Friday, May 02, 2014

The Agony in the Garden

Paolo Veronese, The Annointing of David, c. 1550
During the spiritualism craze that swept Victorian London in the 1860s, John Ruskin would occasionally allow himself to be brought along by fashionable ladies to complete the circle at séances. On one such evening, Ruskin and a group of earnest seekers had seated themselves around an elegant table in a darkened Mayfair drawing room. They were trying to access "the other side" when the medium in charge suddenly announced in a quavering voice: "John Ruskin! John Ruskin! Do you wish to speak to your grandmother?"
"I do not," Ruskin replied with alacrity, "I wish to speak to Paolo Veronese."
- Dave Hickey in Art in America, November 2000.
Ruskin's admiration for Veronese is one good reason for visiting the National Gallery's impressive retrospective of the great Venetian (which begins with a striking quotation from Bernard Berenson: “It may be doubted whether, as a mere painter, Paolo Veronese has ever been surpassed.”)  Given Ruskin's importance for landscape art, I think it's fascinating that he was so inspired by an artist who rarely includes any scenery at all.  And yet many of Veronese's theatrical figure paintings are set outside - what Veronese does is create sheltered spaces that occlude the wider landscape almost entirely: the dark side of a ruin in The Annointing of David (above) for instance, or the rocky hillside in Mary Magdalene in the Wilderness.  The low viewpoint in The Resurrection of Christ leaves us looking up, like the soldiers shielding their eyes, at the ascending figure in a haze of heavenly light, but it also means that we can see no distracting scenery beyond the open tomb and ruined wall.  The National Gallery's Saint Helena sits at a window but all we can see outside is a grey sky and the figures in her dream.  At last, near the end of the exhibition I came to The Agony in the Garden, where landscape takes up half the painting, but it is a night scene and the closer I got to try to see into it, the more the features of the garden lost their form and revealed themselves to be merely the strokes of paintbrush.

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