To the Royal Academy today and up the frosted glass staircase to get to the Sackler Wing for one of their small but serious exhibitions devoted to an examination of an old master – and this time it’s time to take a look at the work of Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco, the artist commonly known as Giorgione. It’s traditional for hacks and scribblers like myself when dealing with big, star-name painters, especially when they’re Renaissance hotshots, to give the impression that, naturally, we could recognise one of their works from a hundred paces. Not only that, but we’re completely au fait with their place in the development of art history and, at the drop of a hat, would be equally happy to extemporise a brief lecture or dash off a thousand words on what made them special, who they were influenced by and who they then went on to influence. Of course, when it comes to writing reviews on these kinds of exhibitions, the trick to making oneself appear more cognisant and clever than one really is, is to consult the press release, speed read the exhibition catalogue and then rephrase appropriate bits of the commentary, employing a tone of suitable authority.
Fortunately, or maybe that should really be unfortunately, I don’t have any position of importance or supposed expertise to uphold in the media firmament so am perfectly happy to admit that while I might be able to tell a Cranach from a Caravaggio or a Canaletto, and a Titian from a Tintoretto or a Tiepolo, there’s an awful lot of artists out there about whom I know very little. Included among this great long list is Signor Giorgione, which means that I am entering the exhibition here as much a novice as everyone else, eager to look and learn from the experts who put together shows like this at the RA. There’s a bit of a problem here today though for if, like me, you’re hoping that the show will provide a sort of crib note guide so that subsequently you’ll be able to walk into a gallery and confidently spot any Giorgiones that happen to be lurking about – well, you’re going to be disappointed. Having looked at every picture in the exhibition very carefully and read every label and explanatory wall panel very thoroughly, at the conclusion of the art tutorial I have to admit I still don’t have much sense of who the man was or what was distinctive about his art. It could be that I’m just not a very good student or maybe the exhibition wasn’t presented as clearly as it could have been but I kind of think that maybe the fault lies with the artist himself. That’s not to say that there’s any problem with the art here, the exhibition contains a whole bunch of very beautiful and very interesting paintings and it’s a delight wandering round having a slow careful look at all these portraits, allegories and so-called devotional pieces. Where the problem comes, however, is that unlike his teacher Bellini and some of his contemporaries, like Titian and Leonardo, who all lived into old age, the plague caught poor Giorgione and despatched him when he was just 32. As a result he produced fewer paintings than most of the others in the famous artists club and also didn’t have the time to achieve a true definitive style.
I confess that when I reached the final room in the show I scanned the walls and picked out what I took to be a certain Giorgione only to read the label and find that it was, in fact, a Titian. But in my defence, it’s not just me who has this problem with identification, there are a number of paintings here that were apparently originally attributed to Giorgione only to be later reattributed to another artist and even now there still seems to be a continuing debate about the total number of true works produced by the master. Anyway, there are about a dozen or so here that lay definite claim to his authorship, with the rest of the show being made up with works by the likes of Sebastiano del Piombo, Lorenzo Lotto, Giovanni Cariani and others who were all jobbing artists in Venice at about the same time, and who were all very skilful in their own right.
The show begins with a series of portraits, and among the simple head shots of stylish young men is the one that the show’s curators have chosen to use in the advertising posters for the exhibition. So, if you’ve noticed a fellow with a distinctive centre parting in his floppy hair, wearing a loose lilac shirt and looking back at you from a poster at a tube station then that’s a definite, fully provenanced Giorgione. It’s rather an attractive study and maybe part of the charm is that the expression of the unknown sitter is so hard to pin down. Maybe the fingers of the right hand that are resting on a trompe l’oeil ledge look a little too small and not quite right but Giorgione evidently overcame this early digital problem for in a nearby painting of the poet Brocardo (another floppy haired type) there’s a much more believable hand held theatrically against his heart, perhaps emphasising his own artistic credentials. Again, his expression is a little hard to read with the exhibition label caption-writer offering up a choice of melancholy, empathy, yearning or grief. By way of contrast, a nearby work by Durer is much sharper and well defined, with every hair seemingly individually delineated. It’s a bit like the difference between an early classic Disney hand-painted cartoon and the cell from a recent Pixar computer-generated animation – the latter may, strictly speaking, be more accurate but the former is warmer and perhaps more attractive. But then there are other works here by Giorgione, for instance his Knight and Groom, in which the main character has the look of haughty arrogance that befits an affluent thug and which is almost as precise a piece of painting as something by Durer. In fact, it looks so much more confident than the other portraits that at this point I start to wonder if it’s the work of another artist, or maybe a much later work and since the label doesn’t give a date and only says ‘attributed to Giorgione’, maybe I’m right.
The next room in the exhibition is titled Landscape, not that there are any of what we would nowadays call proper landscapes in the display since, as is explained, the genre didn’t really exist for another couple of centuries. The roots of the form, however, can be seen here as trees and foliage, hills and streams become more than just background fillers and start to contribute to the overall scenes being played out. Although, once again, as in a painting like Il Tramonto, nothing is entirely clear when it comes to matters of attribution and to my inexpert eyes the large fully fledged trees at the edges look so different from the thin weedy one in the middle of the picture that surely they must have been painted by a different hand. And apparently it’s accepted that the St George, spearing a dragon in the background, was added by another artist a century or two after the saints in the foreground and the rest of the painting had been completed.
Everything gets a bit bigger and bolder in the section of religious works that follows although most of the saints, angels and suchlike here are the work of others and there are just the two paintings by Giorgione. These seem to have been painted in such dissimilar styles that once again there must be a bit of a question over attribution and I’m starting to think that maybe it doesn’t really matter who is the true author of the works. For what it’s worth, I preferred the so called Tallard Madonna which is much simpler and less cluttered and fussy than the other Virgin and Child, though it has to be said that both the babies look a bit peculiar.
Finally the show ends with a display of so-called allegorical works, although most of them seem to be straightforward portraits to me. As mentioned before, what I thought was a Giorgione turned out to be a Titian and the celebrated portrait of the artist’s mother here, painted in a more poignant and realistic style than anything else in the show, looks to be the work of another artist entirely. Frankly, as I exit the gallery although I’ve enjoyed my time strolling around Renaissance Venice looking at a lot of very agreeable paintings, I still feel that I know hardly anything more about Giorgione than when I entered the exhibition. And this, I tend to think, puts me roughly in the same position as most of the experts and connoisseurs when it comes to this somewhat mysterious and elusive painter.