Tintoretto at the Prado

    There are painters who are different from other painters, and then there’s Tintoretto. The human storm. The rebel angel of the Renaissance. Who seems to paint only on terrible nights when the ships are sinking.

    The first time I saw his greatest work, the stupendous cycle of immense wall paintings arranged across two floors of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, I was moved to write a poem. I was only a kid. It’s a lousy poem. But if I really squeeze my teeth together and scrunch up my eyes, then I can just about face the embarrassment of sharing it with you. Not the whole thing, God forbid. But a tiny bit of the crescendo. Which went: “What I owe to Tintoretto / Is a moment long and savage / I approached him as a virgin / When I left him I was ravaged.”

    I know, I know, it’s ghastly. The point is not that I am a worthless poet. That’s obvious. The point is that Tintoretto overwhelms you. He changes the rules. He forces you to admire him, to be taken by him, whether you seek such transport or not. That is certainly the case with the ScuolaGrande di San Rocco interiors, which go on and on, and never relent.

    Once you’re in there, looking up at, say, the biggest, most thunderous Crucifixion you will ever stand beneath, you know you are in the presence of a tumultuous genius. Can that feeling travel? Is it possible to be as impressed by Tintoretto outside Venice as it is inside Venice? No, of course it isn’t. And the Prado in Madrid makes no bones about this: it happily admits in its catalogue that a truly representative Tintoretto exhibition is an impossibility. But, nevertheless, it has had a go at organising one. It is the first Tintoretto survey anyone has attempted since a show in Venice in 1937. There weren’t any before that. So, this is only the second such event in history. Wow. To emphasise how and why a Tintoretto exhibition is unmountable, the Prado’s effort – and this made me smile – begins with a map of Venice covered with a chickenpox attack of 53 red dots, each of which represents a church or other Venetian institution in which Tintoretto’s art can still be found in situ , and cannot, therefore, be included here.

    And intractable locational problems are not the only obstacles. There is also the sheer size of his work. At his most ambitious, his scale can be measured in halves of soccer fields. Evenif you wanted to move those whoppers, you couldn’t. All of which explains why there has been only one Tintoretto show. But it doesn’t explain why the Prado is having another go. I suspect the ultimate reason is nothing more complicated than extreme Spanish confidence: that thing you feel as soon as you touch down in Madrid that the Prado does what the Prado wants. And there is, of course, an obvious temperamental link between the dark, thunderous and sexy art of Tintoretto and the Spanish mind-set. The first painting you encounter is a tiny self-portrait that is terrifyingly direct. I love it. It shows a fierce chap with a straggly beard, aged about 28, who stares out at you over his shoulder through two of the biggest, red-rimmed eyes I’ve seen on a man. They are huge and almost make him look ill. Nothing else in the picture offers any sort of a clue that this is a portrait of an artist. No palettes. No easels. No classical busts. None of the usual props that artists pack into such pictures to indicate their profession. Just Tintoretto, with his huge eyes, staring at you, unwaveringly.

    The aggressive little self-portrait comes from Philadelphia. Basically, the Prado has scoured the museums of the world, searching for Tintoretto movables, and then arranged them in loose chronological chunks. It’s certainly not a complete picture. And it can’t help but feel second best for many of its stretches. But it does provide something that you cannot actually find in Venice – you’re too busy being knocked out – which is a sense of development, of Tintoretto’s journey. His earliest dated work turns out to be a gentle Holy Family with Saints, painted in 1540, past which I was ready to stride, believing it to be the scene-setting offering of a typical and minor Venetian, before I read the label.

    Tintoretto’s identity became so pungent and tangible, so different from everyone else in his epoch, that I somehow imagined he must always have been like that. But no. The feeble St Francis of his first picture is so blandly characterised that you can still buy its kind today in every souvenir shop in Assisi. Tintoretto’s early work is shocking because it does not look like Tintoretto. He soon finds his way, of course, and just as shocking as the mildness of his earliest attempts is the sudden appearance of that rare recklessness of his. In 1545, he painted Venus Surprised by Vulcan, a painting that necessitates a bit of eye-rubbing to ensure you really are seeing what you think you are. Is this really the naked Venus sprawled with her legs splaying so on a dishevelled bed? And is her husband, Vulcan, really lifting up her flimsy loincloth to inspect her bits for signs of coupling? And is that really her lover, Mars, hiding under the bed like a helmeted Neil Morrissey in an episode of Men Behaving Badly? Yes, yes and yes. This interest in sex is very Venetian. But not the directness with which it is tackled.

    At the other end of the show, in The Origin of the Milky Way, lent by our own National Gallery, Jupiter is trying to turn his half-human son, Hercules, into an immortal, so he swoops out of the sky and brusquely thrusts Hercules at the lactating breasts of the goddess Juno, in the hope that her divine milk will do the trick. But Hercules sucks too hard – the milk bursts into the sky and creates the Milky Way. It’s such vigorous storytelling, so thoroughly unVenetian in its refusal to remain vague. Venetian art is invariably associated with the soft and dreamy mood that art historians call poésie . Giorgione invented it. Titian perfected it. Veronese continued it. If it had a sound, it would be something slow and fey like that woman warbling about a diamond day on the T-Mobile ads. But that’s definitely not what you hear in Tintoretto. His art roars, swishes and swirls. Interestingly, he was the only one of the giants of the Venetian Renaissance who was actually born in Venice, in 1518. The rest – Giorgione, Titian, Veronese – came from the mainland. So that fey poetry in which Venetian art came to specialise was not, strictly speaking, a Venetian invention, but a luxurious import. This show looks at all the various aspects of his work – the portraits, the erotic fantasies, the mythologies – but focuses most keenly on his religious art. Which is staggeringly inventive.

    Those of you who have done the Tintoretto trail in Venice, or even a bit of it, will know already that he is the undisputed master of the Last Supper. Two out of three Tintorettos seem to feature it. The church of San Trovaso in Venice has actually been persuaded to lend its version, and what a thrill to be able to see from close up the battered rush chairs on which the apostles sit, the tangible crusts of the loaves they nibble at, and the nervous interplay between them as they search around the table for the one who will betray them. A fascinating documentary section reveals that Tintoretto used miniature dolls’-house interiors to plan his action, and would move little tables around in them, searching for the most dramatic angles. There are Last Suppers here in which the table veers crazily into the background, and others where it totters uncertainly over the foreground. Either way, his ambition was clearly to take religion out of the Bible, out of over there, and to bring it over here. So, he took Venetian art by the shoulders and shook it awake. Yes, there are gaps. But the tale makes sense and is well told. At the end of the show, there’s another tiny self-portrait, this time of an old man with grey hair and floppy cheeks. The huge eyes are sunken now, and surrounded by unsightly bags. But they still fix you in a stare that threatens you with such hell if you don’t pay attention.