“TIZIANO/GERARD RICHTER. IL CIELO SULLA TERRA”: A CONVERSATION WITH STEFANO BAIA CURIONI AND HELMUT FRIEDEL
Redazione-For the occasion of the exhibition “Tiziano/Gerhard Richter. Il Cielo sulla Terra (The Sky on Earth)” hosted at Palazzo Te in Mantua, Stefano Baia Curioni (Director of Fondazione Palazzo Te) and Helmut Friedel (one of the three curators alongside Marsel Grosso and Giovanni Iovane) discuss the development of the project which is on view from October 7, 2018 to January 6, 2019.
The exhibition brings together two masterpieces by Tiziano: the “Annunciation of S. Rocco” and one preserved at the National Museum of Capodimonte to which Gerhard Richter has responded with 17 works which recount the secret of vision.
Mara Sartore: How did this exhibition come about?
Stefano Baia Curioni: Two years ago – the work at Palazzo Te had started just a few months prior – I met the director of the Museo di Capodimonte Sylvan Bellenger, requesting the periodic exhibition of some pieces from his collection in Mantova. A few months after this meeting I found myself in Naples with the privilege of navigating my way through the halls of the splendid museum, attempting to suggest a potential loan to be brought to Palazzo Te. Towards the end of the visit, on the first floor, to the right, just behind the entrance jamb, I literally fell onto a painting by Tiziano: a great “Annunciation” from 1558, painted by the master from Cadore, for the convent of San Domenico Maggiore and then, more recently, deposited in Capodimonte for security issues. I was immediately captured by the painting: the sweet mystery in Mary’s face, the blue boundless sky. But what I was most taken by were the wings of the Angel. In the skillful and dismantled painting by the late Tiziano, two wings, like those of an eagle, stood out with an outstandingly defined precision. So I asked the director of the Museo di Capodimonte if it was possible to have the painting. His answer was non-comital, requesting that I develop a project. I took the matter to the Scientific Committee of the International Centre of Art and Culture at Palazzo Te and here Giovanni Agosti made the suggestion to make confrontation with the cycle of “Annunciations” painted by Gerhard Richter, alongside those of Tiziano, starting with the painting at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, painted before that of Capodimonte.
Mara Sartore: What is the relationship between Gerhard Richter and the canvas of the “Annunciation” of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco by Tiziano, the starting point of the exhibition?
Helmut Friedel: During the preparation of the Richter exhibition for the German Pavilion at the 1972 Biennale, the artist visited the Scuola Grande di San Rocco and saw the “Annunciation” by Tiziano (1539 ca) for the first time. This encounter embraced Richter with the impulse to deal with the painting: “I wanted to draw it (the Tiziano) as precisely as possible, to possess such a beautiful Tiziano … (laughs)” To better understand Richter’s way of proceeding, it is enough to note the number of the works of his five variants of the “Annunciation” by Tiziano. The canvas in which we recognise the first artistic approach, Richter applied the number CR 343-1, the last one the number CR 343-2. These two paintings measure both 125 x 200 cm while the other three variants (CR 344 / 1-3) measure 150 x 250 cm which size wise are more similar to the original Tiziano (166 x 266 cm). This seemingly irrelevant difference shows that the artist’s priority was not simply to make a copy but rather to enter into dialogue with the original. Richter gradually moved away from the initial attempt to faithfully reproduce the work of the Scuola di San Rocco. The artist continued to elaborate “his Tiziano” by proceeding with similar pictorial reasoning which steered him towards other works painted in the same period, his aim therefore was not to try to reproduce the pictorial technique of Tiziano, but rather to concentrate exclusively on the motif of the original. The five “Verkündigung nach Tizian” [The Annunciation by Tiziano] are the only Richter paintings with Christian iconography. As for the question about the possibility of finding analogies between the works of Tiziano and Richter, the answer is difficult and this is mostly due to the limited possibilities of language: it is easier to describe concrete things instead of emotions or an instinctive reaction at a sensory impression. Now the completely different pictorial technique of Tiziano’s maturity is known, a radical approach that left a deep impression Richter.
Mara Sartore: What underlies the topic of the Annunciation in both artists and in our Western culture?
Stefano Baia Curioni: In the summer of 2017, whilst this exhibition was still under-construction, a seminar was held on the topic of the Annunciation with a group of young researchers. From this emerged various reflections, which until then I had attended very sporadically, but what stood out extraordinarily, beyond the relationship between the two great painters: the extraordinary iconographic reverberation, singular in its kind, if one thinks of the succinct reference that the Gospels make to this episode (Lk 1: 26-38); the formidable innovativeness of the Annunciation to Mary compared to other Old Testament Annunciations; the fundamental call in relation to the figure of Mary, woman, goddess and mediator of the visual, mystical relationship, with the divine and finally the completely earthly, humane, humble dimension of this event whose domesticity is not altered, even by the interruption of the Angel. At that time simple intuitions were dealt with, precious above all because, in their incompleteness, they alluded to the immensity of the theme and opened up multiple levels of readings of the project: the Annunciation, Tiziano, Gerhard Richter, the relationship between Gerhard Richter and Tiziano. The project therefore became even more amplified, with the involvement of scholars such as Giulio Busi and Annarosa Buttarelli, Marsel Grosso and Claudia Cieri Via, Helmut Friedel and Giovanni Iovane.
Mara Sartore: Has Richter a concrete contribution to this project?
Stefano Baia Curioni: When Gerhard Richter was informed by Helmut Friedel and Giovanni Iovane about the project at Fondazione Te, he decided to put forward a re-think on his relationship to Tiziano with a sequence of 17 personally chosen works, thought about as a story and historical testimony to a tension that has gone far beyond the original sequence, to find a permanent reference and echo, not only in his own work, but also in the vision and representation of the most cherished of female figures. The exhibition at Palazzo Te, an exhibition that – found its roots upon an encounter of the “Annunciation” of Tiziano at Capodimonte – has come to actively involve one of the greatest masters of our time, blossoming into a small miracle. Richter worked on this exhibition completely independently regardless of the insights made during the implementation phase. But in the end the project he proposed was intimately connected to the questions and reflections cultivated up to that moment. In fact, Richter solved the narration in four simple steps. The second room (the first is dedicated to Tiziano) recalls his first encounter with the canvas of San Rocco and his first attempt to reproduce it, the following room that reveals how the relationship with the “Annunciation” has been secretly reverberated in the visual representation of the women Richter has held closest in life: his daughters and partner, in their daily, affective, domestic presence. The fourth room demonstrates how the relationship with the paintings of Tiziano, represented specifically by the “Annunciation” of Capodimonte, even in its incomparability, was the source inspiration in its decomposition and exploration of colour as the basis and source of the visible. Finally, a red and slightly patinated, opaque mirror closes the exhibition and ultimately leads back to the relationship with Tiziano in the context of a reflection that is at the same time interior and yet never completely personal (the mirror reflects the figure).
Mara Sartore: Given the direct comparison between the two masters, how would you define Gerhard Richter’s artistic technique?
Helmut Friedel: This exhibition presents a dozen or so paintings by Richter in the years between 2015 and 2017, all under the title “Abstraktes Bild” [abstract paintings]. In these works the artist uses different formats and sizes, different colours and structures, dedicated exclusively to the representation of the colour itself. Although they differ from each other, they are all painted in such a way that it is practically impossible to remember individual details. Technically we can define oils on canvas, however the colour has not been traced with a brush but with a doctors blade or a piece of wood, similar to an elongated spatula. With this tool the artist can pull the colour over the whole width or height of the canvas. Stopping or interrupting the movement creating horizontal and vertical lines that give structure to the colours that create more layers, a sort of skin of the canvas itself. The thickness of this skin can be seen thanks to the overlapping layers which sometimes hide and whilst others retain the characteristic roughness of the canvas surface. In some places the artist has cut large pieces with the knife from the outer layer so as to make visible those below. All these changes add up to a multiplicity of colours to produce an almost kaleidoscopic effect. The stains of colour from which the image is constituted are not monochromatic because in the course of the pictorial process they include the near or underlying ones until they form surfaces that shine like a prism (CR 947-5). In conclusion, if in the late works of Tiziano a “retreat of realism” can be seen, an object can be formed starting from the materiality of painting and a pictorial structure that no longer needs to represent something – if all this is recognisable in the work of an eighty year old Tiziano, then likewise the paintings by richter Richter, at the same age, conquer us with the same power of the message of a painting