REVIEW | The Art of Experiment: Parmigianino at The Courtauld – The Courtauld Gallery, London

The Art of Experiment is a beautiful little show devoted to The Courtauld’s small but significant holdings of works by Parmigianino. Comprising 24 autograph sheets of drawings, about half are on display to represent the artist’s extraordinary frescoes, altarpieces, and prints.

It’s quite humbling to see here some studies for the artist’s most famous paintings, such as the Uffizi’s Madonna of the Long Neck, of which they have an early draft. There are also several studies for his frescoes in the church of Santa Maria della Steccata, Parma, the most curious being that of crayfish used to decorate the coffered barrel vault. Elsewhere, studies for sensuous nudes alert us to Parmigianino’s distinctive elongated, serpentine aesthetic.

Complementing these are the diverse studies for the Conversion of Saul (Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna), in which Parmigianino explored, in horizontal format, the Biblical story with astonishing theatricality, before going vertical and ultimately producing, in my opinion, a much weaker picture (with a fairly chonky horse).

Perhaps quite surprising are how small some of these drawings are (many historically cut down from larger sheets), such as a tiny sheet depicting (probably) St Cecilia with two angels, unconnected to any existing works. Similarly, a drawing of two figures and a cupid, posthumously inserted into an architectural background continues to elude scholars as to its original purpose.

No Parmigianino show would be complete without his legendary printmaking pursuits. Quite amazingly, the Courtauld has two studies representing in effect the entire Entombment etching; the 2nd version (facing right) is hung next to a compositional drawing with Joseph of Arimathea studied twice. The other is a sensitively drawn red-chalk early idea for the swooning Virgin.

Finally, the supreme drawing of a woman seated on the ground was also turned into an etching, perhaps attesting to the popularity of a quite rare genre in Italy depicting purely domestic scenes. With white heightening softly brushing against her form like sculpture bathed in natural light, the drawing evokes in us those unexpected times when beauty arrives in the simplest of things.

The Art of Experiment: Parmigianino at The Courtauld runs until 5 June 2022 at the Courtauld Gallery, https://courtauld.ac.uk/

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