Jonathan Jones, with his usual wit and panache, writes in the Guardian that the exhibition marks a certain mission drift on the part of the gallery; more specifically, Jones sees the gallery allowing shows that "chase their tales up scholarly blind alleys." Maybe it's down to the gap at the top- no replacement for Charles Saumarez Smith yet- that has allowed curators to use shows as vehicles for the idiosyncratic forcing of a point. Jones likes the exhibition- who wouldn't be charmed at some of the art on display?- but believes that it is ultimately silly. Wisely, Jones advises scrutiny of the previous generation of painters like Duccio and Sassetti outside the exhibition but in the gallery; only then can the visitor get a sense of Siena's historical and artistic development. Jones identifies Matteo di Giovanni's Ascanio altarpiece- top- as the best of a mediocre bunch, and although he finds much to admire and marvel at in the much touted Domenico Beccafumi, he fails to measure up to Florentine mannerists like Pontormo. I think that Jones is right on the money when he says that Beccafumi is a "connoisseur's artist", a painter whose curiously self-absorbed art appealed to a mildly deranged elite.
Brian Sewell known for his asperity in his reviews, turns in a balanced and illuminating overview of the show in the Evening Standard. Sewell ponders whether a century after the calamity of the Black Death in 1348, Sienese art was sufficiently resilient to offer a challenge to Florence, just 30 miles up the road. Naturally, Sewell concludes that Siena could not: it lacked the humanist powerhouse that produced such heavyweights as Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Giorgione. Far from being concerned with scientific matters such as proportion and perspective, Sienese quattrocento painting remained marginal to the main intellectual thrust of the Renaissance. Siena's fame has been recent, since it remained out of fashion until aesthetically inclined scholars like John Pope-Hennessy- name checked by Sewell here- pleaded for a moment of contemplation in which to absorb the beauty and charm of this archaic art. For Sewell, Matteo again stands at the top of the heap whilst an attributed work by Benvenuto di Giovanni is of "such miserable quality that it deserves to be neither in this exhibition nor in the permanent collection." Sewell is equally critical of Beccafumi whose only claim to contemporaneity is his colour, although that is filched from Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling. Really? I'd never have guessed!
Finally, last week on the BBC's Culture Show, T.V. pundit Andrew Graham Dixon was sent to Siena itself to be overawed by Beccafumi's ceiling in the Palazzo Pubblico-right-, although he also dropped in on Pinturicchio's frescoes- based on Raphael's designs- in the Piccolomini Library in Siena Cathedral. Beccafumi's frescoes out in Siena do impress, but it may be significant that AGD muttered at the start of the broadcast "I've always preferred Florence to Siena."
I don't want to knock Sienese art; I'm sure that there will be works of charm and beauty in the show to make the journey down to London worthwhile. Still, I wonder about the premise of this exhibition andmore importantly its time span. I'm currently teaching a course on Sienese art, but my Sienese journey starts in the time of Duccio and ends in the period covered by the NG exhibition. I shall reserve judgment about the paintings in the show until I've seen them for myself, but I can't help thinking that the curators of this show have miscalculated greatly in choosing to use the exhibition as a vehicle for their questionable thesis.