Bernini: Tales of Power and Seduction

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Due to our recent pledge drive and the coverage of two political conventions, Art Talk has been off the air for a few weeks, so I wouldn't be surprised if you are starving for some good art news. I'm happy to report that the autumn season has gotten off to a good start with a number of museum and gallery exhibitions worth seeing.

at080909a.jpg It wouldn't be an overstatement to say that the remarkable exhibition of marble and bronze portraits by Gian Lorenzo Bernini at the Getty Center is a once-in-a-lifetime cultural event. The genius of this 17th century artist defines Italian art of the Baroque era. If you've been to Rome and remember standing speechless in St. Peter's Square, with its semi-circular colonnade, he's the guy to thank. The moment you enter St. Peter's Basilica, you zero in on his soaring bronze baldachin -– or canopy -– supported by four columns spiraling to the sky. And when you marvel at the fountains in the Piazza Navona or watch the famous scene from Fellini's La Dolce Vita with Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg getting wet amidst the splendor of the Trevi Fountain, it's again Bernini whom we have to thank.

at080909b.jpg The favorite sculptor of a succession of Roman Popes and various European royalty, Bernini was besieged by the rich and famous clamoring for a portrait done by him. Here at the Getty, we can see 28 marble and bronze portraits attributed to him and to a few of his contemporaries. Many of these portraits are on loan from museums of Italy, France, Great Britain, and Canada and have never been seen before in the United States.

at080909c.jpg Though Renaissance artists were perfectly able to capture in their sculptural portraits the individuality of the sitter, it was Bernini, along with other artists of the Baroque era, who enriched the art of portraiture with an unprecedented sense of the immediacy of a fleeting moment. One has the impression that we are watching them speak: lips parted, eyes twitching, a hint of smile flickering across their face. I've seen this exhibition twice and am still hungry for more.

at080909e.jpg The virtuosity of Bernini's marble carving and bronze casting is virtually unparalleled in the history of art. Kings and Cardinals, as portrayed by him, not only rule the world -– they have enough confidence to reveal a glimpse of their private selves. It is as if we, along with Bernini himself, have a privileged VIP access to their inner chambers. Numerous self-portraits, both paintings and drawings, show Bernini as an exceptionally handsome man who retained his good looks to the very end of his long life. Tense and edgy, he stares at us, and one gets the impression that this is a man whom you don't want to cross.

at080909d.jpg There is a famous story of Bernini and his young mistress, Costanza Bonarelli, the ultimate object of his desire. Her marble bust is the only portrait in this exhibition that he did just for himself. It is an unabashed declaration of passion, expressed through the most intimate caressing of her face, her breast, her hair. And if you dare to look even closer, you'll catch a glimpse of the tip of her tongue hiding between parted lips. However, the story doesn't end well. When he caught Costanza cheating on him with his own brother, he became so enraged he sent thugs to slash her face. If that isn't fodder for a Hollywood movie, I don't know what is.

Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture
On view at the Getty Center through October 26

Banner image: composite of three works by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Left: Self-Portrait, about 1625, Black and red chalks, heightened with white chalk; Unframed 10 13/16” x 8 7/16”, Oxford, Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology

Center: Self-Portrait as a Young Man, about 1623, Oil on canvas; Unframed 14 15/16" x 11 13/16", Rome, Galleria Borghese

Right: Self-Portrait, about 1665-70, Black chalk with white heightening on light brown paper; Unframed 16 ¼" x 10 11/16", Windsor Castle, Royal Library