In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers who love to go to museums can find some solace in museumgoing, and perhaps no exhibition has struck visitors more forcibly in recent weeks than “Bernini: Sculpting in Clay,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This intimate, enchanted show, pairing Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s terracotta studies with a group of his drawings, which are equally amazing, carries us deep inside the creative processes of one of the greatest sculptors who ever lived. We see the roughhewn, rapid fire preliminary thinking of an artist whose finished works, for all their quivering emotion, can have a triumphantly impersonal polish.
If the essential idea of the Baroque is that emotion is expressed through action, then Bernini is surely the greatest of all Baroque artists. And his terracotta studies, many of them considerably less than two feet high, are all about action, for we are witnessing the action of the artist’s hand as he molds the clay. Beneath Bernini’s fingers (and actual fingerprints have been found on the terracotta), volume is placed under pressure and shaped and reshaped into a youth, an angel, a saint. There is a virtual army of angels in this exhibition, studies for the figures on Rome’s Ponte Sant’Angelo, and never has solid clay seemed so ethereal. Neither in the terracottas nor in the drawings does Bernini seem especially concerned with anatomical correctness. The reality of the body is a given, to be grasped and summarized in a quickening moment, in the twist of a torso, in the reach of an arm. Particularly wonderful in its tight-knit yet unfurling drama is the terracotta preparation for the great statue of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, a study of a saintly woman in an ecstatic trance, her drapery quivering and roiled, inanimate matter now electrifyingly alive. But there is hardly anything here that does not repay close attention.
I found myself particularly taken with the stark rhetoric of a few drawings for the statue of Saint Longinus in the Vatican, graphic works with a blunt, peremptory power. Everywhere in this exhibition, there is a fearless rejection of any idea of correctness, of any academic standard. A study for the lion in the Four Rivers Fountain, with its supercharged treatment of the muscular hindquarters, pushes expression in the direction of a modern Expressionism. This artist who worked for popes and kings prefigures the let-it-rip freedom of the avant-garde. His touch is as daringly experimental as Giacometti’s.
This is an intimate exhibition dedicated to the preparatory studies for what were in most cases large, public works. At the Metropolitan, where the show is beautifully installed in the downstairs galleries in the Lehman Wing, the curators have included some mural-size photographs of Bernini’s greatest Roman monuments, including the Four Rivers Fountain in the Pizza Navona and the chapel in the church of San Francesco a Ripa in Trastevere dedicated to the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni. The exhibition puts us at the creation of some of the essential monuments of Rome, and rarely does gestation hit a museumgoer with the impact it has here. No artist has affected an urban landscape more profoundly than Bernini did Rome in the seventeenth century. Never has such a singular vision been so deeply woven into the urban fabric. And for anybody seeing “Bernini: Sculpting in Clay” in the weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit New York and New Jersey, these photographs of Rome in all its glory can stir thoughts about our own urban fabric. I do not want to draw any conclusions. Art offers no answers—at least not now, not here. But with Hurricane Sandy very much in our minds, how can we not find ourselves thinking a little differently about the Four Rivers Fountain, that masterpiece of rock and water and frenzied movement, the torrent tamed and transcended?