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Venetian and Viennese Brothers in Art

“Compare and contrast,” goes the exam paper standby, and several exhibitions at present do provide fascinating comparisons, between artists who were more or less coeval. A case in point is the contrasting drawings by those two edgy Viennese, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, on show at the Royal Academy in London, but down the road at the National Gallery are the fifteenth-century Venetians “Mantegna and Bellini.” Meanwhile, Venice has presented two grand shows of a Venetian painter of the sixteenth century, “The Young Tintoretto” at the Accademia and “Tintoretto 1519–1594” at the Palazzo Ducale. And in Vienna the Kunsthistorisches Museum stages “Bruegel,” the greatest near-complete exhibition of his work yet seen, and likely the last in any foreseeable future.

If Giovanni Bellini (1430–1516) and Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506) are exact contemporaries (and brothers-in-law) with obvious resemblances as well as differences, the most famous works of Jacopo Tintoretto (c. 1518–1594) and Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525–1569) are so different that it’s easy to forget that they too were close contemporaries with more in common than at a first glance. Bruegel of Antwerp, the quintessentially Flemish master of what might almost be called populist art, was much inspired by Italy and by Italian landscape painting.

To see Mantegna and Bellini together is to be reminded how much they learned from one another. Mantegna is at once the more somber and the more courtly, since he did indeed spend much of his life in Mantua as court painter to the marquis Ludovico III Gonzaga. But if Bellini’s “Presentation of Christ in the Temple” show the clear imprint of early Mantegna, Mantegna was in turn “clearly influenced by the innovations of Bellini,” as Caroline Campbell, the director of collections and research at the National Gallery and co-curator of this show, has said. Mantegna may not have quite matched the intimacy-with-nature of Bellini’s “Resurrection” and its almost post-impressionist cascade of colors in the sky over which Jesus floats, but his “Death of the Virgin” has a decidedly Belliniesque setting, a view of Mantua between sea and sky.

While many of the great masters lived and worked in Venice, there’s none who so much needs to be seen there as Tintoretto. A visitor can make a pilgrimage (a very wet pilgrimage when I was there during acqua alta in late autumn, walking through several inches of water) not only to these two great exhibitions but the almost countless churches in Venice where his paintings are found, some seven hundred works in all for those diligent enough to find them. A tour must culminate at Scuola Grande di San Rocco, with the ineffable “Crucifixion.” This was the painting that changed Ruskin’s life when he fainted in front of it, and of which Henry James said “it seemed to me I had advanced to the uttermost limit of painting.” For those who can’t make it to Venice, “Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice” comes to the National Gallery of Art in Washington in March.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow, 1567 

No one has ever said that Bruegel advanced to the uttermost limit of painting, and his stature may have been made harder to perceive because of his very popularity. “Hunters in the Snow” has graced millions of Christmas cards, and “A Peasant Wedding” is endlessly reproduced as a mark of hearty good cheer. And yet, if his view of the Bay of Naples is a simple reminder of his Italian journey in the 1550s, works like “The Conversion of Saul” and “The Sermon of St John the Baptist” reveal something more, the degree to which he had been affected by Italian Mannerist painters. What may also seem a revelation is what a wonderfully delicate artist Bruegel was. His drawings alone are worth the journey (although not made easier to enjoy by that new horror, the person who spends several minutes close up to the drawing, snapping it endlessly with his Handy, as they call a mobile in German). And if I had to name the loveliest painting on display, it would be the small, less familiar “The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow” which normally resides at Winterthur in Switzerland, and which is the first—still unsurpassed—representation of falling snow in European art.

“Mantegna and Bellini” is at the National Gallery in London until January 27.

“Il Giovanni Tintoretto” is in Venice at the Gallerie dell’Accademia until January 6.

“Tintoretto 1519–1594” is at the Palazzo Ducale until January 6.

“Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice” will be at the National Gallery of Art in Washington March 10 to July 7.

“Pieter Bruegel” is at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna until January 13.

Category: Exhibition