Grope or Cuddle

Peter Campbell

‘Tiepolo,’ Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall write, ‘is not a difficult painter. He is accessible and easy to like.’ Well, up to a point. For example, while I did not find the Tiepolos in the Royal Academy’s exhibition of 18th-century Venetian art ‘difficult’ in any obvious way, I did not find them ‘easy to like’ either. On the contrary. Despite their brilliance they are easy to dislike. Take, for example, Saint Agatha. The saint kneels, facing you and looking up over your head. A companion holds bloodied drapery to the saint’s mutilated chest; a boy bears her severed breasts on a dish held chest-high – for all the world like a Veronese page boy bringing puddings. The executioner, his bloody sword in his hand, stands behind Agatha and her supporters. Clear colour is confined to the drapery – slate blue at Agatha’s feet, pale blue at her elbow, amber yellow in the boy’s shirt behind her right shoulder, orange-pink in the puffed sleeve of the female supporter, dried-blood red in the vest of the executioner. This drapery, which is so loose and bunched up that it is difficult to read the bodies behind it, makes a loop which crosses the linear pattern of arms and shadows and surrounds the central figure of Agatha. Her face, bare shoulders and right arm are the eye’s starting point and final resting place.

The effect is operatic. An atrocity, which a Goya etching or a photograph would make horrible, is here enthusiastically emotional. But it is not just a Protestant failure to respond to images of spiritually exultant martyrdom which stands between me and Tiepolo. If I follow Alpers and Baxandall, who exclude the issue of Tiepolo as a religious painter from Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence, and concentrate on emotionally neutral paintings reservations still surface. Looking at the princess and her entourage in The Finding of Moses, I feel they are not people I much like. There is something disordered and odd about the way they stand, something disturbing about the way they respond to each other. And The Finding of Moses – which was also to be seen in the Venetian exhibition – is an example Alpers and Baxandall use to characterise some of Tiepolo’s strengths. Even the magically fluent drawings are performances which display a talent for thematic variation and decoration, rather than testing drawing’s ability to show how the world is. Tiepolo’s greatest works were frescos, which are not well served by reproductions, though comparisons are possible. But even his most wonderful walls and ceilings do not offer, as other great frescos do, entry to a world which is more humane, rational or terrible than the one we inhabit.

It is of course absurd to complain that Tiepolo is not Masaccio, Raphael or Michelangelo. So why make invidious comparisons? Only, I suppose, because we want the man who, some argue, was the greatest painter of his century, to speak more deeply or grandly or engagingly about human beings. The delicious, pale colours of the frescos; their light, which seems to have the extra brightness that comes of being reflected from water or snow; the sumptuousness of fabrics; the confidence with which every mark is made – these, one can feel, are not enough. Such negative responses cloud the view I have of Tiepolo. He does not make worlds to walk in, people to like, dramas to be moved by.

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