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Enjoying a 'rediscovery'

It is a pity -- for the enjoyment of the small number of paintings generally agreed to be the work of Giorgione -- that it is almost impossible to look seriously into his work without plunging to the murky depths of art-historical speculation and argument. His pictures are often "fiercely disputed." "The Adulteress Brought Before Christ," one of the finest works in the Glasgow Art Gallery, has been variously attributed to Giorgione, Sebastiano del Piombo, Titian and mancini. The gallery itself sticks to the first as its author.

Moreover, it has even been doubted if it is a painting of Jesus being tempted to pass judgment on the woman they believed should be stoned. "Daniel Giving Judgment on Susannah" was considered possible until the painting was cleaned in the early 1950s and a cruciform halo, even now unintrusive, was uncovered.

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Another result of this cleaning was the revelation of the picture's astonishing colour. It is intense and rich and daring. But it is also perfectly under control. What might have been a rather too gorgeous fruit salad effect is instead a freely relished, subtly active play of many colours, surprisingly in harmony. One of the chief things that both early and more recent commentators noted about Giorgione was his colour. Vasari, writing about some figures, now destroyed, which Giorgione had painted in fresco in 1508, described them, (40 year after), as "colorite vivacissimamente."m In the middle of the last century Ruskin said that what was left of them was "purple and scarlet, more like sunset than painting." The colours in this Glasgow canvas, probably painted at about the same time, tally with these observations. The effect could be garish, but it isn't.

If Giorgione did in fact paint this picture, it looks as though it may have signalled a departure for his art. For one thing, there is much more concentration on the figures and less on the landscape than in other works more firmly established than his. For another, it is relatively unimportant what time of day and what season it is in this painting. In other "Giorgiones" these matters are so important that they are virtually the subject of the painting. Then again, the story being told by the painter is a comparatively familiar one, and is made very easy to understand -- whereas nobody has successfully explained what is happening to or what is meant by the enigmatic figures in "La Tempesta" or even the "Three Philosophers" of the Giorgione in Vienna.

Ellis Waterhouse, who has maintained that Giorgione "may reasonably be supposed to have painted this beautiful picture," continues: "if this is so we must consider it as marking the beginning of a new phase, which Giorgione did not live to exploit, a new public manner for historical or religious pictures, in which he had to consider the demands of a less esoteric taste than that of the sophisticated private clients for whom he had chiefly been working."

One figure (except for a knee) has been cut away from the right hand edge of the painting. Through photographs of a copy of the whole composition, now in Bergamo, the Glasgow Museum is able to show the only rescued fragment of this missing section of the original -- a man's head and shoulders. He is a tall, dandified man with a supercilious (or is it a guilty?) look on his face which it is tempting to believe indicates that the painter thought him the real villain of the piece. The contrast of this now absent figure with the repentant anguish of the richly dressed woman herself is strikingly evident. The loss of this figure is a detriment of the work, even though, with its removal, the viewer is brought closer to the frieze of twisting and turning figures.

Whoever painted this picture had a vigorous command of attitudes, of the telltale expressive signs of hand and foot and arm, the inclinations of head, brow, eyes. These, in Renaissance painting, substitute for speech, and if one wants to "read" a picture of this kind, a close identification with these varying gestures is called for. The way Jesus reaches out with kind certainty and seems to take hold of the principal accuser's arm (how is it that this arm has been made to look so indignant?) is a specially masterly instance of intelligible, visual drama.

So here is a Giorgione that is plainer to interpret than other paintings by him.At the same time, though, it shares with them not only a similarly inspired spontaneity (as though it sprang whole from the artist's imagination) and the softly applied paint, but the warm flesh-and-blood vitality of the figures, andm a lovely if subsidiary landscape. It also contains in its changing lights and shadows an elusive atmosphere not entirely different from the accepted masterpieces of this great Venetian artist.


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