A broad-chested and magnificently muscular Samson, having just snapped the ropes that held his wrists in bondage, towers in the center of a tall canvas. His body, barely contained by the scraps of clothing that cling to it, is full of motion: head rolling violently to the left, hair flying, arms tense with the fury of newfound freedom. A buxom woman (perhaps Delilah) cowers near his feet, and men scatter in the distance.
The image is Samson Breaks His Bonds (c. 1660), one of the earliest works on view in the L.A. County Museum’s current exhibition of Italian Baroque painter Luca Giordano. While perhaps not the greatest of Giordano‘s works, it is an awe-inspiring gesture that sets the tone for an awe-inspiring if exhausting show. Organized by LACMA in collaboration with the Fine Arts Administration of Naples and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and curated by LACMA’s J. Patrice Marandel, it is a comprehensive survey that aims to revise Giordano‘s reputation for being a skillful recycler of other artists’ styles rather than a master in his own right. Composed of 76 full-size paintings drawn from across the span of Giordano‘s five-and-a-half-decade career, the show’s grandiose selection certainly makes a persuasive argument. The paintings are big, luxurious and full of energy, even after three centuries of age. If Giordano was in fact obscured by time or overlooked by history, he emerges here, like Samson, with monumental vigor.
Giordano was born in 1634 in Naples, a city then ruled by Spain but heavily influenced, artistically, by the dramatic realism of Caravaggio. He had his training in the studio of Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera, a primary figure in the style that came to be known as Neapolitan Caravaggism, and inherited from Ribera the shadowy naturalism that pervades the first few rooms of the exhibition. By 1656 he was, according to LACMA‘s time line, “the undisputed foremost artist in Naples,” and began executing commissions throughout Italy and Spain and accumulating an assortment of geographically diverse influences, including Titian, Veronese, Rubens, Velazquez and, most important, Pietro da Cortona (with whom he also studied). Giordano’s colors intensified, his compositions became more complex, and the heavy, candle-lit atmosphere of his early work diffused into a clearer, less emotional but perhaps more celestial light. He was known by his contemporaries for his technical virtuosity and prodigious output, which earned him the nickname Fa Presto (works quickly), and was thought to be one of the greatest fresco painters in Europe. (Unfortunately, though understandably, there are no frescoes in the show by which to judge this claim.) If Giordano never stumbled upon that one revolutionary contribution that would secure him — like Rubens or Poussin — a listing on the front pages of today‘s art-history ledgers, he wasn’t wanting for wealth and fame during his own lifetime, and his worldly satisfaction comes through in the work as a buoyant, ambitious energy that may say as much about the spirit of the era as its more radical milestones.
The paintings, true to the ideals of the Italian Baroque, are consumingly dramatic. They are tales of imprisonment, rebellion, war, love, abduction, seduction, rape and torture told in a swirling rhetoric of bodies: herculean men in clouds of billowing drapery, fleshy women whose frocks never manage to cover both breasts at the same time, prophets who glow from within, and stone-gray corpses, not to mention cherubs, centaurs and demons, livestock whose forms gods assume when lusting after mortal women, and an ever-present menagerie of dogs, goats, fowl, sheep, deer, big cats, ostriches and elephants — all spun up in dizzying swirls of movement and drenched in decadent color. Subtle emotional variations of the sort captured by Caravaggio or Rembrandt are largely forgone in favor of sweeping actions and broad compositional gestures. The best of the paintings are like frozen but perfectly balanced hurricanes, symphonies of color and form.
In Bacchus and Ariadne (c. 1682), for example, a heartbroken Ariadne, abandoned by her lover on the shores of Naxos, is situated at the base of a smokelike spire of rock and cloud that is scattered with gracefully gesticulating bodies: sea creatures in the water around her feet, Bacchus and his rowdy entourage spilling across the rocks behind her, and a half-dozen listless gods sprawled across the uppermost clouds. The tangled upward motion of the spiral, offset by a brilliant indigo sky behind and punctuated by the circular constellation of stars that Bacchus will install for Ariadne after she dies (Corona Borealis), is a true feat of compositional engineering and breathtaking in so tall a canvas (about 103 inches).
The thematic through line in nearly all of these tempestuous dramas is the issue of power — the sort that gods wield over mortals, conquerors over the conquered, monarchs over their subjects, the church over its flock, patrons over artists, men over women, and saints over the suffering of the physical world. Drawn from standard Western sources (classical mythology, Homer, Ovid, the Bible and the lives of the saints), Giordano‘s narratives hinge on archetypal struggles for dominance, whether physical, spiritual, political or sexual: Jacob over the Angel, St. Michael over the Demon, Judith over Holofernes, Paris over Helen, Apollo over Marsyas, Jupiter over Europa. They’re gripping, psychologically complex allegories in which power emerges in an unexpected variety of guises.
In one painting, a nude Lucretia holds her arm out firmly against the aggressive advances of a clothed Sextus Tarquinius. She is portrayed as the physical force in the struggle — her body is tense, muscular and angry, while his is nearly limp with an almost sappy romantic longing — but it‘s a doomed posture. According to the story, she will submit to his rape in order to spare the life of a servant, whom he has threatened to kill, and will then take her own life in shame. Two other paintings depict Hercules, that paragon of physical power, writhing helplessly on a pyre of his own creation — a suicide attempted after his wife inflicted him with what she’d believed to be a love potion but which was actually a poison that sent him into a state of unbearable torment. In The Capture of Christ (c. 1699), one of the most moving of all the works, a robed Christ figure stands in what seems the center of a battlefield, surrounded by half a dozen thick, musclebound soldiers. Though his posture is completely passive — hand raised softly to the heart, eyes downcast — it is all the soldiers can do to simply keep hold of him. Their muscles are strained to the limit, their expressions daunted; they seem to be wrestling not with his body but with the glow of his being, fighting against his destined transcendence, and it brings out in their fierce forms the appearance of desperate weakness.
It‘s a shame that the wall texts, which are refreshingly spare in quantity but relatively spotty in terms of information, don’t spend more time on basic explication — so much of the allegory that‘s packed into the tangled compositions of these and most Baroque paintings is bound to be lost on contemporary viewers unfamiliar with the details of classical and biblical narratives. These are rich, fascinating stories that only intensify the virtuosity of Giordano’s imagery. Still, LACMA‘s version of “Luca Giordano, 1634–1705” — here in its only North American venue — is a real gift to Angelenos. It’s also really fun. The product of a worldly artist in the heady period of history just between the flourishing accomplishment of the Renaissance and the austerity of Neoclassicism, this is good, vigorous, passionate painting that will surely cement Giordano‘s good name.