From Botticelli to Matisse faces and figures is a remarkable exhibition due to be staged in the splendid setting of the Palazzo della Gran Guardia, Verona. Around one hundred paintings from museums worldwide will tell the great story of portrait and figurative painting from the fifteenth to the late twentieth century in four broad thematic sections that offer much more than a merely chronological approach to works by a host of outstanding artists: from Van Eyck, Antonello da Messina, Memling, Botticelli, Mantegna, Bellini, Cranach, Pontormo, Rubens, Caravaggio, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Velázquez, El Greco, Goya, Tiepolo up to the Impressionists,
Manet, Van Gogh and great twentieth-century artists, such as Munch, Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Giacometti and Bacon. The first section (Religious Sentiment. Grace and Ecstasy) and the last section, on the great change in the twentieth century, are the two widest ranging parts of the exhibition. The first section focuses on the life of Christ, seen from the beginning to the end, in an interweaving of paintings from various parts of Europe, starting in the fifteenth century and proceeding up to Delacroix's unexpected, vast Deposition almost halfway through the nineteenth century. The Nativity also features along with the adoration of the shepherds and the Magi and the themes of the Holy Family and the Virgin and Child. We then come to the very painful last moments in Christ's life: the crown of thorns, the crucifixion and the deposition. Here, however, they come before the Supper at Emmaus. The various stages in Christ's life are accompanied by images of famous saints, from St Sebastian pierced by arrows to the penitent St Jerome before the cross, the beheaded Baptist and many others. The section then reviews the New Testament by going from the grace of the Virgin's face as depicted by Fra Angelico, Lippi, Piero di Cosimo, Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, Bramantino, Crivelli, Cima da Conegliano, Guercino, Tiepolo and many others to Tintoretto's large painting of Supper at Emmaus and crucifixions by Giovanni Bellini, Bosch and Veronese. The last moments in Christ's life are shown as captured in celebrated paintings by Botticelli, Bellini, Caravaggio, Cranach, Veronese and Correggio.
The second section (The Nobility of the Portrait) presents a procession of sovereigns and princesses, doges and noblewomen, archdukes and clerics. This gallery of great men and women illustrates the celebratory function of the portrait, which may both pay homage to power and mirror society. The section explores the paintings of artists who worked in some of the principal European courts and also in more bourgeois settings, for example, in the Netherlands and England. The "procession" begins with a Venetian doge painted by Gentile Bellini, just after the mid-fifteenth century. Moreover, the workshop of the Bellini - Gentile, Jacopo and Giovanni - is one of the focal points around which the exhibition is organised, along with Andrea Mantegna and Squarcione's Padua workshop where he had trained. The physical centre of the section, however, will be a long wall featuring Holland and Flanders as represented by some leading figurative painters from the seventeenth century on. Here the focus is on husbands and wives depicted in double portraits or in single portraits placed side by side. We thus have two very famous large paintings by Rembrandt of the Reverent Elison and his wife from 1634; only a decade later Frans Hals painted a noble Dutch couple, again on two large canvases, while Van Dyck painted a double portrait of a husband and wife in 1620. Just over a century later, John Copley, the leading American painter in the second half of the eighteenth-century, portrayed the socialites Mr and Mrs Warren. Around the same time, Gainsborough takes us to England and helps us understand the common seventeenth-century Dutch derivation of American and British painting. The section ends with works by Sargent from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
The third section can lay claim to be especially fascinating (The Everyday Portrait). In this case the portrait is seen as a way of capturing the spirit and involves psychological enquiry. We find the first signs of this approach in the portraiture of Van Eyck and then Memling. To stay in the Venice area, Lotto and Moroni are also featured, while Pontormo represents Tuscany with his celebrated Portrait of Two Friends. Next is the remarkable Impressionist period, starting from two artists who laid the foundations for the enormous change in the approach to the portrait, no longer seen in terms of celebration but of everyday life: Manet and Degas. Thanks to the presence of an acknowledged masterpiece, the double Portrait of M. and Mme Edmondo Morbilli, Degas can be compared to Giovanni Battista Moroni, from whom, three centuries later, he inherited the sense of exploring the inner self. He is followed by Monet, Gauguin and Renoir. There is also an American representative, thanks to figures in the landscape painted by the great Winslow Homer around the same time. There are other, more epic figures in French landscapes by Courbet and Millet, while the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has sent an exceptional work by Renoir to the Verona exhibition: Dance at Bougival, a painting emblematic of the whole Impressionist movement.
The last section (The Twentieth Century. The Uneasy Gaze) explores a great development in painting that began in the last decade of the nineteenth century: a radical change in the meaning of the portrait not only as regards the face but also the body. An extraordinary foretaste offered by El Greco in early seventeenth century Spain leads directly to the urgent, lacerated colours of Van Gogh and Gauguin. In the initial series of works in this section, Pierre Bonnard's portraits show signs of the subversion of colour and form that was to undermine the foundations and completely renew the meaning of portraying a face: now almost the whole emphasis was on the sitter's gaze.
After these paintings that end the Impressionist experience, we move on to Edvard Munch, and his wide-ranging, sweeping hymn in the Nordic wild. Next are the two main colour avant-gardes, greatly inspired by Gauguin and Van Gogh in the way they paint tension-charged faces. From Matisse to Derain, the Fauve painters used colour enclosed in self-contained tesserae, while in the Expressionists, from Nolde to Kirchner, the paint almost seems to explode. But some gazes are always bright, strong and responsive to the world, like those depicted by that great, aloof artist Amedeo Modigliani. Represented by a Cubist masterpiece from 1909 and the celebrated portrait entitled L'Italienne (1917), Picasso introduces a turning point but also a bridge between the generations of artists who will end the exhibition.
Firstly, Giacometti with his filiform portraits and then Francis Bacon, the dominant figurative painter in the second half of the twentieth century, and in his wake Lucien Freud. There is also an inspired line of refined figuration represented by fascinating artists such as Balthus or Andrew Wyeth in America and Antonio López García in Spain. This is the breathtaking end of a long itinerary that from Fra' Angelico and Van Eyck will have led visitors through the Palazzo della Gran Guardia until they reach portraits and figures of our own time.
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