Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Review of the Barocci exhibition at the National Gallery (London)

Barocci exhibition, London

An important exhibition of the Renaissance painter Federico Barocci (about 1533–1612) at the National Gallery in London has just ended. According to the National Gallery website, Barocci is:

…celebrated as one of the most talented artists of late 16th century Italy. Fascinated by the human form, he fused charm and compositional harmony with an unparalleled sensitivity to colour.

The exhibition will showcase Federico Barocci’s most spectacular altarpieces, including his famous ‘Entombment’ from Senigallia and ‘Last Supper’ from Urbino Cathedral, thanks to the cooperation of the Soprintendenze delle Marche.

The display assembles the majority of Barocci’s greatest altarpieces and paintings, together with sequences of dazzling preparatory drawings, allowing visitors to understand how each picture evolved and revealing the fertility of Barocci’s imagination, the diversity of his working methods and the sheer beauty and grace of his art.

The exhibition comprised religious paintings, altarpieces and portraits – paintings as well as preparatory sketches. Since the works on display have never before seen outside Italy, I felt it was a privilege to visit the exhibition at the National Gallery, which is just a 30-minute metro ride away from my house. The Barocci exhibition was, as is done for larger scale exhibitions, set up in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. As expected, the works were beautifully arranged.

Whilst in the media most of the attention had been drawn to the religious paintings, I found that the drawings, of which Barocci produced many, were much more interesting and beautiful than the finished works. Apparently he spent a lot of time sketching and making other preparations (he was seen around town a lot, clutching his sketch book) before moving on to painting. He actually painted his paintings relatively quickly – I guess this might have been because, whilst sketching, he had come to know his subject matter really well so could put everything on canvas quickly. Looking at the paintings, I felt that it was almost as if he wasn’t interested in producing the end product, but instead loved to sketch and experiment with the world around him. To me it was quite clear that his true passion was drawing.
Subject matter was mostly anatomical and life drawings, studies of drapery etc. I found the intimate portraits of women and children in particular very beautiful. There is an intens energy radiating from the carefully and lovingly rendered lines.

Blue faded paper
Interestingly, he had a certain formula which he followed for the majority of his sketches: most works in this Barocci exhibition were on blue (faded) paper, using red, black and white chalk. Other sketches were done in pen and brown ink or red and black chalk on white paper. The blue paper in particular produced a magnificent effect – people seemed to come alive due to the illusion of cool shadows on skin and bodies provided by the paper.

As I’m personally interested in chiaroscuro (the use of strong contrasts between light and dark) I spent a lot of time in front of Barocci’s chiaroscuro studies of the “Madonna of the holy girdle” and the “Madonna of the rosary”. These preparatory works were done using:

Chiaroscuro pigments:
“black chalk and pen, brown ink and brown wash heightened with white”
“black chalk and pen, brown ink, dark brown wash, ochre and white oil”

Use of colour
The finished paintings all used bright colour. According to the video played in the room adjacent to the exhibition, Barocci is one of the strongest colourists to have ever lived. Drapery was certainly very bright;  brightly coloured drapery was used to enhance elegance and introduce drama, while Barocci also made sure that he stayed true to human anatomy. Apparently the use of chiaroscuro in his work is a late development; Barocci’s paintings were foremost about bold colour.

I truly enjoyed the Barocci exhibition at the National Gallery. As always the exhibition was presented beautifully. While I expected to walk into rooms full of religious paintings, I was amazed and delighted to find intimate portraits, touching drawings and beautiful draughtsmanship. Very inspiring!

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