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The Mannerist Dilemma
One of the difficulties of a colossal success is the aftermath. Once all the glory and honour have passed, what does one do for an encore? David O. Selznick encountered that quandary after Gone With the Wind, and I suppose James Cameron may well be pondering just such a "Titanic" dilemma right now. In art, Michelangelo probably had such thoughts once he climbed down from his ceiling, and the Renaissance in general left the artists that followed so in awe that they all faced the daunting question, where do we go from here? Their period during the late sixteenth century has come to be known as Mannerism and like Michelangelo and Selznick found, and no doubt Cameron will too, once you climb the peak there's no place else to go but down the other side. Michelangelo found other peaks to climb, but it's the exceptional artist who does so, and even he fell into some pretty deep valleys in the interim.

The Italian Mannerists, such as Agnolo Bronzino, Andrea del Sarto, Pontormo, and a number of others just as well forgotten, tried to continue the climb, but history has judged that they were rather climbing into thin air. In their efforts to surpass their Renaissance masters, their work became contrived, distorted, ponderous, tedious, and pompous at every turn. And perhaps worst of all, young artists from the North, leaving behind them a pretty respectable Renaissance of their own, journeyed south in an attempt to study the works of Michelangelo, Raphael, and others. And like their Italian peers, they fell victim to the same overindulgent tendencies, carrying them back to their homelands like a contagious disease.

In France, the results can be seen in Jean Clouet's 1525 portrait of his king, Francis I. Seldom has an uglier portrait ever been painted, though the king's overblown tunic, which threatens to break down the picture frame, is a fascinating study of richly textured fabrics. In the Netherlands, Joachim Wtewael chose to ignore the best efforts of Dürer and Cranach as he brewed his The Judgement of Paris, painted in 1615. In it, the Trojan shepherd, Paris, for some unknown reason, bestows a golden apple upon the most beautiful of three nude, presumably divine, ladies in an absolute horror of overwhelming compositional complexity and perfunctory detail. And Bartholomenus Spranger, also of Flemish descent (with the emphasis on descent), first spread Mannerism to the Haarlem Academy in his homeland, before going on to inflicted his semi-erotic Vulcan and Maia (1590) upon the Austrians. Later he moved on to Prague and sponsored an infestation of Mannerism upon the hapless young art students he encountered there. Fortunately, in later years, the area recovered and became the seat for some of the best art and especially architecture the Baroque period had to offer.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
18 November 1998


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