful selection of drawings and prints make "A Beautiful and Gracious Manner" a great opportunity to appreciate Parmigianino's unusual works.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.