Art: Death by blockbuster

    In my book, he is certainly not that, but, like most art critics of the post-Ruskin era, I have had some difficulty reconciling Raphael’s repu- tation with his produce. For 300 years after his death, in 1520, Raphael was held up as the perfect artist. The qualities he most obviously possessed — grace, clarity, learning, rationality — were believed to be the key qualities of civilisation itself. And unlike his fellow giants of the Italian High Renaissance, unlike Leonardo, unlike Michelangelo, Raphael died young, having had one of those careers that consists only of a perfect first half. Thus, he is trapped in the amber of history as a presence that is young, aspirational, brilliant, glamorous.

    It’s too good to be true, of course. And the post-Ruskinian world went off him as cruelly and completely as a pop audience going off a boyband. For the past century or so, the taste for Raphael has been confined to lovers of sticky sweets and the camp camp. That can’t be right, either. So, I was looking forward to the arrival at the National Gallery of a mature and authentic view of him: a proper assessment. But that doesn’t happen here. Rarely have I seen a more confused attempt to track the development of an important artist.

    Raphael was born in Urbino in 1483. His father was the court painter to the Urbino dukes. So Raphael, like Mozart, or Picasso, was thrust into the role of prodigy by existing family dynamics. His father, Giovanni Santi, is habitually dismissed in biographical thumbnails as an untalented journeyman, but in the opening moments of this display, he gives us a perfectly lovely mother and child, achieved with that most tricky of techniques, tempera, with which he evokes various textural sensations that are usually beyond tempera’s reach: the shiny softness of the Madonna’s velvet cloak; the silver sheen on the cloth behind her. Bravo, Giovanni Santi.

    Raphael’s first teacher, Perugino, is even more im- pressive in a sensationally charming altarpiece, from the National’s collection, of the Virgin flanked by archangels, and in a compelling portrait of Francesco delle Opere, from the Uffizi, that achieves an utterly tangible sense of masculine character and likeness, and dispenses entirely with that all-purpose dreaminess so usually associated with Perugino.

    All this is splendid. But it’s not by Raphael. With both his father and his teacher refusing to stay in the shade, the show achieves an instant air of uncertainty about what and who is being celebrated. Having lost Raphael at the off in the shine from his predecessors, the display allows him to achieve his own underwhelming in the second room by gathering together an untidy assortment of fragments and small works. A pair of badly worn processional banners from Città di Castello are so damaged as to be impossible to see into. The Louvre has sent a tiny St George that shows how dodgy was his early grasp of animal and human anatomy. There is a Resurrection from São Paulo that certainly underlines the stiffness of his early work — if it really is by him. Sure, the room also contains that unarguably lovely altarpiece of a “long-limbed” Christ on the cross with St Jerome and the Virgin — Raphael at his sweetest and most Perugino-like. But since this, too, comes from the National’s collection, it lacks the sense of revelation we might fairly have expected from a show promoted as vigorously as this one has been, as the greatest collection of his works ever to reach these shores.

    The idea is to trace Raphael’s journey from his origins in Urbino to his arrival in Rome, in 1508, when he began working for Pope Julius II. But for various stretches of the route, Raphael seems curiously absent from his own journey. He is absurdly impalpable in the third room, devoted to the influence of Leonardo and Michelangelo, and dominated by Leonardo’s great cartoon of The Virgin and Child with St Anne, again from the National’s collection, which hangs opposite a fibreglass cast of Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo from the Royal Academy. There is a copy, too, of Michelangelo’s lost cartoon for the uncompleted Battle of Cascina fresco, and another copy of Leonardo’s lost Leda. With all these copies on show, and all this fibreglass, it’s simply not clear what authentic point the gallery is trying to make, beyond the obvious assertion that Raphael was influenced by Leonardo and Michelangelo.

    The next room brings some relief from the uncertainty with a straightforward selection of delightful Raphael Madonnas, including the recently acquired Madonna of the Pinks, which looks much stronger here than I expected. Suddenly, his achievement springs properly to life with a couple of impressive loans and the lovely showcasing of that exquisite Raphael masterpiece St Catherine of Alexandria, yet again from the National, painted in about 1507, where you see him at his finest, elegantly wrapping this gorgeous woman around her own contrapposto as if she were a ribbon. It is this sense of perfection that turns, in the hands of Raphael’s imitators, into that clear and tasteless poison regretted by Ruskin.

    Unfortunately, having found him at last in the room of the Madonnas, we manage to lose him again in the very next vista, a strangely dull display dominated by a copy of Raphael’s Entombment painted by Cavaliere d’Arpino, Caravaggio’s teacher, 100 years after Raphael’s death. Why not just put up a photo and be done with it? It all adds up to such an ill-constructed journey. Billed as the third of a triptych of old-master exhibitions at the National that began with Titian and continued with El Greco, Raphael: From Urbino to Rome suffers most severely from not having enough tangible Raphael in it. Whereas the two previous shows were so forcefully devoted to their subjects, this one gets lost for much of its length in a haze of look-alikes, fragments, new attributions, fibreglass casts and the contributions of others. Most of the best things come from the National’s own collection and are already familiar. The minor fragments usually fail to make up for the omissions.

    Obviously, the pre-exhibition hype has done this show no favours. Let this therefore be a warning to the National Gallery’s media machine: when you live by the rules of the blockbuster, you die by the rules of the blockbuster. Quite simply, I had been led to expect more.

    However, a few proper conclusions are reachable, and they are indeed surprising. Whether by accident or design, I cannot say, but the 500-year fantasy of Raphael as the prodigy is certainly challenged. Put bluntly, he wasn’t one. The sense of an effortless flowering of natural genius is missing entirely here. In fact, Raphael’s progress seems distinctly effortful. His grasp of anatomy takes a long time to stop feeling shaky. A genuine sense of pictorial invention is slow to emerge. And emanating faintly from him for the entire duration of the show, from the unconvincing horses at the start to the grimly frontal grip of the enthroned Julius II at the end, is a most unexpected note of Umbrian primitivism.

    It was Julius who, by commissioning from him the great decoration of the Vatican stanzas, forced Raphael into another creative league. He was 25, which isn’t old; but neither is it scarily young. The stanzas are sensational. But being frescoes, they are immovable. That Raphael made a huge leap into greater things when he took them on is made absolutely clear by a wonderful selection of preparatory drawings for the most celestial of the frescoes. Abruptly, the 500 years of hype that preceded the arrival of this show become understandable.