Capturing Emotions at the Getty


Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, Carlo Cignani, about 1670-1680

By Laura Gatewood

Currently on view at the Getty Center through May 3rd is the marvelous exhibition, entitled Capturing Emotions, which presents an investigative collection of paintings executed during the seventeenth century by Bolognese artists, many of which have never before been on public view in the United States. Organized by both the Getty Center and the Gemäldgalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, the exhibition does more than simply showcase Baroque Italian art’s flair for the dramatic; instead it comprehensively contextualizes the paintings’ affects which led to such a stereotype being so pervasive in popular culture today.

The paintings in the exhibition are primarily narrative though there is a small selection of fine portraits of contemporary figures. Visually recounting scenes drawn both from mythological and biblical sources, the majority of the narrative images strike a spiritually penetrating chord that reflects the overarching shadow of the Counter Reformation onto the culture it encased.  The artists in the exhibition, most notably the Caracci brothers, Guido Reni, and Guercino, established individualized interpretations of their subjects, and their variations in execution both highlight the growing importance placed on personal style as artistic signature during this period and counter-balance the weight of cultural demands behind each painting’s reason for being.

The selected paintings by each artist also make the discursive point that central to the relationship between social motives and artistic output were the two discourses on whether art should display the ideal versus the real and whether the manner in which a subject was composed should be founded in clarity of line or saturation of color, or colore vs. disegno. The rise of competing schools of thought on the optimal aesthetics and how to achieve them represents, from a broader perspective, a natural derivative to develop out of a period of such intense religious and social upheaval.

As an additional point, the exhibition only swiftly mentions the commedia dell’arte, but it is worth emphasizing that the rise of this hugely popular theatrical troupe which performed across the country and across classes during this time played a fundamental role in why so much of Baroque art came to contain such psychological immediacy and dynamic figural compositions.  

A brilliant exploration of a complicated period, Capturing Emotions is a worthwhile exhibition that takes an often easily dismissed artistic style and examines its foundations with a sensitivity and clarity that only deepens the dramatic effects of the paintings on view.

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