Mantegna and Bellini at the National Gallery review *****

Mantegna and Bellini

National Gallery, 11th November 2018

11th November was turning into a very busy day for the Tourist. Fresh from the heady Edward Burne-Jones phantasmagoria at Tate Britain and a proper Sunday lunch, it was off to the National, now solo, for these Old Masters, before rounding off at the Barbican for a bit of choral pleasure (I realise that sounds a little dubious).

Anyway this double header was everything the Burne-Jones wasn’t. Indisputably, vibrantly, thrillingly, alive. Now I know that endless bible extracts, with Jesus suffering and the Virgin Mary looking beatific might not strike you as the stuff of reality, any more than the silly romantic legends that make up the pre-Raphaelite world, but trust me they are. The religious settings, like the music of the time, were just the templates to tell more human stories as well as create work of astonishing beauty. If the Church is the only patron, or rather religious images are what wealthy patrons require, then that is what artists will provide. Can’t buck the market. For me this very restriction on subject is what creates the conditions for supreme innovation.

And in this exhibition we get the ultimate BOGOF. In 1453 Andrea Mantegna, already an established painter, trots in to Padua to marry Nicolosia Bellini, daughter of the venerable Jacopo, to become the brother in law of Gentile, and, our subject here, Giovanni. Giovanni, a relative novice, picks up on Andrea’s compositional experimentation and fascination with antiquity, and, in time, for me at least, overtakes him. Mantegna in turn harnesses Bellini’s facility with landscape to produce his greatest works when he moves in 1460 to the Gonzaga court in Mantua. Bellini stays in Venice, but even apart they tread similar paths, though with different results. Mantegna’s precise, flinty, sculptural, sharper, masculine, intellectual work contrasts with Giovanni Bellini’s lighter, softer, airier, more lyrical, enigmatic and emotional output. Same subjects and stories. Radically different ways of seeing and showing them

Guess which is which in the The Presentation of Christ in the Temple above? 20 years separate top from bottom. I’ll leave it to you.

This is not the only direct comparison in this superb exhibition. It would be fascinating just to play that game over a few paintings but here they just keep on coming across the six rooms. Some may be familiar to you (from the National Gallery, British Museum or Berlin museums from which they are drawn)  but it doesn’t diminish the wow factor.  Saint Sebastian, The Agony in the Garden, Crucifixions. The curators walk you through how and why the brothers-in-law created their own interpretations, which, for the interested layman is insightful, though you have to make sure, post comparison, you take the time to examine each painting individually. However there are enough individual unique subjects to offset the comparisons and avoid being overwhelmed by the scholarship.

The exhibition opens with a book of drawings. Pretty much all that remains of Daddy Jacopo’s art. We have to assume, given the importance of family and patronage in making and selling art in the C15, that Jacopo will have had a big hand in the direction of the business. He certainly kick-started the expanded artistic ideas that would emerge from the extended family. Alas this is the last we hear of him. Still the eye is probably already alighting on the two Presentations and your first starter for ten. 

What did Mantegna bequeath the next generation of the Italian Renaissance? The rise of the classical theme. The big picture. Literally in his Triumphs (of Caesar) of which just three are shown here (check them out in Hampton Court Palace when they return). Maybe the birth of the individual in art. That he was a master of perspective following in the footsteps of Masaccio and Uccello, and, in a different way, Donatello, is made pretty clear here. 

And Bellini? Colour, back-stories, people you can identify with, even if they were in deserts or on crosses or generally undergoing some sort of taxing trial or trauma. Maybe Mantegna was the more obvious influencer in his day, but Bellini, “the best Venetian painter of the C15”, may have endured for longer. I reckon I can see in him a thread through to Courbet and, eventually, the modernists. 

Mantegna imposes his narrative from without. Bellini’s flows from within. Pretentious w*ank. Maybe but fast forward to the end and compare Bellini’s OMG portrait of the Doge Leonardo Loredan, the cerulean background, the gold and silver impasto cloak, the confident, steely gaze. Perfectly lit. A very formal, contemporary portrait, that also looks timeless. In oil. Which Mantegna never used. Look then at his Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue, painted in his 70’s. A complex, symbolic, Classical allegory. Intellectual to a tee. Painted for private contemplation not public edification.

Warm flesh. Cold marble. Head or heart. Fortunately in this exhibition you don’t have to choose. 

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