Madonna and Child With Four Saints (Spedalingo Altarpiece) by Rosso Fiorentino, 1518

Madonna and Child With Four Saints (Spedalingo Altarpiece) by Rosso Fiorentino, 1518

Why Italian Mannerists like Rosso Fiorentino were painting’s first avant-garde.

Henri Matisse is supposed to have encountered someone who complained that the arm of a woman in one of his portraits was too long. “Madam, you are mistaken,” he replied. “This is not a woman, this is a painting.” She might have replied, “That’s not an argument, that’s attitude.” The painter’s bon mot is what E.H. Gombrich (to whose classic study Art and Illusion I owe the anecdote) called “one of the paradoxes with which modern artists and critics like to tease the long-suffering public.” Such paradoxes can be hard to avoid. Gombrich thought the development of pictorial illusionism—that is, of the European canon of realistic representation—“was stimulated by the dissatisfaction which certain periods of Western civilization felt with images that failed to look convincing.” The statement is itself paradoxical, because it ignores the question of who wants to be convinced by an image. Long before Matisse, the Italian artists of the sixteenth century who came to be known as Mannerists were willing to twist their figures out of proportion, and they did so to create not convincing images, but convincing paintings.

Medieval Christians did not need to be convinced by images; they already believed in what the images were meant to convey. Pictures functioned as signs to remind their beholders of truths already known. But somewhere along the line, the nature of faith changed: by the fourteenth century—in Italy, at least—Christians did begin to feel the need to have their faith informed by convincing images. Hegel observed in his Lectures on Aesthetics that “piety is also satisfied with poor images and will always worship Christ, Mary or any Saint in the merest daub.” If so, the men of the Renaissance were distinctly less pious than their predecessors. They felt a need to see the acts of their savior, his apostles and the saints as if with their own eyes rather than simply to have them signified. The effort to satisfy this need formed the great project known as the art of the Renaissance, and from the time of Giotto onward, painters built on each other’s efforts to make everything they painted seem as true to life as possible without sacrificing the idealization appropriate to sacred truths. A modern equivalent of what these artists were trying to do might be found not in painting but in the cinema—for example, in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s plan for a film about St. Paul, in which he hoped to give “the impression and the conviction of his reality/present. To say then explicitly to the spectator…that ‘Saint Paul is here, today, among us,’ and that he is here almost physically and materially. Thus it is our society that he addresses; it is our society for which he weeps and that he loves, threatens, and forgives, assaults and tenderly embraces.”

That such a project was untimely in the twentieth century, even for the cinema, is suggested by the fact that Pasolini was never able to make the film he planned (its screenplay has recently been published by Verso). Yet what Pasolini could only dream of, the painters of the High Renaissance had to some degree already done. By the time of Raphael and Leonardo, 200 years after Giotto, nothing seemed left to add: perspective, sfumato and other techniques sufficed to give a hitherto undreamt-of solidity, naturalness and presence to figures, as well as clarity to the spatial relations among them. All that remained was to apply this painstakingly gathered technical knowledge.

The adventure of discovery was over. That might be reason enough for artists to grow restless. But the nature of faith, too, continued to change. Italy was the scene of almost constant war from the 1490s through the 1550s, and these wars were fueled by religion, which was then in an unheard-of state of flux. Even before Martin Luther’s ideas had begun to spread throughout Europe, Savonarola had castigated the Florentines for their decadence and declared Christ the king of Florence. These views first brought the zealous friar to power; then he was excommunicated and burned at the stake. In 1527, Habsburg troops sacked Rome. Living in early to mid-sixteenth-century Italy must have been more like living in twenty-first-century Syria or Iraq than in contemporary Europe—and amid such turbulence, how could art not reflect the loss of old certainties?

The art that flourished in Italy in that period has come to be known as Mannerism, and from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries it was considered of no intrinsic interest, merely (as one art historian summarized it) “a servile, uncritical imitation of the manners of the great masters, and especially of the anatomical exaggerations of Michelangelo’s figure style.” In the twentieth century, parallels with aspects of modernism—those expressive distortions of the figure that, as Matisse would have it, turned the image of a woman into a painting—breathed new life into an art that had lain neglected for centuries. To eyes liberated from the old canons of realism, the Mannerists could be seen not as weak imitators but as true originals whose disproportionate emotional and intellectual demands on their own art made them seem uncannily contemporary: the American kids on their Fulbrights are crazy for them, Roberto Longhi was to note, with some condescension, in the 1950s. And yet even then, and still today, it would have been hard to argue that the great Italian art of the sixteenth century was Florentine Mannerism—not when the likes of Titian, Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese were flourishing in Venice, which despite certain setbacks was largely insulated from the warfare and religious upheaval common elsewhere in Italy. The Venetians, and especially Tintoretto, may at times show mild affinities with their central Italian contemporaries, but they never betray the anxiety and inner conflict we  find among the Mannerists.

* * *

Modernism having outlived its heyday, the craze for the Mannerists as its newly discovered precursor has subsided as well. If you visit Florence this summer, you may find that ducking into the Palazzo Strozzi to see the remarkable exhibition “Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino:  Diverging Paths of Mannerism” (through July 20) is a great way to dodge the tourist crowds that choke the city’s streets. The works by these two Tuscans, who have good claim to being considered the originators of Mannerism, are as fascinating and problematic as ever. But chances are, if you’re inclined to look at them to discover affinities with art’s future, it’s not Matisse, German Expressionism or Giacometti you’ll think of first. At least I didn’t—what I saw, for better or worse, was a postmodern Mannerism: the invention of bad taste or, as Clement Greenberg used to call it, kitsch.

What Greenberg couldn’t bear to admit was that his beloved avant-garde and his detested kitsch have something in common: both expose the inadequacy of established taste. Contrary to what Greenberg claimed in his famous 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” modernism was always as beguiled by kitsch as repulsed by it. And it’s precisely because Mannerism flirts with bad taste that it can also be seen as the first avant-garde. It’s a curious thing, when you think about it: medieval art, even with its naïveté and grotesquery, is never kitsch; rather, there is an admixture of what might be called healthy popular taste with more refined elements. In the Renaissance, stricter stylistic canons came into force and the popular elements receded. A second-rate Renaissance painting is just bland, but there’s never anything trashy about it; at worst, you get the slightly queasy mix of materialistic trompe l’oeil and overstated emotionalism in some of Carlo Crivelli’s paintings (no wonder the Pre-Raphaelites liked him). But in general, the inherent restraint of quattrocento style kept these kitsch tendencies in check, and only rarely did Crivelli achieve anything like truly bad taste.

Not so with Rosso Fiorentino, a far better painter than Crivelli ever was. Born Giovanni Battista di Jacopo in 1494, he took his nickname (“Florentine Red”) from his fiery hair and his hometown. Rosso offended established taste almost from the get-go. Vasari tells us that the young artist wouldn’t stay with any master, “having a certain opinion of his own that conflicted with their manners.” Commissioned in 1518 to paint an altarpiece, he invited the patron, Leonardo di Giovanni Buonafede, to view the work in progress; alas, “the Saints appeared to him like devils,” according to Vasari, and so “the patron fled from his house and would not have the picture, saying that the painter had cheated him.” The work, Madonna and Child With Four Saints, also known as the Spedalingo Altarpiece, was exiled to a small provincial church, where it slumbered until the nineteenth century; in 1900, it was admitted to the collection of the Uffizi and has now moved across town for the Palazzo Strozzi exhibition. As David Franklin writes in the catalog, the learned Carthusian who was so horrified by Rosso’s painting thus far “was a prolifically experienced if conservative patron of altarpieces” whose “reaction, although vehement, was well-informed.” Most demoniac in appearance is the harsh and wasted figure of St. Jerome on the right. Franklin suggests that the red-haired St. John on the left—the artist’s namesake, and the only one of the painting’s figures (aside from the infant Christ and the sweetly earnest cherubs at Mary’s feet) who doesn’t appear to be an emanation of the blue shadows swirling around the Madonna’s legs—is Rosso’s way of announcing that the painting was intended as his “impassioned personal contribution to the hothouse atmosphere of Florence in the first two decades of the 16th century.” I shouldn’t wonder. In any case, despite Vasari’s claim that it was all a misunderstanding and that Rosso intended to “sweeten the expressions” of the saints in the process of finishing the painting, they retain to this day the “savage and desperate air” that drove the poor churchman running from Rosso’s door.

Such starkness is not the source of the painting’s kitsch; in it rests the work’s affinity to the as-yet-unconceived idea of the avant-garde. Rather, what makes the painting kitsch are the wide, roundish smears meant for eyes—precursors of the eyes that stare out from the paintings (made just when all those Fulbright scholars were going wild for the Mannerists) of Walter Keane, who said his works were inspired by memories of the “war-wracked innocents” he’d seen as an art student in Europe in the late 1940s. Antonio Natali, in his catalog essay, suggests that the present appearance of the painting, including the Christ child’s googly eyes, reflects the botched attempt of another artist to complete it after the debacle with Buonafede led Rosso to abandon it; but the eyes are surely Rosso’s invention, as we see the same bizarre expression in other early works of his: Madonna and Child With St. John the Baptist and St. Bartholomew (Villamagna Altarpiece), 1521; and Holy Family With the Young St. John the Baptist, circa 1521–22. Perhaps Rosso could have said, like Keane four centuries later: “I want my paintings to clobber you in the heart and make you yell, ‘DO SOMETHING!’”

What I am calling “kitsch” is just that clutching at the viewer’s heartstrings, the sense of what Keats called a “palpable design” on the beholder. A fundamental uncertainty as to whether the artist and the viewer still form part of a community of faith creates a need to extort conviction when none might be forthcoming. But whatever is cringe-inducing in Rosso’s pictures is more or less inextricable from what sometimes makes them so breathtaking. Unfortunately, his great 1521 Deposition has not come to Florence from Volterra; as with any exhibition of Renaissance art, this one inevitably suffers from the fact that so many of what might have been the most important exhibits are immovable. In that work, the geometry of a massive cross becomes the armature for clusters of weirdly distorted bodies—geometricized yet weightless, as if they had been sculpted in Styrofoam—that arouse about as much credibility as Dalí’s soft watches, yet convey an anguish adequate to the painting’s subject precisely through this sense of dreamlike unreality. But perhaps more typical of the artist is a later Deposition that is on view here, dated 1527–28; the machinery of the setting practically disappears in a darkness that, according to Vasari, was intended to suggest “the eclipse that took place at Christ’s death,” but instead seems to convey the inability of the spectators, shown piling onto one another to partake of the agony of scene, to perceive it to their satisfaction. Amid the tumult and obscurity, one might fail to notice the mysterious animal-faced figure (he looks not unlike Jim Carrey as the Grinch) looking on from the background. A similar darkness and claustrophobic airlessness is at work in a much later Pietà that may be one of Rosso’s last works, given a date of around 1538–40.

* * *

Pontormo, too, in his early paintings on religious themes, has a tendency to overload his subjects’ eyes with expressiveness—consider just the central Mary in the 1518 Sacra Conversazione (Pucci Altarpiece), not to mention the Christ child with the unfocused stoner’s gaze in the 1523–25 Madonna and Child With the Young St. John the Baptist—but not quite as heavy-handedly as his Florentine colleague. Born Jacopo Carucci in 1494 (the same year as Rosso), the painter’s alias refers to Pontorme, his hometown, near Empoli. Vasari characterizes him as an asocial eccentric who dressed shabbily, adding: “He would not work save when and for whom he pleased.” Like Rosso, Pontormo painted a Deposition that is sadly missing from the show at the Palazzo Strozzi, though it hangs nearby in Florence in the church of Santa Felícita. It is dated 1525–28 and, in contrast to the one painted a few years earlier by Rosso, it forgoes any geometrical structure whatsoever. It lacks the cross itself, and the ground on which the figures with their candy-colored draperies tread is not differentiated from the air; they all seem to float slowly around each other in a sort of torpid Brownian motion. The one anchor in something like reality is the foreground figure, who actually appears to bear the weight of the dead savior on his shoulder, though crouching in a position that makes this almost impossible.

A similar weightlessness and placelessness can be seen in another famous painting of Pontormo’s on display at the Palazzo Strozzi, the Visitation of circa 1528–29. This sense of placelessness is all the more confounding in that the painting is given an outdoor setting with architecture—yet this is as unconvincing as a theatrical flat, and moreover entirely out of scale with the figures, who therefore appear as giantesses. Moreover, the figures of Mary and Elizabeth beginning to embrace each other in greeting are watched over by two women behind them who appear to be the same Mary and Elizabeth. We are presented not with the representation of a real event, but with the evocation of a spiritual state of being in which action and contemplation are at once split off from each other and confused.

The bizarrerie that both Rosso and Pontormo cultivate in their religious pictures is tamped down considerably in their portraiture. Yes, the elongation of figures that is one of the typical expressive devices in those paintings is also present in many of Pontormo’s portraits—it’s hard to ignore the inordinately stretched-out neck of his late Portrait of a Bishop (Monsignor Niccolò Ardinghelli?), for instance. Rosso’s portraits are typically more proportionate, but at their best they retain an air of unreality that somehow increases their intensity. For example, the scrubby green, evenly lit background of the Portrait of a Man (ca. 1522) from the National Gallery in Washington makes the pattern of light and shadow on his face seem completely unmotivated. And yet, as Franklin writes in his catalog entry on the painting, “the portrait continues to satisfy its traditional commemorative function” by capturing the sitter’s presence and personality. Did patrons who commissioned portraits still demand adherence to old-fashioned standards of taste they could no longer enforce in the production of altarpieces? More likely, the subject of portraiture was not as fraught with a troubled religiosity. The frazzled emotionalism of the Mannerist altarpieces can be ridiculous or poignant or both at once, but a portrait finally had to respect a man’s dignity. (All the portraits in the show by Pontormo or Rosso depict men.)

As if to prove the affinity between Mannerism and contemporary art, the Palazzo Strozzi is also presenting Bill Viola’s 1995 video installation The Greeting, which is based on Pontormo’s Visitation. This is one of Viola’s best works, but it employs the same device that makes so much of what he does unbearable: slow motion as a kind of expressive exaggeration. By slowing down an encounter that lasted forty-five seconds so that it stretches out to ten minutes, Viola turns what might have been a banal episode into a spectacle that feels freighted with unspecified significance. Just as the Mannerists—or modernists like Matisse—used spatial distortion, Viola uses temporal distortion to get his point across. Like the Mannerists—but unlike Matisse—Viola seems to do this in order to compel an attitude of piety toward what he is presenting that one might not otherwise be inclined to give. It’s not quite Keane’s saucer-eyed appeal for empathy, but it’s  close enough to make me uneasy.

By Barry Schwabsky

July 1, 2014

Copyright © 2012 The Nation

“My response was sadness,” wrote New York Times critic Michael Brenson. He was speaking of the news that the J. Paul Getty Museum had bought James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889. Brenson felt that Ensor’s masterpiece belonged in Europe. It  was an outlier in J. Paul Getty’s fussy collection of minor Old Masters. Ensor’s subversive, ironic painting was the antithesis of East Coast  stereotypes of L.A. as bourgeois and irony-free.

Christ's_Entry_Into_Brussels_in_1889Los Angeles Times critic William Wilson observed that the purchase contradicted a 1980s Getty directive to avoid buying modern art. Museum director John Walsh defended the opportunity as “too good to pass up” and declared the Ensor to be the Getty’s most important painting.

This summer the Getty is presenting “The Scandalous Art of James Ensor,” built around Christ’s Entry of course. It remains the conventional wisdom that the opportunity was indeed too good to pass up, though the prize had no more connection to Los Angeles than Seurat’s Grande Jatte had had to Chicago. Overlooked is that, half a century before the Getty bought it, Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889 was the inspiration for the first L.A. painting of global significance.

I speak of The Burning of Los Angeles. If that doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because it’s a fictional painting. It’s the pivot of Nathanael West’s classic L.A. novel, The Day of the Locust (1939).

West’s tale concerns Tod Hackett, a Hollywood set painter who dreams of a career as a serious artist. He envisions a magnum opus titled The Burning of Los Angeles. West said that he modeled the painting on Ensor’s Christ’s Entry. That was an extraordinary point of reference for the 1930s. The Depression had pummeled whatever curiosity Americans had about the European avant garde. Though painted in 1888, Christ’s Entry had not been exhibited until 1929, and then in Brussels. West couldn’t have dreamed that the painting would one day end up in Los Angeles.

The novel describes The Burning of Los Angeles in some detail. The paperback cover, by British-born illustrator Charles Ashford Binger, represents part of Tod Hackett’s painting. The motley crowd almost spills out of the picture, as they do in the Ensor. Hackett depicts himself (as does Ensor) along with the novel’s other characters. Among them is the bumbling everyman who triggers pandemonium, named Homer Simpson. Matt Groening named his cartoon dad after him.


West wrote,

“Across the top, parallel with the frame, he had drawn the burning city, a great bonfire of architectural styles, ranging from Egyptian to Cape Cod colonial. Through the center, winding from left to right, was a long hill street and down it, spilling into the middle foreground, came the mob carrying baseball bats and torches.… No longer bored, they sang and danced joyously in the red light of the flames.

With The Burning of Los Angeles West invented a (potential) genre of apocalyptic L.A. landscapes. The novel was also prophetic. In August 1965 a DUI arrest in Watts quickly escalated to arson and looting. Watts burned for six days, resulting in 34 deaths.


Another Nathaniel, spelled the usual way and known as the “Magnificent” Montague, was a dejay for R&B station KGFJ. His radio catchphrase was “burn, baby, burn!” It became the anarchic motto. The Watts rebellion was fought as West’s was, with fists, rocks, and the most subversive weapon of all—the elemental power of fire in the real estate boosters’ “Mediterranean climate.”

The masses of West’s novel feel cheated by the American (L.A.) dream. They find solace in chaos. But West missed the nexus of the 1965 reality, race.

Andy Warhol’s Race Riot series used 1963 press photos of police dogs attacking civil rights protestors. The most memorable images of Watts are of another kind. Insurgents are in control. They pose for the camera, their eyes confronting the viewer’s as do those of some of Ensor’s masqueraders. The people in Watts press photos are not literal actors like West’s Hollywood rejects, but they are media-aware in the way we all are now. They are ready for their group-selfie in the reality show that constitutes our so-called reality. That may be the most terrifying thing about 1965 Watts or right now—or about Day of the Locust, or Christ’s Entry.


The burning of Watts occurred just as Los Angeles was becoming an important art center. The fires were pivotal to such artists such as Noah Purifoy (who has a LACMA retrospective coming in 2015). Purifoy wrote,

“While the debris was still smoldering, we ventured into the rubble like other junkers of the community, digging and searching.… Despite the involvement of running an art school, we gave much thought to the oddity of our found things.… The junk we had collected… had begun to haunt our dreams.”

66-SignsPurifoy and Judson Powell organized a group show, 66 Signs of Neon, of works made from post-riot debris. It travelled to nine cities from 1966-69 and was a nexus of California Assemblage. Purifoy was an alchemist who mixed Duchampian ready-mades with entropy and politics. His salvaged-wood Watts Riot (1966) could be called the Mona Lisa of the California African-American Museum’s collection.


Watts’ influence went worldwide. Chilean/cosmopolitan surrealist Roberto Matta recycled the Magnificent Montague’s phrase, producing a 32-foot-wide painting of that title (1965-6). Burn Baby Burn is a highly abstracted Burning of Los Angeles and is now at LACMA.

In weird synchronicity, Ed Ruscha’s first fire paintings predated Watts. The famous pictures of Los Angeles architecture ablaze were created afterward. Among them is this blog’s namesake, the Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1965-8). It’s not in Los Angeles but in Washington DC at the Hirshhorn. (That’s Homer Simpson saying “D’oh!”)


In 2006 Ruscha said of the fire paintings: “It’s a way of attaching an additional meaning to the painting that would otherwise not have fire.”

Judy Chicago almost literally set the pre-Norton Simon Pasadena Museum on fire in a 1972 Atmospheres performance. Her autumn-hued smoke bombs were intended “to soften and feminize the environment, one that… was not particularly hospitable to women artists.”


Watts was eventually sublimated into the Hollywood dream/nightmare machine. The Towering Inferno (1974) was a big-budget melodrama about a group of people trapped inside a burning L.A. skyscraper. The credibility-defying cast included Steve McQueen (the white one), Fred Astaire, O.J. Simpson, and Mrs. Norton Simon, Jennifer Jones, in her final screen role.

Towering-InfernoCarlos Almaraz invented another kind of disaster picture. His paintings of L.A. fires reference not only the uncertainty of urban life but the most overworked of screenwriter clichés. (Shown, Sunset Crash; Trash Burning on Venice Beach.) LACMA is organizing an Almaraz retrospective for 2017.

SunsetCrashCarlos_Almaraz_Trash_Burning_on_Venice_BeachW.H. Auden coined the term “West’s Disease.” He was referring to Nathanael West, not longitude, and to a free-floating American malaise, “a disease of consciousness which renders it incapable of turning wishes into desires.”

West described his writing as “a sweeping rejection of political causes, religious faith, artistic redemption and romantic love.”

That’s an encapsulation of what has fascinated and repulsed later generations about Los Angeles. In Spike Jonze’s Her, a meditation on romantic love, the Los Angeles of the near future has become a city of madding and lonely crowds. Jonze’s protagonist, martyr and narcissist, is in the spirit of Ensor’s.

William Poundstone

July 14, 2014

Los Angeles County Museum on Fire
Copyright © 2014, Louise Blouin Media.


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