Art Thoughts, Week 28 -- Tintoretto & Value

Jacopo Tintoretto, Two Apostles, (Italian, Venetian 1519—1594), late 16th century, oil on canvas, BF 807.

My first interaction with the name Tintoretto was when, very unexpectedly, a painting by him was rediscovered in a monastery in the small eastern Pennsylvania town of Womelsdorf. It had been donated by a wealthy patron, hung in what became a neglected area, and forgotten until decades later, when the Reading Public Museum director was paying a visit, and recognized the painting as being the Venetian’s style. After this caused a local stir, I went to see the painting at the museum, where it was being displayed on long-term loan, but remember little about it; not even what the subject was. But I do have a memory of its being dark.

I get that impression of darkness whenever I look at a Tintoretto – whether one of the three at the Barnes Foundation, one of which is the Two Apostles, or the aforementioned one in Reading. But here’s the curious thing: it’s such a warm darkness, that it has no element of fear, portent, confusion or depression, as some painted darkness has. It is a supportive dark, in that it works symbiotically with the lights, rather than against them. In my basic painting course at college, we learned a rudimentary technique to work towards this. To make a black, rather than using a black straight from the tube, which can be heavy-handed and flat, we were taught to mix burnt sienna (a dark, chestnut brown) and ultramarine (a rich navy blue, which when transparent, sings like a sapphire). The resulting hue was deeper and more expressive than a straight black. Tintoretto (ironically, by the way, a nickname meaning “little dyer” or tinter, after his father’s vocation) was far beyond this little technique. The interplay between his values, dark and light, is a symphonic coup. And that is not a flippant metaphor; when first looking at the Two Apostles, I recalled a quote (with long-lost provenance) about music: rather than the notes themselves being all-important, it’s the spaces between the notes which make all the difference. One group would make little sense without the other. This smacks of a cosmic truism, but in Tintoretto, Rembrandt, or even Cezanne for that matter, it’s very practical, at least in the beginning: in their particular, personal “playing” of the scene or subject matter. In other words, much as each interpreter of a piece of music will ever so slightly personalize it by running it through their emotional and emphatic filters, so will each painter “separate” their lights in different ways and to different effects, showing even the most hackneyed of subject matter in a newly revealing way.

What continues to astonish me about so-called Old Masters such as Tintoretto, Rubens or Titian, is with what contemporary economy and bravura they went about in this constant interpretation of light. This shows accumulated skill at work, yes, but it shows even more than that. It shows an intensely open and receptive spirit to what was in front of them; their subject matter; their aim; their passion for capturing and conveying life with paint. The painter is never better than the painting; and dark is never better than light, or vice versa, and over the millennia it has all balanced out. To be virtuosic with something requires one to at turns to be submitted to it, and coax it to submit. And then, like Jacob did from his tent at Peniel, we might emerge with a badly twisted hip, but triumphantly displaying a new name.

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