PRINT April 1971

Tiepolo’s Originality

UNSURPRISINGLY, G. B. TIEPOLO emerges as the hero of the exhibition, “Drawings from New York Collections III: The 18th Century in Italy.” His presence fills both the exhibition, contributing over 90 drawings out of a total complement of 300, and the century; the force of his personality, the range of his invention and the astonishing originality of his drawing style outdistance all his contemporaries. Even such luminaries as Piazetta, Piranesi and Guardi appear conventional in the face of Tiepolo’s achievement. Acknowledging Tiepolo’s superior quality is scarcely new, however. Since Detlev von Hadeln published his two volume selection of Tiepolo’s drawings in 1928, his draftsmanship has not lacked admirers. Over the last two decades respect for Tiepolo’s stature has given way to overt enthusiasm for his achievement, spurred by the translation of Antonio Morassi’s monograph in 1955 and catalog of the paintings in 1962, and further grounded in the scholarly Catalog of the Tiepolo Drawings in the Victoria and Albert Museum (1960) by George Knox. Michael Levey’s spirited defense of Tiepolo in Painting in XVIII Century Venice (1959) as the “presiding genius” of his age, as much as anything, marks the shift from respect to enthusiasm. Last year, the bicentenary of Tiepolo’s death, saw the Fogg honoring the occasion with an exhibition of drawings and a reprint of von Hadeln’s pioneering work. Thus, the task of re-establishing Tiepolo’s reputation has long been accomplished and there is no cause now to defend either his stature or his seriousness. What does remain is the need to define that achievement more closely, especially Tiepolo’s originality. For this purpose, the handsome Metropolitan exhibition provides a useful occasion.

At first sight “originality” must strike one as a curious word to use for this artist. Besides the caution everyone suffers at using the term, Tiepolo’s shadow appears to practically all his admirers to stretch back to Veronese and the Venetian High Renaissance and his substance to embody the final brilliance of that tradition. Originality attached to this figure is doubly odd for, in a narrowly reckoned way, he innovated no new style or tradition which continued after his death. His followers were outstandingly trivial. Even his son, the much overrated Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, coarsened and slighted his father’s achievement. Taste had already changed drastically before his death as his voluntary “exile” to Spain painfully bears out. Even Michael Levey’s phrase—“the presiding genius of his age”—admits some ambiguity. Tiepolo was exceptional to his age, not typical, and the measure of his exceptional quality lies precisely in his originality. This is made all the more unlikely by the fact that the full force of his originality only unleashed itself in fresco, on ceiling commissions at that, which were immense, programmatic and decorative. In media and function they must seem retrogressive, offering neither the ground nor the scope for originality.

Here the drawings, especially the preparatory studies for various ceiling commissions, play a decisive part in our understanding of Tiepolo. Indeed they inject a new element into the discussion and evaluation of his quality. Seen alongside his contemporaries, they are strikingly modern in their keen appreciation and exploitation of the flat sheet. The audacity of these works cannot be confused with mere scale and grandly operatic ambition. Instead of valuing Tiepolo’s art as a tour de force of late Baroque, the drawings compel a revaluation on the basis of his forward look toward modernity.

Now it is manifestly absurd to value an old master merely on the grounds of his apparent if unconscious anticipation of modernist questions and problems. That is not being argued here. What is of interest is the way Tiepolo transcends (rather than breaks with) conventional 18th-century expectations and in doing so gives his drawing style a breadth and originality none of his contemporaries could match. Tiepolo as modernist certainly sounds a perverse conclusion to draw from the Metropolitan’s exhibition. Superficially, Piranesi would seem a more likely bet. Perhaps at the present moment Piranesi’s vision of “imprison’d civilization” and “ruin’d nature” regains the startling anticipation of a modern sensibility it used to evoke. But Piranesi’s modernism is conceptual rather than formal and to be found more fully in the prints than in the drawings. Essentially his vision is prophetic, that is, one rooted in his own age, anticipating a later one. Tiepolo’s modernity lies in its presentness, no longer simply the product of his age but arresting in its originality today. It is the forward looking aspect of Tiepolo’s drawings I wish to specify here and to use Tiepolo’s originality as a means of focusing the achievement of his contemporaries.

Michael Levey draws an interesting distinction between Tiepolo’s work in oil and in fresco, pointing out that:

. . . oil painting never suited him as well as fresco. Perhaps he never mastered the technique of oil paint and it remains true of all his work in the medium that the more he finishes a picture the heavier it becomes. His sureness of touch and instinctive draftsmanship show at their best in frescoes where the paint must be laid directly on to the wet plaster and retouching is virtually impossible . . . Again and again we find Tiepolo producing an air filled ceiling fresco, all shimmering grace and color, while almost contemporaneously he is laboring at some altar-piece which has to be in the vein of more solid realism. Only gradually did he manage to invest his oil paintings with something of his frescoes’s grace, and at last forget the 17th century style training of his youth. (Painting in XVIII Century Venice, _Phaidon 1959, pp. 166–7.)

Although one would want to resist an absolute qualitative distinction between work in oil and work in fresco, the drawings certainly bear out the general truth of the observation. The early drawings with their high finish, complex architectural and figural plotting and theatrical realism, are very much late Baroque products, reflecting the Tiepolo who is heir to the Bolognese School and back further to Veronese. Space is carefully, architecturally laid out within the drawing and the figures are modeled in a strict system of light and shade. Executed in the 1720s and ’30s, these drawings show how fully Tiepolo had mastered a Baroque vocabulary before the onset of his own true manner. They are handsome but conventional. Through the sharpest of contrasts, they make us feel the shock of Tiepolo’s mature drawing style which emerges in the mid-1730s.

A drawing like Virgin and Child Attended by Three Ecclesiastics marks the transition between the early Baroque style and the full flowering of Tiepolo’s draftsmanship, which veritably explodes with the drawings for the ceiling decoration of the Palazzo Clerici in Milan of 1740. The Virgin and Child Attended by Three Ecclesiastics demonstrates how much Tiepolo has loosened up the surface. No longer does the architectural setting control the space. It is masked and the figures palpably refuse monumentality. The washes give them a liquidity and airiness that look forward to the Clerici drawings. The ground is used as a “negative” wash so that configuration and ground are brought into a more problematic relationship than hitherto. The wash no longer simply models and defines through shading but spreads across the sheet as though it were but one wash overlapping another. This technique engenders a high degree of abstraction, which for Tiepolo means an absence of literal depiction,and provides the most startling departure from the early drawing style. The central panel of the Virgin and Child drawing, between the two foremost ecclesiastics, renders neither architectural support for the seated figures nor a spatial “niche.” It is a breathtaking hiatus whereby the Virgin comes to rest on the sheet itself rather than being enthroned within the architectural setting. Neither wash nor untouched sheet alone create this hiatus: they are blended into a mobile “surfaceness.”

This superb drawing, so familiar in subject matter and so strange in feeling, adumbrates and anticipates many of the formal themes Tiepolo developed in later drawings. For us it is doubly interesting to see these effects in a drawing which was not to our knowledge a preparatory study for either a painting or a fresco. He heralds the more radical departures of his later draftsmanship in a work apparently conceived wholly in terms of drawing. Once Tiepolo brought the full concentration of his powers to drawing, the highly finished Baroque vocabulary lacked credibility. For these early drawings ape the finish of oil painting—its fullness and richness. Drawing, and more particularly a grand manner for drawing, had to be won, cultivated or otherwise derived within the specific resources of the medium. Just as fresco painting in general and ceiling painting in particular liberated his imagination pictorially, so the drawings for such commissions reflect the boldest and most innovative element in Tiepolo’s draftsmanship.

When one turns to the drawings related to the Clerici ceiling, over 20 of which were exhibited,the qualities noted in The Virgin and Child Attended by Three Ecclesiastics have been converted into overt working principles. Where the earlier drawing was an original variation on a Baroque theme, the Clerici-style drawings combine their substance with their style. It is less than adequate to characterize or evaluate these drawings as merely the shift toward greater abstraction. The occasional indecipherability of the figure style may be momentarily surprising, lending an air of spurious modernism, but it does not in itself constitute their quality. The means by which he accomplishes his abstraction holds the key to the quality. In a drawing like Apollo Standing in his Chariot, Tiepolo dispenses with the base line and any vestige of architectural support for the figure. He centers Apollo carefully on the sheet, extending the figure to the edges so that placement on the page plays the decisive role in sustaining the figure composition. He substitutes the semi-circular wheel for architectural setting, in itself mobile and dynamic in its sketchiness. The illusionistic effect of the striding Apollo is minimized in favor of a composition that is held, balanced and controlled. The effect is most frequently and misleadingly characterized as “floating and evanescent.” But Tiepolo doesn’t float masses on the sheet: he dissolves them.

The action of dissolving mass I take to be the central fact in Tiepolo’s originality. Sometimes he can employ it in a wittily literal way when one recalls those puffballs of cloud on which the miraculous vision of the Virgin and Child appears to worshippers and saints. But even in these instances the dissolving of mass has a more serious import in its association with the miraculous nature of the event. Ordinary nature dissolves in the light of the miraculous. The formal need to dissolve mass springs directly from the nature of his ceiling commissions. Clearly forms could not be modeled along the lines of mural painting. The Michelangelesque example must have hung over Tiepolo, and he chose to do otherwise. Instead of seeing his choice as turning to a brilliant display of aerial perspective and cultivated pictorial gracefulness, a sort of Rameau to Michelangelo’s Bach, the drawings show us that Tiepolo altered the conception of massiveness required for the grand manner. Mass is now seen in terms of area rather than individual plasticity. The continuity of one figure, dissolving into another as the composition spreads across the sheet, becomes the fundamental, unifying action of the composition. It is profoundly pictorial and non-sculptural in orientation. The flatness of the sheet becomes an asset and not an obstacle to be illusionistically overcome to achieve a grand manner. Hence Tiepolo’s hovering postures, of which the Bacchant and Bacchante is a charming example, gain their poise from the fusion of the form with the sheet. The opening of the Bacchant’s torso and trunk so that the white ground becomes the “mass” is ample enough demonstration of this. Likewise the wash which overlaps the Bacchante’s right leg values equally ground and mass, dissolving the one continuously into the other. Playfulness is here secured and endures rather than evanesces.

The dissolving of mass into area and the emphasis on continuity across the sheet transforms conventional figure composition. Again and again Tiepolo groups his figures into remarkable composite entities. The Pierpont Morgan Library’s group of Nobility and Virtue drawings are a prime example of this, and Harvesters with Rakes and a Sieve is a curious example where disparate sketches on a sheet collect into a remarkably convincing whole. The dissolving of mass underscores a common iconographic pattern in Tiepolo. The meeting of Antony and Cleopatra, for instance, reveals not so much the confrontation of the lovers as an anticipation of their unity. Time and Venus, the aged and the ageless, the young and the old, these are familiar enough tropes in Tiepolo. Their iconographic unity reinforces conceptually what is immediately apparent formally, that Tiepolo is much concerned with fused and fusing compositions. To this end he sometimes keeps the coherence of the drawings intact through the use of large and clear overall shapes. The flattened diamond in the Apollo Standing in his Chariot is a particularly striking example of this. In the masterly Time and Cupid the wings of Time spread across the sheet and engulf the drawing, setting up a systematic ambiguity of solids and weightlessness in the composition. Yet the triangles and the pyramids formed by the wings hold the drawing together; all else is dragged toward them.

If the dissolve is the essential modality of Tiepolo’s drawing style, it shows an.understanding of his medium more original and more radical than can be found in any of his contemporaries. He understands the liquidity of the wash and the rapid lightness of the pen line. These are exploited to discover an enlarged drawing style. If it doesn’t sound too footling, we could argue that: whereas Tiepolo exploits the medium to return to drawing in a manner abstract enough to be grand without loss of credibility, an artist like Francesco Guardi exploits the material for striking effects. The typical View of San Marco is remarkable precisely for its effects: the dappling of light and dark to create the effect of sunlight and shade. However atmospherically effective, its quality belongs to a lower order of ambition than Tiepolo’s. One has only to note how Guardi has subdued the value contrasts with his all-over wash on which he runs his system of accents. Compare it with Tiepolo’s Harvesters drawing and one sees how boldly the latter plays line against wash, letting the wash float free at one point and be bound at the next.

Piranesi would, I suppose, be taken as a more likely match for Tiepolo’s quality. But the eccentricity, which accounts for so much of his appeal and his charm, emerges as far more limiting than one had supposed. Or at least so it seems when he comes up against Tiepolo in this exhibition. The form the eccentricity takes is to swing between two extremes: an absolute architectonic sense on the one hand and an absolute decorative sense on the other. We have already noted that Tiepolo had to emancipate himself from the former. Domenico pursued the latter and mistook his father’s lightness of touch for lightness of effect. It is not too fanciful to regard Piranesi’s Prison Interior as the apotheosis of Baroque and the Gondola drawing performing the same service for Rococo. In both instances it is an essentially theatrical talent displayed. The stage setting of the Prison Interior is obvious enough and the Gondola drawing reads like a backdrop. None of this denies Piranesi’s originality but it is an originality of brilliant manipulation, of pushing conventional schemes to extremes and of schematic demonstration of extremes. In every sense of the word Piranesi is a sensational talent: personal, obsessive, wayward and self-consuming. The latter quality is significant, for Piranesi, more than an ancestor of romantic aspiration, comes down to us more as a figure than a draftsman of the first rank. One can recognize the trueness of the vision and the unremarkableness of the drawing style. Almost the reverse holds true for Tiepolo. We are left, a little lamely, with the difference between the great designer and the great draftsman. Piranesi must make his vision clear: its urgency requires it. Tiepolo must “surrender to the medium” (to borrow Clement Greenberg’s phrase) to achieve his greatness and in doing so he looks forward to a different modernism, follows a different calling.

Patrick McCaughey