Pictures from Dresden at the Royal Academy

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Pictures from Dresden at the Royal Academy


Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review


LAST autumn part of the Gemaldegalerie in Dresden was flooded, leaving a shortage of space for display. Since the Royal Academy, London, has taken fifty pictures deemed temporarily disposable into its protection, with all expenses paid for three months, one expected something better than the present exhibition. The Academy's generosity has not been amply repaid. One hardly hoped for The Sistine Madonna or Giorgione's Sleeping Venus or Jan van Eyck's triptych, but did not expect an event called Masterpieces from Dresden to contain such drudging footnotes to the marginalia of the history of art as works by Castiglione, Crespi and Piazzetta: artists destined all over Europe, without hesitation, for secondary collections or storerooms.

Bernando Belotto who, under the remunerative name of his uncle Canaletto, painted trim exact views of Dresden (vistas diversified by washerwomen, promenaders, boatmen and swans on the River Elbe) is represented by no fewer than five pictures of local interest. They are admittedly livelier than his uncle's sole contribution, a stately architectural rendering of the Grand Canal in Venice on a rainy day. The rule for most artists in the exhibition seems to have been one picture apiece. Why, then, are there three trifles by Metsu from a collection best known for its eleven pictures by Rembrandt, who is not represented at all, and its ten by Lucas Cranach the Elder, who is represented by a single portrait? Admirable though that portrait is, was neither his Garden of Eden nor his St Catherine retable (two wings of which are already in the London National Gallery) an option?

The earliest Italian work shown is Mantegna's Holy Family with Saints (c. 1498), a crowded composition, as is its variant at Forth Worth; so much so that the Madonna's halo endangers St Joseph's nose. The aged, stonn-weathered faces of St Joseph and St Elizabeth have more individuality than those of the smooth, plump types of the Virgin and her child. A charming infant St John twines up in one corner with his olive-twig cross and his Agnus Dei banderole. He points at his infant cousin Jesus, voluble in his news of the Messiah.

Titian's 1561 portrait of a man with an intense, saturnine face averted from a stormy sunset, with a paint box by his side and a palm in his hand, may be of the little-known artist Antonio Palma, nephew of Palma Vecchio (like Titian a pupil of Giovanni Bellini) and father of Palma Giovane, who at least twice collaborated with Titian. The ghost of an imposing hat, painted out, shows through the surface. Dates and iconography support the supposition that the portrait is of Antonio, but do not utterly confirm it. The wide span of Titian's life certainly took in the maturity of three generations of the Palma family.

The scene of the Titianesque Veronese's Resurrection is confused by the artist's virtuoso tricks of perspective, foreshortening and flying draperies. A haggard Christ streams upwards in the posture of the Crucifixion, although His feet kick free. His open hands reveal the cruel wounds of the hammered nails. By a sleight of simultaneous representation an angel opens the empty tomb to the three Marys. The soldiers, on guard-duty but sleeping with discarded armour, are less disciplined than one expects of Romans.

Tiepolo did not take kindly to the dimensions (for him cramped) of an altarpiece; nor did he relish painting the quiet holy figures of his Vision of St Anne (in which she saw the child Mary before Mary was born), rather than Olympian deities and the legendary heroes of the conquest of Troy in Homer and Virgil, and the conquest of Jerusalem in Ariosto and Tasso. He would, if pressed, accept something less than the minimum of three square metres that he preferred, especially if the subject was energetic. Scenes of contemplation and spirituality sapped his verve. The Vision of St Anne, with its haloes, orange fog and winged cherubs' heads, is consequently nothing like his best work. …

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