Giovanni Battista Moroni

The great painters of the Italian Renaissance; Botticelli, Da Vinci and Michelangelo, have cast a long and large shadow over what we expect from Renaissance art and the paintings which we associate with it. We often fail to appreciate the skill involved with each piece due to the endless reproductions that make an image seem familiar even without reference to the original. The current exhibition at the RA on Giovanni Battista Moroni was therefore a new experience as it presents works of the highest quality which are free from the weight of several centuries’ opinions and associations. Moroni painted portraits for the great and good of Bergamo as well as providing them with images for religious devotion and meditation. However, due to his decision to stay in a provincial town in Bergamo rather than move to a more influential city Moroni remained on the edges of the Italian cultural consciousness until he was rediscovered and reassessed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The exhibition opens with a display of some of Moroni’s earlier work alongside those of his teachers to demonstrate how his career began. However, it is only once you reach the room containing his first large portraits that the exhibition really begins to reveal the technical skills that Moroni had in abundance. The walls are crowded with proud Italians in flamboyant clothing staring down at their audience and demanding to be admired. Moroni records everything from the curl of a lip to the toss of a head in the elite which employed him. It is tempting to believe that he had greater opportunity to record the exact likenesses of those he painted, rather than resorting to flattery, because he remained in a smaller city whose inhabitants did not demand such obeisance.

The vitality of each portrait is definitely reinforced by the fashions of the time. Men were not afraid to wear bright colours and the women wear intricately patterned dresses that cascade around them. They stand against backgrounds of classical pillars and luxurious plants. This dramatically changed within Moroni’s career as his later portraits are a much more sober affair, with all the men dressed in black against simple background. Nevertheless, in all the portraits there is a sense of natural movement, slashed breeches appear to rustle in a light breeze, a tailor’s scissors are half lifted towards a bolt of material and pages fall down a desk. Moroni also favoured a three quarters profile for his sitters, which often suggests that he has caught them accidentally as they turn around or look up from reading. This increased the sense of intimacy for the viewer as I felt as if I had chanced upon them rather than solely being impressed with their finery. The exhibition also included information about the lives of those they had been able to identify, some were married to each other while others were caught up in bloodthirsty family feuds. It was strange to imagine that one of the arrogant young men depicted would later to go on to die by falling down a well while drunk as he seems caught forever in the moment that Moroni painted him in.

I noticed throughout the exhibition that although Moroni was able to portray faces with such realism that I felt I recognised Italian aristocrats as mutual acquaintances this precision only extended to those who he could clearly examine from life. In comparison, his religious paintings of the Apostles and a nursing Mary felt flat with each Biblical character appeared slightly too smooth and unnatural. This became particularly apparent in paintings which included both a religious scene and portraits of the patron. In the corner of a Crucifixion tableau a man prays, his hands almost reaching out of the painting, while a stony Jesus hangs upon on the cross, difficult to distinguish if he is a marble statue or a dying man.

A portrait which particular amused me was this female face, frozen in a slightly annoyed and suspicious expression. Despite the fact that she has clearly prepared for the portrait since she is immaculately dressed in her best finery there is still a suggestion that she would rather the painting was not taking place, just as people now grimace for the camera. It seems strange that such a facial expression can still be understood and experienced today even though the medium and the subject’s experience is vastly different to those of ours today. I like to think that if I’d ever had the chance to sit for a portrait by Moroni I would have treated him with less disdain, although I would not mind wearing the same jewellery.

I can remember each face clearly that Moroni depicted and it was impossible to pick a complete favourite, I continued to be amazed with how moods appeared to shift across the faces silently watching from the wall. This is the last week you can see the exhibition and I’d recommend making a diversion to go as it not only provides an insight into the lives of provincial Renaissance Italy but also is a breathtaking display of portraiture.

Ming: 50 years that changed China

Several years ago I went to an exhibition at the V&A featuring the Imperial Chinese Robes worn during the Qing dynasty at the Forbidden Palace. I found the designs and the intricate social distinctions they conferred fascinating. I therefore knew that I had to make sure I saw the recent Ming exhibition at the British Museum to continue filling the gap in my knowledge. The exhibition was very well structured so that even someone who knew very little, such as myself, could follow the chronology and understand why they had focused on the particular years involved. The Ming dynasty actually lasted for several centuries but the reigns of several emperors particularly encouraged a flourishing of cultural patronage. Elaborate pots were made using a technique of metal wires and enamel, huge scrolls were delicately decorated like bamboo in the moonlight and rugs, china and silk were made to fill the palaces of the imperial family.

Without a doubt my favourite object at the exhibition was the red lacquer table as the dedicated craftsmanship which this piece of furniture required was overwhelming. Not only was the table covered entirely with the most intricate carvings of dragons, plants and other depictions which might have taken me hours to disentangle but creating the lacquered finish itself was a time consuming business. The lacquer coating had to first be made from a poisonous plant extract before being applied to the table. Each coating could take up to 24 hours to dry and a table of this quality could be coated in up to 100 layers. I can only imagine how impressive the table would have been, before our age of smoothly and easily finished plastics, to one who was aware of the extreme luxuries involved. I definitely will now appreciate the appearance of lacquered objects in fiction to a greater extent.

However, although there were a great number of luxurious objects in the exhibitions there were some that appeared particularly modern in their simplicity. For example, the minimalistic detailing on a pair of golden chopsticks would not have looked out of place in a modern home despite the fact that they were found in the tomb of a 15th century Chinese princess. They almost looked as if they had been used the day before to eat dimsum. I learnt a great deal about the range of Ming culture from the exhibition as it exploded with colour in one moment and radiated serene calm the next. This variety created a balance between the objects so there was no risk of becoming overwhelmed or bored with what you could see.

Sadly the exhibition is now over but there is still some excellent information on their website here and some of the exhibits will return to their home museums around London and so can be seen for free, including the lacquer table! This is a great motivation to explore some of the treasures which fill the permanent collections of the city’s museums as they can be visited again and again, often without the crowds of the more popular exhibitions.

Electra (20/12/14)

Although I have seen productions of Ancient Greek tragedy before they have often felt formal and detached from our society due to the strict constraints of the form. However, this production of Electra at the Old Vic felt alive with raw emotion as the superb Kristin Scott Thomas laid bare the eponymous character’s continued conflict with the expectations of society and familial loyalty. As with so many plots of Ancient Greek tragedies the action in Electra is tied up with events surrounding the Trojan War and expects its audience to have intimate knowledge of what has and will occur. Following the murder of her father, Agamemnon, by her mother, Clytemnestra, Electra continues to honour her father’s memory while forced to live with her mother and her mother’s lover as she waits for her brother to avenge the murder. She ostracises herself from the family that surrounds her by refusing to adapt to this new situation and therefore serves as a reminder for the whole household for what has occurred.

The set was very simple, with only a withered tree and some double doors. However, it was placed in the round so that the feel of an open air courtyard was created, with the audience observing from all sides. This simplicity was also reflected in the costumes, with Scott Thomas clad in a dirty tunic and others in cleaner, modernised Ancient Greek clothing. In particular, Electra’s sister who has accepted her place in this new, disrupted home wears colourful beads in her complicatedly arranged hair in contrast to the wild disarray of Electra. Electra appears unable to grow up as she focuses her entire life on loyalty to Agamemnon and so is unable to act on anything which might suggest healing, such as marriage or forgiveness.

Without a doubt Kristin Scott Thomas is the play’s triumph. At one moment she skips around the stage as if a carefree toddler and then stops to throw out a sarcastic comment in a world weary manner. The Electra she portrays is unbalanced but only due to the strain she has lived under for so many years constantly defying those around her. She became more haggard throughout the play as even the supposed ashes of her brother, Orestes, were spilt over her. Although I sympathised with Electra’s desperation her sole focus on avenging her father is clearly destructive and Scott Thomas suggests that her life has become irreparably narrowed. Contemporary audiences would have been aware that although revenge is wreaked Orestes soon suffers consequences and is pursued by the Furies.

Sadly I saw the play on the very last night so the run has now ended but if you do want any more information on the play do look here. I will definitely make sure that I see Kristin Scott Thomas again on stage as she was truly mesmerising and Electra is not an experience I will forget. Thank you very much to Anna for providing the tickets!