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Friday, September 19, 2003

Arts & Letters

The Past is a Foreign Country

Willem van Tetrode (C. 1525-1580) Bronze Sculptures of the Renaissance: The Frick Collection, New York City, June 24 - September 7, 2003.

Our relationship to classically inspired art would seem to be inevitably suspect, at this point in time especially; the notion of fidelity to the figure, and in the case of bronze sculptures, the idea of superb technical skill seems antiquated at best, in light of the highly intellectualized and politicized art we experience today. Indeed, the terms of contemporary art are so abstract that the classical figure feels like it has come down to us not only from another epoch but also from another world, for the changes in how we make and receive art presuppose a very different reality in image making. Not least of the differences is the lack of a shared background; our art has become so pluralistic — that is to say individually determined — that we can hardly connect with the shared literary culture that inspired so much of the great art of the Renaissance. This is sad in many ways — the loss of classical references in our art has had the effect of denying certain kinds of grand themes based on literary tradition, themes that provided the artist with a large point of view. Today our mythologies are so personal that a certain obscurity enters into contemporary discourse; the terms of our expression are opaque and very often service the political sublime. While there is strong interest to be found in a forceful politics, we lose at the same time the big picture, based on a bias toward the absolute and universal. Classical culture had a way of asking you to consider not just the particularities of your own situation, but also your relations to the gods, whose capriciousness served as a warning against the dangers of pride.

Modernism, with its emphasis on abstraction, changed the idiom by which meaning was made. No longer were the classical stories relevant, as they had been for so long. Now the language of painting was turned in on itself, so that the compositional field became a kind of experiment, in which the qualities of paint were investigated without outside references to literary or figurative content. This opened up painting in major ways; however, its accomplishments have not been completely analyzed — we are just now beginning to take stock of what it has meant to Western culture. Yet it can be said that the movement of modernism has carried with its achievements an inherent, if eventual, collapse of its own meaningfulness: an art that is about its innate meaningfulness and expression would eventually run out of steam because it would not be referring to anything but itself. However great the modifications that modernism has made in our artistic perception, it has also made us all specialists in cultural production. And so we can hardly experience classicism in general and figurative art in particular as valid means of expression, primarily because the intention of such work was to communicate beyond the circumstances of the artist, whose expressiveness was, at the very least, a kind of transcendence — a word that we react to today more in embarrassment than in respect.

Given the gap between the classically inspired figure and our contemporary, highly politicized self-regard, it proves hard to read the remarkable show of Willem van Tetrode (c. 1525-1580), a Dutch sculptor who spent almost twenty years in Italy working for celebrated artists such as Benvenuto Cellini and learning the complex craft involved with making the small, expressively muscular bronzes he became known for — the great Renaissance historian Giorgio Vasari praised his work. As Frits Scholten points out in his biographical catalogue essay on Tetrode, the Dutch sculptor’s fame became obscure with the passing of the 17th century, and it is only recently, in the twentieth century, that his reputation has been resurrected. Tetrode was born some time around 1525 in Delft, becoming an apprentice later on, most likely to a local sculptor. His name then shows up in 1548 as an assistant to Cellini, where he helped execute a number of sculptures for the famous Florentine sculptor. Tetrode was one of a number of assistants in Cellini’s busy workshop. Cellini himself wrote of his help: “I had taken on many assistants, both sculptors and goldsmiths. These were Italians, Frenchman, Germans and, as the necessity arose and I could find them, they were sometimes many in number. I changed my assistants from day to day, keeping only the most expert and drove them to the greatest possible endeavor. They exerted themselves to the utmost, taking their cue from me.”

It is hard to think of a situation in art more different from today’s obsession with originality than Cellini’s milieu. Presumably Tetrode, known in Cellini’s papers at Guglielmo fiammingo scultore, quickly learned the technical skills so necessary to successfully making bronzes — Scholten gives as outstanding examples Tetrode’s execution of the sculpture for the base of Cellini’s greatest work, the bronze Perseus, as well as his restoration of Cellini’s Ganymede, complete with an eagle set on the base. After completing these accomplishments, some time after his last mention in Cellini’s account books, on 28 September 1551, he made his way to Rome, where he became an assistant to the artist Guglielmo della Porta. It is not known which works by della Porta Tetrode helped with, but at the end of the decade, in 1559, Tetrode made the 64-centimeter tall sculpture Farnese Hercules, which shows a heavily muscled, naked figure leaning on a tree or club nearly as tall as he is. The small size and sharply delineated muscles and flesh are typical of Tetrode’s art, as is the complexity of the pose, which here has the figure leaning, so that the axis of the body is slightly slanted.

The Farnese Hercules is a powerful piece, and like many of Tetrode’s works, monumental despite its small size. From a critical point of view, one of the most striking elements of Tetrode’s work is the coiled massing of the physique, which suggests a completely convincing monumentality. For a contemporary viewer, it might be hard to see the work for what it is; today’s audience no longer seems to find the story of Hercules exciting. Our relationship to a shared literary culture is strained — few today read, even in translation, those texts that might encompass the figure with an aura that would make it feel new and alive. Even so, the sheer physical strength of the figure comes through; but we simply have no way of placing it within a tradition — we see it in isolation, culturally speaking. Vasari also favorably mentions a wooden cabinet commissioned by the count of Pitigliano, Niccolo Orsini, which Scholten speculates may have Tetrode’s first independent project. The cabinet, which is no longer extant, housed 20 bronze copies of famous classical sculptures, including the Farnese Hercules. All but one of the bronzes have survived; there is a copy of the horse from the Campidoglio, one of the Apollo Belvedere, and versions of the heads of twelve Ceasars among the group.

As Scholten writes, “Taken as a whole, the Pitigliano bronzes provide a well-rounded picture of the highlights of classical sculpture in Rome.” He also indicates, that the small size of the copies would have been prized by Vasari and others, in positions of cultural stewardship at the time, especially if the bronzes were capable or radiating monumentality. In this area Tetrode was a master; while the quality of the bronze emperors is poor and lacks fine detail, there is a massive dignity in their poses. By making small copies of the best-known classical sculpture in Italy, Tetrode was connecting with the tradition of sculpture as an art of memorial and power; the limited size of his versions would not have been taken as a metaphorical diminishment of the originals. The rediscovery of classical culture thus is central to Tetrode’s achievement, which expresses a tradition through the accomplishments of craft. In the bronze work Hercules and Antaeus (1562-67), Scholten explains that the sculpture, less than 50 cm tall, is “a free reduction of a life-size composition by Ammannati,” whose much larger version of the two men wrestling had been made for the fountain at the Villa di Castello in Florence. In this work we see again sharply defined muscles and extravagant expressions, as well as a complicated pose, characteristics of much of Tetrode’s art. For this viewer, the composition was a complete success, communicating the urgency of the struggle in a convincingly naturalistic manner.

The sense of monumentality in Tetrode’s sculptures makes them, despite the limits of their size, extremely powerful and dramatic art. His remarkable work entitled Jupiter and Eagle (1560-67, model; 17th century, execution), consists of a well-formed figure, complete with crown, flowing locks and beard, caught in mid-stride and carrying in his upraised right hand a sheaf of thunderbolts. At his feet is an eagle, its mouth open and tongue protruding, with wings partially extended. While the figure is only 47 cm high, it possesses the power of a life-size work of art; there is a feeling of majesty and grandeur, expressed through the description of a tautly muscled body whose movement has been captured with a stunningly dramatic exposition of form. Just as remarkable, and created at the same time as the Jupiter and Eagle, Tetrode’s Striding Warrior (1562-67) communicates the strength of a man with an outstretched left arm, his right arm close to his body, with his legs apart, long wavy locks, open mouth, and thick mustache. According to Scholten, the sculpture suggests a classical work: a warrior from the Alexandro Farnese collection. In any case, the body is brilliantly articulated, with an acute sense of rippling muscles. Every aspect of the pose places the sculpture in a realm of action, and the face, expressive but not contorted, is memorable.

There is also a treatment from this period of a warrior on horseback (1562-65), a standard theme for classical sculpture. In this work, the horse rears up over a bush planted on the base of the sculpture. The helmeted rider extends his left arm, wearing a shield, outward; the pose closely resembles a warrior on horseback in the Farnese collection. The experience of stopped motion, of grandeur captured in mid-air, is very strong. Tetrode most likely returned to Delft in 1566 or 1567; there is an entry for payment for work on the Oude Kerk in Delft, dating to 1 January 1568; presumably, the monies were for restoring the seven capitals in the church that had been destroyed during riots. In 1574 the artist moved to Cologne, fleeing a second round of iconoclastic rioting; the Protestants in Holland squelched any expression of Roman Catholicism. In Germany Tetrode did a chimney-piece, with classically inspired imagery, including, as Scholten describes it, an image of “an antique horseman astride a rearing steed” in the center of the chimney. Tetrode did an usual grouping of bronzes in 1562-65, of Christ tied to the column and two flagellators; his work is notable as he was one of the first to create an ensemble scene. Another depiction of Christ, Christ to the Column (1565-75) shows a well-developed Christ with long hair and beard, his mouth gaping with pain. Working in Germany as both architect and sculptor, Tetrode lived until November 1580, when he died from the plague in Westphalia. His was an ambitious life, filled with work and achievement.

As Scholten remarks, Tetrode was remembered by a small group of people — those collectors who recognized his achievements as a sculptor and the artists of his and the following generation, who also took pleasure and inspiration in his art. As we have noted, he fell into obscurity until recently, when scholars began to piece together his oeuvre. Perhaps part of the problem in estimating his worth results from the small size of the sculptures, which may not have created difficulties at the time they were made but which may have caused later critical views to regard the work as highly specialized. The contemporary viewer may look askance at the literary content of much of Tetrode’s art, but to this writer’s thinking, the allusions to classical culture are exactly what is compelling about the sculptures.

We live in a time when references to anything outside the world of popular culture is seen as elitist and vain; while it makes little sense to compare the two periods, it may be said that our present-day lives often lack the depth tradition gives to culture. This exhibition of a master artist may be regarded as both a wonderful display of genuine achievement and, by implication, a corrective to the deliberate dumbness and facile self-regard that often consumes our culture, doing away with the kind of support historical awareness and appreciation is capable of bringing to us.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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