The art of distortion
The Baptism of Christ by El Greco is a classic example of Mannerism.
MANNERISM IS a European art movement that developed between 1520 and 1600. The term is derived from the Italian word maniera meaning style. Artlex describes the movement as "rejecting the calm balance of the high Renaissance in favour of emotion and distortion". The style reflected the turmoil in Europe at that time it was the time of the Reformation, the plague and the sack of the Rome.
If the High Renaissance was known for realistic depiction, Mannerism went to the other extreme with deliberately distorting proportions. The compositions did not have a focal point, space was ambiguous, figures were characterised by an athletic bending and twisting, an elastic elongation of limbs, and the heads were rendered uniformly small and oval.
While the Renaissance was all about balanced, natural and dramatic colour, Mannerism endorsed clashing colours, instability, restlessness, and allegories with lascivious undertones.
Wikipedia speaks of the movement as "initially a contentious stylistic label among art historians. It was first used by German art historians like Heinrich Wolfflin to categorise the seemingly uncatergorisable art of the Italian 16th Century, styles that were neither Renaissance nor Baroque." Giorgio Vasari, the art historian was a Mannerist he believed that excellence in painting demanded refinement, richness of invention (invenzione), expressed through virtuoso technique (maniera).
Apart from Michelangelo whose work inspired Mannerism, other prominent Mannerists include Rosso Fiorentino (with whom Vasari apprenticed), Pontormo, Parmigianino and El Greco.
In Venice, Mannerism followed a different course embodied in Titian's long career.
El Greco's paintings reveal Mannerist characteristics like jarring colours, elongated and tortured anatomy, irrational perspective and obscure iconography.
Eugene Delacroix's description of Michelangelo's work is an apt catalogue of the best and worst of the movement: "All that he has painted is muscles and poses, in which even science, contrary to general opinion is by no means the dominant factor. 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.
Therein lies his great merit; he brings a sense of the grand and the terrible into even an isolated limb."
Anti-Mannerists made several attempts to return to Renaissance ideal of naturalism and emotionalism, which culminated in the Baroque art of the 17th Century.
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