The Madonna with the Long Neck (1535-1540) - Parmagianino

Parmagianino (1503-1540) wanted to be an artistic master rivaling the famed geniuses of the High Renaissance. He wanted to surprise and impress his critics with his unorthodox approaches to paintings, making sure that no man or woman who saw his paintings could walk away without learning how skillful, quirky, and clever he was. This is because Parmagianino was an insufferable douche. Parmagianino was epitome of the Mannerism movement (1520-1580), a movement essentially comprised of a small troupe of frilly-cuffed hipsters telling each each other how incomprehensibly clever they each were, and The Madonna with the Long Neck is perhaps one of the best examples of the painter’s very clever attempts at being very clever. In the painting, Parmagianino ignores traditional Renaissancian beliefs that beauty lies in symmetry. He “counter-balances” one little, “soulja-boy-ing” man in the bottom right corner by cramming as many creepy-faced angels as he can into the left of the painting (in the Uffizi gallery, where this painting is kept, one poor, mustached janitorial worker must always stand, white-knuckled, perpetually restraining the frame so that the sheer imbalance of the angels does not cause the painting to topple off the wall—the janitor’s family is very proud of him). In addition, Parmagianino, in attempt to show the other-wordly gracefulness of the particular Madonna and baby Jesus, depicts them as though they actually come from another world. Baby Jesus is a hideous, elongated baby Martian who appears as though all of his limbs have been dislocated. The Virgin Mary looks as though she has been genetically spliced with a giraffe. “It’s beautiful,” Parmagianino seems to tell us through this painting. “Have you ever seen anything like this? So graceful. It’s undeniably clever, is it not?”

 Yes, Parmagianino, it is clever. You’re very clever. You little shithead.

Parmagianino’s Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1524 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).

Extract from the first stanza of John Ashbery’s “Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror”, first published in Poetry in 1974:

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams,
Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together
In a movement supporting the face, which swims
Toward and away like the hand
Except that it is in repose. It is what is
Sequestered. Vasari says, “Francesco one day set himself
To take his own portrait, looking at himself from that purpose
In a convex mirror, such as is used by barbers …
He accordingly caused a ball of wood to be made
By a turner, and having divided it in half and
Brought it to the size of the mirror, he set himself
With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass,”
Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection once removed.
The glass chose to reflect only what he saw
Which was enough for his purpose: his image
Glazed, embalmed, projected at a 180-degree angle.
The time of day or the density of the light
Adhering to the face keeps it
Lively and intact in a recurring wave
Of arrival. The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept
In suspension, unable to advance much farther
Than your look as it intercepts the picture.
Pope Clement and his court were “stupefied”
By it, according to Vasari, and promised a commission
That never materialized. The soul has to stay where it is,
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,
The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind,
Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place. It must move
As little as possible. This is what the portrait says.
But there is in that gaze a combination
Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful
In its restraint that one cannot look for long.
The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,
Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul,
Has no secret, is small, and it fits
Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.

Self-portrait in a convex soap dispenser

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Hard-partying 20-somethings populate the curiously profound paintings of Linnea Strid, who works in a louche genre where Hopper meets Minter meets Kilimnik: Flavorwire calls it “hungover hyperrealism.”  Her 2010 image A Glimpse of the Future offers a sly reflection on art of the past: It’s a slightly abject update of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the Parmagianino masterpiece that John Ashbery memorably mused on in his poem of the same title. There’s the same hand, ”Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer,” in the poet’s words. Should we call Strid’s work post-Mannerism?

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Is there anything
To be serious about beyond this otherness
That gets included in the most ordinary
Forms of daily activity, changing everything
Slightly and profoundly, and tearing the matter
Of creation, any creation, not just artistic creation
Out of our hands, to install it on some monstrous, near
Peak, too close to ignore, too far
For one to intervene? This otherness, this
“Not-being-us” is all there is to look at
In the mirror, though no one can say
How it came to be this way.
—  John Ashbery
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