Mantegna and Bellini, Two Italian Greats at Gemäldegalerie Berlin

(Berlin.) With Mantegna and Bellini, Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie - “one of Europe’s leading picture galleries” as they nowadays style themselves -, hosts a match between two title contenders in the “Serie A of Italian Renaissance Painting”. The Gemäldegalerie is perfectly serious in claiming a place among the Louvre/Prado/Uffizi class, the Champions League of Old Master museums. Not suffering from any lack of self-esteem, “one of the best museums in the world” expresses itself particularly proud of having been allowed to borrow a number of works from the British Royal collection that are usually on display at Hampton Court, and have hardly ever been shown anywhere else before. They besides complain about these works being in a pity state of restoration - which must not be a bad thing, as we shall shortly see.

 

Does anybody know, what “under the auspices of” actually means? To how much sponsoring money does it translate, if any at all? People in charge of Gemäldegalerie are immensely thankful and proud, for and of, the German president (not a real president, but a sort of state mascot) filling the role on this occasion. Will it earn them one more visitor? Or one Euro more sponsoring money? Seriously: Is there a single company representative in charge of art sponsoring, whose decision-making is influenced by under whose auspices any given exhibition stands? You could have doubts. The other way round seems much more likely: A politician bolstering his reputation with art. PR, basically.

One last question, defining yourself as if not primo then at least inter pares with the biggest fish in the pond, was it hard to swallow this show premiering at the British Museum, before travelling to Berlin? Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind Gemäldegalerie, nor the whole Kulturforum of which it forms a part (or Nationalgalerie - untangling the network of Berlin public museums is not an easy task). Really not! Not even, that the venerable institution still looks like a 1970s/80s convention centre in the rural GDR - but if you’re so full of yourself, you just need to be set straight from time to time. There can be no doubt about Gemäldegalerie being a great exhibition space, and even the most important among Berlin based museums when it comes to classic painting. That’s fair enough, and for the rest – well, you know the saying: “Cobbler,...”

 

Andrea Mantegna and Giuseppe Bellini were not only active at the same period, one of Art’s greatest ever: the Fifteenth Century, but became even related when in 1453, Mantegna married a sister of Bellini’s. The mutual influences are abundant, the artists influenced and copied each other, one even executing the other’s sketch, occasionally (or: the other’s workshop’s sketch, as it often remains open to debate, whether a work was has been created by the master indeed, and where his apprentices’/servants’ responsibilities ended), or, in other cases, refusing a commission out of respect and to avoid what could be perceived as competition. However, they no longer met frequently after Mantegna moved to Mantua in 1460, while Bellini stayed put in Venice. Not merely different cities at the time, these were different microstates - strictly speaking, referring to the artists as “Italian” is an anachronism: Just like Germany, “Italy” was a diverse territory, a conglomerate of sovereign states, autonomous entities collaborating or warring with each other. A multitude of cultures, laws and even languages coexisting in the absence of equalised unity, art and thought beneficing from general competition, in short: the old ways.

 

The Berlin exhibition takes place in a dark green space, calming to the eye, and of course due to the exigencies of old paintings. Divided thematically, the different parts are named for episodes in the artists’ lives, or topics they both treated: “Mantegna in Padua”, “Bellini in Venice”, “Landscapes”, “Figures of Saints”, “The Agony in the Garden”, “Grief and Death”,... Needless to say, almost every work is a masterpiece here, - what else to expect from two acknowledged masters? 

We certainly won’t start judging the works of Mantegna and Bellini, this is a great exhibition that you should visit when in Berlin. Let’s instead highlight the exceptional works among the exceptional works, make some general observations, and maybe mention a minor detail or two, like Bellini’s CV on the wall ending with the words “Death in Venice” – been reading Thomas Mann lately, have you dear curator/translator? The already high number of paintings is further raised by a collection of drawings, magnificent in their own right and often having served for preparatory sketches, thus allowing insights into the creation process of much larger works. 

 

An exhibition like this will always invite to comparisons, sooner or later every visitor joins in the game of whodunit. Trying to give reasons for your guess, and establish general rules, can prove difficult though. Not merely because the painter’ styles are very similar to each other – and it was a time when many more were working in the same vein -, but also due to the different states of restoration. Do all these works indeed look now as they did five hundred years ago? Sometimes – a most striking example is the case of an illustrated book - you cannot help but summon the scene in a conservator’s studio to your eyes: “More colour, more, give me more colour there, more, a little more, more, more, oops!”

Thus, first, mistaken, guesses might concern the colours, the one maybe appearing “paler”, less vivid, than the other, until you reacall, every museum employs a different conservator... Or simply have more means to order conservation/restoration. We just have to trust Bergamo Museum’s conservator, that a dress in a Resurrection scene always looked like a football jersey. Might try cataloguing museums (does the National Gallery guarantee poppy neon overkill?).

Another attempt at a general formula could assume, Bellini drew softer lines than Mantegna’s sharper hand, that valued contrasts more. In Bellini’s background landscapes, ambiance prevails, the sunlight is omnipresent yet never too realist - call it pre-(pre-pre-)impressionist. Could it be, that Mantegna is more distanced, possibly more realist, while with Bellini, emotions are truer, unfiltered? Mantegna might have used more effect, but Bellini dug deeper to the core behind the appearances. The expressivity of his Lamentation (ca. 1457-59) is unmatched by anything Mantegna ever did. The latter was the better scientist, the better observer, his description more truthful – but ultimately keeping on the outside. Bellini better captured the emption, the meaning and substance of a scene, and this could be true even in drawing. Then again, it’s only a general rule, and might not hold up to more thorough scrutinising.

 

What do we make of a scene painted by both, first in 1554 by Mantegna, then in 1574 by Bellini, a Presentation in the Temple that is said to hide a family portrait behind the biblical topic? Mantegna and his wife have been identified with certainty, but are all characters members of the Mantegna/Bellini clan? Start to imagine a story, to explain and understand the characters and possible family intrigues. That patriarch in the centre appears less grumpy, alert yet caring in Bellini’s later version, maybe because a newly added character is there to watch him. Bellini changed several details on a tracing of the original painting, who before was Mantegna’s self portrait, now is that new character, while the painter stands further on the outside - and he’s up to no good judging by that smirk... 

 

Several works of other artists are added, and not just minor ones - the whole show starts with a magnificent terra cotta relief by nobody less than Donatello! Those Zappos though,... it just isn’t fair. He never got the facial expressions right, some of his attempts almost appear inadvertently funny; it’s cruel to show him in this context, and if only to prove how special Mantegna and Bellini were. Even their faults are better than anything most contemporaries could ever do (take a Holy Family by Mantegna, 1490-1500 – but who beheaded poor baby Jesus?!).

Lest we forget: Mantegna’s wall-taking, three panel painting The Triumphs of Caesar is the one from the Royal stock. It’s in need of restoration, alright, but still representable without a doubt.

 

This could well become the blockbuster exhibition, Gemäldegalerie is dreaming of. To impress the hoped for masses, they’ve treated themselves to a new LED gimmick, a huge display in the staircase. Seems really uncalled for. Time for a pizza, not quattro stagioni, but due maestri delle pittura.

 

Mantegna and Bellini, 1 March-30 June, Gemäldegalerie

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