Renaissance Faces at the National Gallery offers plenty of visual treats, but little food for thought
It has long been a contention of mine that the Renaissance wasn’t really the Renaissance, at least not in the ways we usually understand the term. The desperate overemphasising of its civilising aspects that has gone on – the quest for geometric perfection, the rediscovery of antique knowledge and so on – tells us more about our delusions of progress than it does about the real ambitions of the 15th century. It has blinded us to some powerful truths about the era: its religious passion; its love of illusion. The fact that there was more of the Middle Ages in the Renaissance than we habitually propose has been shovelled under the civilisational carpet.
For a decent illustration of this important corrective, visit Renaissance Faces at the National Gallery. Certainly, there is no other overwhelming reason to see the show. No. That is wrong. Let me rephrase. Renaissance Faces is packed with superb examples of portraiture from the period, and as there are great things here by Titian, Holbein, Van Eyck and even Arcimboldo, you must witness them, of course. A surprising number of the exhibits come from the National’s own holdings and have merely been moved around the building. But novelty is never a worthwhile aim for any display. The more telling problem is not with the ingredients, but with the recipe.
The show is filled with marvellous things, but that does not make it a marvellous show. Alas, the exhibition-making here is horribly confused. Skipping between epochs, nations and methods like a gorging flea, this thoroughly mixed-up event has forgotten the cardinal rule of show-building: if you want us to follow, give us a journey.
To return to my opening salvo: in the absence of a proper route through the cornucopia of faces, the only successful way to enjoy these proceedings is to forget the usual exhibition need to join up some dots and to investigate each visage from scratch as you come to it. Which at least puts you in a decent position to see Renaissance portraiture for what it was: a hotchpotch of styles, methods, treatments and techniques; a scramble of tastes, looks, textures and fashions; a ratatouille of approaches, ambitions, outlooks and endgames.
This waywardness sets in from the first room, where we range crazily from a delicate French profile of a lady painted with exquisite precision by an anonymous Burgundian in about 1400, to Dürer’s startling portrait of a fiercely staring Johann Kleberger, from 1526. A trick of fashion makes Kleberger look more like a 19th-century composer than a Renaissance courtier, with his muttonchop sideboards and his Schubertian crop. How recent he appears. Certainly, portraiture has travelled a long way from the beatific French profile, but who ever doubted that portraiture was different in 1400 from what it became in 1526? What other agenda is being set?