Emerging old masters: Guido Cagnacci at the National Gallery

Geoff Hands  -  February 27, 2017

To visit the National Gallery to see one painting is an indulgence; but for a work that is temporarily on loan, it is a necessity. Guido Cagnacci’s ‘Repentant Magdalene’ (ca.1660-63) is considered to be his masterpiece, and is on view in the UK for the first time in thirty-five years. The Magdalene has travelled to London, via The Frick Collection in New York, from the Norton Simon Museum collection in Pasadena (California). Moretti Fine Art have also supported the publication of the catalogue, ‘The Art of Guido Cagnacci’, researched and written by Frick Collection’s Chief curator, Xavier F. Salomon. The book provides an historical introduction to Cagnacci, discussing many of his known works, culminating in a well-informed discussion of this particular painting. But of course we ideally need to see the paintings in the flesh: and if only one were available, it is this example that would be chosen.

Cagnacci is not widely known to a general public, and so the viewing of his ultimate, and probably final work, is a treat for visitors. Most especially so for those interested in Italian Baroque painting, who will more likely be heading for Room 32 to view the consummate and exemplary Caravaggio, supported by Giordano, Guido Reni, Guercino, et al. The works of such painters as these demand time for repeated visits and the infamous gallery glance (at most, 17 seconds?) would be a disservice to Cagnacci too. Prolonged viewing, even just for a half-hour or so, has a certain cinematic quality, where the narrative can unfold and develop over time. This work undoubtedly holds enough content and imaginative space to satisfy the most inquisitive of viewers.

In the ‘Repentant Magdalene’, Cagnacci combines aspects of observed reality (especially in the rendering of figures and the quality of light), with technical sophistication in pictorial arrangement, which he expertly integrates into a convincing symbolic space. The left hand portion of the composition might be where the viewer starts to enter the scene. Here the moralistic narrative is amplified by an imaginatively inventive scene that presents the most immediate drama, set behind Mary Magdalene and her sister Martha, in the vivid allegory of Virtue triumphing over Vice. The contorted form of Vice (complete with horns and tail), twists in mid-air, fleeing from the rod that Virtue is about to strike him with. A scalpel blade of light pierces the dark background and points to Vice, as he impertinently bites his index finger as a sign of obscenity. It is an audacious and dynamic pose and an X-radiograph reveals that this levitating figure was originally standing. Cagnacci has taken a risk with a preposterous athletic pose that has worked successfully by adding a horizontal dynamic to contrast with the vertical pairing of figures on the other side of the composition.

Moving fluidly to the right, in a carefully composed, linear squirm: Vice’s left leg connects rhythmically with the blue garment that might be suddenly whipped away from Virtue’s scantily covered form, with Virtue’s left arm making a visual link in this meandering chain. The blue drapery appears serpent-like against the dark void behind and whisks the viewer’s eye to the right-hand third of the canvas where, behind two maidservants, (one representing “contrition”; the other, “vanity”), a naturalistic mid-morning or afternoon light illuminates the cloudy sky. A broad column and suggestively swollen, bulbous, balustrades add a degree of solidity and balance to the composition. Intriguingly, a potted carnation plant, not yet in bloom, appears to be teetering on the edge of the elegant balcony, adding a little psychological frisson. Overlapped by the left arm of the servant, the terracotta container might be about to be knocked over.

Alternatively, the viewer might first enter the painting, and the narrative, with Mary and Martha in the foreground. There is no denying the implied sexuality and sensuousness presented by the sinuous repose of the main character – and we could imagine this figure transported to French Salon painting some 200 years later, were it not for the subject matter. But as Martha calmly consoles the repentant Mary Magdalene, Mary’s gaze eschews any suggestion of immodesty. She appears calm amongst the turmoil, holding a pearl necklace as if it were a rosary. This is perhaps the still-centre of the composition, rather than in the portrait-like rendering of Virtue’s face with his beautiful head of golden hair and splendid wings, which are portrayed at the centre of the kinetic action.

Cagnacci’s inherent skill as a painter of fabrics (despite the seemingly unfinished, almost abstract, drape around Virtue) is confirmed in the carefully arranged array of clothes and jewellery. Cast aside, these earthly riches confirm Mary’s abandonment of vanity, as her near nakedness contrasts with the splendidly rich materiality of the shoes and garments. This depiction of Mary Magdalene is sensuous beyond our contemporary notion of the ‘male gaze’, because the overriding narrative is so much stronger than a mere excuse to paint a naked woman for disingenuous purposes.

In his final years, Cagnacci has achieved what many artists endeavor to accomplish – an original development for their art form. In this case the narrative depiction of Mary and Martha with these allegorical figures. And so in the bottom right hand corner, the artist has perhaps conceitedly signed his work, ‘GVIDVS CAGNACCIVS INVENTOR’, rather than employing the usual ‘pinxit’ (painted) or ‘fecit’ (made).

But Cagnacci’s ‘Repentant Magdalene’ offers far more than a new formula for mixing content. After some time gazing at, thinking about and making notes from the experience of ingesting this painting, less noticeable features appear: for example, the carpet and cushions neatly arranged on the stone floor behind Virtue, represent hard and soft material qualities; and the opened doors create a physical sense of interior and exterior space that translates into emotional effect. Other dialectical pairings of stillness and movement, calm and calamity, heavenly wealth and earthly affluence, also permeate this impressive painting – distributed and rendered by a patchwork of light and dark forms and the Baroque genius for flowing visual dynamics.

Letizia Treves, Curator at the NG has said that: “It has long been a dream of mine to bring this painting to London – it is unquestionably Cagnacci’s masterpiece and one of the greatest Italian Baroque pictures of all time. I hope our visitors are bowled over by it, as I was when I first saw the painting in California 15 years ago.”

These expectations can be confidently confirmed by CFA, and if you are visiting the gallery this Spring, start at Room 1 and be prepared for an extended stay – possibly without leaving this one room.