RAPHAEL EXHIBITION LONDON
By Theo Harvey-Evers
An overcast Tuesday in mid-April seemed like the perfect day to refine my cultural intake for the holiday, and that was exactly what I did. Setting off on the surprisingly empty Piccadilly line, Max Edey and I embarked on our journey to the headlining Raphael Exhibition at the National Gallery London. As mentioned, we wanted to immerse ourselves in all aspects of culture that day, and so we decided to stop off at the respected establishment of McDonalds, before trundling along, eager to see some of the art that we have been studying in real life. Raphael (Sanzio da Urbino) (1483-1520) was undoubtedly one of the most talented Italian Renaissance artists. Grouped together with Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci as the triad of Renaissance masters. This exhibition aimed to show the whole range of Raphael’s art from as early as 15 to when he died aged just 37. In my opinion it elegantly displayed the breadth of his skill in portraiture, tapestry and architecture, through an innovative curation of the exhibition.
This is the first exhibition outside of Italy that showcases every aspect of Raphael’s career in the two decades that he worked. It not only showed finished masterpieces, but also chalk drawings, woodcuts, prints, and even some bronze work. Since I didn’t know much about how a gallery curates an exhibition, I wanted to find out more. In total, the National Gallery gathered 89 works of Raphael from all over the world. This extraordinary feat of organisation required patience and care to be able to borrow works from the Louvre (Paris), the Vatican and more. I’m the first to admit that my attention span leaves a lot to be desired (thanks TikTok!). However, due to the talent of the curators and the flow of the exhibition, I stayed unusually entertained. One of the reasons was the anticipation of seeing a portrait of Pope Julius II, one of the great patrons of High Renaissance art. Painted in 1512 in the oil medium, it is the very first portrait of an unaccompanied pope. This makes the painting significant in terms of subject matter, but it is also an excellent example of the emerging High Renaissance style of portraiture. It is a ¾ pose in a pyramidical composition with his ring-heavy hand protruding out of the picture plane. Seeing it up close I was in awe of the way he managed to paint the light reflecting off the golden acorns of his throne. What’s most striking, however, is the psychological-realism in his face. Pope Julius II was going through a violent war at the time an died the following year. He was a fierce warrior and even received criticism, and therefore Raphael shows the ‘Warrior Pope’ in a moment of thoughtfulness that is almost tangible. One advantage of going to these exhibitions is seeing technique in action. Looking from a side I noticed that you could see the paint in 3D protruding off the panel– a technique known as impasto.
His range of works on display at the National Gallery showed just a glimpse of Raphael’s ability and mastery in the world of art. I feel fortunate to have been up-close to ground-breaking portraits, tapestries, and drawings, all showing a spectacular understanding of concepts, design, emotion, and colour. Reading about his life I was surprised to find out he died at just 37. Vasari (a writer during Raphael’s life) implied that Raphael had more than enough success when it came to the ladies and in fact his ‘surfeit of love’ was probably his undoing. This was notable in the array of paintings and portraits picturing women. One striking piece was ‘La Fornarina’. A half nude woman who is said to be his mistress, suggestively holds her breasts. In fact, on one of her arms is an armband with the name 'Raphael'. This is perhaps not as serene as his other gentler madonnas, but tells a story about Raphael’s life and relationships. Her side-eyes are painted in a way that makes her presumptuous.
On the other hand, the exhibition also shows the most angelic of portraits. Saint Catherine of Alexandria depicts a draped woman looking up in ecstasy as the light surrounds her. The colours, in my opinion, were beautiful and leant to the theme of softness and angelic nature. Researching about the painting, it turns out she is leaning on the wheel that she was tortured on. Therefore, her calm untroubled expression is in some ways troubling on reflection. I know I have been praising the National Gallery and for good reason - it really was impressive seeing the enormous tapestries hung from floor to ceiling. However, if I were to be critical, I think that the A.I. modelling of some of his architectural work slightly took away from the tangible talent of the paintings themselves.
This exhibition really was a deep insight into the journey of Raphael and at the end I felt I really had a sense of the way he developed in his life. Evidently, with his great skill, he also had a big ego. He became a master at only 17 and left his home in Perugia then travelled to Florence. From his stay in Florence, he absorbed the work of Da Vinci, particularly his smoky quality in painting (sfumato). Already painting masterpieces, he moved to Rome in 1508 and became a well-established famous young man. Working around the Vatican he spent time with Michelangelo, from who he learns psycho-realism and the study of anatomy.
All in all, Raphael had a remarkable ability to absorb knowledge quickly and skilfully, which translates masterfully into his own, almost perfect, style of art. It was a successful day out, and if the day couldn’t get any better, I went on to watch my dearest Fulham football club get promoted – followed by a cheeky pitch invasion to top it off.
The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael at The National Gallery, London, until 31 July 2022