on mannerism and modernism

Over the weekend, I spent some time in the El Greco room of the National Gallery, Washington, which holds the finest collection of his work outside Spain. The National Gallery wisely hangs El Greco alongside Tintoretto, an artist 23 years his senior who was a direct influence. Both painters depict figures elongated beyond realism. They hide the backgrounds or otherwise pull their subjects out of three-dimensional space onto the plane of the picture. They leave their brushwork visible; they choose unearthly colors; and they draw attention to their own tortured emotions.

El Greco was an idiosyncratic artist, unique among Western masters because of his training in Crete. But he was not a madman, a visionary outsider, or a modernist trapped in a sixteenth-century body. He won major commissions and had a successful career because he belonged to a recognizable movement. Called “Mannerism” only in modern times, this movement encompassed Pontormo (1494-1557), Rosso Fiorentino (1494-1540), Parmigianino (1503-1540), and Bronzino (1503-1572) as well as Tintoretto (1518-1594) and El Greco (1541-1614)–the last in the line.

Mannerism is derived from the Italian “maniera,” which means “style.” All Mannerists had idiosyncratic styles (albeit with some similarities), and they all drew attention to style as an issue. Seeing elongated forms, wild colors, and visible brushwork, you had to know that you were looking at a work of art, created by an individual with his own techniques and values. You couldn’t forget the artist and see only the subject.

Why was that approach popular? It arose in a troubled and disillusioning time, marked by religious wars, the Sack of Rome (1527), profound skepticism about traditional beliefs, and political assassinations. Disturbing images fit the age. But I also think that the logic of aesthetic development led to Mannerism.

Up until about 1520, Renaissance artists had tried to answer certain questions that seemed objective or “given.” How should one represent a beautiful human body inside a room? How should one depict a scene involving several figures, such as a Madonna and Child? How should one reconstruct ancient art, especially as it was described in classical books? To these questions, a Raphael or a Leonardo was a fully satisfactory answer. Once these masters had painted their works, the only choices were to imitate them or to try something different. But the very idea of deliberately doing something different raised the question of style. It made the subjective intentions of the artist, his originality, his mental state, and the physical object he created interesting.

Exactly the same logic is evident in modernism, which explains why early modernists loved El Greco. But there was a big difference. Mannerism soon yielded to large-scale, durable movements, starting with the baroque. Baroque artists, like their renaissance predecessors, struggled to address questions that seemed “given” or inevitable. How to depict dramatic human interactions? How to show non-ideal human beings in a beautiful way? How to show wild landscapes with only small human figures, or no people at all? How to paint indoor scenes lit by fire? How to recreate the actual ancient art of The Laocoon?

For modernists, there are no objective aesthetic questions. We now think that the artists of other times and places struggled to address issues that seemed inevitable, but these questions were actually relative to the local cultures. It is possible to understand a medieval artist who has a simple understanding of perspective–or a baroque artist who views the world as a stage. But it is impossible to be like them: to address a question that seems intrinsic to art. Instead, everyone is a mannerist today. Every artist develops a maniera of his or her own and creates works that appear, first, as art objects; second, as products of a particular artist, and last (if at all) as representations of something.