Bernini, the Man of Many Heads

14 08 2008

 

 August 8, 2008 / nytimes.com

By HOLLAND COTTER

LOS ANGELES — Whoosh! You can practically hear the sound of satin flung over papal shoulders and the rustle and creak of silk against silk brocade in “Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture” at the J. Paul Getty Museum here.

You may imagine other sounds, too — murmurs, commands, sick-bed sighs and a single, startled intake of breath — as you walk past the 28 bronze and marble busts in this exhibition, which has to be one of the outstanding displays of 17th-century European sculpture in the United States in recent decades.
As the largest show yet of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s portraits, it couldn’t be otherwise. Just look at the guest list: Scipione Borghese has come from Rome, Costanza Bonarelli from the Bargello in Florence, Cardinal Richelieu from the Louvre and Thomas Baker, he of the Steven Tyler mop, from the Victoria and Albert in London.

These people almost never travel, yet here they are in Los Angeles, cleanly installed and plexi-free, thanks in part to some upper-level deal cutting. (The Getty returned 40 works from its collection to Italy last year and was given the green light on the Italian loans in return.)

Although there are works in the show by artists other than Bernini, he is at its center just as he was at the center of the art we call Italian Baroque, a period style defined by virtuosic naturalism, kinetic emotionalism and high-flying formal glamour. It was an aesthetic of large personalities, and Bernini had one.

In fact he had it all: not just talent, ego and energy, but also brains (unhampered by troubling introspection), looks (evident in two 20-something self portraits, one painted, one drawn, in the show) and a careerist’s savvy that seldom let him down.

Born in 1598 and raised in Rome, he turned out preposterously sophisticated work when barely into his teens and continued to produce at peak form until his death in 1680. He adhered to the Renaissance model of the artist as polymath. In addition to being a sculptor, painter and draftsman, he had a major career as an architect; was a poet, playwright and stage designer; and still found time for a scandalous love life.

Like other successful artists of his day he was both a master and a servant, a celebrity and a functionary. He could be innovative to the point of sacrilege — one thinks of his orgasmic St. Teresa, or the crazed immensity of the baldacchino over the tomb of St. Peter in the Vatican — yet his invention was almost always at the service of a conservative political and religious elite. He pushed the spiritual potential of art in radical directions but was a propagandist for hire to the Church Triumphant.

A blend of novelty and caution marks many of the portrait busts by him in the Getty show, which was organized with the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Almost all of his sitters were tied, through election or blood, to the ecclesiastical bureaucracy in Rome. One of his earliest commissions, from 1621, was for matched bronze portraits of two successive popes, Paul V, who had recently died, and Gregory XV, who had succeeded him.

The portraits are alike in being dense and compact, doing nothing special with sculptural space. Paul V, bullet-headed and blandly benign, seems locked in his mountainous cape. He is a monument. Gregory feels more alive. Aged and ill — he would be dead in two years — he leans forward within his armorlike vestments. His lips are parted as if hanging slack or caught in mid-utterance, an effect that Bernini would repeat, to dynamic effect, many times.

The naturalism that animates this sculpture is more pronounced in Bernini’s portraits in marble. A glance at them will tell you how much he loved this material, which he approached as a plastic, malleable substance, like wet clay or raw dough.

In his best marble portraits, every inch of the surface has been touched and touched again: chiseled and smoothed, tapped, scraped and brushed. Every facial feature sings, every fall of cloth is a luscious little aria. Each detail — the freshly shaved cheek, rolls of flesh under eyes, moisture gathered at the corners of lips — adds to the vivacious ensemble

This illusion of vivacity is remarkable given that, as often as not, Bernini lacked a live model to work from. A number of portraits were executed after — sometimes years after — the subject had died. Features had to be based on portraits or death masks, or on verbal descriptions. Yet the goal was always the same: to give an abstract, dimming memory the immediacy of life.

Certain subjects were very much alive but unavailable. Charles I of England ordered a portrait sculpture from Bernini and sent a painting of himself to Rome to serve as a model. The picture, which is in the Getty show, was custom made for the job: a triple portrait of the king seen face-on, in three-quarters view and in profile.

It was also painted by no less an artist than Anthony van Dyck. And its image of Charles as Trinitarian dandy wearing three silk outfits and a pearl-drop earring is a fabulous thing in itself. It is all that survives of the commission. Although Bernini shipped the requested bust to England, it was lost in a fire there.

Anyway, long-distance portraiture wasn’t his style. When possible he liked having his subjects in front of him, chattering, gesturing, carrying on, being whoever they were. The pleasure he took in on-the-spot observation shines through in chalk drawings as vivid as snapshots of unidentified but clearly unfancy sitters, each of whom received his close and loving attention.

Only one drawing seems to be a study for a sculptural portrait bust, but for a great one, the bust of Scipione Borghese, a cardinal with intimate links to the Vatican. A nephew of Paul V, he had given Bernini the nod for the 1621 papal bronzes, and to this commission he quickly added others, including a series of mythological and biblical tableaus — “Apollo and Daphne,” “David” — that caused a sensation.
If any of Bernini’s portraits can be said to convey affection, the one of Scipione does. Or maybe it’s just a sense of relaxation. He presents his old friend as he saw him — corpulent, loquacious, hat tipped back, lips pursed in a quip — but also as he envisioned him: the rock-solid source of stability he had been for a young artist making his way. And this blend of realism and idealism, of fleeting impressions and monumentality, instantly expanded the possibilities of sculptural portraiture.

The expansion is taken to an extreme in the bust of Costanza Bonarelli, done four years later, in 1636. The young woman was Bernini’s mistress at the time, and the likeness was a self-commission: Bernini kept it for private contemplation. If Scipione’s portrait is candid, this one is an exercise in psychological exposure, distilled in the look on the woman’s face: startled, feral, lips parted as if with a gasp.

Apparently she had cause to be on the alert. When Bernini suspected her of infidelity — the third party involved being his younger brother — he ordered a servant to slash her face.

But by the 1630s Bernini’s involvement with portraiture was sporadic. He had acquired an exacting new papal patron in Urban VIII and was deep into the decoration of St. Peter’s. In his absence other artists — Alessandro Algardi, Giuliano Finelli, François Duquesnoy — commandeered the portrait field. Examples of their work flesh out the show, which has been organized by Catherine Hess of the Getty, Andrea Bacchi of the University of Trento in Italy and Jennifer Montagu of the Warburg Institute, London. But Bernini himself has the final word.

The last gallery documents his apotheosis as artist to the rich and famous. His portrait of Richelieu is here, as are those of two additional popes and, in bronze replica, his bust of Louis XIV. And then there is Thomas Baker, a British nobody with a huckster’s mouth, a head of unruly hair and a ton of money. When he offered to pay Bernini more than Charles I had paid for a portrait, the artist agreed. And so it is with the sight of Baker’s blank eyes and absurd coiffure, and the clink of coins in the air, that we leave the Baroque portrait behind.

“Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture” remains at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center, Los Angeles, through Oct. 26. It travels to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, from Nov. 28 to Mar. 8.

Read the report in The New York Times

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Photo credit: A portrait of Cardinal Scipione Borghese. Photo Monica Almeida – The New York Times


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