Who Are the Masters Now?

Such is the vibrancy of the international exhibition circuit that it is easy not to notice that one type of show has become increasingly rare – life-and-works displays of the big-name Renaissance artists. An increased unwillingness to risk fragile works, a reluctance to denude home collections of their most celebrated pictures and spiralling insurance costs have led curators to devise new types of exhibition. It is only the fact that France has the richest holding of Mantegnas outside Italy that makes the fascinating show of the North Italian pioneer, currently drawing to a close at the Louvre, possible. Even then, it has been beefed up with drawings, prints and works by several of Mantegna’s contemporaries and acolytes.

Mantegna (1431-1506) was the most significant 15th-century painter to be faithful to one of the founding ideals of the Renaissance: the rediscovery of Classical antiquity. Ancient Rome’s legacy is a constant presence in his painting – through the architectural backgrounds against which his figures stand and in the figures themselves, who more often resemble statues than flesh and blood. Mant-egna approached his paintings with clarity of purpose, adopting a limited palette, a rigorous adherence to perspective and a low pictorial viewpoint. These traits are present in the three superb predella panels from the San Zeno altarpiece reunited for the exhibition – The Agony in the Garden, The Crucifixion and The Resurrection – painted between 1457 and 1459 when he was in his twenties. They are still evident in the monumental St Sebastian of Aigueperse c1478 of his middle years and remain there at the end with the suite of nine paintings that was the culmination of his long career, The Triumph of Caesar 1486-1506 (from which the Queen has lent The Vase Bearers).

However, while Mantegna’s stylistic austerity gives his paintings, both large and small, a tragic grandeur, there is a lyricism present too. In 1453, he married Nicolosia, Giovanni Bellini’s sister, and the sweet emotionalism of his new brother-in-law’s paintings left its soft imprint on Mantegna’s subsequent work.

Where this thoughtful exhibition struggles is in overcoming the problem that Mantegna’s single most important work is immovable – the frescoes of the Camera degli Sposi painted between 1465 and 1474 for the Gonz-aga’s ducal palace in Mantua. Mantegna had become their court painter in 1460 and the extant works of his maturity were all painted for the Dukes of Mantua. Several notable examples are here; in particular, the verdant and hieratic Madonna della Vittoria, commissioned to commemorate a narrow victory over the French in 1495, and two of the bizarre mythologies he painted for Isabella d’Este, Parnassus, 1496-7, and Minerva Chasing Vice from the Garden of Virtue, 1500-2.

The presence of these pictures papers over some of the gaps in the narrative. Indeed, as an example of how to make the most of limited resources and give a real sense of the development and influence of this most innovative and idiosyncratic of artists this exhibition could hardly be bettered.

The Louvre also contains one part of Paris’s current Picasso-fest – an idea with a very different ethos. Spread over three sites, this ambitious composite show puts the Spaniard’s pictures alongside the works of earlier painters who inspired him. At the Louvre, several of his versions of Delacroix’s Les Femmes d’Algers are juxtaposed with the real thing, at the Musée d’Orsay it is Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, and at the Grand Palais, in Picasso and the Masters, he squares up to an enormous selection of greats from Raphael, Titian and Velázquez to El Greco, Poussin and Goya.

The exhibition was carefully designed to be the biggest blockbuster in living memory: take the most crowd-pulling of the moderns and then lard the mix with a greatest hits medley by many of art’s most celebrated names. The whole thing cost some £3.3 million to stage, the 200 paintings involved are worth an estimated £1.67 billion and 10,000 visitors a day have turned the Grand Palais into a mainline station at rush hour. All this to prove that Picasso was the heir and equal to the greatest painters in history and that he cannibalised them to make a new type of art – the painting of painting.

This grand scheme has attracted criticism in France as a low-brow and cynical example of curating by numbers. There are, however, other problems with the concept, not least that to make the whole thing worthwhile one needs to take Picasso at his own estimation. While he never doubted that he deserved his place at art’s top table, indeed that he should be at its head, many an exasperated visitor, after struggling through the crowds, will question the seating plan.

The curators have been unable to draw a distinction between those Old Master paintings – Velázquez’s Las Meninas, for example – that Picasso systematically explored and genuinely transformed and other works where there is simply a superficial connection. Take the last room of the exhibition, the big finish. It houses some of the greatest nudes in the history of art – Manet’s Olympia, Titian’s Venus and Cupid with an Organist, Rembrandt’s Hendricke Stoffels Bathing, Goya’s Naked Maja, an Ingres Odalisque and also a clutch of nine Picassos that supposedly sprang from them. There is, however, little direct connection; Picasso’s women are not versions or even descendants of the others and thus no point is made. The room is a collection of fabulous masterpieces (rendering, incidentally, Goya’s Clothed Maja meaningless back on its own in the Prado) but it says no more than: “Great artists painted nudes and so did Picasso.”

This slapdash thinking does Picasso no favours. It is not his pictures over which most viewers will linger but those he emulated, and he emerges diminished from these all-too-random comparisons. The great paintings here are by others’ hands. It seems you can’t always judge a man by the company he keeps.

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