Friday, 7 December 2018

Lorenzo Lotto's moment of sublimity

This remarkable show  (Lorenzo Lotto, Portraits, at the London National Gallery) examines just one painter, and just one aspect of that painter: his portraits. But what portraits! These are some of the most incisive depictions of both young and old subjects ever seen. It is clear from the one drawing and the landscape areas of the portraits that Lotto could both draw and depict landscape, but it is the portraits that stun.

Strangely, the life history alongside these portraits is rather sad: Lotto never achieved a status as high as his Venetian contemporaries and seems not to have been highly successful financially. Several of the paintings are either of his landlord, in lieu of rent, or include the landlord – not an indication of wealth. According to the curators, he was happiest in Bergamo, a sweet little town today that looks as though it would not have been big enough to hold one portrait painter, let alone two. Yet, just a floor above the Lotto portraits there are five portraits of Bergamo inhabitants by Moroni. Moroni is good; pictures of people in their daily roles, such as a tailor. But Lotto’s work is simply haunting; these works are so memorable. The catalogue suggests something vague about Lotto being forgotten for three hundred years after his death, and then rediscovered in the age of Freud. To my mind, that cheapens these images. As a viewer, you feel the raw force of a human in these paintings, nothing less. That’s not Freudian, it is, shall we say, empathy, and the choice of a great subject; and something magical, a moment of great insight that seems to capture the very epicentre of the Renaissance.

It’s an impressively curated show, small but choice. Two of the paintings in particular stand out in this amazing collection:

This is a portrait of an unknown woman inspired by Lucretia, the classical tale of rape and suicide. This must be one of the most powerful female portraits in the entire Italian Renaissance, and yet the catalogue tells us so little about it. Why the reference to Lucretia? Her story was used in art as a  model of virtuous sanctity. Who is this woman? Positioned, like so many of Lotto’s portraits, in a rectangular landscape rather than portrait frame, she fills the canvas in a confident, dominant and assertive way. Her magnificent green and orange dress emphasises her high status and her self-valuation. She is holding an engraving of Lucretia, in what appears to be a pose of sublime self-reliance. Anything Lucretia could do, she is saying, I could do. Her attitude is anything but renunciation.

In a similarly landscape-format canvas, the portrait of Andrea Odoni (1527) is gripping, although certainly less disturbing. Odoni is depicted as a upper-class humanist surrounded by the objects of his collection: ancient statuary. His portrait oozes with gravitas, and perhaps shares some of the defiance of the Lucretia painting; yet in the background it looks like the little putto is peeing into the vessel used by Venus to wash herself – a very strange touch.

One type of portrait I was not aware of is crypto-portraiture: including the face of a known donor or model in a religious painting. Remarkably, a portrait of a married couple is placed alongside a religious painting, where the Virgin has an identical face. Even stranger, there is an altarpiece in the last room that includes a surprisingly elderly Virgin – it turns out to be a portrait. The suggestion in the captions is that it was common to include named individuals in a religious painting – a way of reminding yourself of relatives.
In marked contrast to these portraits, the late works of Lotto have lost all classical grandeur. These are elderly, bearded men, expressing resignation, perhaps defeat. They are very respectful; but perhaps they express Lotto’s own retreat from matters of this world. These late paintings have none of the impact, the grandeur, of those to magnificent portraits. It is those magnificent portraits I keep coming back to; I don’t think anything else expresses the sublime confidence of the Renaissance at its peak, in those early years of the 16th century. Such a moment of classical grandeur, and superhuman insight, could not last very long, and it certainly didn’t last for Lotto.

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