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Baroque Then and Now

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Costanza Bonarelli (1636-1638)

The Anima Dannata, or Damned Soul, is not Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s most ambitious work, but the carved marble, produced in 1619 when Bernini was just 22, is a defining work of his long career. A broad-browed, boldly featured man appears frozen in an instant of simultaneous ecstasy and horror — mouth agape, face strained, hair electrified — as he faces the dread his sins have earned him. Somehow, Bernini managed to pack in the drama and emotion one finds in his better-known sculptures — David, which he produced just a few years later, and TheEcstasy of St. Theresa — but while those other sculptures benefit from bodily pose and the setting of scene to construct the narrative behind their drama, Damned Soul pulls off the implication of narrative while working only from the armpits up. It is one of Bernini’s allegorical busts, standing a total of 38 centimeters.

Regrettably, Damned Soul is present in “Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture” only in a photograph. The sculpture resides, along with much of Bernini’s output, in Rome, where the Naples-born artist spent nearly every day of his life from the age of 7. Damned Soul doesn’t, after all, really belong in this exhibition, which is devoted to portraiture, not allegory, but its photo, which accompanies the exhibition’s introductory wall text, provides a key reference point for understanding the gravity of this impressive show.

Bernini is often referred to as the father of Baroque sculpture, but as this exhibition reveals, he was an artist as gifted in multiple modes of expression as he was confident — made clear in two self-portraits, one in oil and the other in colored chalks. Both fill their small frames with the nearly life-size visage of the artist, who, as if standing just on the other side of a window, stares back at you, and almost stares you down. The Getty also positions Bernini more accurately as one among a cadre of stylistic codependents — variously inspiring and influencing, taking permission and borrowing riffs from one another.

The curators, while making Bernini the exhibition’s headliner, smartly included his contemporaries Francesco Mochi, François Duquesnoy, Giuliano Finelli, and Alessandro Algardi as more than just background. Together with Bernini’s, their works tell the story of a group of artists who —versed in the classicism of the ancients, inspired and agitated by Renaissance artists who had raised the bar, emboldened by the theatrics and liberties enjoyed by Mannerist artists like Bernini’s father, Pietro, and bolstered by a Church of Rome bent on bolstering its own position with a new visual culture combining emotion, realism and veiled theatricality — delivered the dynamism of the Italian Baroque.

What is so fascinating about this exhibition is seeing how these artists did so within the conventional limits of portraiture and the restrictions that came with the stature and office of illustrious sitters. Absent here are the scowling brows, crowing mouths and action-posed bodies that define much of the Baroque. Instead, the cock of a neck, the twinkle of an eye (which Bernini actually could pull off in stone), the hint of a facial expression or the fold of fabric has to achieve the drama, and it does.

The attention to detail is breathtaking. Bernini’s figures often have something of a five-o’clock shadow, and the seeming naturalism is mind-blowing, with wrinkles in skin sometimes so subtle as to be barely there, yet clearly discernable and deliberately carved in the marble. How such subtlety conveys emotion and narrative implication is brilliant. Witness Bernini’s portrait bust of his lover (and his assistant’s wife) Costanza Bonarelli, which is the only sculpture he ever created for himself. It holds perhaps more noble presence than any bust in the exhibition. Yet her demeanor is disarmed, the collar of her gown unfastened, her tied-back hair tousled with one lock trailing, and her lips slightly parted to reveal her teeth and the tip of her tongue in quiet eroticism.

Works by multiple artists provide opportunity to compare tricks of the trade — how one or another artist handled the difficulties of representing beards, hair and lacework in stone — but also to see how nuances can shift your whole sense of the sitter. The exhibition includes two portraits of the Cardinal Scipione Borghese, whose patronage essentially launched Bernini’s career in the 1620s. The first, produced by Bernini in 1632, exemplifies the genre that has come to be known as a “speaking likeness.” It captures Borghese as if in midthought and midsentence — his lips parted, his gaze outward, his presence alert and engaged. The second, completed by Finelli in the same year, is quite different. Borghese’s chest appears sunken, his shoulders more slumped, his face more jowly, his eyelids heavy, his frock less primped. It’s hard to tell which of the artists is dealing more in realism or in theatrics.

Elsewhere the theatrics are more obvious, as in Duquesnoy’s portrait bust of a dwarf in a toga. A bust of Louis XIV — which Bernini produced when the pope, in an act of cultural diplomacy, lent Rome’s greatest sculptor to the French Court — looks like a cross between Robert Plant and Botticelli’s Venus. Here is a Sun King who could hop in a time machine and front an ’80s hair-metal band.

Pulling off an exhibition of national treasures carved from huge blocks of stone presents more than a few practical hurdles, which makes this focus — the first ever comprehensive exhibition of Bernini’s portrait busts — not only a tight conceptual investigation but also a smart tactical move resulting in the first major show of Bernini’s work in North America. This is one not to be missed.

 

At MOCA’s Pacific Design Center space, Sterling Ruby pulls off an exercise in the baroque as it has come to be known with a lowercase b — not the negotiated and nuanced visual culture that flourished in Europe in the 17th century but a category of cultural products deemed florid, excessive and ornate. Ruby’s installation is all that. Titled “SUPERMAX,” it is a backhanded homage to the concept of the supermaximum security prison, which Ruby takes as an icon of the authoritarian state and conflates with institutional minimalism as exemplified in precisely the sort of white-cube space this show inhabits.

In the exhibition’s catalog, curator Philipp Kaiser nails it when, in attempting to capture the jumble of attitude underlying the German-born, U.S.-educated, Los Angeles–based artist’s work, writes of a visit to Ruby’s studio, where on the ceiling hang two posters — one featuring the late Plasmatics front-mistress Wendy O. Williams clutching a shotgun to her bare chest, and the other an exhibition promo featuring one of Viennese Actionist demigod Hermann Nitsch’s blood-soaked performances. The posters no doubt cinch the essence of Ruby’s oeuvre, but the artist is at his best when he avoids the sort of overt semiotic play of words and images that Kaiser uses as a writing device.

Ruby is strongest when he deals in the business of violating order and geometry with his telltale smudges and tags, and when he places engineered and constructed forms — covered in scrawled verbiage reminiscent of the last-minute inscriptions that construction workers write on building frames — in the service of the expressionistic, the scatological and the utterly decadent. Most notable are his stalactite- and stalagmite-like sculptures created from pours of urethane plastic, which turn the patient ease of time involved in the formation of their geological kin into something aggressive, ejaculatory, cancerous and panicked.

Ruby’s is an art, in ways not so distant from the phenomenological interests partly underlying the minimalism he rejects and defiles, that insists upon your awareness of the present, and sometimes makes you thankful for it.

 
Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture | Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Dr., Brentwood | (310) 440-7300 or www.getty.edu | Through Oct. 26

 

MOCA Focus: Sterling Ruby, SUPERMAX 2008 | MOCA Pacific Design Center, 8687 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood | (310) 289-5223 or www.moca.org | Through Sept. 19


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