Jessica Lim delights in seeing the work of sibling artists, Mantegna and Bellini, in the National Gallery’s latest exhibition.
Mantegna and Bellini is a curious combination of compelling, even mesmerising, artwork. The exhibition also contains oddly overly intellectual wall panels that insist on holding the casual viewer at arm’s length. The concept of the exhibition is brilliant; the examination of sibling artistic influence, deviation, and the development of two Renaissance masters. The show is based around the narrative of artistic influence and re-interpretation: Andrea Mantegna, the self-trained son of a carpenter who married into Giovanni Bellini’s family, becoming part of the artistic powerhouse family established by the latter’s father, Jacopo, and his studio of artists.
The exhibition itself is arranged in a way to evoke compositional comparisons between Mantegna and Bellini’s works, with each room based around tropes or images that both brothers-in-law interpreted. The result is that the viewer is thrown into a world of mimicry and reinterpretation, with little sense of chronology – although chronology is not the aim of the exhibition. However, the juxtaposition of the paintings themselves is delightful. In the first room, Mantegna’s ‘The Presentation of Christ in the Temple’ (c. 1454) is situated directly beside Bellini’s depiction of the same scene (c. 1470–75). In Mantegna’s painting, shadowy figures crowd around the Christ child, and Mary and Simeon’s arms rest on a painted wooden window-frame, intimating that we, too, may reach out and touch the Christ child. Bellini’s painting, nevertheless, is always in the corner of one’s eye; with its bright tones and use of light, it invites viewers to delight in the vibrant scene where Simeon pronounces his blessing on the infant Christ. Yet Bellini has extended his painting, and minimised the significance of the frame. There is now a dark-haired man whose suspicious sideways glance captures the viewer; pins the spectator in place. Dare we intrude in this world of art? Where Mantegna’s art spills into our world, the viewer in Bellini’s painting is an intruder, drawn like a moth to the light of the world of the painting.
Such contrasts delight throughout the exhibition. Mantegna’s angular and painful depiction of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane is juxtaposed with Bellini’s depiction of Jesus, kneeling on a gently upward curving rock formation, appealing to a wisp of a translucent angelic figure whose head is cut off by the edge of the painting. Mantegna’s St Jerome sits, shrouded by a rocky outcrop, an anachronistic cardinal lying near his feet; a rather bored-looking lion curled by his other side. The image is angular, suggestive of the harsh life Jerome adopted as a hermit. Bellini’s St Jerome is less severe; mid-sermon, he is gesticulating passionately to an eager lion, whose keen posture suggests that Bellini is capturing the moment where Jerome (anecdotally) preached to and converted his lifelong animal associate.
But to suggest that Mantegna’s work is all edges, however, is to overlook one of his most touching works, ‘Madonna and Child’, (c. 1455). Here, Mantegna’s preference for a matt finish takes away any harsh drama from the scene of the young virgin mother, her cheek resting on her infant’s head. Mary and Jesus are both shrouded in Mary’s headscarf, foreshadowing his eventual shrouding in the tomb; but for now, the Madonna and her child are in a moment of rest, and it is we, the viewers, who are invited to enter this moment of tenderness. Bellini’s ‘Madonna and Child, with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene’ (c. 1490), challenges the by-now expected comparison between the angular, dramatic, and sculptural Mantegna and the emotionally affecting Bellini. Due to Bellini’s preference for bright oils, there is a clarity and immediacy to Mary and Jesus, and their viscerality is almost tangible. Yet the intimacy present in Mantegna’s painting is, for once, absent in Bellini’s. Such moments serve to remind viewers that artist cannot be simply boxed into categories.
In this case, the artwork belies the narrative that is framed by the exhibition information itself. The wall panels and individual extended labels are keen to emphasise the artists’ individual quirks to the casual viewer: Mantegna, we are constantly reminded, is theatrical in his approach, with an interest in perspective that makes his subjects seem as if they are pressing into the world of the viewer. His palette is matt, characterised by egg tempera; his angles are sharp. However, the information plates also seem designed to keep viewers at a remove from the artwork itself. Several times, the information plates invoke artistic terms that are left unexplained: ‘this is possibly the first stand-alone painted version of the subject in western art’ we are told of Mantegna’s depiction of Jesus in ‘Agony of the Garden’. Granted, it does not much matter to me as a viewer what a stand-alone painting of a subject is (though I suspect it has something to do with a comparison to landscapes), but it is a statement that drew me out of the moment into a tangent of questions: what is a stand-alone painted version of the subject? Why is it significant that this is the first? When did that art form become a ‘thing’? Later on, the extended labels make reference to ‘three quarter portraits’, without making clear why the concept of a three quarter portrait is essential to the appreciation of either Mantegna or Bellini’s artworks.
The weakness of the wall labels, sadly, presents the final rooms from conveying the emotional impact that the choice of artworks suggests. In an adjoining room to the final hall, Mantegna’s Minerva drives out the vices from the garden of virtue in a vivid and highly allegorical painting. The vices wear labelled crowns; Avarice and Ingratitude carry the inebriated Ignorance into a swamp, while on the right, Faith, Hope, and Charity, prepare to return to the garden while the determined Minerva strides against the vices that have occupied the allegorical garden. Yet, although the wall panels assert the similarities between Mantegna’s ‘Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue’ and Bellini’s ‘Feast of the Gods’, the paintings are in different rooms, limiting the viewer’s ability to see the paintings’ similarities.
In a similar way, the wall panels in the final room fail to explain that Bellini painted An Episode from the Life of Publius Cornelius Scipio to commemorate and finish a commission his brother-in-law did not finish. Such a story would have provided the perfect flourish to an exhibition apparently centred on the brothers-in-law’s artistic relationship of inspiration and re-interpretation. The implied, but unstated, story of the brothers-in-law’s artistic relationships may be summarised as one of innovation and interpretation. Bellini’s depictions of subjects attempted first by Mantegna are both imitations and reinventions, and become their own entities of feeling and beauty.
Ultimately, though, the final image that remains seared in the viewer’s minds is a dazzling display of one of Mantegna’s greatest works: a triptych from his Triumphs of Caesar, (c. 1484–92). The soft matt egg tempera wash creates a sense of atmosphere, of excitement; even the horses prance with eagerness during Caesar’s military parade. The viewer is swept up in the scale of the painting, the warmth and the depth of the colours. It is a shame, perhaps, that an exhibition built around the comparison of two artists and their artistic careers must end on a single note, but it is a stunning note on which to end.
Mantegna and Bellini will be shown at the National Gallery, London, until the 27th January 2019. Click here for more information.