Gossart’s Journey

The Metropolitan Museum’s magisterial retrospective of Jan Gossart is the sort of exhibition that, one often hears, will surely be the last of its kind. Insurance has become too expensive (the theory goes), transport too perilous, and major institutions too leery of lending their wares. I first heard this claim with regard to MoMA’s great Cézanne exhibition back in the late 1970s, and quite possibly it was old even then. Today it is received wisdom everywhere except, it seems, at the Met, whose curators continue to mount definitive, large-scale exhibitions, with little evidence that they intend to stop.

As good as Gossart is—and he can be extremely good—this Flemish painter is rather an odd choice for the full-dress treatment he has now received. Usually, when an old master is anointed with an exhibition, either he is a household name, like Caravaggio or Poussin, or the show itself is a smaller affair that accords with the more moderated interest—to put it politely—that the general public is apt to bring to a less- renowned artist of a bygone age. But although Gossart (c. 1478-1532) is highly regarded by people with a professional interest in the field, he is largely unknown beyond their restricted circle. So it is remarkable that the organizer of the show, Maryan W. Ainsworth, curator of European paintings, has succeeded in rustling up 50 of Gossart’s 63 surviving panel paintings, not to mention dozens of his drawings and engravings, as well as several dozen more works by such forebears and contemporaries as Jan van Eyck, Gerard David and Hans Baldung Grien. In addition, many of the paintings have been freshly cleaned and restored for this exhibition, thus unearthing layers of refinement that have not been visible in centuries.

Often known as Jan Mabuse, from the French spelling of the town (Maubeuge) where he was born, Gossart began as an Early Netherlandish painter and ended as a Flemish Mannerist. That is to say that his earliest works, produced under the tutelage of the great Bruges master Gerard David, reach back deep into the 15th century in their stiffly ceremonious religiosity. But when Gossart departed for Rome in 1508 in the retinue of his patron, Philip of Burgundy, his art underwent a radical transformation: It would revolutionize painting in Northern Europe by introducing into those parts the exuberantly corporeal classicism of Italy.

‘Hercules and Deianira’ (1517) by Jan Gossart.

Therein lies the general thrust of Gossart’s career: But in fact there is no tidy arc of development in his work. A half-dozen styles constantly jostle one another, sometimes within the same painting. The late medievalism of his earliest panels, created in the workshop of Gerard David, recurs in one of his latest, the van Eyck- inspired Prado “Deësis” of about 1530. At the same time, he can be seduced at any moment by the sinuous lines and vibrant hues of the Antwerp Mannerists. Though his portraiture exhibits the unflinching realism of Hans Holbein, certain mythological pieces are as idealized as any Italian painting of his day. Corresponding to Gossart’s shifting styles are shifting moods, by turns pious and profane, sober and very nearly pornographic.

For, of all the lessons that Gossart learned in Italy and transmitted to his Northern contemporaries, one of the most important was the artistic exploitation of nudity. Surely there had been depictions of naked figures in earlier Netherlandish art, but they tended to look distinctly uncomfortable, perhaps because, more often than not, they were burning in hell as emblems of lust and lasciviousness. Gossart does not always conquer that older sense of alienation and awkwardness in his often life-size depictions of Adam and Eve and of Hercules and Deianira: There is an oddly improvised quality to these depictions of the human form, as though the artist were painting from memory or from theory, rather than from observing actual humans. At least one of his paintings, however, the “Danae” from Munich’s Altepinacotek (unfortunately not in the Met exhibition) is among the most effectively erotic works to come out of Northern Europe in the 16th century.

Perhaps there is no province of painting in which Gossart displayed more conspicuous mastery than portraiture. Here, without doubt, he achieved the grand manner. In depictions of Anna van Bergen, of a sitter who may be Charles of Burgundy, and of Jean Carondolet and his wife, Gossart’s mastery and variety of surface detail are rivaled only by the skill with which he combines the dignities of rank with a piercing psychological penetration. But there is also chromatic cunning at work here, in the turquoise sky behind van Bergen, or the pale cape that dominates the depiction of Charles of Burgundy.

Not the least of Gossart’s excellences is his inventiveness in contriving the fanciful architectural backdrops for both his Christian subjects and his pagan mythologies. As with his nude figures, these architectural vistas are Italianate in inspiration and can often be directly linked to what he saw in Rome. And like the nudes, it should be said, they often miss the point of their Italian sources: Impossibly spindly columns and pilasters atop richly carved architraves read like the fever dream of a Mannerist architect.

But, then, at the defining moment, their essence changes before our eyes. At their most flamboyantly classical, they seem to be most flamboyantly Gothic in spirit if not in formal vocabulary. Like all the other Northern artists of his time who were allured by the spirit of the South, Gossart had little real understanding of the pure classicism of the Florentine Renaissance, whether in architecture or in painting. But Mannerism was a different thing. Coming after classicism, it was able to conquer the North because, in its extravagant elasticities of form, it recalled something essential in the late Gothic style that had preceded classicism. And Jan Gossart was one of the critical links by which those two great, trans-European movements were destined to be joined.

Mr. Gardner is a critic based in New York.

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