Is any artist’s reputation based on as little factual evidence as that of Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco – aka Giorgione? This Venetian Renaissance painter was, in many respects, the first Romantic artist, who introduced a new mood in Western art: poetic, melancholy, enigmatic, about mood and atmosphere as much as stories and ideas.
Giorgione was the star of a brilliant generation of Venetian artists, who emerged in the first decade of the 16th century, including the slightly younger Titian. A charismatic figure, contemporary accounts tell us, Giorgione was a prototypical rock star artist, a great lover and talented lute player, who magnetised all who knew him, before dying of the plague aged 32. His shooting-star career has come to embody a moment when La Serenissima was in a state of creative and intellectual flux equivalent to, say, Paris in the 1900s or New York in the Sixties.
Yet this seductive picture hangs on the most skeletal, factual basis: a handful of documents, and a scarcely larger number of paintings. Over the last few decades, many canvases long attributed to Giorgione, have been whittled away from his oeuvre and “given”, as art historians put it, to other artists, till there are now fewer than 10 works that are broadly agreed by scholars to be by him.
The fact that this exhibition boasts seven “actual” works by the artist, alongside nine “attributions”, could mean this is the Giorgione show of a lifetime. The title, however, implies that this is a portrait of a moment as much as of a man.
The dimly-lit first room, with its five grave portraits, is sombre rather than exhilarating. At first glance, Giorgione’s Portrait of a Young Man doesn’t present such a departure from the equally sensitive portrait of another young man on the opposite wall, by Giorgione’s teacher, the dominant figure of the previous generation of Venetian artists, Giovanni Bellini.
But then you notice that, while the Bellini figure averts his gaze, the eyes of the exquisitely realised Giorgione youth engage us with an expression that is difficult to pin down: not quite sad, but uncertain, vulnerable. In the next room the exhibition ups its game with a startling array of portraits of more young men, which practically jump out of their frames at you. A long-haired blood in armour stares at us challengingly; another looks intently into the distance, immersed in melancholy, while a sinister servant smiles at us over his shoulder; a third, with rather feminine, almost Egyptian sculpted features, looks down deep in thought.
These images, complemented by more young men in a similar vein by related artists such as Titian and Sebastiano del Piombo, generate an atmosphere of brooding testosterone: all are slightly androgynous, but there’s the sense of individuals, and indeed of a society, locked in a very male struggle with inner identity and sexuality. A psychologist would have a field day.
From a point factual view we don’t precisely know who painted many of the show’s paintings, and we probably never will. They’re the product of a moment around 1505, and an approach that has come to be thought of as Giorgione-esque. And rather than getting over-involved with questions of attribution, the exhibition simply strives to give a sense of an artist whose ideas live on as much through other artists’ efforts as is his own.
Of the landscapes on view, the only real standout is the National Gallery’s Il Tramanto, with its murky brown foreground and crystal blue horizon, capturing dusk: the quintessential Giorgione time of day, with its poignant sense of the transitoriness of life.
The indecipherable incident with two men in the foreground probably represents the Good Samaritan, but with Giorgione it’s the overall emotional impact that matters rather than the details of the story. In the largest room, devoted to religious paintings, we get a stunning, jewel-like Madonna with Saints and Donor by Bellini; and a magnificent work by an artist from the other end of Giorgione’s career: Titian, his sometime friend, protégé, and finally bitter rival.
Like many of the best early Titians, The Woman Taken in Adultery, is a kind of proxy-Giorgione, an example of Titian’s genius for taking another artist’s approach and doing it himself, bigger and better. Most of the rest of the room, however, is devoted to make-weight works, many of them by the minor Venetian painter Giovanni Cariani, whom the exhibition attempts to present, with little justification, as a sort of alter-ego to Giorgione.
The show closes with its star exhibit, la Vecchia (in English, “the Old Woman”), from Venice’s Accademia: a calm, humane image of a gap-toothed crone, which rather than portraying a specific individual attempts to embody the indignity that awaits us all. Given the array of talent in Giorgione’s Venice - Bellini, Titian, del Piombo, Lorenzo Lotto, Palma Vecchio and many more – it’s amazing this exhibition gives so much space to minor figures such as Cariani and Girolamo Romanino.
Yet the remarkable paintings more than make up for that. And from them a mood emerges. Indeed, against all the odds, the spirit of Giorgione himself, a man who seemed at once larger than life and elusive, starts to feel present.