PRINT September 2011


Jacopo Tintoretto, Last Supper, 1591–94, oil on canvas, 12' × 18' 8".

NO DOUBT, THE THREE TINTORETTOS that curator Bice Curiger and her team selected for the main room of the Central Pavilion in Venice look splendid—not least because these late-sixteenth-century paintings were specifically restored for the Biennale. But to make Jacopo Tintoretto the point of reference in an exhibition titled “ILLUMInations” is misleading. Light always plays a pivotal role in the work of the Venetian painter, yet it hardly possesses the clarifying power to which the title of the 2011 Biennale alludes. Tintoretto rejected humanism’s empowering of the subject. He led the way to Baroque mysticism, not to the Enlightenment.

In particular the famous Last Supper, 1591–94, brought to the Giardini from San Giorgio Maggiore, illustrates Tintoretto’s use of light as sign and symbol. Tintoretto here transforms Leonardo’s canonical composition of Christ’s good-bye party. Whereas Leonardo’s frontal arrangement enabled him to carefully study the apostles’ responses to Christ’s announcement of the betrayal, Tintoretto rotates the table and sidelines human emotions. He focuses instead on the ensuing institution of the Eucharist, according to which Christ’s body is transformed into bread and wine, which he hands to the apostles and which at the end of each mass the priest distributes among the faithful. To reveal the mystery of transubstantiation, Tintoretto uses light. The candles of the chandeliers under the ceiling produce smoke that slowly takes the shape of transparent apparitions. In analogy to Christ’s mysterious presence in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, Tintoretto’s diaphanous figures materialize in the insubstantial rays.

Tintoretto’s light is therefore heavily indebted to theological concepts of the supernatural. It subverts its illuminating and clarifying characteristics and transcends the rational. Yet his work is not simply about a pluralism of perspectives. If anything, Tintoretto’s paradoxical light demonstrates the specific premise of negative theology: that we can ultimately have no positive knowledge of an impenetrable and ontologically distinguished God.

While such historically specific notions are far removed from concerns of artists working today, this is not to say that Tintoretto can no longer be relevant. He is a painter’s painter. His gestural brushwork and disorienting compositions are modern insofar as they are purely painterly and do not aim at mimesis or an accurate representation of the visible world. Tintoretto’s pictures draw attention to the process of their own making, which at the Biennale can be admired in the open brushwork of Creation of the Animals, 1550–53, and the ghostly figures in the background of Removal of the Body of Saint Mark, 1562–66. Tintoretto’s style derives from his spirituality, but it might open up avenues for contemporary artists preoccupied with exploring the characteristics of process and medium. Yet only a few works in the Biennale actually engage with the self-reflexive tendencies of Tintoretto’s paintings or with the mystifying dimension of his light (James Turrell is a possible exception), which is all the more surprising since Curiger’s essay in the catalogue seems much more cognizant of these dimensions. One is left with the impression that the old-master idea simply served the curators as an excuse for a conceptually diffuse exhibition. On Mount Olympus, however, Tintoretto must be rejoicing, as if after almost five hundred years he has finally received his much-deserved Golden Lion.

Benjamin Paul is an assistant professor of Italian Renaissance art at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and is preparing a book on the crisis of late-sixteenth-century Venice and Jacopo Tintoretto.