Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Obstinate Contemporary Artists Who Succeeded By Following Tradition: Pietro Annigoni

In the latest of this occasional series, I feature the Italian artist Pietro Annigoni (1910-88), who studied in Florence in the early 20th century. As his Wikipedia page relates, he deliberately stood out against the mainstream and was the most well-known artist who signed a Manifesto of Realist Painters, along with six other Italians in 1947. 

Pietro Annigoni, self portrait.
Annigoni understood the Baroque style well but, like another radical featured in this series, John Singer Sargent, he seems to have been driven by aesthetic considerations, rather than a deep commitment to Christianity. He is best known for his portrait work, but did also receive commissions for large-scale Christian sacred art, and he demonstrates through this that he understood the different nature of these two branches of naturalistic art. He is unusual in this regard, in that I rarely see artists today in the US who differentiate between the stylistic elements of portraiture and sacred art in their work. I suggest that any Catholics who are studying classical naturalism in one of the many ateliers that are now, thankfully, springing up around the country should study the work of Annigoni for this reason.

Consider first this famous portrait, of a young Queen Elizabeth.

The portrait painter must produce a likeness that reveals the unique qualities of the person if he wants to sell his work. It is precisely for someone’s individual characteristics that we love someone above other people. We discern the uniqueness of the person naturally by examining the facial features. Furthermore, it is through the eyes especially (and to a lesser extent the mouth and body language, the gesture), that we determine also the psychology of the person, that is, their mood and feelings. This is why it is said that the eyes are the window to the soul. The portrait painter also must emphasize those aspects of the person that are good and beautiful, but while producing a likeness, for those these are the qualities that those who love the person see foremost. For all these reasons, the skilled portrait painter gives the greatest detail in the portrayal of the face, and does so in a way that portrays the person accurately, but in a positive light, so that those who love the Queen, or whoever the subject may be, feel that love through the portrait.

Portrait of Margaret Rawlings, actress, 1951
Contrast the works above with this painting of St Jerome. The focus is on the figure as a whole, and the face, relatively, is less prominent than in Annigoni’s portraits.

This is a difficult balance to strike. In sacred art the goal is not to highlight the unique characteristics of the person so much as those that are universal. We cannot hope to imitate those characteristics that are unique, only those human qualities that are common to us. Nevertheless, we always access the general through the particular, and the artist must supply enough individual detail so that we know this as the particular Saint in question. If you examine Baroque art from the greats of the classic period of the 17th century, you will see the same characteristics. Here is Ribera’s St Jerome from that period:

The tendency today is for artists who have great skill and who wish to adopt naturalistic styles to paint sacred art with the same approach as portraiture. The result is a painting that looks like a Victorian tableau with, say, a Nativity scene, in which the Virgin Mary looks like the girl from next door dressed up in period clothing. I would like to point out, that nevertheless, I would much rather see such a painting in our churches than an expressionist or abstract-expressionist Nativity!

Something else that Annigoni manages to do well is to draw in stylistic elements from the contemporary period. Again, this is difficult to do well. The goal is to conform to the tradition while speaking to the intended audience who are of a particular time and place. At times, this requires the artist to discerningly incorporate elements of a modern style in such a way that the integrity of the tradition is not undermined. A living tradition must, in this way, reinvent itself with every generation. This image of St Joseph the Worker has the essential elements of the Baroque style, but this particular use of color in the background, and its loose application, would not have occurred in the 17th century.

At times, he strays into a Dalí-esque surrealism. I am not sure this works so well. The Anchorites in the Desert, for example, looks to me as though it ought to have a drooping clock in it somewhere.

Here are some more by him:
Pope Victor III Receives the Rule from St Benedict

The Glory of St Benedict, a giant fresco in Monte Cassino monastery, restored after being destroyed in the Second World War.
Another point of interest is that Annigoni had students who continued his work at Monte Cassino in a similar vein. Passing on what you have is also intrinsic to the principle of tradition. Below is a fresco of The Supper at Emmaus, by Silvestro Pistolesi, in the refectory.

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