Thursday, March 31, 2016

Allegory on the Fate of Art, Franz Anton Maulbertsch (1770)

Here is a stunning painting by an artist we have not looked at before, Franz Anton Maulbertsch (1724-1796), Allegory on the Fate of Art, painted in 1770, currently in the Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna.

Maulbertsch was Austrian, working as both a painter and engraver.  Although he has been recognized in the Central European regions where he worked, Maulbertsch has remained outside the general canon of art history. His fame rests as one of the most famous rococo painters in and around Germany.  He was born in Langenargen, and studied in the Academy of Vienna.  His major influences were the Venetian painters Piazzetta and Giovanni Battista Pittoni (1682-1754 and 1687-1767, respectively). He also made a study of the frescoes by Sebastiano Ricci in the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, and frequented Giambattista Tiepolo, who was active in Würzburg starting from 1750.

Maulbertsch was especially adept at frescoes.  He painted frescoes for multiple churches in Bicske, Kalocsa, Vienna’s Michaelerkirche and Piaristenkirche Maria Treu. He also decorated the Porta Coeli in Moravia, the Kroměříž Archbishop's Palace and the villa of Halbturn.  He died in Vienna in 1796.

There is a champion book about Maulbertsch, Painterly Enlightenment, by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann.  It’s the only comprehensive overview of the artist in English, and essential reading for anyone interested in this neglected master.

What is most striking about Maulbertsch is his bold, striking use of color.  Maulbertsch was a fresco painter at a time of transition to easel painting, a colorist at a time when color was not fully appreciated by contemporary observers, and an interpreter of religious themes at a time when secular subjects were becoming more popular. It was because of these conflicting forces -- caught between the intellectual forces of the Enlightenment and the waning power of the traditional church – that Maulbertsch is perhaps historically neglected.  However, Kaufmann believes that he is one of the great painters of eighteenth-century Europe, and he may not be far wrong.

Which brings us to this work, which was Maulbertsch's reception piece in 1770 for the Engravers' Academy in Vienna, founded in 1766 by his eventual father-in-law Jacob Schmutzer (1733-1811). The Engravers' Academy would later be united with the Academy of Fine Arts in 1772, and remained an incredibly important guild until the 19th Century.  The picture is oil on wood, 105 x 72 cm, and highlights all the delirious wonder of Maulbertsch’s work. 

Like most Rococo masters, Maulbertsch’s intent was the not the meticulous life-like rendering found in Renaissance or Mannerist paintings.  The Rococo is more a study in style than anything else, and the style of this picture is infinitely more important than its substance.

The sweeping upward progression of the picture is what gives this picture is drama and emotional heft.  In the lower regions of the picture an artist, on the left, huddles bereft over the broken pieces of decorative urn he has created, to the right of the picture, bathed in a reddish light that is probably a glaze of vermillion over the body color, reaches an artist whose creation slowly floats away from him.  His creation, the woman rising upward with help of a putti, is emerging from her clothes (the art of the artist) to ascend into a nude purity on a loftier plane.

Behind that figure is yet another artist.  Note the expression of his face – loss, longing and disbelief.  He looks on as his creation, shed of her garments, join celestial figures bathed in a heavenly light.  Another work of art has been completed, only to escape the control (and ownership) of its creator.

Note the dramatic coloration of the figures and the spotlight quality of the lighting (the key figures move in-and-out of a hot white glare), and see how Maulbertsch uses these techniques to tell his story.  The broken-urn artist (beautifully drawn and painted) is in partial shadow, the white cloth by him and his leg and torso lit to move the eye upward.  Our other two artists, key to the composition but not the story, are lit in muted reds and grays.  The upper most figures enter the heavenly light of artistic excellence, spectacularly illuminating the female figure, the head and shoulders of her guiding angel and the putti hovering above.

Though certainly not to every taste, this is a spectacular picture.

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