Over recent months I have begun to turn the corner to my next major project: an exhibition focused on the terracotta models of Antonio Canova, the preeminent sculptor working in Europe during the age of Napoleon. The idea for the exhibition was born years ago. As I basked in the success of Bernini: Sculpting in Clay, my co-curator, Tony Sigel, and I wondered whether there could ever be a sequel. Canova was the obvious answer—the only other sculptor in Italian history who modeled with comparable panache and whose surviving œuvre of terracotta models was as substantial. Years ended up passing before the idea was injected with new life. In 2018 word reached us that the Museo Canova in Possagno, Italy, might be willing to lend its collection of Canova models—the largest in the world—to the United States for the purposes of realizing a comprehensive exhibition of his models. How the deal evolved (and continues to evolve) must wait a future post. But the planning for the exhibition is now well advanced, with numerous research trips already taken. The photograph above is from one of those, taken by Sigel during a recent week we spent at the Museo Canova. Representing a detail of Canova’s model of Adam and Eve with the Dead Abel, it captures the minimalist quality of his modeling style—how with barely more than series of deftly placed tool marks Canova was able to turn a mass of clay into an image of haunting grief.
This past week has seen me traveling across Castile, Spain, with Daphne Barbour, senior conservator of objects at the National Gallery of Art. Our mission was to investigate the sculptural techniques of Alonso Berruguete, the subject of a forthcoming exhibition that I am curating for the Gallery for the fall of 2019. We enjoyed an especially revelatory day at the Museo Nacional de Escultura in Valladolid, where we had the opportunity to de-install a selection of Berruguete’s greatest sculptures and examine them under ideal conditions. His method of assembling his figures was fascinating. Unlike most Spanish sculptors of his generation, he seem to have been unconcerned with trying to carve his figures from as few blocks of wood as possible in a neat, careful manner. His sculptures (like the Abraham and Isaac above) are pieced together in an almost jury-rigged way, as though he was working out aspects of composition as he carved, unwilling to be constrained by the material. This must have something to do with his background as a painter, as the approach is highly pictorial. It also supports my contention that Berruguete received his training as a sculptor late in life—that he was not exposed to the traditional methods of wood-carving at an early age. As a consequence, they were not engrained in him. When he decided to branch into sculpture later in life, he felt free to adopt them to his aesthetic needs, then premised on painting. Still, as tends to happen on these trips, more questions were raised than answered. To be continued over the months ahead, and more trips to wonderful Spain. Thanks to Daphne for guiding my looking this week and the many important insights into Berruguete's technique.
Among the most enigmatic portraits in the National Gallery of Art’s collection is Michel Sittow’s Diego de Guevara, which is currently enjoying a moment of celebrity thanks to the marvelous exhibition Michel Sittow: Estonian Painter at the Courts of Renaissance Europe (on view at the Gallery through April 15, 2018). The tired eyes, accentuated by the bluish rings under them, along with the expressionless mouth, convey a deep melancholy that is as transfixing as it is disquieting. He was undoubtedly a complex man, as partly revealed by his discernment as an art collector. I cannot look at the portrait without remembering that Guevara owned one of the greatest paintings in art history, Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding Portrait (National Gallery, London). My particular interest in Guevara at present lies in the fact he is one of the many Spaniards who worked at the courts of Burgundy and Flanders and who helped promote a new style of painting in fifteenth-century Castile -- the Hispano-Flemish style. This is bound up with my research on Pedro Berruguete, father of the sculptor Alonso.