STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
OK, what do you do to celebrate your 500th birthday? Curators at Washington's National Gallery of Art are doing that for the Italian painter Tintoretto. The 16th century Venetian is less famous than Michelangelo, but the exhibit makes a case that Tintoretto belongs in his league. Here's the Renaissance master of radio NPR's Susan Stamberg.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Well, he certainly was ambitious.
ROBERT ECHOLS: He never saw a wall that he couldn't envision covered with a large Tintoretto.
STAMBERG: Curator Robert Echols. The canvases are huge, jammed with hunky men - some women, too - writhing, reaching, rushing in myths or Biblical scenes. Jacopo Tintoretto painted them all over the ceiling of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice. It took ambition and, yes, deviousness. In 1564, there was a competition. He was one of four artists invited to submit drawings.
FREDERICK ILCHMAN: Tintoretto doesn't have a drawing.
STAMBERG: Co-curator Frederick Ilchman.
ILCHMAN: Instead, he has pulled aside from the ceiling a big piece of cardboard to show the fully completed oil-on-canvas painting installed in its intended position.
STAMBERG: Wait, there's more. Tintoretto announces it's a donation.
ILCHMAN: Knowing that they have regulations that they must accept all gifts, large or small.
STAMBERG: Devious and brilliant, he went on to do some 60 more paintings for the place. Tintoretto competed for work all his life. Ambition was in the air - money, too.
ILCHMAN: Venice in the 16th century was about the largest city in Europe and easily the most cosmopolitan.
STAMBERG: Teeming with artists who had to fight for work.
ILCHMAN: It was a cutthroat environment. You had to paint quickly in order to get your commissions, in order to fulfill them.
STAMBERG: Eventually Tintoretto got so many commissions he had to hire a vast number of assistants. They worked so fast that critics thought the pieces looked unfinished. Some do. The young Tintoretto got lessons in painting, ambition and toughness from Titian, 30 years his senior and the master artist of Venice. At age 12, Tintoretto apprenticed in his workshop. Legend has it that the boy once made a group of drawings there...
ILCHMAN: And when Titian, who'd been away for a few days, came back and saw these drawings and said, who did this, and the young Tintoretto was nervous thinking he had done a bad job with the drawings and was going to be corrected. No, they weren't bad. They were, in fact, too good.
STAMBERG: Titian, the master, felt threatened. He kicked the kid out. If that wasn't bad enough, as years passed, Titian tried to blackball Tintoretto to prevent him from getting commissions. And all the while, the rivals were painting their heavenly, religious scenes.
Think how many Last Suppers you've seen, the best-known known by Leonardo da Vinci - his alarmed apostles sitting in a row at the table, Jesus, serene, in the center. Some 60 years after Leonardo, Tintoretto puts the apostles in a blender and spins them around, painting their reactions when Christ says one of them will betray him.
ECHOLS: Some of them are practically falling out of their chairs backwards.
STAMBERG: Again, co-curator Robert Echols.
ECHOLS: Some are reaching forward, gesturing towards Christ. The painting is full of action - push and pull and drama. And this is typical of Tintoretto. His paintings are always dynamic, full of energy and action.
STAMBERG: They are cinematic. You can almost hear the soundtrack.
ILCHMAN: Jean-Paul Sartre, the philosopher, said that Tintoretto was the first film director.
STAMBERG: Speed, competition, success took its toll. A self-portrait at the beginning of the National Gallery exhibit, made when he was around 28 with dark, curly hair, mustache, beard, shows an intense, almost fierce Tintoretto glaring at viewers, demanding that we pay attention. The exhibit ends with another self-portrait made when he was around 70. His hair and beard are white. His stare is stony.
ILCHMAN: And the impetuous, aggressive, younger artist in that early self-portrait, now the fire is really gone out of his eyes. He's now tired. He's had a very long career. It's been very successful. But, boy, is he weary.
STAMBERG: Portraits of the Venetian artist as a young and old man - they bracket a lifetime's work in Tintoretto's very first U.S. retrospective. In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF A WINGED VICTORY FOR THE SULLEN'S "ATOMOS XI")
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