Paragone, Russian Style: Famous European Paintings Cast in Bronze
“Good painting is the kind that looks like sculpture.”
Which one of the arts is superior — painting or sculpture? Today such a question sounds absurd. We live in a world of diverse art forms and we value the unique contribution of each of them to our culture.
However, five hundred years ago, hierarchy of the arts was a popular subject of scholarly treatises and learned discussions at the courts of Renaissance dukes. So much so that a term was coined in reference to a debate about the relative merits of the arts: paragone (“comparison,” plural “paragoni.”)
None other than the great Leonardo da Vinci passionately argued the supremacy of painting over sculpture, as well as over poetry and music, on the grounds that it was a universal truth capable of recreating the forms of nature perfectly.
To put it bluntly, Leonardo declared that a painter was a refined intellectual capable of conveying the three dimensionality of natural objects on canvas while a sculptor was just a sweaty workman.
In his contribution to the paragone, Michelangelo pointed out that the painting was only good insofar as it imitated the three-dimensional qualities of sculpture, a point that he brilliantly demonstrated in his paintings.
Little did I know that I would get involved in this ancient debate when, on a hot summer day, I traveled to Tsarskoye Selo, a magnificent residence of Russian tsars a few miles south of St. Petersburg.
A few words must be said about this place. One of the most splendid summer residences, a Russian equivalent of Versailles, it is a huge complex with several large- and small-size buildings surrounded by expansive parks. The largest of the buildings is the Baroque-style Catherine’s Palace, best known, perhaps, for the ill-fated Amber Room — stolen by the Nazis and never found, but painstakingly replicated in every detail about a decade ago. The complex also encompasses the Lyceum, a boarding school for boys of noble birth, of which great poet Alexander Pushkin was one of the first graduates, and the Neoclassical Alexandrovsky Palace.
Most visitors head straight to Catherine’s Palace and Tsarskoselsky Park, masterfully landscaped and dotted with pavilions, grottos and other miniature architectural marvels. However, I chose the shady, less glamorous Alexandrovsky Park for my afternoon walk. Unlike its neighbor, it has never been laid out in geometrical shapes in the fashion of the French garden. Trees and plants were allowed to grow freely, like a natural forest, and it is with a sense of mystery and excitement that one follows winding paths to discover, at the end of the trail, a quaint little place straight out of a fairy tale, such as the Chinese Village or a Gothic chapel known as Chapelle.
One of such mysterious paths led me to the White Tower, a Romanesque-style citadel, with bronze knights in full armor in the niches and four ferocious lions on the surrounding terrace. Built in 1821-1827, this medieval-looking tower was originally used as a gym for the sons of Tsar Nicholas I, where they engaged in physical training and practiced martial arts. The upper floor served as the studio of the court artist who also instructed young Grand Dukes in drawing and painting.
Like the rest of the complex, the White Tower was destroyed during the war and has been recently restored, albeit only in the exterior. Today the Tower offers an excellent backdrop for photos, its white stuccoed walls cutting a striking silhouette against the blue sky.
As I approached the Tower, I came face to face…with a group of musketeers. No, I don’t mean those fancy-dressed people who entertain tourists at all popular sites in the city and its environs. These musketeers were in bronze and their arrangement immediately brought to mind the famous painting by Rembrandt, “The Night Watch.” A nearby label confirmed my impression. What I had stumbled upon was a recent work by two contemporary Russian sculptors, Alexander Taratynov and Mikhail Dronov.
It must be noted that Taratynov and Dronov had successful individual careers and had been acclaimed and recognized nationally and internationally well before this project came into being. It all started as a sort of a play, almost a frivolity. Dronov noticed a wall-size reproduction of “The Night Watch” in Taratynov’s studio and jokingly suggested to make it in sculpture.
Before long the artists got so passionate about this idea that the joke turned into a very serious undertaking. All figures were sculpted in plaster by hand and then molded and cast in bronze by hand as well. Nobody commissioned or sponsored this project — the artists financed it with their own money from start to finish.
Their selfless enthusiasm paid off. Serendipitously, they started the project in 2002 and completed it by 2004 as the world was getting ready to celebrate Rembrandt’s 400th birthday in 2006. The Dutch government got excited about having the sculptural version of the great master’s most famous work installed on Rembrandt Square in Amsterdam. In the meanwhile, the 3D rendition of “The Night Watch” was exhibited, to much acclaim, in Iceland and in Maastricht, the Netherlands.
Today the bronze castings of “The Night Watch” can be seen in Amsterdam, where the installation is permanent, and also, for a limited time, in Moscow and in Alexandrovsky Park in Tsarskoye Selo.
So which one of the arts is superior — painting or sculpture? I must admit that, after seeing the 3D composition by Taratynov and Dronov, I am strongly leaning towards sculpture. No offense to Rembrandt — his work is unique and powerful beyond words, and so is the experience of seeing the original at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Yet, what an excitement it is to get into the midst of the brave militia company, to touch their clothes and weapons, and even to pose for a picture with captain Frans Banninck Cocq or lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch!
Making the viewer a participant of the action is not the only merit of the 3D version of this famous painting. Due to the fact that each figure stands on its own low pedestal, we can walk around them, see them from different angles and appreciate the sculptors’ mastery in “completing” the images that Rembrandt depicted only partially. The sculptors based their artistic decisions on a scrupulous examination the painting and on a thorough research of costumes of the appropriate time period. They almost had to assume the personality of the great Dutch master in order to follow his way of thinking about the characters and re-imagine the scene from new vantage points.
The sculptors also had to make some changes to the original composition. For example, they eliminated a few background figures, most notably the girl in a yellow dress. In the painting, the girl acts as a kind-of mascot of the militia company known as the Kloveniers (Dutch for Arquebusiers.) The claws of the dead chicken at her belt refer to the company’s name (‘claw-veniers’) and she is also carrying a ceremonial goblet.
Although in the background, the girl stands out in the painting because Rembrandt emphasized her figure with light and color. Obviously, these means are unavailable in a sculptural composition. As yet another bronze figure, she would have lost her compositional and conceptual importance. However, Taratynov and Dronov found a way to preserve at least one of the Kloveniers’ symbols in their rendition of the scene. The ceremonial goblet is featured as a part of a Dutch-style still life on the right side of the group.
Apparently, creating 3D renditions of famous European and Russian paintings has become somewhat of an obsession with Taratynov. There were three more 3D installations, which he executed on his own, in the vicinity of the White Tower: Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Blind Leading the Blind” (also known as “The Parable of the Blind”), Piero della Francesca’s “Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza” and Albrecht Dürer’s “Knight, Death and the Devil.” All figures are shown life-size, with necessary additions of the body parts that are not depicted in the painting.
For example, in the case of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza, Taratynov had to complete their torsos from the breast level down. He also had to conceive a composition that would logically unite the characters from two separate portraits. In his version, the Duke and the Duchess are lovingly holding hands as they look into each other’s eyes. This positioning of the figures, besides preserving Piero della Francesca’s profile view of the models, also gives them more warmth and humanity, and turns the formal portraits into a lively genre scene.
Later I learned why Piero della Francesca portrayed his august patron in profile. While such representation was flattering since it resembled the images on Roman medals and cameos, there was a more compelling reason. The Duke lost his right eye in a battle and had to have the bridge of his nose removed to improve his vision. However, the surgery permanently disfigured the right side of his face.
Being unaware of this fact during my visit to Alexandrovsky Park, I did not look at the other side of Taratynov’s sculpture. Despite all my efforts, I could not find a photo of this work that would show the right side of the Duke’s face. So I am stuck with a gnawing question: did the Russian sculptor reflect this historical truth or did he prefer to sustain the artistic license suggested by della Francesca?
This is a good lesson to all of us: always walk around the sculpture. You never know what you may discover when you look at it from a different angle.
To learn more about Alexander Taratynov and Mikhail Dronov, visit their websites: www.taratynov.com, www.mikhaildronov.com.
Story by Elena Ivanova
ISSUE Staff Writer