Mark Glazebrook on a magnificent exhibition of work by ‘Big George’ in Vienna
Giorgione! A name to conjure with. Other names such as Vasari, Byron and Walter Pater have conjured with the Zorzi, Zorzo or Zorzon of contemporary documents, the exceptionally talented painter who died in his early thirties in 1510, the legendary Big George, the gifted musician and fabulous lover who came to Venice from Castelfranco, a large fortified village situated in a great broken plain at some distance from the Venetian Alps. His copses, glades, brooks and hills must surely have inspired the Giorgionesqe ideal of pastoral scenery. Now, more than 20 different living scholars are battling it out with each other in 14 essays and some 25 individual catalogue entries in the publication which goes with Myth and Enigma, the current Giorgione exhibition in Vienna, a show which began in Venice.
The whole experience is stimulating, tantalising and not unlikely to induce obsession. There are more Giorgione experts involved in this show than pictures worldwide that are agreed to be autograph works. As the curator Sylvia Ferino-Pagden puts it: ‘Today Giorgione is regarded as a unique phenomenon in the history of art: almost no other Western painter has left so few secure works and enjoyed such fame for almost 500 years.’
As with many great artists, composers and writers, Giorgione’s work, or in his case each ‘secure’ example of it, is likely to appeal on many different levels. Whether you are interested in the inexplicable power of colour, Greek and Roman myths, smoky Leonardoesque transitions, or sfumato, the history of dress, the birth of landscape painting as an art form in its own right, the Holy Bible and scenes from it, the seemingly miraculous improvement of portraiture c.1500, Muslim and Jewish culture, beautiful effects obtained by subtly combining oil and tempera, Renaissance literary studies, astrology, thunderstorms, sexual electricity or just looking at marvellous paintings, then Giorgione is for you.
The exhibition room in the Kunsthistorisches Museum is longish and the entrance is plumb in the centre of one long side. As you go through the double doors ‘La Tempèsta’, which has never left Venice before, is suddenly in front of you in all its mysterious beauty — its lovely, central, winding little river, forever changing from brown to green to blue in various shades. Unframed except for a thin baton attached to the stretcher, it looks almost shockingly vulnerable behind its protective glass wall — almost as though a woman had unexpectedly taken off most of her clothing. In the landscape itself, an actual woman, once thought to be a gypsy and now, perhaps, the daughter of a river-god, has done just that, for some reason, as lightning crackles above; but the dark little leaves of the sparse foliage in front of her naked lower body act like lace in partially covering her. The schizophrenically dressed male figure in the picture started his art-historical life as a soldier; then he became a shepherd, his straight staff conveniently turning into a crook. Later he became Giorgione himself and the woman his wife, although no record of a marriage exists.
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