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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch


Lengthy Layover at the Frick
for a Parmigianino Portrait

By Val Castronovo

When the exhibition celebrating the quincentenary of Parmigianino’s birth leaves the Frick Collection in Manhattan in April, it will fortunately not be gone entirely. For one of its paintings, the brooding Portrait of a Man with a Book (1523-1524) from the York Art Gallery in England, will stay behind until the end of February, allowing Mannerist enthusiasts to savor some more the graceful art and aesthetic of this Italian Renaissance master.

A Beautiful and Gracious Manner: The Art of Parmigianino (January 27-April 18), organized by the National Gallery of Canada, showcases the exquisite drawings, prints and paintings of Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, dubbed Parmigianino after his birthplace Parma. A student of Correggio and emulator of Michelangelo and Raphael, he died in 1540 when he was only 37, but he left an enormous legacy in his wake that includes ground-breaking etchings (he was the first Italian painter to make his own prints), paintings, frescoes and nearly 1,000 drawings, 51 of which are on view at the Frick.

It’s the exhibit’s seven paintings, however, that dazzle and draw you in. The small-scale oil Circumcision (1523-24) was a gift to Pope Clement Vll, personally presented to him by the artist upon his arrival in Rome. This luminous panel is charged with energy and motion. The Christ Child occupies center stage and projects an ethereal calm and divine radiance that literally lights the scene, contrasting, the curators tells us, “with the silvery luminescence of a cloud-enshrined moon.” Non-celestial figures crowd him — the canvas is packed — providing a dynamic counterpoint to the serene infant. We see the distinction between the divine and the ordinary, the heavenly and the mundane. Light and shadow predominate, and as Andrew Butterfield writes in The New York Review of Books (April 8, 2004), the shadows “gleam with the intense black of obsidian.” The sensuous figures are draped in brilliantly colored garments and have long, elegant fingers, foreshadowing El Greco’s oeuvre.

Contrast that bustling religious masterpiece with the show’s darkly enigmatic holdover, Portrait of a Man with a Book. Here Parmigianino the portrait painter offers a psychological study in the form of a richly dressed man looking out across the pages of a book with an intense gaze. He wears two jeweled rings on his right hand, and his elongated fingers seem to press up against the canvas. Again, the artist brilliantly manipulates light and shadow. Said Dr. Colin B. Bailey, the Frick’s chief curator, to The New York Times, “This gives us the chance to have the work of a very great artist who is not represented in our collection.” And this despite the museum’s great strength in 16th-century paintings, sculptures and decorative arts.

Heidi Rosenau, press officer for the collection, adds: “The Frick was aware that the museum in York was not going to be open to the public at the time that the painting would have returned to England, due to a refurbishment project. Therefore, the Frick asked the York Art Gallery if it would extend the loan. On rare occasions we’ve had an entire show extended by just a couple of weeks, but this length of extension (about 10 months) for an individual object is very rare indeed.”

The plan is for the painting to move to the Anteroom, a main-floor gallery housing paintings from the permanent collection, from its current spot at the entrance to the exhibit. There the mesmerizing oil will keep company with Hans Memling’s Portrait of a Man (c. 1470) and El Greco’s Purification of the Temple (c.1600). As Dr. Bailey explained to The Times, “The portrait, with its mysterious quality, fits both in terms of chronology and art history between the crystalline naturalism of Memling and the expressive distortions of El Greco.”

Elaborating further, Bailey marvels that “The introspection of the unidentified sitter — youthful and self-assured, cultivated and something of a dandy, perhaps — strikes a particularly modern note. Clearly this work has yet to reveal all of its secrets.”

Viewers should bear in mind that while the show emphasizes Parmigianino’s genius as a draftsman (oh, that we could only see his most famous painting, Madonna of the Long Neck, in addition to the three preparatory drawings), some of the drawings can be hard to see. The lighting in the underground galleries is rather dim, and the sketches are quite detailed. On a recent visit, this reviewer noticed a number of viewers with magnifying glasses, so senior women might well come prepared.

Special Lecture and Viewing Opportunities:

There will be a free lecture on Wednesday, April 14, at 6 pm, by Mary Vaccaro of the University of Texas at Arlington, an authority on Parmigianino. Visitors should note as well that the museum is open until 9 pm on Fridays. Free gallery talks are held on the first and third Fridays of each month beginning at 6:30 pm.


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