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Mannerism in art: An analysis

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 5270 words Published: 14th Apr 2017

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The stylistic categories are an important aspect of the history of art. Gombrich (1985) suggests that ‘classification is a necessary evil’ that if taken as a tool that is also flexible and modifiable, can be valuable for art historians. Gombrich notes that while useful, categorisation has also been prone to ‘critical abuse’ (p81). In other words derogatory nomenclature was often used when naming an art historical era. Baroque, which I would consider a very refined phase of technically crafted dramatic art, in fact was defined by the Oxford pocket dictionary of 1934 as ‘grotesque’ (p81) as this was the immediate summary of its worth in the seventeenth century.

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Kaufman (2010) indicated that the categories mark historic periods of individual artists, however art critical analysis has always made it difficult to distinguish the categories and this has led to individual historians describing the categories or styles differently. To establish a permanent and agreed name to a genre or era of art could only happen successfully after that period had expired and time had lapsed for thorough deliberation ‘it requires time and broadmindedness to deal with’ (Gombrich,1985, p81). Gombrich also states that such categories help us in the ‘mastering an unstructured reality’ that is to say that as long as criticality in our application of such categories is maintained, new insights about what constitutes them can be gained. Categorisation is limited by language, complex concepts cannot always be expressed by words, and categories are often oversimplified into opposites: good/bad, visual/haptic, left/right etc. This system of opposites allows a range of values in between. In order to create an art category a style must be distinct and unique, therefore necessitating a term to describe it. If a style is neither unique nor distinct it would not require classification.

Kaufmann (2010) believed that despite numerous ‘stylistic terminology’ (p2) all art can be categorised into two major categories which are classical and non-classical. For example, Gothic art is classified as non-classical, while Barbaric and Barocco were described as post classical and degenerate at that time. However irrespective of this norm, there were exceptions to some styles like Mediaeval which was regarded as less beautiful but had some worthy attributes such as being ‘more devout, more honest or more strong’ which according to historians of the time counted ‘for more than mere orderliness’ (Gombrich,1985, p86). As Gombrich points out, the problem underlying the categorisation of art is the claim that arose in the 19th century that art historians can look at the historical development of styles in an objective and unbiased manner. That is to say without being influenced by their own agendas, political standpoints, need for oversimplification or cognitive biases. This is the problem underlying all art categorisation, and through this understanding we can now go on to analyse the topic of mannerism as a historical art category.

This essay will first of all attempt to offer a definition of mannerism, pointing out some inherent difficulties in doing so, it will then go on to look at some of the benefits of describing the historical period conventionally labelled as ‘mannerist’ in this way, before looking at some of the drawbacks. Finally conclusions will be made about how helpful it is as a concept in the categorisation of historical art.

2. Mannerism as an art category

2.1 What is ‘Mannerism’, and why is the term controversial as an art category?

Mannerism as it has been conventionally described in modern interpretations of historical art, is a style which came between the high Renaissance and the Baroque (1510-20 to 1600) periods and is sometimes was referred to as the ‘late Renaissance’ (Wundram1985). One of the first issues when discussing Mannerism, is identifying exactly when it started, and when it finished, as while in Italy, it is thought to have ended in around 1580, but Northern Mannerism is thought to have extended into the early 17th century in Europe (Freedberg,1971). However according to Smyth (1992, p13) this set of stylistic conventions began to be adopted in around 1530, before becoming the norm in the 1540s and 1550s in the work of Vasari and his contemporaries. This highlights one of the first difficulties art historians have with the broad category of Mannerism.

Deriving from the Italian ‘maneriera’, Mannerism refers to a ‘style’ or ‘manner’ and what exactly constitutes Mannerism has also been a matter of debate in art history. The term has been widely used in literature and architecture as well as in art. Vasari as a central ‘Mannerist’ himself used the term to discuss an artist’s manner or method, in describing a particular artist’s style, and in attributing praise. However, the term has also been used according to Franklin (2001) by Vasari himself to criticise the work of Perugino as ‘mannered’ meaning that his style was repetitious and this was thought to be ‘unaturalistic’ and therefore negative (p14). Miedima (1978-79) points out that the term was originally used as a term of ‘opprobrium’ (p20). As illustrated through these examples the term ‘Mannerism’ and what is meant by it may have given rise to great deal of confusion as successive art historians used the term.

What constitutes mannerism as a style is also not without its problems. Miedema (1978-9) defines the stylistic features thought of as Mannerism as ‘artificiality, affectation, the stereotype and monotony’ furthermore these were interpreted arbitrarily as: ‘anti-classicism, subjectivity, torment, anxiety and doubt, and violent emotionality (p21). Problematic is that fact that a term used to express what was negative about some art in the sixteenth century until around the nineteenth century has now been ‘expanded’ to characterize the style of what we speak of as representing the entire period (ibid).

The style of the period can also be seen as contravening the high Renaissance classical rule rooted more on visual perception and scientific naturalism. Rather mannerism is thought to be based more on intellectual preoccupation as evident in the late works of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and mid-career works of Michelangelo Mannerism as a style is not easy to categorise because of its diversity (Smith, 2007).

The label defined a significant change in social behaviour and a noticeable brilliance in techniques of works of some artists. The term ‘Mannerism’ itself is quite a profound indicator of the perception of general aesthetics. It denotes the acknowledgement of ‘Style’- the recognition of stylization integral to any art work and the implications this brings: Manipulation, adaption, abstraction. This in turn may have also have taken some of the devout piety away from the function of art works. Elongated forms, precariously balanced poses, and collapsed perspective; irrational settings and theatrical settings were reflected amongst characteristics of mannerist’s works. Parmigiano’s Work ‘Madonna (1534-40) Florence, Uffizi, is a good example of the change of style and it was greatly believed to have been influenced by Raphael, but gave a great anti-classic character. Smith (2007, p) described the Madonna:

‘Proportions are lengthened so that forms are attenuated; perspective is exaggerated, and there is great discrepancies of scale between the virgin and her attendants. Again a feeling of disquiet is produced by the column beautifully finished, but like a ruin supporting nothing, or* the enigmatic gentleman who opens a great scroll but instead of reading it turns his head in the opposite direction.’

The Madonna with the Long Neck is a very good example of divergent style from naturalism. The distorted proportion exemplified by elongated neck and arms brings about the concept of abstraction which was not the norm with the previous style. Smith’s (2007) description concurs with the definition of Mannerists being advocates of tension and ambiguity as opposed to the rounded harmony of high renaissance. Mannerist composition lacks the balance and legibility that would have been necessary for art to be considered a complete, where all the relative parts played a role and reason was prominent. The whole perception of the entire work brings about an attitude of laziness or lack of seriousness especially to those used to high renaissance. The argument for the distortions would be that the artist was trying to heighten the notion of elegance and grace to express these famous historical figures. The mother of Christ therefore, was rendered ‘larger than life’ or with an unrealistic perfection in certain anatomical features.

A further example of Mannerists works is provided by the Scupture of Bologna (1581-83) ‘The Rape of the Sabines’. Matsui describes it as:

“Three figures twisting upwards in such a way as to form a Spiral, allowing, if not demanding, a 360 degree view of the work. Bologna’s sculpture took on a flamboyant self-confidence, which clearly proved him to have at least one foot firmly placed in the next era, the Baroque. This goes to show how hard Mannerist artists are to define….”

Though the works reflects aspects of Michelangelo’s, Bologna went further than the usual forms of Michelangelo’s works by being more extravagant in terms of executing his shapes, which were more prominent in terms of their three dimensional nature, as described by Matsui. Such an approach went beyond the traditional boundaries of High renaissance, and was seen as a new phenomenon and probably the represented the foundation of a new style. High renaissance art being what it was at the time; an art style at peak in terms of its innovation, needed to be built on. Up-coming artists would have viewed the creative arena before them and may have seen “invention” as the most positive way forward.

Another characteristic of mannerism worth noting is the use of space by the mannerist artists. Unlike the Renaissance where the space was definite and the view was provided with a fixed view point, in mannerism the space was extended to infinity and the side boundaries were removed (Wundram, 1985).

Many of the themes used in Mannerist work paid homage previous master’s works, styles and themes, as opposed to the norm of naturalism. Wundram (1985) points out that the movements’ focal point was for the first time considered to be in painting. This change in style can be seen as maturation from the high Renaissance and an extension of its qualities. The qualities displayed were anti classism and the move was seen to be a natural progression from High Renaissance.

None of these descriptions and examples of what we now describe as ‘Mannerism’, solve the issue that the category became ‘the term for defining the style of sixteenth century art, or at least part of that art’ (Miedema, 1978, p20), and that whether art can be qualified as Mannerist or not has depended on which criteria different authors applied and which ‘were accordingly dismissed’ (ibid). The issue boils down to the debate around whether Mannerism is ‘a style, a movement, or a period’ and the fact that ‘it is commonly used to identify the European art and culture of the 16th century’ (Mobile reference, nd).

2.2 What led to the emergence of Mannerism?

Mannerism as an art style emerged during a period of political unrest which includes the reformation, the plague and the sack of Rome in 1527. The style was more popular in Florence and Rome but spread all over Italy and northern Europe (Matsui, 2010). Although the origins of Mannerism have been attributed to the early sixteenth century, in 1555 a more radical style emerged which deviated from the masters in what was described as ‘lazy ignorance or vain rashness’, it was regarded as a complete philosophy and method of art (Smyth 1992). It was alleged that, these students became addicted to weak (not incorrect) design and feeble washed out colours, far from the truth and at the same time too resolute (ibid). The exact historical period of mannerism has been a subject of controversy; however it is generally seen to come between High Renaissance and Baroque. It is normally seen as the extension of the High Renaissance though it is mostly seen as Renaissance anti-classicism due to the nature of works produced which are more abstract and do not reflect nature realistically. Mannerist artists were associated with great intellect and were no longer seen as crafts persons but rather scholars with great admiration of elegance and complexity. They could now stand apart from crafts men and be on equal terms with poets allowing for self-conscious interpretation of the events they recorded. With this freedom came great responsibility especially for visual artist. Poets could record the world with a degree of ambiguity and abstraction, but painters were limited in their presentation to a definite subject matter within the parameters of the four corners and flat nature of the canvass. Given the expectations that the art of the time would accurately represent its subject matter, it would have been extremely difficult to present an image with any degree of distortion or artistic licence.

3 Advantages of using ‘Mannerism’ as a historical art category

The ‘Mannerist’ era heralded a new period of innovation. The period fostered creativity, through a lack of adherence to the particular principles of the time. There was also a distinctness and sharpness which showed a lot of independent thinking. The structure of work is well defined and well balanced and highly stabilised to support its own particular aesthetic qualities. Using examples of ‘Mannerist art’, this section will give evidence to support the notion that in order to communicate about the period, a category such as ‘Mannerism’ is more helpful than unhelpful.

EL Greco, ‘The Annnuncial’ (1576) (see appendix) is an exceptional work which exemplifies the creativity and beauty of what is thought to be Mannerist art. The theme of the work is religious based, as religion or erotic nature themes were popular due to the upheaval of the period of that time. El Greco personifies successful mannerist’s art because he engages both exaggerations in his painterly application and his distortions of figures. He leaves out any attempt to render the scene in naturalistic terms; thereby entering fully into the realm of stylistic invention. The work depicts the announcement of birth of Christ, it shows Angle Gabriel appearing before the Virgin Mary accompanied by many other angles above the two figures, a dove painted in glowing white , which spread all the way towards the virgin signifies the presence of the holy spirit. The painting is more congested as figures are juxtaposition to fit in the limited space. Colour contradictions and elongated figures give the painting a general view of uncertainty and menace. But everything about the painting is “contrived” and makes no attempt to conceal the artifice. El Greco has defied the odds, and has demonstrated some compositional brilliance of the style. EL Greco used elements of design to harmonise the entire work making it aesthetically interesting. The distorted figures and pallet of variety of cool colours gives the work mystical view augmenting the theme.

It might have been that El Greco’s art was misunderstood during his time (especially the later work), but he was to have a significant impact on later artists. He gains influence amongst the modernist era especially with artists such as Picasso and The German Expressionists. This era of art was more aligned to self-conscious manipulations and personal sensibilities, and it is surprising to see a 16th Century artist stand up to this genre of extreme modernism. In hindsight one could say that El Greco was far beyond his time, and helped influence some of the most extreme and drastic changes in aesthetic awareness that still inform the art world today. It is helpful therefore to have a least a general category of association in which to place El Greco. He may not be noted as an obvious exponent of Mannerism but he falls heavily into its influence, and not by his association with High Renaissance. It is by the particular general detail of categories that we are reliant on placing artists in context to their historical time, and agreeing on the traits that identify them with that genre and not another.

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The intellectuality that is attributed to the Mannerist period embraced liberal ideologies that allowed for much more creative freedoms in arts and literature. This allowed a whole body of work to flourish that embraced these new liberties. Such work represented a clear departure from previous works represented by ‘High renaissance’ and clearly showed that the beginning of something very new was happening in terms of stylistic categories. Clearly then, a stylistic category delineating the two periods is necessary.

It might not be a coincidence that the first historically recorded female artist Sonofisba Anguissola (a student of Michelangelo) gained acclaim and significant success during these times. Although not a mannerist, she transcended limitations placed on her gender at the time to be considered equal amongst her male counterparts in a male dominated discipline. Did this freedom for intellectual curiosity exhibited by the Mannerists also extend to other disciplines? For instance, Galileo’s (1564-1642) accurate observations on planetary orbits and scientific theory that contradicted the Roman Catholic Church’s assertions also came towards the end of the Mannerist period. Thus the credit for these advancements needs to be justified under a general label that identifies the era, and the influences that brought about prevalent features of arts and culture at the time. Clearly the artistic paradigm shift represented by Mannerist art deserves a label. It is sometimes useful to have a historical category which reflects the origins of such an important change of convention and under which the collective achievements of a generation can be contextualised.

4 The disadvantages of using the term ‘Mannerism’ as a Historical art category.

Although it is useful to delineate the changes from ‘High renaissance’ to ‘Mannerism’ how a particular piece of art can be analysed into one category or another can sometimes present methodological difficulty without a common and agreed frame of reference. Such a conceptual tool is yet to be perfected. The painting ‘Christ before Pilate’ (Tintoretto, 1565-1567) clearly illustrates this issue, as it has always been controversial whether it is ‘Mannerist’ or not even though it can be dated to a period thought of as ‘High Mannerist’. Some have referred to it as an ‘anti-classical’ style as it ran counter to ‘High Renaissance’, some prefer to look at it as it as ‘late Renaissance’ while others did not give it any specific category (Smyth,1992). This illustrates the point that if we are to think of ‘Mannerism’ as a period, rather than an identifiable style as it is ‘commonly’ viewed then we may find ourselves in difficulty. Likewise if we look at Mannerism as a style rather than a period, a painting such as Tintoretto’s presents classification difficulties. This illustrates a clear disadvantage of using the term mannerism as a historical art category.

However, in a discussion of ‘Christ before Pilot’ Curtis (in Akker, 2010) looked at Mannerism as a neutral term, that can be seen as a legitimate art category depending on the painting and the argument put forward by the art historian.

Furthermore Shearman (1961) also puts forward and argument to defend ‘Mannerism’ as a good art category, he describes it as ‘decorative stylisation which illustrates meaning of form and called it a ‘stylish style’. To illustrate this point he cites the work of Perino del Vaga, ‘Vertumnus and Ponoma’ (1527) as a good example of ‘Mannerist’ work. Akker (2010) describes the work:

‘being almost that of the whole design, we are more immediately aware of the freedom in the distribution of their parts, as if they were abstract and not figurative material; for the figures, interlaced one with the other, are also deployed in a remarkably decorative way over the whole surface. This freedom of disposition is obtained by manipulations of considerable torsion, achieved, however, with perfect ease in the figures themselves. Grace, not tension, is the result…’

But overall though there is still a confusion as to ‘Mannerism’s’ identity as a specific category or a flexible term to reference work that is not quite ‘High Renaissance’, nor accessible as ‘Baroque’. Franklin, (2001) believes that this leaves it as a rather redundant term in the canons of art classification, and in Mannerism’s particular case it is often ignored or goes unnoticed as an art category altogether.

The critical view at the time of deemed that ‘Mannerism’ did not fall or fit well within the ‘contemporary notion of what art was supposed to be’ (Akker, 2010, p28), and there was said to be a decline in art after the ‘High Renaissance’. Painting was said to have reached its peak during the time of Raphael and drastically declined after his death. This decline was attributed to the departure of artists from the then current style, which was based on the study of Nature rather the more intellectual approach based imagination and artifice. These were further described by Lanzi (C.1800) (cited in Akker, 2010)

as imitating previous masters’ work in a ‘literal and servile manner’. He believed that the style represents a cultural shift that can be considered an ‘inevitable phase’ in culture that could be considered normal in any society. He further describes it as ‘a sort of fatality’ that:

‘seems to prevail in all human things, rendering their duration in the same state of short continuance; so that after attaining their highest elevation, we may assuredly at no distant period look for their decline’

But the issue of interpretation and accessibility lies only with that time that mannerism was in affect; for in hindsight, with the advantage of noticing succeeding generations of art development, Mannerism looks now like a bold attempt to challenge perceived notions and shock a conditioned establishment into reconsidering its values, or at least speculate on other innovations in visual art. The fact that it was noted for its discrepancies with the established order means it only attracted more attention, and thus necessitated being a category in its own right.

The problem of ‘Mannerism’ being its own distinct category leaves another issue; that of a dual allegiance of those artists who were in part indulging in ‘High Renaissance’ styles and yet who were also involved with ‘Mannerist’ tendencies. Michelangelo is one such an artist. His early career paid much attention to copying the old masters; Giotto for instance, but always without complete reverence. He would analyse the drawing but the final rendition would be adopted and altered for his own pursuit in technique (Nagel, 2000). Michelangelo’s career was spurred by the need to adapt, change, and be inventive. It is not surprising then that he ended up belonging to both camps, and by the later stages of his career was implicated as ‘Mannerist’. It is possibly the failure of ‘historical labelling’ that causes confusion, and indicates a weakness in ‘Mannerism as a historical art category.

Mannerism had another very identifiable feature that is, over simplification of forms. This approach has led to many misconception about the style, some view the unrealistic aspects of the work produced as sign of laziness or rushed work done without much consideration technical details (such as correct proportion) or that it lacked serious attention. Friedlaenders(1957) however defended this aspect of ‘Mannerism’ and stated that such over simplification is due to the distinct character of the artistic and cultural movement in specific places at specific times. Friedlaenders also pointed out that any form of refinement through stylization tends to result in simplification of form.

This was very much part of Michelangelo’s agenda in his later years. His late work often looked unfinished; the ‘Rondanini Pieta’ (1564) being a prime example. If we did not know it, one would not recognise it as a work of Michelangelo due its rough appearance. Nagel (2001) explains Michelangelo’s choices as being more to do with process than final appearance. The artists himself is noted for being intrigued about the process of sculpting. He did not anticipate a finished piece, but was open to a sense of discovery that that lay within a block of stone. For Nagel it appears as a reversal of the usual process, where excavation enables the artist to merely discover what already lay within. For this reversal of attitude to take place is a big upheaval in historical terms and requires distinction and categorization. The problem occurs when you have to refer to one artist; who is so well esteemed, as being a practitioner of both these disparate practices. However, there is no reason that the category of ‘Mannerism’ should be ignored or brushed under the carpet by art historians because of this discrepancy, as will be discussed further in the next section.

5 Discussion

The problem with the classical period was that the concept of what constituted an art form was too prescriptive. It was formalised into proportional figures, accurate perspective, round 3 dimensional composition, and naturalistic colour scheme. Under this strict regimen of constructing a painting the artist had little subjective input. It is not surprising that during this era the artists turned to a ‘Mannerist’ style which allowed room for invention. This change in style marks a change in the perception and the function of an art work. Without a rigid system of application art elements and principles could be explored with a broader and bolder sense of creative design. Suddenly a dynamic quality of rhythm and symmetry evoked more imaginative possibilities in a picture surface, where elongated figures had more potential for movement in themselves. Renaissance art itself was a new achievement at a time of critical self-questioning in: religion, politics and culture. It was a tendency of artists to always be searching for different forms of expression. Mannerism appears to be a consequence of these introspective circumstances, as much as any modern art movement would have been a response to drastic changes to material and social upheavals. Categories seem easier to apply during the twentieth century than during the sixteenth Century due to the rapid succession of various movements that reacted to each other. But ‘Mannerism’ was just as much a reaction to its predecessor, and a bridge in the historical continuum that leads to the Baroque. A land mark (and thus a historical art history category) therefore applies as well for ‘Mannerism’ as it does for Cubism.

Although mannerism is often over looked as a category in art development, it is in fact a very crucial dividing line in the history of art. It draws a definite line between scientific naturalism and more elaborate creative tendencies. This is very relevant and definitive moment in the transitional annals of art development. It defines a moment when the hierarchy of the art establishment was challenged and superseded to allow choice and alternative applications. As Kaufmann (2010) notes, although there may have been disagreement about whether a work of art should be labelled a particular label, ‘such debates were often productive and new period concepts, like Mannerism, were discussed’. As stated in the introduction as long as such historical debates continue critically, labels such as mannerism are a helpful term of reference, and enable opportunities for new scholars to become aware of the issues involved in art classification. In fact it could be the existence of art history courses that reinforce or necessitate such labels (Kaufman, 2010), in order to enable such debates to have a common terms of reference however problematic.

6 Conclusion

There are always going to exceptions when classifying art historical epochs. We have seen how Michelangelo might be deemed as the greatest practitioner of High Renaissance, but also reverted to an anti-classic methods leaving speculation that is difficult for some art historians to reconcile. Perugino was also hard to classify in historical reference. The problems with classification have probably got a lot to do with the nature of language, especially written language. Until Vasari oral tradition had prevailed where information is temporal not material. The following tradition of written history meant the emergence of the Historian/analyst and the specific discipline associated with this practice. Most art historians like the debate to be simple, rounded and clearly articulated without confusion. Mannerism does not work as a perfect narrative and is hard to present conclusively as a period without contradiction. But it would be hard not to stumble across contradictions considering the length of time spanned by this era; nearly one hundred years. Meidema (1978) certainly believes that it is inadequate to tie up this amount of time with one simplistic label. The problem probably accrued as there was only a few chroniclers recording the achievements of that time, and so large generalisations occurred. But given that there was a discernable shift in the collective intellectual imagination during that time it needs to occupy its own identifiable place in reference to written history. The term Mannerist is useful for a general referral to an art practice from 1510-1600, but also deplete and extremely awkward if you wish to investigate certain aspect of that era in more detail. One might say that the term Mannerism is no less stigmatizing than the term Fauvism used to describe modern European colourists comprising of that group. But whilst even here there may be some confusion and artists that do not fit the description comfortably as the time scale for the Fauves was reduced to four years.


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