Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Paintings I Like, pt. 33

Tintoretto, "Susannah and the Elders," 1555-56. Oil on canvas, 57" x 76."

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm planning a string of installments of "Paintings I Like" dedicated to the dazzling Venetian Renaissance show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. If you haven't seen the exhibition, it stays up until Sunday, August 16th, and it's really not to be missed.

Tintoretto's "Susannah and the Elders" is a scene from the book of Daniel recounting the story of two old men who try to get a look at a pretty young girl bathing. The star of the show is the glowing Susannah, depicted in the prototypical attitude of Venus: naked and calmly admiring herself in the mirror. Renaissance painters were often called upon to paint either Greek myths or Bible scenes, and here Tintoretto mixes the two. She's either oblivious to the two lecherous men, or doesn't care about them.

The painting has the characteristic soft, atmospheric light and intervals of highly saturated color common to 16th century Venetian painting, but the thing that really struck me about it was the highly idiosynchratic spatial structure - it's rather like a maze which begins with a long tunnel just to the right of center. The tunnel is initially defined on the left by a strange garden wall and the on the right by trees. It's interrupted first by Susannah, then intersected in the rear by a grassy path, and then echoed behind the path by a more consciously architectural passageway which doesn't look to be connected to any real architecture. The passageway's interior spaces are green, suggesting it's a kind of trellis arch overgrown with vines. The long path reaches its terminus in a small green grove, far, far back in a prime example of that deep renaissance space - receding lines of perspective were not news at this point, but still had a strong appeal for Italian painters.

The ground in front of the green path which intersects the tunnel has a sharply defined edge, but its contents are murky and indeterminate - it could be water, mud, or a hole. The first Peeping Tom is located at this juncture, and isn't looking at the girl; he's looking down into the ill-defined mire and seems as confused about its composition as the viewer. The path leads to the cramped sliver of space on the left side of the picture, where the more prominent Peeping Tom is tangled up in branches and quite literally squeezed between the garden wall and the left edge of the picture. Tintoretto designed a labyrinth and trapped his two old perverts in it.