The Sweet and Shy Madonna

Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (The National Museum of Ancient Art – MNAA) has been welcoming in recent times a series of temporary exhibitions celebrated through partnerships with foreign museums. It happened in the past with Prado Museum, which materialized the wonderful exhibition: Rubens, Brueghel, Lorrain: a paisagem nórdica do Museu Do Prado (2013) [Rubens, Brueghel, Lorrain: the Nordic landscape of Prado Museum]; with Palazo Madama and Galleria Sabauda which have commissioned Os Saboias. Reis e Mecenas (2014) [The Savoys. Kings and Patrons] and; now with the Vatican Museums, which have brought Madonna: Tesouros dos Museus do Vaticano [Madonna: Treasures of the Vatican Museums].

These partnerships are extremely important. Portugal, a deprived nation in all aspects, needs to commit itself to these endeavours to ensure that works of undeniable worth are capable of reaching the Portuguese audience, making it aware of such extensive legacies that the masters of the past have given to the history of art and humanity. To watch these exhibitions is to see the chronology of art unfold itself, it’s a real lesson of history and art, of techniques, ideas and values emerged from several corners of Europe.

This is also what takes place with Madonna. One can find the illuminated manuscripts, the predellas as well, the manuscripts, the sketches, the frescoes, the sculptures and the paintings. Not to mention the tapestry or the decorative art.

Amid the volatility of values and aesthetic of the realm of modern and contemporary art, it is quite reassuring to see what is undeniably regarded as being consensual: the amazing mastery of ancient art and “classic” artists. The effort and labour persistent in each brushstroke, the painstaking details, the carefulness and the inspiration in colours and attires which reveal some part of a past, of a way of doing that no longer exists. Adding to this, the wonder of the weight of time present in each work, centuries and centuries enwrap each piece in an unspeakable mystical art.

There are unsurpassable names associated with styles and periods: Fra Angelico, Raphael, Van Dyck, Barocci and – be astonished – Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Chagall, not to mention specific schools and some anonymous names who have much to add to the presented narrative.

However, the exhibition doesn’t seem to be immune to a certain oddness and a slightly candied atmosphere which put in jeopardy a larval reading that underlies the curatorial text: if the aim is to approach the veneration of Mary, then one would expect an exhibition capable of transpiring a noticeable intra-religion confusion – the worship of the woman, in a religion whose core always wanted to purge everything that could have a feminine trait. Fatima (cited by the curators, who do not forget her) is an exacerbation of a case in which the figure of the woman is more important than the man and the Father, the one who supposedly should not leave the body, but, nonetheless, still has a gender.

With that being said, Maddona does not represent something new, it only reviews what was done. This exhibition has nothing that could be regarded as chthonic, with the exception of Chagall’s painting, a tremendous display of violence, birth, breastfeeding and death. The woman who gives birth, who oddly expels uterine fluids and a being from her own womb, is something that will never be clearly depicted by religion. The ideal always overlaps the real in the Catholic religion. However, a suggestion could be given regarding this mysterious and powerful nature of the woman. To remove from this exhibition everything that is feminine about women is somehow uninspiring. The iconic woman is shown as being tamed, sweet and submissive to an exogenous will.

One also leaves the exhibition with a sense that an uncritical vision was used when selecting the works to be displayed. The diachronic and chronologic record doesn’t help this perception and adds a certain conventional trait to everything. The only subversive and curious moment of the exhibition is a work by Chagall close (but not that much) to medieval pieces. One can only regret that a similar discourse couldn’t be expanded in other moments, since it would certainly be helpful to understand the evolution of the subject, representation and even religion itself.

And since this is an exhibition with names that, even if insurmountable, are less important and vibrant than those aforementioned, nevertheless there is this sense of incompleteness. In other words, even if one considers the fact that the great and overall best Madonnas couldn’t be subject to travel, it’s impossible to grasp the reason why unusual names were not valued to the point where they could be displayed. An exhibition of Madonnas without Fra Angelico, Raphael, Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci would be equally interesting and could even add something new. In the end, we leave with an idea of a predetermined exhibiting form, with pompous names, but lacking a real expression.
From a museum-graphic point of view, some considerations couldn’t go without mention. It’s hard to understand, for instance, the intention to display the reproduction of Pietà by Michelangelo on a golden niche, when, in reality, this does not happen. It isolates and diminishes the importance of this representation. If the intent was to resemble a place of worship, as it happens in the Basilica of St. Peter, then that purpose couldn’t be more distant from what one can actually see. After all, the actual position is extremely important, given that the viewer’s perspective is different and, in the case of the original, it conveys a whole different proximity (distance) to the worship and the dignity of characters, something that cannot be attested at MNAA. Furthermore, and since this is a copy, why not fully assume that fact and show what is usually concealed from the common viewer, revealing all the angles of the sculpture. The posterior draperies, the movement that happens behind, from the back, could add an unusual interpretation of the work and we can only regret that this is was not the case.

Then, still, the split, the clear separation of this exhibition into two major nuclei: one that appears to be part of the Vatican Museums, in which the museum-graphic project delicately follows the blue of Mary’s mantle, and the other, made of public and private Portuguese collections, abiding by rather different hues, but containing works of equal caliber and value. This posture seems to be part of an unfortunate institutional vanity that does not play into the hands of the project, since a mishmash of works from different countries, from the Vatican and from the hosting country, could have provided equally valid discourses, if not even more interesting.

Despite these remarks, the works are admirable in themselves. From the whole set, one has to emphasize the apparent normalcy of The Virge and the Child of Orazio Gentileschi or the endearing and sweet piece of Federico Fiori, Rest on the Flight to Egypt, as well as a series of drawings and sketches which, nonetheless, show a different atmosphere of the one of the paintings and, therefore, mitigate, perhaps due to the strength of the technique, the tender mood of the exhibition.

To see at MNAA up until September 10th, curated by Alessandra Rodolfo and José Alberto Seabra Carvalho.

José Rui Pardal Pina (n. 1988) grew up in Campo Maior and studied in the grouping of Arts in Elvas. He earned a master's degree in architecture from I.S.T. in 2012. He completed the admission to order and the internship in António Barreiros Ferreira - Tetractys Arquitectos. In 2016 he joined the Postgraduate Course in Art Curation at FCSH-UNL and began to collaborate in the Umbigo magazine. He is interested in art, cinema, politics, literature, fashion, architecture, decoration...

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