Tuesday, 28 February 2017
A Stunner in Room One
Talking of the National Gallery, one of the things I most like about that great institution is Room 1, the small room devoted to exhibitions consisting of a single painting (or sometimes a few more). It's the antithesis of the all-conquering blockbuster, offering the welcome chance to look properly, at length and with due concentration, at a painting.
The present occupant of Room 1 is an absolute stunner. That's it above, though the reproduction gives no idea of its sheer scale (it's huge) or the brightness of its colours. It's The Repentant Magdalene by Guido Cagnacci, a northern Italian Baroque painter whose works were all but forgotten until the Sixties, and who is wholly unrepresented in UK public collections.
Judging by this powerful masterpiece, Cagnacci is clearly a painter of rare gifts and equally rare inventiveness. Everything about this repentant Magdalene is quite unique - from the dramatic composition, with the Magdalene prostrated in the foreground and the dramatic expulsion of Vice by Virtue dominating the central space, to the palatial setting, the luxurious discarded finery, and the extraordinary grouping of the Magdalene and her virtuous sister at floor level.
The standard repentant Magdalene is a figure of voluptuous, titillating beauty who seems unaware of her bared breasts as she turns her tear-filled eyes heavenward and clasps her hands in new-found piety. Cagnacci's Magdalene, by contrast, turns her face towards her sister, who is pointing the way to virtue - but the Magdalene's face is in shadow and looks uncertain, thoughtful, conflicted. There is not an ounce of sentimentality here.
There is, however, all the sensuousness you'd expect of this subject - and then some. Cagnacci's handling of light falling on tender female flesh is absolutely masterly. Indeed it's his forte - half-length female nudes were his speciality, and he made a good living from private commissions. These might take their ostensible subjects from mythology, history or the Bible, but their intent and their appeal were clearly erotic.
In The Repentant Magdalene, Cagnacci shows off his sensuous skills not only on the barely-draped body of the Magdalene but on the exposed flesh of the androgynous angel representing Virtue. And every inch of flesh gets the full, loving treatment - even the feet, which some said Cagnacci couldn't paint, such was his devotion to the half-length nude. He could.
The Repentant Magdalene has been lent to the National by the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, and will be on show until May. Don't miss it - it's a revelation.