Los Angeles

“Mannerist Art”

Pamona College

The exhibition of Mannerist art at Pomona College, organized by Maurice Cope, Director of the Montgomery Art Center, is possibly the first of its kind on the West Coast. The exhibition brings together, in a meaningful context, sculpture, paintings, drawings, and prints assembled largely from this area but often not easily accessible.

Through the stimulus which recent Mannerist studies have given to problems in this period the exhibition will excite the interest of students and scholars. Today Mannerist art enjoys a growing public awareness. The term and concept of Mannerism, generated from within art history, has in recent years been incorporated into the fields of music and literature. The 20th-century rediscovery and revaluation of Mannerism has been occasioned at least in part by comparable values in the two periods. The emphasis in Mannerism on formal abstraction as an expression of subjective aspects of personality is only one of the many factors that have made possible our appreciation of Mannerist art. The abandonment of the classical ideal of the High Renaissance and the expression of social insecurity and personal anxiety in the ensuing art of Mannerism suggests a comparison with our time. Just as Expressionism prepared the way for the popular appreciation of El Greco, so the highly disciplined formalistic trends in 20th-century art, however different in their meaning, prepare us to see the formal discipline in the art of Mannerism. Because of this community, the exhibition of Mannerism is timely and has a significance for historians, for artists, and for the general public.

The exhibition documents the transformations of Mannerist style from its beginnings around 1520 to its most removed stylistic ramifications. It has not been the intention, however, to present a chronological development; rather, the works have been selected and arranged with respect for locale and for the stylistic interaction among artists. Works of the major artists are juxtaposed with those of their immediate and remote followers. In this way the exhibition comments on the complex interaction of style and is able to suggest the processes at work in the formation of this art.

Of greatest interest is the unfinished painting Madonna and Child with St. Elizabeth and St. John by Rosso Fiorentino and dated by Kusenberg and others close to the beginnings of the development of Mannerism around 1520–1521. In this painting a sibylesque Elizabeth communicates urgently to the Virgin who attends with disturbed comprehension. The Christ Child responds to the anxiety of the situation. The premeditation on the Passion, usually symbolized by the sleeping Christ Child, is here assigned to the infant St. John. The dualities of the theme are restated in the opposed attitudes of the two angels.

Premonition of the Passion as communicated between the infant Christ and St. John had been a part of the iconography of Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo, but I know of no instance in which it has been given such dominance or treated in this way. The painting deserves a careful investigation for all that it may tell us of this crucial moment in the development of Mannerist style and iconographical preference.

Distinguished for its quality is the Pontormo drawing from the Fogg Art Museum: a study relating to the Christ in Pontormo’s Deposition in Florence. The drawing, in its expressive anxiety and sensuality, is an admirable representative of Pontormo’s work during the 1520’s. Contour. and three dimensional volume of form no longer equate in a classical sense—an independent energy pervades the form, altering even its descriptive reference. This abstracting tendency—here so vitally compelled by its content—contrasts markedly with the abstracting formalisms of the secondary masters.

Another example of one of the major masters is the Saint Barbara by Parmigianino from the collection of the Pomona College Gallery. The high expressions of feminine grace which Pontormo was to achieve in his later work are already suggested in this picture. The fragile sensitivity, the personalized responsiveness of the figure, and the lightness of the form are qualities especially significant in the evolution of Mannerism.

These works by the creators of the style, the Venus and Cupid by Allori which reminds us of his more famous master, Bronzino, and the two Giovanni da Bologna bronzes, provide a basis in the major masters from which to explore the rich variety among the many secondary masters of the later international phase of Mannerism. It is then interesting from within this context to see the Saint Andrew by El Greco, that most exceptional exponent of international Mannerism.

In this phase, national distinctions become apparent. The vigor of the Dutchman, Heindrich Goltzius and the elegance of the French examples are simultaneously heightened by their contrast. But the greater advantage of this assembly of prints and drawings is the clear demonstration of the adjustments which these artists made to the dominating Italian influence. It is in the nature and kind of this adjustment that the particular character of each artistic personality is revealed. In a time when art was motivated so strongly by existing precedent within art it is not surprising to find a rapid vacillation of style in the work of a single artist. This is evident in the several prints by Goltzius.

The works reflect a complete range from aspiration to a capricious assembly of mannered formulation. Perhaps both may be seen in the prints by the Frenchman, Jacques Bellange, where a courtly taste for the embellishment of costume is imposed on figures often derived from Raphael or Michelangelo. The large scale of the figures in the prototypes has been retained but relieved of its monumentality and inherent meaning. Bellange has observed the great masters as if through the veil of Parmigianino’s influence but the generic quality of Parmigianino’s grace has been sacrificed for a variety of derivative formal elements. Bellange creates with his ebullient draperies and capricious light a sumptuous overstatement. In this lightly and freely structured context, Bellange inserts notes of dramatic intensity like the extreme expression of erotic longing of the central figure in the allegory shown here. Appropriately, the heaviness of this sentiment is borne by forms derived from Michelangelo’s Doni Madonna, while the lighter and more passive attendant figures on the left suggest a derivation from Raphael and Parmigianino. As these artists recast the forms of the great masters they reveal their understanding of the role appropriate to each.

Edgar Thorne