EXHIBITIONS / More than met the eye: Ruskin couldn't see it, but in some ways Raphael was a better painter than Leonardo

Tim Hilton
Saturday 21 May 1994 23:02

MUCH as I like Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood I have to admit that they were inadequate art critics. Even if Raphael the Old Master had nothing direct to offer the young men of London in 1848 they should have acknowledged that he had rare quality. As for Ruskin, with his denunciation of 'the clear and tasteless poison of the art of Raphael' (note this repetitive rhythm, as though he were pounding the table as he wrote) - well, Ruskin could be wrong too, and never more so than when he wrote that incomplete early book, Modern Painters. The PRB never appreciated what a vivid artist Raphael was, nor how he managed to do so much so young.

When Raphael died at the age of 37, he had accomplished a real oeuvre. He had also established his own personality while leaving unchallenged the authority of Leonardo, on one hand, and Michelangelo on the other. And who was the academic authority when the Pre-

Raphaelites were at school? That ineffectual President of the Royal Academy, Sir Martin Archer Shee. The Pre-Raphaelites may have been the first rebels of modern art but their rebellion succeeded against a soft local target.

Looking again at Raphael, in the National Gallery of Scotland's small but telling exhibition, I sense that his first years qualify him as a Pre-Raphaelite himself. He had a charm and elegance inherited from the quattrocento, and a pure and dreamlike vision of the next or a departed world. Outside Scotland, one painting proves this: the small Vision of a Knight in London's National Gallery. This picture was bought for the nation in 1847, just when the original Pre-Raphaelites were students in the same building that housed the new national collection.

I insist on this point because it now appears that the PRB could have learnt from its reviled predecessor. Especially it could have learnt about colour. The pictures in Edinburgh have recently been cleaned, and this refurbishment emphasises that colour is the most interesting thing about them. This is not to ignore their drawing or the new-found and often consummate detail, just to say that Raphael's palette looks both odd and perfectly immutable, as though no other tint or hue could possibly have been used.

Timothy Clifford, Director of the National Gallery of Scotland, believes that Raphael's freshly demonstrated palette shows that he had a sense for colour akin to perfect pitch in music. Wrong. The vibraharpist Milt Jackson has perfect pitch but that's not what makes him a great musician. Pitch is pretty well constant through the ages, colour sense varies according to its parent culture and the instinct of an individual painter.

Despite the absurdities of his regime in Edinburgh, I applaud Clifford for shows such as the present display (free to the public, as is the gallery itself). He genuinely, not as a matter of routine piety, likes the Old Masters, including their often overrated drawings. The fact is that the toffs' museum in Edinburgh can do a number of things beyond the capacity of its populist rivals in Glasgow. 'Raphael: the Pursuit of Perfection' is itself an exhibition that looks for perfection. It is recondite and asks for a connoisseurship that few visitors will wish to learn. But anyone who looks at it for any time will be convinced by its dignity, scholarship and air of museological authority.

Realising that such qualities don't excite the average punter, let me say how beautiful Raphael's paintings are. His was not the greater mind, but in purely visual terms he was a better artist than Leonardo. Young Raphael gravitated from his native Urbino to grand Florence in 1504. There he saw and was impressed by Michelangelo and Leonardo. Impressed but not cowed. The most immediately wonderful - though not the most memorable - of the paintings in Edinburgh is the Madonna of the Pinks. This is the panel not long ago recognised as a possible Raphael by Nicholas Penny of the National Gallery in London. He found it in a dirty condition in the castle of the Duke of Northumberland. Cleaned, it shows how Raphael depended on Leonardo yet leapt away from him. I think that a new sense of colour generated the younger man's picture, but see also how Raphael gathered to his painting a light from the early Renaissance that Leonardo's gloomy feelings tended to subdue.

Compare, also, Raphael's cartoon with cartoons by Leonardo. Raphael's cartoon drawing of a Madonna is so much more healthy than anything comparable by Leonardo. This sheet by Raphael is a little too large for its final aesthetic effect. It could be that his genius was for smaller rather than larger paintings. Miniaturists can always do stranger things with colour than muralists, and they get away with their risks and discoveries just by painting small. The Edinburgh exhibition poses rather than solves such questions - but how interesting it is, and how delicate and sexy are some of Raphael's red chalk drawings. He had a lot more to him than Ruskin ever imagined, or perhaps was willing to see.

National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh (031-556 8921) to 10 July.

(Photographs omitted)

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