What is Mannerism? "Around 1520, the painters of the Renaissance began to tire of what they were doing and looked for a new way of representing the world around them. And low and behold, Mannerism was born," says New York dealer Richard Feigen.
Feigen is one of America's leading Old Master experts, headquartered in a four story townhouse on East 68th Street in Manhattan. For his first show of 1999 he presented "Strange Beauty: A Century of Mannerism, 1520-1620." This selection of approximately 30 Old Master paintings and eight drawings is as exciting to the Madison Avenue crowd as it is to the art historian and the museum curator.
"What is so strange about Mannerism that you would coin the phrase 'Strange Beauty' for your show?" I asked.
"Mannerism exploits the improbable, it has a linear elegance that brings it to the edge of distortion," Feigen said. "It celebrates grace over reality and form over content. Mannerism began the journey into the world of the mind, of metaphor that eventually culminated in the Symbolism of the 19th century and the surrealism of the 20th."
Feigen laments the fact that "there has still not been a major museum survey of Mannerism in this country. Mannerists are barely represented in American museum collections. Hopefully, this will change and Mannerist artists will take their rightful place in the pantheon of the arts."
"Well you are certainly helping by mounting this show and starting the push forward," I volunteered.
Feigen laughed. "The title of the show is really too ambitious. It would take a minimum of three years to research a top-notch Mannerism show. We would have to contact any number of museums and negotiate for the loan of some of their holdings. Then we would really like to prepare a presentation catalogue that would represent a very substantial effort on our part in terms of scholarship, technical analysis and all the rest."
"Our current show," Feigen went on, "represents borrowings from our neighbors here on the Upper East Side and elsewhere, plus five paintings from my personal collection and of course gallery holdings."
Who are the major Mannerist artists?
"First of all, of course, the Italians beginning with Pontormo, Bronzino, Il Rosso, Parmigianino, Polidoro da Caravaggio. Among the French, Primaticcio who worked at Fountainbleau, in Prague Bartholomeus Spranger, and Franz Floris and Hendrick Goltzius in the Netherlands. And any number of Germans. The list goes on and on."
As you would expect, the paintings and drawings run from mythological to religious subjects, as well as symbolic representations of abstract themes, in no particular order. Let's look at six of the offerings:
The Netherlander, Hendrik Goltzius (1558-1617) is probably better known as an engraver than as a painter. His large portrait of Vulcan practically leaps out of its ornate frame. Carrying an oversized hammer and wearing a boxer's belt of some sort, he exudes great power and cheerfulness.
Frans Floris (1518/19-1570) was nicknamed "The Incomparable" by his countryman, Pieter Brueghel the Elder. The immensely popular Floris spent many years in Italy where his colors were guided by Titian and his form by Michelangelo. His group painting Arithmetic, painted in 1556 at the zenith of his power, shows four highly individual figures in Roman attire. It had been thought to be the only surviving painting in a cycle of seven. Now, however, another four have been found. (An overwhelming show of Floris' work could be mounted around these canvases. The monumental quality of Arithmetic indicates a strong feeling for the antique, and a total mastery of drapery.
Abraham Bloemaert (1564-1651) belonged to the Utrecht school of Mannerists. Instead of going to Italy to study like most Dutch artists of the period, he apprenticed in Paris with the French master, Hieronymus Francken the Elder. Bloemaert's Miracle of the Loaves (1593), an oil on a wooden panel, has all the important characteristics of Mannerist art -- foreshortening of the figure, brilliant coloring, impressive mastery of landscape. Bloemaert based his painting on the story found in John 6:1-14. Garbed in purple, Christ sits in the center of the composition next to a boy holding a basketful of loaves. In the distance is the Sea of Galilee with a tiny group of figures. The canvas is dense with images, and the eye is kept busy, moving from figure to figure, tree to tree.
The fame of Giovanni Francesco Bezzi, called Il Nosadella (1530-1571) rests largely on the frescoes he developed for the "palazzi" of the Bolognese aristocracy. The oil in the Feigen show, Thyestes and Aerope, illustrates the story of the theft of the Golden Fleece.The crowded interior is dominated by two powerful men looting the chest holding the Golden Fleece, as a partially clothed Aerope looks on. The gold of the men's garments sparkles in the light of a hand-held torch, while Aerope's bed provides a rich backdrop. Again, we have the deformation of figures, elongation, serpentine lines and exaggerated "mannered gestures" -- all hallmarks of Mannerist art.
My favorite painting in the show is Raising of Lazarus, a huge oil on panel by Marco Pino (1525-c.1587). Pino served his apprenticeship in Siena with the gifted Domenico Beccafumi. The superb flow of the painting, with its echoes of Veronese, has the elegance of an elaborate dance. Lazarus appears to be virtually floating out of his tomb, while the disciples are moved to tears and Christ assumes his central position in a fine Italian landscape. Pino's vision is unforgettable.
Finally, there is the superb Adoration of the Shepherds by Joachim Wtewael (1566-1638), another great son of Utrecht. His travels included Italy and like other great Netherlandish painters he brought the colors of the southern sky back with him. His mature style was formed in Bologna. He demonstrates a high-key decorative palette, elegant linearity and figural exaggerations, which in his case are combined with hyper-realist details. The Adoration is considered one of his masterworks.
"Strange Beauty: A Century of Mannerism, 1520-1620," is on view at Richard L. Feigen & Co., 49 East 68th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021, from Jan. 29 to April 2, 1999.