What the Hell is Mannerist Art Anyway?

I once saw an episode of QI where Jo Brand and Stephen Fry had the following exchange after a picture of the aftermath of an earthquake went up on the screen:

Fry: It’s rather like Renaissance Mannerist art.
Brand: I hate Renaissance Mannerist art, don’t you?
Fry: Michaelangelo, for instance?
Brand: Michaelangelo? Bollocks!
Fry: He was particularly good at bollocks, it must be said!

It’s strange to find that (a) a picture of an earthquake would remind Stephen Fry of Mannerism (he might have been thinking about El Greco) and (b) what Fry said is not too far from what Delacroix said of Michaelangelo:

He did not know a single one of the feelings of man, not one of his passions. When he was making an arm or a leg, it seems as if he were thinking only of that arm or leg and was not giving the slightest consideration to the way it relates with the action of the figure to which it belongs, much less to the action of the picture as a whole.

The point is that Michaelangelo was not crafting a scientifically accurate representation of bollocks when he was at it, nor was he thinking fervently how the bollocks relate to the whole figure or convey the message he had been hired to convey, or so says Delacroix. He was simply crafting a pair and doing his very best to imbue them with some meaning indifferent to our everyday experience of bollocks. Thinking about the human figure in this manner requires an element of abstract thought or, alternatively, horrible boredom that catapults the artist to a level of abstraction never thought of before.

What happens when this happens? In short, strange things that have to be classified under the arbitrary rubric of Mannerism. Something like this piece by Bronzino:

Source: Wikipedia

It’s a noli me tangere and it comes across as a bizarre, stylized, and just plain eerie scene that has been overworked by a sick mind. The gestures are exaggerated, the bodies twisted and out of proportion, and the colors too shiny.

Of course, Bronzino’s mind was just fine and he knew exactly what he was doing. He was following Michaelangelo and his teacher, a Pontormo who did things like this:

Source: Wikipedia

The latter picture is a bit too dark to see the similar coloring, but the shape of the figures is something that can be recognized as containing the same strange uneasiness. Perhaps uneasiness isn’t the right word, but something horrible has happened to the human form that makes the viewer react with unease. It has been aestheticized to a point where it has become non-human — or de-aestheticized if your idea of the aesthetic mimics the classical notion of harmony and is based on art’s correspondence with nature.

Weirdness is a plentiful thing, and thus there are many different kinds of odd styles and contortions available to the museum goer at the Louvre. But it might be a good idea to follow a single strand akin to the one we started with. Images like this Moses scene by a Niccolò dell’Abbate, for instance:

Source: Wikipedia

Niccolò dell’Abbate brought his version of Italian Renaissance art to France with a bunch of other people who were invited to work at the Château de Fontainebleau by Francis and even stranger things started happening to these uprooted Italians and their art. For instance, female figures started to look odd, something like in this painting of Diana:

Source: Wikipedia

Isolated from their sources by vast tracts of land and a sea of politics, they also managed to create what I’ve always thought of as the duck-billed platypus of late Renaissance painting. It’s very strange, but unlike the horrendous mutations of form of the other paintings shown above, it does not make me cringe or become uneasy or nauseous. I was walking the halls, turned a corner, and suddenly there it was. The balanced, stylized, cute, naughty and nice portrait of two ladies:

Source: Wikipedia

I could be facing space aliens and feel less weirded out, though. And to make matters worse, it’s labeled anonymous. One of the figures is the king’s mistress and the other her sister and they are taking a bath together. One is pinching a nipple, the other a ring, and there’s a curtain as if this was a theatrical scene. I remember reading somewhere that this painting is of more interest from the point of view of cultural history than art, but I tend to disagree. Why is the king’s mistress depicted as an alien and how did she get to be depicted like that? Surely that’s the more interesting question unless the king was banging extraterrestrials.

4 Responses to “What the Hell is Mannerist Art Anyway?”


  1. 1 Moon Under Water January 30, 2012 at 22:42

    Very funny post, I enjoyed the writing. Well researched too. Never saw that final image before – it is certainly a daunting one.

  2. 2 nonvisedvoce January 30, 2012 at 22:57

    Thanks. I’m transferring the art stuff from my old blog here in bulk and there should be quite a few more of these posts in the near future. In hindsight, my attempt at humor in this one was probably a reaction to the fact that some of these mannerist masterpieces are the stuff of nightmares. Fantastic paintings, though.


  1. 1 Art in Paris « nonvisedvoce Trackback on January 30, 2012 at 22:39

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