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Raphael – ‘Expressionist’ Master

Raphael, Michelangelo, Da Vinci and all the Renaissance greats, have always seemed a bit interchangeable. Not my usual artistic cup of tea, any masterpiece of this era appeared as if they could have been created by any one of them. What’s a Sistine Chapel, a Madonna or a famous alter piece between all those Italians?

But a visit to London’s National Gallery’s magnificent Raphael exhibition put a new perspective on all of that. I take in all the Gallery’s major shows and, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting to be that interested­ – I get the genius but mainly like what came after the Renaissance. Yet what did I know?... As they say, I was blown away.

This was a major international exhibition of Raphael, bringing together works from across the world highlighting the artist’s extraordinary talents in painting, drawing, print making, architecture, archaeology, sculpture and more. The sheer range and excellence of the work was stunning when you take in that Raphael died in 1520 when he was only 37 having been an amazing proficient from his early teens and had already risen to dominate art in Rome.

Apart from the realisation, like in any important show for any major artist, that you were standing in front of history and greatness, this Raphael collection oozed amazing colours, still so vibrant after hundreds of years. And each piece, whether a painting, drawing, working sketch, one of the master’s great tapestries or any from any of his other styles, demonstrated in self-evident terms why this master has been so revered over the centuries and regarded as a rock of all subsequent Western art.

As I walked through the exhibition, all this was clear to see and understand. If I had never really made the effort to get to know Raphael or study his works before, then the National was now allowing me to catch up and put that right. You know when you are in the presence of great art – sit in the Rothko room at the Tate, stand before a Turner (almost any Turner) or van Gogh self-portrait, take in a Pissarro, Seurat or a Caillebotte - and there was no doubt that Raphael was an exceptional artist.

Yet, amongst all the superlatives, one aspect of Raphael’s genius struck me more that anything, a feature which has stayed with me more than any other.

Expressionism is a 20th century modernist art movement when artists sought to express the meaning, the emotional focus of their subject matter rather than the physical reality. Edvard Munch’s The Scream is often cited as its inspiration.

But, Raphael‘s form of ‘expressionism’ was of a totally different order, and one that was much more direct. Simply put, Raphael’s faces in so many of his works, from his Madonnas to his portraits, emitted a truly wonderful depth of sensitivity and meaning. Their expressions expressed with great power what each face was feeling - the love behind the eyes, the laughter on the brow, the unheard words on the lips, the serenity of the smile.

One tiny round painting, almost a miniature, was the exemplar of this. The portrait of Valerio Belli was amazing in its precise detail and the expression on the subject’s face a work of brilliance. Perhaps Bellis is at peace, perhaps he is holding in great emotion, the truth is difficult to discover, but the portrait was the staggering, if very small, heart of the whole exhibition in my eyes.

The National Gallery, London -

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