Among the gripping moments in the National Gallery of Art’s exhilarating Tintoretto exhibition is a small detail that seems to project beyond the limits of a painting on canvas. It is an alliance of hand and foot, the left hand of the Virgin Mary, which brushes against the right foot of the dead Jesus, who has just been taken from the cross. Both figures suggest the waxen chill of death — the literal death of Jesus on the cross and the emotional death of his mother, who has collapsed unconscious under the weight of her son’s body.
Perhaps they touch accidentally, and perhaps that accidental communion of hand and foot that connects mother to son is a comment on the closely packed construction of the painting, which is somewhat unusual for Tintoretto, an artist who often gives his figures a lot of room, as though they inhabit their own psychological and narrative space. Perhaps it points beyond the physicality of life, to a bond between these two figures that transcends their mortal existence. Or perhaps it is a symbolic touch, a subordination of mother to her divine son, reiterating the characteristic humility one sees in Mary in paintings of the Annunciation, when she learns she will bear the son of God. Or maybe it is just the opposite, a symbol of Mary’s extraordinary status within Catholic tradition, a sign of her particular intimacy with Jesus, as though she unconsciously reaches out to wiggle the little piggies of her dead boy’s foot.
Whatever it means, it has impact. A critic writing a century ago spoke of the “suddenness” in Tintoretto’s art, and that word fits this detail — and many, many others — perfectly. Tintoretto, the most ambitious and often the most compelling Venetian painter of the second half of the 16th century, worked fast and took chances, and there was a sense of urgency in his life that is everywhere present in his art, as well. He emerged in Venice first in the shadow of Titian, who considered him an upstart and a threat and worked to thwart his rise. Tintoretto may have set himself this motto, which defined the ideals he spent a lifetime pursuing: “The draftsmanship of Michelangelo and the coloring of Titian.”
If the young artist did indeed adopt this dictum, then he was self-consciously proposing a career that would redeem Venetian painting of its supposed deficit: a lack of rigor in the design and construction of images that was all too often hidden by a sumptuous, painterly overlay. He would absorb the lessons of Michelangelo, who died in Rome about the same time that Tintoretto painted his image of Mary and Jesus taken from the cross, and fuse them with the brilliance and sumptuousness for which Titian was renowned.
It’s a good story, but Tintoretto ended up doing something else: He became simply Tintoretto, deeply original, often sublimely weird and one of the most imaginative painters of the Renaissance. The National Gallery exhibition, “Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice,” surveys the painter on the 500th anniversary of his birth (circa 1518 or 1519), and for many visitors, it will probably be a revelation.
The vast majority of Tintoretto’s greatest work can be seen only in Venice, where he often painted on an enormous scale, filling churches and civic institutions with giant images that have a cinematic flair, so large that the eye must scan through them, picking up small narratives and isolated events within their larger construction. He specialized in what might be called “talkers” today: paintings that were meant to be a bit flashy and shocking.
Unfortunately, most of those works can’t travel, so visitors to the National Gallery will have to imagine the impact of essential early works, such as Tintoretto’s 1548 “Miracle of the Slave,” in which St. Mark flies into the picture from on high to save a naked Christian slave, prostrate on the ground in a dramatically foreshortened position. The huge 1565 “The Crucifixion” that he created for a confraternity, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, which bustles with detail and incident, isn’t leaving Venice, either. And one wishes it had been possible to include the room-size horizontal painting “Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples,” held by the Prado (which made it to Madrid but would be a formidable thing to crate and move, even today). The Prado painting is one of the strangest things in any museum, anywhere — an elongated image meant to be seen from one side (when it was installed in a church) that pushes Jesus off to one edge, and disperses the individual figures throughout an open, architectural space, as though they are actors focusing on their lines in the moment just before the director calls, “Action!”
But the paintings that have come to the National Gallery (supplemented by an extensive exhibition of prints and drawings) are more than enough to demonstrate Tintoretto’s brilliance. Even in his day, he was admired and admonished for creating works that felt “unfinished” to some critics. He had a keen sense of what kinds of marks would read on a large canvas, often seen from a distance, and he had a marvelous sense of economy when it came to what was necessary and sufficient to tell a story. His 1567 “The Madonna of the Treasurers” is a group portrait of Venetian dignitaries in sumptuous red robes, mixed up with the Virgin, the baby Jesus and a twisting figure of St. Sebastian that recalls Michelangelo’s agonized musculature. In it, one admires not just the positioning of three groups of figures (all seemingly in the same space, but each arranged hierarchically by religious and civic importance), but also how quickly and impressionistically Tintoretto painted the fur lining of the treasurers’ red gowns and the feathery, white lines streaked over red that suggest the glistening texture of their crimson fabric.
In other works, a splash of white on dark paint leaves the impression of glinting metal, while lace, seen up close, dissolves into pure abstraction. In one of Tintoretto’s many fine portraits, the dark background behind the figure invades the cheeks of the man’s face, rendering them gaunt, and him ancient.
Tintoretto himself is curiously absent. We can sense his flair for bawdy humor in the early bedroom farce “Venus and Mars Surprised by Vulcan,” in which the older figure of Vulcan inspects his unfaithful wife’s thighs while Mars, hiding beneath a bed, tries to quiet an obstreperous dog. His intuitive mastery of and games with perspective are evident throughout, in his drawings and in works meant to be seen affixed to ceilings or placed high above doors. His range of reference, both to the works of other artists, including Titian and Michelangelo, and to classical myth, is also astonishing. But the character of Tintoretto himself, a man whose powerful personality was likened to the pungent flavor of a peppercorn, isn’t obvious, even in the two exceptional self-portraits that serve as bookends to the show.
We know the facts, well enough: That he was the son of a fabric dyer, that he may have briefly worked in Titian’s shop (and may have been quickly dismissed from it), that he probably learned his craft painting quickly on furniture (a fine panel from a wooden chest is on view), that he probably learned to paint fast and big working on early fresco projects, and that he was not the sort of artist to say no to a commission, or to let a coveted job project fall into his competitors’ hands. He raised his children to be painters, and there are works on view in both the painting and drawing exhibitions that show his son Domenico to be a competent if not always inspired artist. And he worked passionately throughout his life and into his final years, including (with Domenico) on an awe-inspiring image of Paradise that is more than 72 feet wide (mounted in the Palazzo Ducale in Venice, and represented in this exhibition by a smaller modello borrowed from the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid).
But the suddenness of Tintoretto overwhelms any scattered intuitions derived from the facts of his life. He seems, at times, like a composer born a generation later, Gesualdo, who squeezed harmonic agonies into the neat confines of the madrigal, or perhaps the playwrights Euripides and Marlow, who unleashed human psychology without concern for the dignity or even coherence of their own works.
But return to that hand brushing the foot in his “Deposition.” This is pure suddenness, but also sweet and tender. It is breathtaking and reassuring, leaving little doubt that no matter how brilliant Tintoretto was, there was more than just brilliance in his vision. He left the world talkers, and keepers.
Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice Through July 7 at the National Gallery of Art. nga.gov.