Castiglione, Lost Genius – my review of the show

this is my review, published in the A-N

Castiglione, Lost Genius

There was initial confusion about this exhibition, because I had confused Giovanni Castiglione the Baroque painter, with Baldassare Castiglione the Renaissance writer. Therefore, I went to the Queen’s Gallery expecting some kind of exhibition around the life and times of the writer of The Courtier. The reason for this is that Giovanni Castiglione is little known, except to specialists. Happily, however, the exhibition was a real eye-opener, absolutely fascinating and a real treat.

The exhibition largely consists of two particular techniques that Castiglione invented: the monotype and the oil sketch. The monotype, which is widely used today, involves drawing directly onto the plate, and then manipulating it – so the end result has some element of chance in it. The oil sketch is even riskier. Castiglione drew using thin oil paint directly onto untreated paper. This had to be done extremely quickly, so that the oil didn’t over-soak into the paper, thus spoiling it; but it also meant that it was extremely difficult. Unlike oil painting, there is no going back and fixing anything. Unlike watercolor or ink, there is no applying water to diffuse a line. Once you put the oil onto the paper, that’s it. And so it is marvelous when you look at the complex compositions, extremely lively, full of movement and drama that Castiglione produced using this technique.

Castiglione was well known in his time for extremely successful rendering of animals, and there are a number of examples in this exhibition. He had no inhibitions about drawing domestic animals such as cattle and other common creatures; their representations are as dynamic and as faithful as his representation of humans. He shows animals as creatures in their own right, powerful and prominent within the composition. What is interesting about the oil sketches is that it appears that most of them are actually finished works, not sketches for paintings. The most accomplished of these is a series of portraits of Saints, which are highly dramatic and here he has used the oil sketch technique to achieve a powerful chiaroscuro.

Today, discussion of technique is almost entirely absent from discourse around contemporary art. This exhibition makes me wonder why. Why have we given up consciousness and appreciation of technique? Castiglione shows us how technique is fascinating, instructive and is truly the pathway to creativity.

As if to illustrate this point, the exhibition in the next gallery, called Gifted, which consists of many works on paper gifted to the Royal Collection by the artists of the Royal Academy. Gifted certainly shows the length and breadth of the Academy and the academicians, but it also shows that, certainly compared to the time of the Italian Baroque, we have have lost technique. Many of the works are extremely simplistic, both intellectually and in their execution.

And I mean simplistic in a negative sense. Picasso has been quoted as saying “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Let us leave aside the obvious hyperbole, as this is a quote from a master at the top of his game. (Picasso knew exactly how to play his audience and is one of the most consistently successful painters of all time. And he certainly didn’t “paint like a child.”) The problem is that this quote, taken completely out of context, has given a license to the last generation, at least, of artists to completely ignore technique. They don’t even reject technique because they don’t bother with it in the first place. The lack to technique in the works in Gifted is laughable. And they are not childlike – children usually work quite hard at their drawings and paintings.

Perhaps there’s another explanation for the poverty of Gifted; one might wonder if this is perhaps because the academicians in question are secret Republicans. But I doubt it. In the gallery there is a large oil portrait of the Royal Academy at the point of its founding in 1768. What the portrait shows is that the Academy, then as now, is largely made up of artistic nonentities.

I am ending this review with an address directly to artists: keep working on your technique, and pay attention to it; technique is important, technique is fascinating, It will allow you to do things different and probably better than anybody else. Technique will set you free.

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