Thursday, January 10, 2013

Bernini: Sculpting in Clay at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

There are perhaps few things more frustrating than missing something that will not return in the near future, if ever.  So, it’s with a heavy heart that I report that last Sunday (January 6) was the final day for Bernini: Sculpting in Clay at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Despite some real flaws in the presentation, it was an excellent show.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) was the greatest sculptor of the Baroque era.  Perhaps the finest collections of Bernini sculptures are to be found in the Villa Borghese and the Vatican; look for upcoming articles on both in The Jade Sphinx.  We looked at Bernini in a previous post when examining representations of the Biblical David; his David is more determined, more fierce, more … scrappy than the confident, gorgeous youth of Michelangelo or the fey aristocrat of Donatello.

Bernini is often considered to be the successor of Michelangelo, as he married both the heroic monumentality of his predecessor to a greater realism and dramatic motion.  He was also, like Michelangelo, a multi-faceted genius, able to write plays, paint, design metalwork and create stage sets.  In addition, he too was possessed of that peculiar religious fever that consumed Michelangelo, believing that his art was a manifestation of his love for God.  (One has only to look at the disturbingly orgasmic Ecstasy of St. Teresa to see how deeply rooted were his religious beliefs.)

Like many sculptors (and, often, some painters), Bernini created mini-sketches in terracotta of what would be larger, more demanding works in marble.  It is a terrific boon to a sculptor to think out the challenges of movement and pose on a small scale before committing to the larger, less-forgiving work.

The three-dimensional sketches in the show detailed a magnificent creative mind at work.  There were drawings along with the three dimensional sketches – including a stunning self-portrait in chalk – and there was very much the sense of being inside of an artist’s workshop.  The text accompanying the exhibition was also usually clear, concise and informative.  The figures on hand were, to your correspondent, surprisingly large – the Renaissance mind did not think small.  Nor where the figures quick or rough in any way – these were superbly executed ‘first-runs’ and were beautiful works of art in-and-of-themselves.

Sadly, once again the Metropolitan used spectacularly poor judgment in lighting and positioning.  Many of the figures were too high for patrons to see the details, or behind plastic viewing walls that seemed to do nothing but reflect ambient light, making it near impossible to see the things within.  Why a multi-million dollar operation with a world-class reputation cannot do better is one of the deeper mysteries of the New York art world.

For those who missed the show, there is a fabulously illustrated catalogue, including not only articles on view, but interesting new research on Bernini and his working methods, as well.  It is a pricey $65, but of unusual interest because of the insight it reveals into this great artist.

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