by Paolo Bertelli
“What has ever equaled the vivacity of the invention surrounding the Palazzo Te in Mantua?”
Quote from Johann Heinrich Füssli, (One hundred and fifty-first aphorism on art).
“The Beautiful Manner.” Thus, Vasari described the yearning for improvement and perfection in the arts, which began at the beginning of the sixteenth century’s “Modern Manner.” Protagonists of this movement were Leonardo and Parmigianino, Rosso and Raffaello, Correggio and Giulio Romano. In short, it was in the Late Renaissance that a partially superimposable ideal replaced the classical ideal of perfection and human measure. In departing from the values of classicism, this movement aimed at grandiloquence and the exaltation of form. The extreme magnification of these expressive values disintegrated many of the core formal values, such as balance, that characterized the Renaissance. This deconstruction was the first challenge to classical rules that the Baroque would then completely upset.
In opposition to 19th-century aesthetic theory, art criticism has today developed a positive reading of the “Mannerism phenomenon” as a valid anti-classical current and response to the social and religious crisis that affected the sixteenth century. Form and color, therefore, in dispute for the pursuit of a classical “Kunst-wollen” (or “will to Art” according to Alois Riegl), but which asserts itself in a laborious movement comparable in some ways to the spirit which characterized the sixteenth century; a new rebirth and start. On the other hand, modern art historians often use the diachronic sway between classicism and anti-classicism to support abstraction’s relatively recent affirmation.
We can understand Mannerism best as a new search for form supported by the highest level of technical skills. In the artistic panorama characterized by the objectivity of painting and sculpture, by formal elegance and studied ability, two significant allusions can underlie the artist’s connection to the art of the past. The first is the recovery and exaltation of formal values. The second is the re-proposition of, not so much a cultural climate (today no longer reconstructable). Instead, it evokes the romantic narrative of art history, mythical and iconographic. These are the precise themes of art that contemporaneity has deliberately denied. Kurt Wenner’s yearning for innovation fits into this context. The Californian artist does not propose again but renews and gives life to the Manner.
Anthropology does not deceive us: a country with a short history like the United States perceives the integration of all human history as a necessary “inventio” (formation of an argument or thesis) for its cultural and historical roots. This cultural operation is not incapable of assimilating deep meanings, even from the cradle of Western arts. On the other hand, according to Baudelaire, modernitas and antiquitas are not opposed: antiquity is the ever-present model on which modernity impresses the original seal of time. With his rediscovery of the value of graphic representation and his study of the figure, Wenner’s drawing provides a filter, conveying to the observer a quantity of synthetic information, eloquent as opposed to analytical; expressive of abstract formal values. The Californian artist’s style is vigorous and robust, combining shape, dimension, anatomy, anamorphosis, and color with frozen instants of motion.
Wenner’s spectrum of techniques is varied and effective, from drawing to painting (in its many forms), from sculpture to ceramics. The study is rigorous and careful: he flanks the perfect use of perspective with visual effects and optical jokes such as anamorphosis. The design solidity of Wenner’s works occurs in the moment of execution: he transmutes environments previously delimited by cold geometries of architecture into dreamed spaces, ephemeral realities that appear through illusory breakthroughs from fantastic skies, Trompe l’oeil adapted to those invented by Veronese and by Baroque masters of the scene, such as the Bibiena. It is a subtle, ironic play between reality and fiction. Even Wenner’s characters sway, in the words of Füssli, “between character and caricature,” mindful of the Venetian lesson and perhaps also of Caravaggio’s realism. Slender and clean bodies pose in postures and twists, recalling Giulio and Parmigianino, while Tuscan and Roman influences often appear in his faces. Magniloquent and large-scale canvases and panels reveal themselves (often recalling a series of “Opere per Musica”). Wenner’s compositions appear grand and yet are always respectful of the place in which they are received. One example is the cycle for the parish church of Lucino, dedicated to di San Giorgio, on Lake Como, where the perspective invention of the “classic” squares of the vault of the nave flanks the apsidal basin.
The explicit reference (and evident in the drawings on display) is to the studied illusionism that mediates to observers (both faithful and agnostic) that changeable, imaginative, and fantastic reality conferred by the glimpses of heaven that invade the liturgical space. With them, divine signs, symbols, and human figures are supported by haloes of light in the best late Mannerist and Baroque “quadrature” tradition. The compositions that reveal the Californian artist’s free inventiveness are more complex and compelling. For example, the clarity and formal perfection of his drawing for the painting “The Romans in Utrecht” shines, with reminiscences of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The drawing’s anatomical study and the manipulation of bodies, Michelangelo’s serpentine line, and the contrapposto particularly recall the Lombard culture later elaborated by Caravaggio. We can observe this in the imposing rear-end of the horse in the drawing’s foreground, recalling the “Conversion of Saul on the Road to Damascus.”
Wenner. Romans in Utrecht
On the other hand, Wenner’s experience is founded and embedded in a solid conviction of the study of antiquity. It is rooted in the hours and days spent in museums for accurately drawing from classical works “from life.” His studies’ results are both revealed and encrypted in his subsequent production, albeit with a complete and conscious alteration of the classicistic canons. If the refined attention to detail characterizes his graphic work, it is above all the Invenzione” that is inebriating and omnipresent. His paintings reveal a preconceived, measured, and grandiloquent attention to the whole. They are capable of a veristic tension, sometimes even a hyper-realism that often fades into visionary scenes (seen, for example, in the painting of “L’Italiana in Algeri”). But the past lessons are always revisited with splendid care, also through formal models, with the measured use of pigment and tones. The reference to the art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is evident and revealed through the delicate shades, the softness in the shading of the faces, and the skin tones’ rendering. The same reference is visible in the study of the drapery and the atmosphere. Other examples are his diptych Bacchus and Ariadne, the splendid oil study of a “Putto with Coat of Arms” (a vivid reminder of the Mantuan culture in the Isabellian era), and in his painting of the Archangel Michael.
Ceramics occupy a prominent place In Wenner’s expert and polymorphic technical knowledge, particularly the ancient Italian technique of Majolica (in Tuscany and Umbria in particular) successfully handed down by generations of artisans alive, robust, and enhanced by shrewd decorations from the richest Mannerist traditions. His activity as a “Madonnaro” (the ephemeral activity linked to the warmth and charm of city spaces, the devotion of the faithful, and the grateful philanthropy of the public, who give their money to the pavement artists) certainly deserves a separate discussion. In fact (see Paola Artoni’s article, “Beyond the Ephemeral”), Wenner has been able to innovate this ancient skill both through new materials and through formal technical skills. Skills that led him, from a young hopeful artist visiting Italy to learn about art to the top of the Madonnari di Grazie Competition in a very short time.