Newsletter 39 (25 January 2019)
In a former newsletter I wrote of the particular pleasure in leaving behind rooms in an art gallery full of religious paintings, however wonderful, to come across portraits of ‘real’ people. Such an experience has been recently available at the National Gallery. The exhibition exploring the relationship between Giovanni Bellini and his brother-in-law Mantegna will probably be over by the time you read this; but running concurrently is a superb collection of portraits by Lorenzo Lotto, which doesn’t finish till 10 February.
Here are pictures that are not often seen, such as a superb portrait from the Queen’s collection of the thickly bearded art-collector Andrea Odoni; he is as solid as a doughnut, swathed in velvet and surrounded by statues, clutching a small marble multi-breasted Diana of Ephesus in his chunky hand. From a Venice church (and not strictly a portrait) is St Antoninus of Florence, giving alms via two fellow Dominicans to a crowd of supplicants (one of them it is said might be Lotto himself). The Saint is being advised by two wind-swept angels, each whispering in an ear. Is it Lotto’s sly humour that none of these three friars look to me entirely likeable, or am I simply discovering a prejudice? The equable way in which they receive the petitions and dispense the money bags is so easy to interpret as smugness, especially in relation to the yearning, upstretched arms of the clamorous crowd below. And between the imploring poor folk and the great saint is a barrier over which a rich Turkey carpet is spread (Lotto was so good at carpets that a pattern is named after him), as well as a shelf of high-value objects: expensive books; what looks like a large bag of money; and a bishop’s mitre and crozier.
Further on is a ‘Portrait of an Elderly Gentleman with Gloves’. The caption on the wall says that the ‘empathy’ with which Lotto paints this fellow is at odds with ‘the arrogance and ruthlessness’ for which the presumed subject was known. Well, to me he looks arrogant and ruthless, if a bit tired, and only vaguely trying to appear benign. And this is the kind of experience that so many of these unheroic, intimate and unflattering pictures have to offer. It is a fascinating exercise to try to decide what the individuals were really like, and what Lotto thought of them.
Once a label, or a snap judgement has been applied — smug or arrogant, worldly or cerebral — it’s difficult to shake it off, difficult to dispel it entirely from an interpretation of the portrait. Yet such a judgement is likely to be entirely arbitrary and baseless.
I can’t look at a Botticelli Madonna without recalling Walter Pater’s comment that they are ‘peevish-looking’ (although perversely this is why he likes them).
King Duncan remarks in Macbeth that ‘There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face’, a fact often dwelt on in the theatre, since we are confronted there by people all pretending to be someone other than themselves. Shakespeare and his contemporaries devised the soliloquy as a means of revealing the true intention and behaviour of a character, their psychology, so we have the measure of their deceit and duplicity.
And what do we see when we look in the
mirror, at our own autoritratto? Only
we know the myriad bad decisions and failures small and large that we may have
committed. Do we imagine that we see them manifest in our reflected face; or do
we square our chins and adopt some more optimistic or romantic pose? Do we
think the mirror reveals much about us? Do we like what we see, when we look at