“He is typical of that aspiration of all the arts towards music,” wrote Pater of Giorgione. “In the Age of Giorgione” at the upstairs Sackler Gallery of the Royal Academy (until 5 June) is a specific view of Venetian Renaissance painting and drawing (excepting one relief sculpture) in the first decade of the sixteenth century, limited (mostly) to works that have sometimes been attributed to the mysterious Giorgione – except for a few by Albrecht Dürer, who is included because he lived and worked in Venice at the appropriate time, and is thought to have influenced the Italian. The gorgeous catalogue, by Simone Facchinetti and Arturo Galansino, is confident about the enigmatic artist’s name and sadly compact dates – Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco (1478-1510) – if little else. There is precious little unequivocal evidence for most of the attributions of paintings to Giorgione, such as the date on the “Terris Portrait, 15[06?]”, the back of which bears a contemporary inscription (of which the last two digits are subject to interpretation). This is one of only two known works that has such an inscription identifying Giorgione as the painter.
As even the firm evidence is, to say the least, wobbly, you can see what a difficult job it was to put this exhibition of about 50 works together, and the organisers have had to rely either on past attributions of works to the Master of Castelfranco, or on stylistic and technical similarities to the undoubted pictures by Giorgione. But how many of these are there? Who knows.
In this show: the Berlin “Giustiniani Portrait” c. 1497-99; from San Diego the “Terris Portrait”; the Budapest “Portrait of a Young Man (Antonio Brocardo)” (no date given, but between 1503 and 1510); the Uffizi’s “Trial of Moses, c.1496-99)”, often thought to be innovative with regard to landscape painting; the National Gallery’s “Il Tramonto, c. 1502-05”; the Hermitage’s “Virgin and Child in a Landscape, c.1500-05”; the Palazzo Pitti’s “Three Ages of Man, c.1500”; and the Accademia’s stupendous allegorical portrait of the old woman, “La Vecchia, c.1508-10).
That is a total of eight (two more than are admitted to the canon by Wikipedia) plus a handful that the organisers label as “attributed” to Giorgione. The exhibition also features works by the young Titian, and by Giovanni Bellini, Sebastiano del Piombo and Lorenzo Lotto.
You can see why, his early death (sometime between the ages of 30 and 33), led Gabriele D’Annunzio to say Giorgione was “more myth than man,” and why he cast such a long shadow over Venetian painting. He found new patrons, not just the church but wealthy, cultivated sophisticates; his portraits had a poetic feeling that was novel; and the serenity of the background pastoral scenes in both his sacred and profane work was unusual. Presuming, that is, that the works from which we draw these conclusions are indeed by Giorgione.
The Sackler Gallery is not the best imaginable venue for this exciting show. Many of the paintings feel cramped, as the dimensions of the rooms means you’re forced to look at them close-up – “like listening to music played too loudly,” said my art-historian wife. She also pointed out that some of the works are hung (again, of necessity) much too low. For example, in Titian’s “Christ and the Adulteress, c. 1511” the woman’s billowing white gown looks a bit of a puzzling mess, unless you view the painting as clearly intended, from below.
As the quotation from D’Annunzio implies, there’s a good deal of pleasure to be had from looking at the work and contemplating the career and influence of a shadowy Giorgione. Comparing the pictures in the present exhibition, and thinking about the hands that made them, makes connoisseurs of us all.
There’s much joy to be had, too, in viewing the work of two close friends of mine. The late Barry Flanagan is now best known for his flamboyant giant hares – boxing, dancing or giddily surmounting the Empire State Building – but his earlier work was full of fun and art-mischief. Cloth banners hang from the wall; a 14-foot tempered metal sculpture snakes its way across the floor of the Waddington Custot Gallery in Cork Street, paying subversive homage to the work of his teacher at St Martin’s, Anthony Caro. The show, “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral” (until 14 May) celebrates the 50th anniversary of Barry’s first solo show, at the old Rowan Gallery. In one corner of the Cork Street gallery is “one ton corner piece ’67,” which is just what it says, a ton of sand poured onto the floor. Another piece (which used to belong to my wife and me) is a blue sewn canvas bag filled with sand that allows the soft sculpture to define its own shape. A selection of carved or incised stones are poetic, the pinch-pots are the most dramatic of his that I’ve seen, and the metal works are sensational. A rectangle of steel is treated like cardboard or paper, and another sheet of metal twisted like an orange or apple peel.
An amazing treat is an imaginative pop-up show by Howard Hodgkin of work he’s mostly just finished this winter called “Made in Mumbai” (at Gagosian Gallery, 20 Grosvenor Hill, London until 19 March). The eleven paintings (one’s a diptych) vary from the emotionally raw “Love and Death, 2015,” with its explosion of scarlet on exposed wood to the more serene “Bombay Morning, 2015-2016,” where the viewer is (I think) looking through a window onto a promising red dawn. I most coveted “Dry Martini, 2015-2016,” whose title speaks volumes to me, of private contentments shared, and whose fine detail will fascinate forever the lucky person on whose wall it finally hangs. Everyone I spoke to at the mid-afternoon tiffin private view seemed to have the same thought, about the same small painting. Of course I love the man (we’ve been good friends for 44 years); but does anyone else’s work make its owners and viewers so happy? If we had Giorgione’s Antonio Brocardo, or a giant Flanagan bronze hare in our garden I might feel the same about them, but nothing we now possess gives me more intense and reliable pleasure than the Hodgkin prints I see every day.