Fleshed Out


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“Mannerism” sounds stupid. One immediately associates it with manners. And “manners” are not in the highest regard these days. Mannerism would seem to be a movement of affected and empty gestures, of style over substance.

That’s what many do mean when they use the term. Mannerism has come to refer, primarily, to the group of Italian artists working just after the close of the High Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci died in May 1519; you could say, then, that Mannerism started in early June of that same year. The Mannerists, left with nowhere to go by the transcendent greatness of the High Renaissance artists, had no choice but to become decadent and unhinged.

Mannerist artists like Jacopo da Pontormo thus wasted little time in screwing up the Renaissance. Pontormo painted his figures in crazy contorted poses that would have made Leonardo revisit his lunch. Pontormo also went nuts with color. Many of the scenes he painted have an otherworldly luminosity that is hard to describe. You almost want to call it DayGlo. His compositions veer toward the “jumbly.” What, exactly, is happening in “Joseph in Egypt”? The staircase to nowhere dominates the canvas and it looks like Pontormo simply forgot to finish the landscape in the background. A cherub vamps atop a random column stuck on the far right side of the scene. This, gentlemen, is not Michelangelo.

It is for all these reasons and more that I have come to love Mannerism. And I must give full credit to Peter Schjeldahl (the art critic at The New Yorker) for putting his finger on the central issue. I share little in the way of attitude with Mr. Schjeldahl. His taste tends to the Modernist and the Classical. I, in an ongoing duel inside my head with the great Modernist critic Clement Greenberg, reject the concept of “taste” altogether.

Schjeldahl recently took a trip to see the Bronzino drawings currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bronzino was a Mannerist of impeccable pedigree. He was a student of Pontormo, perhaps the student of Pontormo. But if Pontormo was primarily reacting to the High Renaissance, Bronzino was beyond it altogether. Mannerism wasn’t a put-on by Bronzino — it was the water in which he preferred to swim.

This, as Schjeldahl points out, makes Bronzino our contemporary. Here is Schjeldahl on the matter:

As the Mannerists toiled in the twilight of the Renaissance, so do we in relation to the modern age — the word “modern” having been torn from its roots to signify things that loom behind us. The cinquecento artists would be intrigued by one of our musical genres, the mashup: new songs cobbled from scraps of old songs. (It shares an arch intricacy with their most popular form, the madrigal.) The movie “Avatar” strikes me as Mannerist through and through, generating terrific sensations of originality from a hodgepodge of worn-thin narrative and pictorial tropes. Ours is a dissolving, clever culture of mix and match. We are ready for Bronzino.

Schjeldahl goes further. Pointing out that Bronzino was also something of a court wit, Schjeldahl notes that Bronzino’s constant punning on the Italian word for paintbrush (pennello) as a way to refer to your penis has a distinctly contemporary feel to it. Naughty and irreverent, Bronzino could have a show on HBO.

As if to seal the deal, Mannerism has been compared to Silver Age Latin. The Golden Age of Latin gave us great Roman writers like Virgil and Cicero. Silver Age Latinists, who came after, include often second-ranked jokers like Martial and Seneca. Golden Age Latin is considered the solid stuff. Silver Age Latin is of the fluffier variety. Silver Agers goofed around more, riffed off of the work of the previous age. They were fabulists with fantastical imaginations that sometimes took leave of reality altogether. In short, they were Mannerists, as the Mannerists are us.

It is thus genuinely admirable that a man like Schjeldahl, who’s been known to rail against the tendencies of contemporary everything, has come to the defense of Mannerism for the very reason that it feels contemporary. I suspect it caused him a certain amount of pain to cross that line. At the risk of nitpicking, however, I would like to pick at just one nit.

Schjeldahl concludes his essay with the following sentence: “Meanwhile, we are doing the best we can in the twenty-first century, things being as they are; and anyone who wants our friendship had better be civil to Bronzino.” It is the “we are doing our best, … things being as they are” sentiment that strikes a strange note. Surely things are lousy in the 21st-century so far. But I don’t recall the 20th century’s being a sustained march of human perfection either. All hail the great works of the great Modernists and all that. But I’m not sure what it would even mean to say that 1952, for instance, was a better year aesthetically than 2009. Such claims, such portentous pronouncements about great declines or great ascendancies, fall flat in the eyes of any decent Mannerist.

It is, in fact, the obsession of the high-falutin’ Golden Agers, the High Renaissancers, and the High Modernists to do all this ranking and comparing. One of the things I always liked about the term post-modernism was its inherent wishy-washiness. We don’t really know what we are, it says, or even care that much. We only know that we arrived on the scene after those other guys.

There’s a drawing by Bronzino called “Standing Nude” (ca. 1541–42). I think of it as Mannerism’s response to Leonardo’s famous sketch of the “Vitruvian Man,” meant to emphasize the Golden Ratio. Leonardo’s drawing has come to symbolize the classical humanism of the High Renaissance. Bronzino’s “Standing Nude” tells another side of the story, no pun intended. He’s a swishy guy, that nude, holding his hat just so. He isn’t trying very hard to live up to the Golden Ratio or anything else, he’s just living. For all of Leonardo’s brilliance, for all of his studies in the sciences hard and soft, you aren’t going to find anything in his corpus that captures the mood of Bronzino’s drawing.

Indeed, the text alongside Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man drawing contains such insights as, “From the roots of his hair to the bottom of his chin is 1/10 of a man’s height; from the bottom of the chin to the top of the head is 1/8 of his height; from the top of the breast to the roots of the hair will be the 7th part of the whole man. From the nipples to the top of the head will be the 4th part of man.” Precise observations, no doubt. Nothing so exact can be learned from Bronzino’s drawing. Perhaps it would be truer to say that nothing at all can be learned from Bronzino’s nude. The very fact that we see Bronzino’s nude (as in many other of his drawings) from the back is appropriate. Bronzino is interested in his nude less as an object and more as a subject. Subjects can be notoriously difficult to know. It is hard enough to know oneself. In Bronzino’s art it’s easy to detect both an acceptance of and a fascination with that slipperiness. If his art is about anything, it is about that, which warrants no apologies at all. • 3 February 2010