A Tough Act to FollowIn show business it's referred to as a "tough act to follow." The phrase, I suppose, grew out of Vaudeville where there were wide discrepancies in both the type and quality of the various acts presented in the travelling stage shows. And although we often apply this saying in our daily lives, we don't often think of it in a painting context. I suppose the reason for this is that, in most cases, painting isn't considered "performance" art, and while painters do compete, they seldom go "head-to-head" as did Vaudeville acts, or today, the line-up of TV sitcoms on any given night. But historically speaking, some art eras shine while others suffer. The Baroque era was followed by the Rococo. The latter, in its ephemeral sweetness, suffered by comparison. On the other hand, the colourful brilliance of Impressionism followed the dark, dramatic sobriety of the Academic era, which, stylistically at least, was not a tough act to follow, and thus made Impressionism all the more wondrous by comparison.
How would you like to have been in the position of following the three-ring artistic circus of Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo? The Renaissance - now that was a tough act to follow, especially seeing as how its brightest star, Michelangelo, lingered for some 89 years taking repeated bows in a seemingly endless string of spectacular encores well past the middle of the sixteenth century. Michelangelo alone was a tough act to follow. Moreover, despite, or perhaps because, of the overwhelming Renaissance influences, the latter part of the sixteenth century, sometimes referred to as the Mannerist era, was something of a jealous, imitative weak sister sandwiched between the powerful Renaissance and the dramatic Baroque. Part of the problem was that the three stars of the Renaissance were simply too busy performing to teach the next generation of artists. This was especially true of the secretive Leonardo. Raphael died too young to become a teaching master, and Michelangelo was simply too irascible to be so inclined. As a result, Veronese, Tintoretto, Giorgione, Titian, Correggio, and Parmigianino, to name just a few, were all trained by, at best, second-rate, provincial masters - bit players, as it were, in the Renaissance road show. What these artists learned from the big three, which was considerable nonetheless, they were forced to pick up indirectly through their own powers of observation.
Correggio and Parmigianino are two interesting case studies. Correggio (Antonio Allegri) was born in 1494 near Parma in a small town called Correggio (from whence he took his name). Parmigianino (Francesco Mazzola) was born some nine years later in 1503 in Parma itself. His name means simply, "the boy from Parma." Though they're often thought of as peers, Parmigianino was actually a teenaged student in Correggio's workshop for a short time as the elder artist was in charge of decorating the basilica of San Giovanni Evangelista in Parma during the 1520s. Though they worked side by side, and came from similar backgrounds with similar influences, it's hard to imagine two more different artists or personalities.
Correggio was steady as a rock, a family man, the father of three or four kids of his own and that many more adopted. He was an astute businessman, the master of his own workshop, a patient teacher, a delegator, and an excellent draughtsman, whose works on paper are often as impressive as those in paint. Kind of a sixteenth century Jeff Koons, he made his contractual deadlines by handing his drawings to skilled workmen (not all of whom were painting apprentices) with the instructions, "Get the job done." He painted only when he had nothing better to do. When he did, his style reflected a mastery of the best of Leonardo. His handling of light and shadow and the hazy blending of tones called "sfumato" (smoke) were considered little short of magical.
Parmigianino, on the other hand, today we'd probably consider something of a "flake." Famously unreliable when it came to finishing work on time (or even finishing it at all), it could be easily argued that despite his almost whimsical personality, he easily outshines his mentor when it came to daring compositions, flash, and colour. Like, Correggio, he was born into a family of artists and was probably trained initially by an uncle. He strikes us today as a consummate showman. As a painter, he was much more nearly a Michelangelo than a Leonardo. By the time he was twenty, the brash young artist stuck out on his own for Rome to compete in the "big time." There Parmigianino first found work drawing for engravers (what we'd consider illustrating today). When Rome was sacked in 1527, most other artists fled, but the gutsy (or foolhardy) youth hung around instead, selling his drawings to the German invaders.
In the painting of Parmigianino, we see the sweetness of Raphael, but there is also an opulence that would have made Raphael cringe, also a sensuous, even sexual voluptuousness seen even in his religious work, such as his so-called Madonna of the Long Neck. But it's in his drawing as much as in his painting that we see the flashes of sheer, spontaneous brilliance that made him, for a time, the most popular artist in Rome. Meanwhile, back in Parma, Correggio's work veered from religious to private commission, often on the same large scale, but with such blatant sexual overtones that they bordered on soft-core pornography. Correggio died in 1534 at the age of 40, Parmigianino, in 1540 at the age of 37, probably from mercury poisoning while dabbling in alchemy (the equivalent of today's drug culture).
Though both artists were extremely popular in their time, both fell into disrepute within a few years of their death where they remained for several centuries. Today, however, as witnessed by their recent joint show, "Correggio and Parmigianino: Master Draftsmen of the Renaissance," at New York's Metropolitan Museum, their work, especially their drawings, are sparking renewed interest and appreciation. The show featured 34 drawings by Correggio and 95 by the more prolific Parmigianino - the most extensive showing ever mounted of either of the works and the first time they've ever been paired for exhibit. And, while there are certainly differences in their art, just as there were in their lives, the similarities, their common influences, even the sensual subject matter they found so appealing, binds them together as mentor and protege, and as peers, far more than it separates them.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
10 April 2001