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Review: Bernini at the Kimbell, Kirby in the Comics

by Jerome Weeks 19 Feb 2013 10:23 PM

The 40-some works were never supposed to be seen by the general public. They were disposable. But Bernini’s clay models – and the way the Kimbell presents them – make these small, hasty preparations loom large.


David (1624) by Bernini and Orion  (1971) by Kirby, left to right

Listen today, Wednesday, to THINK at 1 p.m., when Krys Boyd talks with Sarah McPhee, the author of the new biography, Bernini’s Beloved: A Portrait of Costanza Piccolomini, the model the great artist loved — and had slashed in retaliation for her affair with his brother.

  • Dallas Morning News review (pay wall)

Gian Lorenzo Bernini is the Jack Kirby of sculptors.

Just so we’re clear — all of us, that is, who are fans of the Baroque, either in Carrara marble or stapled newsprint: Bernini is the 17th-century Italian master, the subject of the Kimbell’s remarkable exhibition, Bernini: Sculpting in Clay. And Kirby is the ‘King of Comics,’ the man who, along with Stan Lee, pretty much created or re-invented the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America — basically, much of the so-called ‘Silver Age of Comics’ in the ’60s and ’70s.

So. Consider both David and Orion (above). It’s plain the two artists do not just inject action into a motionless figure. It’s the propulsive energy that they spin out of a highly torqued human torso, the taut muscles and grim-set jaws conveying heroic determination. It’s the entire air of the urgent and the extreme.

And that’s true not just of the figures themselves, which threaten to lunge into the viewer’s own space. It’s true as well of the artists pushing an accepted set of conventions into new realms of expressiveness. For Kirby, those traditions were the comparatively staid limits of the original comic book hero. Kirby introduced or explored techniques like ‘Kirby dots’ (crackling energy balls), photo-collages and the op-art sunburst behind Orion in order to convey the hyper-drama of his four-color fantasies, the entire worlds-in-collision of the Kirby cosmos.

For Bernini, the precedent, in this case, was Michelangelo (in other cases, it was the Carraci clan).

In his history, The Lost Battles, Jonathan Jones argues that Michelangelo’s David became the great civic icon of Florence in the 1500s precisely because of its battle-ready calm. David may have been the underdog, but he’s picked up his sling and is hefting a stone, looking off to his left, as if coolly measuring the distance to Goliath’s forehead. His entire posture, alert and self-confident, was what Florence wanted to project to its enemies. As if to say, You talkin’ to me?

More than a century later, Bernini took on the same subject as Michelangelo’s 17-foot-tall Hulk. Going even bigger wasn’t an option (David, after all, was supposed to be the small one). So Bernini’s David is human-sized (the statue isn’t in the Kimbell show, but a life-size digital photo is; more on which, later). Most importantly, he’s pivoting off-center, leaning way over, frowning, biting his lip, a scrappy fighter in a last-ditch face-off against — the great Michelangelo. Michelangelo’s David looks as though he can stand there forever, patiently and eternally en garde. Bernini’s David looks not just desperately dramatic but climactic. He’s at the peak moment of tension and release when he’ll whip his sling around and let fly. Now, it says, this is coming at you right now.

With his sculptures, Michelangelo makes the marble human yet heroic. Bernini makes it dynamic and extended, this is flesh stretched to its utmost.

Other similarities between the arts of Bernini and Kirby tumble out: When their work doesn’t pulse and flex, it’s filled with decorative effects, as if the artists’ energy has been re-channeled into crowded, curlicued inventions. Both artists’ peak work is peopled by the mythological and the otherworldly — as if ordinary flesh-and-bone were insufficient for their imaginations. Bernini has saints in ecstasy or in the agonies of martyrdom. He has deities thrashing sea monsters and angels taking flight. For Kirby’s part, he drew entire races of ‘mutants’ and ‘inhumans’ and gamma-radiated super-beings. Our Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian universe was simply not enough: He invented a series for DC Comics called, fittingly, New Gods.

Even fabric and hair express a figure’s central dynamic. They ripple and swirl – as if the figure itself were a perpetual whirlwind. Angel with the Superscription (left), The Mighty Thor (right).

Right here is where we come back to earth and recognize these prolific artists are fundamentally different but also why comparing them is instructive. Bernini’s statues are not more monumental and simply more three-dimensional than Kirby’s pen-and-ink drawings. Anyone who’s been to Rome knows Bernini dominates whole churches, even large parts of the urban landscape. He helped city-plan the Papacy into its Counter-Reformation glory. Baroque Rome is pretty much Bernini Rome.

In contrast, it wasn’t until Hollywood created the CGI action flick that it caught up with Kirby and gave his creations the towering scope of a Bernini sculpture come to hi-def life, pounding down skyscrapers and battling alien hordes. Indeed, in the 17th century, the closest thing you had to a full-blown, Hollywood popcorn epic like The X-Men was the experience of a Bernini altarpiece. Look at Celestial Glory in St. Peter’s or The Ecstasy of St. Teresa in Santa Maria dell Vittoria:  the enveloping theatricality of them, the clouds parting, the sunlight pouring down, the writhing figures, the sex, the violence, the exhaustion of every possible special effect. The only thing they need are soundtracks. Cue the church choirs.

But all of that is pretty much what’s not in Bernini: Sculpting in Clay. Obviously, as Stephen noted in his story about the exhibition, until they can ship whole fountains and churches on tour to museums, Sculpting in Clay is about as close as many of us Americans will get to some of these masterpieces. As a visitor event, the Kimbell show cannot offer what have been the direct, central experiences, even the central purposes, of Bernini’s art: the grandiose scale, the silky finish, his bravura technique, his command of public spaces (both interior and exterior), the almost casual, boundary-breaking ‘overwhelmingness’ of his works (the sense that Bernini wants either to grab viewers by the throat or seduce them, nothing milder or in-between, nothing done in half-measures).

Instead, Sculpting in Clay is comprised of some 40 clay models, the tallest not even three feet high, plus a handful of sketches. What we have is the small, the technical, the rough, the hasty, the immediate, the preparatory. Needless to say, this tabletop view is a very different way to experience Bernini’s art.

But that is part of the point: Judging Bernini’s works mostly on their splendor means limiting our appreciation to the ways his own era saw his art. In the 17th century, when clay models were put on public display, they were actually gilded. Terracotta means ‘baked earth,’ and cooked mud was not something the ecclesiastical Donald Trumps of the age wanted to showcase in their palazzi or their churches. Naked, these models were insufficiently gaudy to be classed as important art.

As Tomaso Montanari notes in his essay in the exhibition’s encyclopedic catalog, a sculptor’s models were not highly esteemed in the 17th century — in contrast to a painter’s sketches, which were already prized (as was the art of painting, in general, over sculpture). Which is one reason there are so few remaining of Bernini’s models. They were re-cycled or trashed. The several dozen here are most of what still exist — compared to the thousands he and his assistants probably produced.

That attitude was changing, though, as Montanari points out, even during the course of the 17th century. And there’s been several revolutions in sensibility since the Baroque, thanks, in this case, to the Romantics. In particular, they came to prize the gestural, the incomplete, the visionary, the so-called ‘primitive,’ the original flash of genius over the carefully studied and worked-out (Coleridge even sub-titled several of his completed poems “fragments”).

So as fragmentary and unfinished as many of these models are, they take us past that high polish, the perfection of Bernini’s marbles and bronzes to give us his fingerprints and tool marks impressed in clay. They take us to an earlier, more private moment when these angels and gods were just being born.

Detail of Bernini’s Kneeling Angel (1674), left, and Sick Child (1889) by Medardo Rosso

Some of the items at the Kimbell were actually demo models. They weren’t designed simply as guides for Bernini’s assistants working in stone or metal; they were presentation pieces for final approval from his patrons. These are generally the more completed pieces. But seeing the other, more ‘gestational’ works, the literal ‘first impressions,’ one can’t help but think occasionally of the ‘post-Impressionist’ style of sculpture, developed by Rodin or Medardo Rosso’s Sick Child (1889) at the Nasher Sculpture Center. Of course, Rosso achieved his melting, tender, transitory effects after great care and practice. Some of Bernini’s models, in contrast, are actually quick efforts, not ‘after-thoughts’ so much as ‘pre-thoughts,’ not fully formed yet. What links the two works above is the vivid feeling that the artist created them with his thumb, smudging the features, out of haste or care but still leaving the works as gentle and alive as a human breath.

In this regard, if there are two individual highlights of the show, they are undoubtedly the Kimbell’s own Model for the Fountain of the Moor from 1653, a whiskered sea god striding over a whiskered dolphin. Only 32 inches tall, the figure is a mighty mite, packed with power in the details of chest and leg muscles and in the corkscrew curves that rise from the giant seashell he stands on through the twist of his body, curves that finish in his frowning face and the seaweed tangle of his hair. He’s a god arching and contorting; there’s not a straight line in the piece.

The second is another marvel of curly hair and coiled muscle, the crouching Lion on the Four Rivers Fountain of 1649. If the finished marble fountain in Piazza Navona did not exist, this preparatory terracotta lion would be the finest sculptural representation of a big cat for centuries before and after Bernini. Typical of the artist, he’s chosen the most awkward, most vulnerable position for a feline predator, hunkered down to lap water. But this only accentuates the lion’s great head with its massive mane and his giant forepaws and shoulders. The cat is only a foot tall, two feet long, but he’s a solid mass of clay, and the sense of the lion’s compacted strength (momentarily gentle though he is) is palpable.

Even so, appreciating such small-scale works is often a fine-grained affair, especially with the tiny details of craftsmanship, the twists of clay, the measuring marks poked into the surface. C. D. Dickerson III is the Kimbell curator who oversaw the exhibition from the start, and Anthony Sigel is the Harvard conservator who extensively studied and tested these works. Together with the show’s designers, they have provided viewers with charts, close-up photographs and X-rays — to help us understand what we’re looking at, even underneath what we’re looking at. We seem to peer at everything with a magnifying lens. Rarely has an exhibition and its accompanying catalog resembled each other so closely in methodology, shuffling together the scientific, the historic and the aesthetic.

But what they’ve also done is try to convey, to simulate, the splendor of what these provisional works became, their fuller scope — what we were discussing up top about the central concerns of Bernini’s art, grandeur and awe. Filling the walls around the pedestalled models are large, grey and white photos of the completed sculptures, as well as images of early works like David, the better for us to understand this is how Bernini started, so we know what follows, as small and provisional as they are, were the works of an established master.

In other words, the exhibition isn’t focused on just these models, letting us appreciate them on their own, as if they were a whole show’s worth of tiny Medardo Rossos or Boccionis. We cannot escape reminders of their ‘more perfect’ selves, and sometimes I wish we could. As small as these individual items are, the show provides a huge amount of visual data to take in. It’d be nice to concentrate on just them. The whole binary effect of early models plus photos of finished sculptures is a bit like — one last, informative Jack Kirby comparison — trying to read a Kirby comic and not let the recent, big-screen versions inform your reading, trying not to remember how Ian McKellen, say, has lent a Shakespearean depth to Magneto, making him a Prospero stuck on revenge. Or how in Iron Man, Robert Downey, Jr., has made Tony Stark far more charming than that sullen arms merchant ever was in print.

The difference is, at the Kimbell, the big images aren’t nearly as effective when it comes to infiltrating our mental images as some of the Hollywood treatments have been. Here, they’re ghosts, distant visions from Rome. Dickerson and Sigel provide period maps and videos to help us get some grasp of Bernini’s achievements, even their locations. Cleverest of all, they use the Kimbell’s central, long gallery to recreate in miniature the Ponte Sant’Angelo, the bridge to the Castel Sant’ Angelo that Pope Clement IX had Bernini transform into the major pilgrimage and parade route to the Vatican. The ten models of the much-bigger angels that line the bridge are stationed along either side of the gallery with a giant photo of the Castel at the far end. It’s like a model-train-sized version of the real thing. But still, the Ponte Sant’Angelo was the Calatrava bridge of its day, and the sheer size of its ambition on top of everything else Bernini was doing (he had to farm out a lot of the work) makes one appreciate this attempt at replication.

In its own very different, more scholarly, limited way — in its use of miniaturization and enlargement, in its technical challenges and artistry — Sculpting in Clay is the most fascinating, most ingenious Kimbell exhibition since Butchers, Dragons, Gods & Skeletons.

Image of Thor outfront by Jack Kirby from Vortex to Nothing ‘n All