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  • Writer's pictureBeyond the Canvas

Appropriating Jacopo Pontormo is a really bad idea

"Good artists copy; great artists steal." - Apocryphal quote

The history of modern and contemporary art is littered with instances of appropriation. Picasso famously adopted cultural imagery from African art assimilating, not without controversy, tribal art aesthetics into his Cubist works. Later on, albeit in different ways, and to name just a few, Andy Warhol, Barbara Kruger, Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman all purposely borrowed and incorporated elements from other visual cultures in their work.

There is however a thin line between original and transformative appropriation and lazy, formulaic appropriation. Blame it on my Italian background and my blind veneration for Renaissance art, but I get particularly nervous and unforgiving when artists ransack the work of the Old Masters in search of a quick win. Ah but it's a tribute. Ah but it's a reinterpretation. Ah but they are challenging old tropes. Ah but it's a dialogue. No.

The Carmignano Visitation, Pontormo's Mannerist masterpiece, had already been subjected to Bill Viola's excruciating pseudo-existentialist slo-mo spectacularisation when the video artist produced The Greeting in 1995. Today I ran into a much less offensive homage painted in 1985 by a minor Italian painter I had never heard of before. I liked the use of modern architecture in the background, but those grumpy looking women looked stiff like cheap department store mannequins and lacked any of the spirituality that the depiction of a visitation demands.

Pontormo, on the other hand, razzle-dazzles us with a stunning range of almost fluorescent colors and exquisite details. The swirling fabrics alone are a head-spinning symphony, the delicate embrace, the interlinked arms, the elongated hands, the knowing look between Mary and Elizabeth, the contrasting indifference of the other women, the intertwining of the figures, one of Pontormo's trademarks. It's an extraordinarily bold, powerful, imaginative and moving painting. If only they would leave it alone.

Jacopo Pontormo

Carmignano Visitation, c. 1528-30

Francesco Giuliari

Natura morta con rivisitazione, 1986

Bill Viola

Still from The Greeting, 1985

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