2018 commemoration of the V centenary of the birth of Tintoretto
In 1547 Venice was one of the richest cities in the world. Christianity lived a moment of disorientation, a consequence of the shaking of the Reformation that Martin Luther initiated shortly before. The southern European states, with Venice in the lead, undertook a propaganda action against the doubts that were being planted in Germany. Such propaganda materialized, for example, in innumerable churches, paintings and sculptures created with the intention of emphasizing Roman Catholic values.
In the Serenissima (Republic of Venice) the scuole proliferated, charitable congregations halfway between the current concepts of guild and non-profit organization. The main scuole, only six in the whole island, received the name of Scuola Grande. Founded in 1260, the Scuola Grande di San Marco inaugurated a new and ostentatious headquarters at the end of the 15th century, and in 1547 it was decided to commission a series of large paintings to decorate its walls. The chosen artist was a young man of 29 years, named Jacopo Comin, who was beginning to be known on the island as ‘il Tintoretto’, diminutive of his father’s trade, who was a dyer. The assignment was to explain through paintings the most relevant episodes in the history of Saint Mark, patron of Venice. The responsibility was maximum for the young man, who already knew himself to be a timeless art master and took this opportunity as a challenge.
The largest painting was going to hang three meters high, between two huge windows; for that reason, and to compensate for the backlighting effect of the openings in the wall he was forced to pose the work by accentuating the contrast of colours. The chosen scene was the miracle of Saint Mark freeing the slave. Somewhere in Provence, a slave asks his old master for permission to go on a pilgrimage to Venice in order to worship the relics of Saint Mark. The master refuses the request, but the devotion of the servant is so intense that he decides to leave anyway. Upon his return, a cruel punishment awaits him; his eyes will be damaged with sharp wooden sticks, and the bones of his limbs broken with hammers. However, something unexpected happens: at the very moment when the slave is lying on the ground to receive the punishment, the spirit of Saint Mark appears on the scene —with his Gospel under his left arm— and by means of a simple gesture he disables all torture tools, left broken into pieces on the ground. Only the slave sees the spirit, probably because he is the only one of the 35 characters in the scene who has faith, no one else seems to notice his presence. The master, overcome by the incontestability of the miracle, decides to spare the life of his servant and converts to the Christian faith. Legend has it that he even accompanied him to a second pilgrimage to Venice. Perhaps as a wink to the faith he had in his own talent, feeling himself chosen, the artist self-portrayed himself in the face of the slave.
When in 1548 the painting was presented to the public, several members of the Scuola Grande di San Marco criticized his style, of clumsy and hasty technique, according to their words; they even came to judge the painting unworthy of presiding over the top floor of the institution. The artist, a proud and confident young man of his category, took down the painting, offended by the harshness of the criticism. Afterwards, the public outcry and the insistence of its defenders within the congregation convinced him to restore it.
The taste for neat and idealized painting was an imposition for decades, and had in Florence and Rome its most excellent representatives: Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Piero della Francesca, Botticelli… They all painted in a moralistic way, a style in which the figures look like classic marble sculptures, without wrinkles or imperfections, with perfect and proportionate volumes; metaphors, after all, of virtue. Beauty was synonymous with Truth. Venice was beginning to break with that style, because Tiziano had been there for a couple of decades proposing the “stain”, the painting impasto, as an expressive resource, beyond what the painted scene represented. Without knowing it, the seed of the modern painting was being sown, that of the Impressionists, that in which the reading hierarchy of the painting proposes to attribute the same importance to the expressiveness of how it is painted as it gives to its narrative content.
Tintoretto is an extremely irregular painter, able to touch the sky of the masters of history in a work and to demonstrate in the following painting the clumsiness of an apprentice. He does not calculate, he just executes. As a result of his impatient conduct, his art includes the concept of doubt, in opposition to the pyramidal and unidirectional hierarchy dictated by the Florentines, and this makes him strongly postmodern, appreciable to our view in the twenty-first century. He lived in a hurry, painting without measure, leaving many areas of his canvas unfinished, an attitude that led to the incomprehension of most of his contemporaries. He certainly did not know, but his gestural and expressive painting was opening a door of great importance to many artists centuries later. Not in vain his paintings presided over the main hall of the ILLUMInazioni International Art Exhibition, in the central pavilion of the 2011 Venice Biennale.
After the death of Tintoretto, only El Greco took up the torch and developed it appropriately, sealing a chest that would take two hundred and fifty years to reopen, with Eugène Delacroix. Tintoretto was forgotten, and the influence of his works postponed for almost three centuries. Barnett Newton, an abstract painter and notable intellectual of the New York school, wrote that the evolutionary leap of the Venetian school in painting — which ended shortly before 1600 — was so great that we can randomly change the chronological order of all the painters between that date and Delacroix (1830) without appreciating alterations. The French romantic artist took the values of Tintoretto and El Greco, especially the feeling of global movement of the scene, and gave them a new dimension. Something that would reformulate after Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, etc.
The use of classical paintings for my pictorial research started in 2005, with the Christ on the Cross of Velázquez, and later continued with other masters, such as Caravaggio, Tiziano, Guido Reni, Guercino, Tintoretto, Delacroix… I conceive it as an exercise conceptual of appropriation. A contradictory proposal of both homage and vandalism. The playground is the fight between opposites as the basis of each and every one of my paintings, in which I confront the figurative image to processes of pure abstraction, the narrative against the liberated gesture, the controlled against the arbitrary.
In my series of variations of classics I look for the motif of my painting in a painting by another artist. Meta-painting. I find it inspiring to appropriate an image with its own identity, an aesthetic code and a taste that expired centuries ago, that nobody would use to tell the world today. Painting an image of the real context in which I live would involve a dialogue with my surroundings. However, using a picture of almost 500 years ago and repainting it is a positioning between purism and inbreeding. I do not paint the emotions derived from an image of my surroundings but I nourish myself with the emotions that emanate from a past pictorial image, a code created by another artist and that has little or nothing to do with my time or my way of understanding existence.
I build on the basis of an attitude of repainting instead of painting in romantic position. I try to avoid the internal dictator who wants to master all the phases of creating a painting. I use only the skin of an old paint, the first layer, the style of the Cinquecento, which explains a scene in a figurative way. I intervene later on the surface with a pictorial gesture of abstract nature, almost of action painting, either with solvents in the oil paintings or with fire in the charcoal drawings. Like alchemy, understood in a metaphorical sense, that uses fire as a transforming instrument, not a destructive one.
I erase images, affirming as well as eliminating them. By blurring them capriciously with the solvent, I cause chance to intervene in the finishing decisions of the painting, emphasizing the liquid aspect of the discipline, trying to respect the dynamics of the nature of the paint puddles. Sometimes I use the roller as self-affirmation of the painting, but from outside the culture. I find useful the instruments of those painters who do not proceed with an intellectual purpose, like a wall painter, who paints just like me but without intellectual pretensions; only filling a surface with colour, without romanticism or heroic acts. That is the germ of my use of the roller, almost always in white, from top to bottom and from left to right, exactly like the wall painters. It is an exercise in the emptying of emotional contents, which reinforces the idea that the physical dimension of painting is beyond the word, of the concepts that sustain artistic theories, the simple awareness that painting can also be the simple human, mechanical gesture of covering a surface with white paint to lighten its weight. In the same way that one paints the walls of an apartment to which he has just moved in white to make it his own, as a gesture of appropriation of space.
I think about the elaboration of Buddhist mandalas. A process in which several artisans invest dozens and dozens of hours neatly pouring out coloured pigments — a very healthy meditative exercise — until completing an image that will later be spilled in the river, dropping all the colourful dust into the water. Thus a marriage with nature is consummated in which absolutely all the meaning is in how it was done, in the attitude and not in what was elaborated, because there is no result as a testimony of the action.
In my variations of the Miracle of Saint Mark liberating the slave, I paint neither saints nor slaves, only spots of colour in movement, liquid tides that move on a whim regardless of how they alter or erase the previous image. What to our postmodern eyes makes Tintoretto better than any other painter of his generation is not that he was the first to paint a man flying seen from below (which he was), or that he painted The Paradise of the Doge’s Palace, the greatest painting of all times (he painted it). It is because of his component of abstract thought, his understanding that painting, beyond telling stories, is a pictorial plane, which can excite us by the simple arrangement of its spots. Jacopo did not have to be an abstract painter because of the times he lived in, although I think he would be more than prepared for it. However, if the artists Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock and the art critic Clement Greenberg developed the theory of the pictorial plane in its exclusively physical dimension, which generates emotions that are not conditioned or foreseen by the painter and that they owe nothing to the world of words or to the representation of images of human experience, it is fair to recognize that Tintoretto was the first to intuit that facet of painting.
Jorge R. Pombo