Veronese at the National Gallery

Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice is a vast exhibition of 50 of the greatest paintings by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) at the National Gallery in London, many of them very big indeed. It is a thorough and well-staged exhibition with an excellent supporting pamphlet and audio commentary with contributions from curators, a dress historian and opera designer.

A personal view

Let me say straight away I powerfully disliked this exhibition. I think Veronese is a terrible depicter of the human figure, a terrible painter of the faces of women and babies, the creator of grotesquely stagey and over-elaborate settings of highly artificial action and, in his religious paintings, the painter of nauseatingly religiose images full of lachrymose Marys and saints with shiny eyes upturned like corpses towards cramped heavens cluttered with absurd angels and putti, all given a sinister aspect when you realise he worked in Counter-Reformation Italy under the watchful eye of a dictatorial Inquisition. Not one of the fifty paintings excited or even appealed to me. I’d pay good money to never see most of them again.

Architecture

The commentary usefully points out that Veronese came from a family of stonemasons: his grandfather, father and brother made a living carving stone. His home town Verona was (and is) famous for its Roman ruins. Once this is pointed out, you begin to notice that buildings, especially the arrangement of columns and arches, are vital ingredients in the compositions; that every painting is elaborately staged on a carefully contrived set, and it’s never a ‘natural’ setting of trees and flowers: neither are they set in the contemporary city with streets and the bustle of urban life. All his paintings are set against a confected backdrop made from idealised Roman architecture – either complete – if the setting is ancient, or ruined – if the setting is contemporary. However fresh this use of highly accurate architecture seemed in the early Renaissance, in Veronese’s hands it feels stiflingly conventional.

This early painting is a good example of the importance of architecture; the cluttered composition which is stagey and contrived; the stylised hand gestures (the hands are out of propostion to the bodies); the nauseating religiosity; and the badness of individual faces – look at the face of Christ.

The Conversion of Mary Magdalene by Veronese, 1548 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Conversion of Mary Magdalene by Veronese, 1548 (Wikimedia Commons)

The human figure

Veronese is a painter of the human figure. There are no landscapes or still lives or animal pictures. All the compositions are centred on human figures and therefore the issue becomes quite quickly (for him and for us viewers) how do you pose your people? If you’re telling a story, depicting a famous incident – which precise moment do you select to illustrate: at which crucial second do you capture the event? And who is in the picture? And how are they arranged and framed?

He is poor at the human face: the melodrama of the tableau is no replacement for human warmth.

Opera

Which brings us to the staging of the people in these sets. Again, from very early on, from the age of 17 or 18 Veronese was using the elaborate hand gestures developed by earlier Renaissance masters (Leonardo’s pointing fingers, Raphael’s graceful gestures, Michelangelo’s strong outstretched arms). In a way that’s difficult to define, whereas these gestures looked fresh and newly-discovered in the High Renaissance, in Veronese they look operatic and stagey. It is as if the accumulated knowledge of how to set the human figure against architectural backdrops in hieratic attitudes reaches a kind of apogee in Veronese which also contains its own decadence.

  • In The Supper at Emmaus (1555) observe a) the triumph of architcture over people b) the horrible clutteredness of the composition with different bits of people in different fields of perspective c) the terribleness of all the children’s faces d) the Renaissance trope of including the painting’s sponsors in the painting: could anything be more corrupt and vulgar?
  • The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine  (1570) strikes me as being the triumph of melodrama over humanity, a welter of horrible putti, a swag of richest cloth around columns, and the horrible dead-fish faces of Mary and Catherine. Was commissioned for a convent where the daughters of the rich were indoctrinated with sentimental religiosity.
  • The Martyrdom of St George (1565) Some people think this is a triumph of composition, employing late Renaissance  understanding of perspective to ‘involve’ the viewer in the action. I find the clutter of the composition claustrophobic and the skyful of bouncing cherubs nauseating. Christ didn’t ask us to admire sumptuously clad heroes in elaborate stage sets: he told us to look in our hearts, love God, live a simple life, give all our belongings to the poor, love each other.
  • The Adoration of the Kings (1573) The triumph of architecture and stage setting. What are the bodiless baby angels for? The face of Mary and Jesus bad, as usual.
  • Perseus and Andromeda (1580) Ludicrous. Perseus looks like a drunk country and western singer falling off the stage. What’s worse about Andromeda, her ludicrous pose (try standing like that) or the elaborate orange cloak falling open to revela her chunky Mannerist body.

And DARK. The commentary claims Veronese is an unparalleled master of light – rubbish – all his paintings seemed to me dark and gloomy with fake blue skies not shedding real light.

Clothes

A feature of the Renaissance was the way it unabashedly dressed up figures from ancient stories in contemporary dress. This Veronese does to an inordinate degree. It’s telling that there are so many contributions on the commentary from a dress historian explaining the meaning, the origin and the cost of so many of the elaborate dresses and cloaks etc which feature in the paintings, as if a detailed analysis of his use of fabrics made up for the overall clumsiness of the tableau. According to the commentary his brother was a textile merchant and so maybe Veronese had samples of the cloth he was depicting readily to hand. Big deal.

  • In Livia da Porto Thiene and her daughter Deidamia (1552): consider the ugliness of the people and the triumph of expensive clothes: field day for the clothes historian on the commentary; but thin time for anyone hoping to enjoy this painting as a depiction of sympathetic humans.
  • Portrait of a Lady known as ‘Bella Nana’ (1560) How bad her face, how dead her expression, how contrived her silly hand gesture, how flat and hieratic the clothes – expensive, though. Feel the schmatter.

Religiosity

I find his religiosity genuinely creepy.

Politically, he is depicting the claustrophobic and vengeful Catholicism of the Counter-Reformation, the institution which rejuvenated the torturing Inquisition, and created schools for spies to infiltrate and undermine the British government, which declared Queen Elizabeth a heretic, thus encouraging zealots to murder her and go straight to heaven and which blessed the Holy Crusade to conquer England which we call the Spanish Armada which, luckily for us, failed in the year of Veronese’s death, 1588. Veronese was called in front of the Inquisition when one of his works appeared to have too much contemporary detail, so he changed its title.

  • In the Allegory of Navigation with a Cross-Staff (1560) we can see the freshness and excitement of Renaissance learning hardening into big heavy blocky art, an art for rich men and powerful institutions. Look how bad the face is, and the disproportion of the body which is too long.
  • The Conversion of St Pantaleon (1587) was Veronese’s last painting. There’s an El Greco lividness to the colour of the rich fabrics; there is a disgustingly distorted little cherub; there is an architectural ruin giving the composition ‘vertical unity’; and the central figure is rolling his eyes to the heavens so the light reflects off the whites of his eyes in a way which is probably meant to be moving but reminds me of an epileptic having a seizure, or just a corpse.

Theologically, my Protestant soul rebels against the equation by Veronese (and most of his Renaissance compadres) of wealth with piety: The money-grabbing corruption of the Catholic church, an institution which had developed numerous Mafia-style ways of demanding money with menaces, was of course the trigger for Martin Luther’s revolt in 1517. Here in the heartland of Roman Catholic orthodoxy wealthy patrons are still having themselves painted in rich ornate contemporary dress in paintings showing incidents from the life of Jesus or various saints as usual believing that the rich can buy their way into heaven.

  • The Resurrection of Christ (1575) is a horrible and ludicrous painting: note the ruins (it’s a historical anecdote = ruins); the melodramatic gestures of the guards (nice-looking cloth, too); neither of which compensate for the ludicrous, Catholic religiosity of the haloed Christ flying into the air.
  • The Agony in the Garden (1583) isn’t about the suffering of jesus at all, it’s about the simpering sentimental religiosity of the tearful angel with whom we are invited to identify. Instead of leading better lives we are invited to burst into tears as in the final act of a tragic opera.

Aesthetically, these sickly saints and lachrymose Marys, all sentimental religiosity, with their upturned eyes reflecting light just under their pupils, look like corpses or people having epileptic fits.

  • Saints Geminianus and Severus (1560) the triumph of ornate architecture, glorious clothing and facile sentiment.
  • The Virgin and Child with Saints Anthony Abbot and Paul the Hermit (1562) demonstrates the cluttered claustrophobic composition which some people find a triumph of design and perspective, exacerbated by the absurdiy of baby angels playing peek-a-boo in the clouds and the traditional very bad face of Mary and ghastly face of the baby Jesus.
  • In The Consecration of St Nicholas (1562) the dominant figure is the ridiculous angel flying upside down, and then the pillar on the right. The melodramatic poses can’t make up for the badness of the faces, nor the way the figure in white’s head is too small for his body.

Sensuality

Venice where Veronese plied his trade, was famous in the 1560s, 70s and 80s, for the arts of love, for its erotic poetry, for its courtesans (ie high-class prostitutes). More than once the commentary commented on the design of low-cut dresses designed to show off the wearer’s décolletage (breasts). Like everything else, this would-be sensuality is heavy: compare and contrast with the winsome lightness of a Watteau or any depiction of women by the impressionists.

  • In The Finding of Moses (1580) the commentary points out the daringly low-cut dress of Pharoah’s daughter and, of course, its immense luxuriousness and cost. On both counts this strikes me as almost blasphemous corruption of the ancient text.
  • The Dream of Saint Helena (1570) is a rare Veronese that I almost like – if we could cut out the silly putti we would have an image of simple sensuousness such as one finds in the late Victorian ‘Olympian’ painters of antique life. The sumptuous dress is appropriate for the mother of the Roman Emperor. And for once the face is good draughtsmanship.
  • In fact I find Veronese’s paintings strikingly unsensual, heavy and cloddish and he has no way at all with the female nude and is disastrously bad at women’s faces, as in Mars and Venus United by Love (1575): what could be less sensuous, lifeless and contrived? Look at the horse’s head: he even makes a horse’s head look sentimental.

Allegories and mythologies

The only paintings I came close to liking were the five in the room devoted to Allegories and Mythology. The four big paintings in this room were obviously created as a cycle and probably commissioned by the same patron. They are traditionally interpreted as portraying four aspects of love. I think they have flaws of composition and execution (it seems basic not to paint the background around heads in such a way as to highlight how it’s been painted in later), but I warm to the Renaissance themes of love.

In his article in the London Review of Books T.J. Clark discusses these paintings in depth, bringing a sympathetic view of Veronese, hymning as the poet of the weight and drop of fabric and bringing out felicities like the fig leaves unobtrusively pressing against the white gown which has fallen off the woman. But to me the putti are as disgusting as usual. They sky isn’t really light, it has the closed feel of a fresco; it feels indoors.  Like all Veronese’s paintings it feels claustrophobic, heavy and trapped.

Infidelity by Veronese, 1575 (Wikimedia Commons)

Unfaithfulness by Veronese, 1575 (Wikimedia Commons)

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1 Comment

  1. Art and Life: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray, 1920 – 1931 @Dulwich Picture Gallery | Books & Boots

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