A few years ago, the artist Natalia González Martín was stuck. “I fell out a bit with my training. I didn’t know where it was going,” says the Madrid native, now 27, not long after graduating from art school in London. But one day she found an extra wooden plank and decided to create an image of the Virgin Mary, as she had seen countless times in the Prado as a child. “It was suddenly so fun again,” says González Martín. “This image was literally like an apparition.”
González Martín’s small, delicate pictures, last seen at a solo show at London’s Hannah Barry Gallery and in the group selection New mythologies at Huxley-Parlour, makes her part of a surprising trend. Artists return to the eternal source of inspiration that is the Renaissance, that broad, loose term that covers more than two centuries of cultural revolution. From Ella Walker’s quattrocento-style paintings of Dantesque characters to Jem Perucchini’s elegant gold-toned portraits of Medici-era youths, past Chris Oh’s crystalline tributes to Flemish painted saints, a new generation honors the styles, subjects and forms of the late . 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. They are modernized with little twists: one of Walker’s figures might be decked out in latex, for example. Add to that Louise Giovanelli’s ongoing dialogue with the Old Masters, where the painter uses classical techniques to create shimmering, mysterious canvases, or the fact that emerging duo Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings recently unveiled a series of frescoes in Tate Britain (although depicts all this). from architecture to Suffragettes), and it is clear that the era is experiencing a renaissance.
For González Martín, the influence is “undeniable”, she laughs. “A little too much!” She can’t even remember the first time she saw a Renaissance painting, having seen so many in Madrid’s museums growing up. Nor can she deny that her Spanish Catholic upbringing is present in her images of bloody corpses, Titian nudes and angel wings. Her images mislead you slightly, depicting everyday activities in a Renaissance way: her image of a holy garment, for example, is also just mascara smudges on fabric. But while her subjects draw on the soft and sensual Italians of the 16th century, her technique is more inspired by the earlier The descent from the cross, by Rogier van Der Weyden, or her favourite, van Eyck. They are still a benchmark, she says. “In real life, those paintings make me want to quit because I really can’t figure them out… It’s just so impeccably done and executed.”
Walker also favors the early Renaissance period. “It’s a lot of the 14th and 15th century stuff that I’m into – the way they paint, they use space, the flatness of the work,” says the Manchester-born 29-year-old, who is preparing for a next year in a European institution. At Frieze 2021, Walker took over Casey Kaplan’s stand with seven large canvases full of knights, maids, saints and martyrs, variously in acrylic, tempura, gesso, pastel and ink. On one level, the Renaissance makes itself felt in her palette: raw sienna, vivianite (a deep indigo blue), dioxacin violet, iron oxide red, caput mortuum (or cardinal purple), sap green. In another way, it is only the “gothic, macabre essence of that period” that she loves. “I’m not interested in dyeing skinny jeans!”
Unlike González Martín, neither religion nor art featured strongly in Walker’s upbringing; at best, she remembers that her grandmother “had little images of saints and things in her house”. When she did get to art school, she was mostly obsessed with Marlene Dumas. Yet a weekend in Florence in 2016, just after she graduated from art school in Glasgow, sparked something: she visited Masaccio’s famous Brancacci Chapel, painted in the 1420s. “It was the first time I had ever seen a fresco,” she says. “There’s just a lot of power and a lot of drama [in it]. I’m not really a religious person, I didn’t really go to church as a child – so being in those spaces as an adult, as someone interested in painting, was quite overwhelming.”
Subsequent study at London’s Royal Drawing School confirmed Walker’s new passion. One class required drawing one painting in the National Gallery for an entire term and returning to it week after week: she chose The baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca, now her favorite artist. But, like her peers, Walker is not interested in simply copying. Her figures are often inspired by contemporary looks she’s seen on catwalks, or a favorite book, Fellini’s faces, which features screenshots of all the great director’s characters. “I like the idea that some of my figures will look quite classical – but that they could also be in a contemporary dance sequence, or in a pop music video.”
Why the Renaissance now? It never really goes away, says González Martín. Since her “emergence,” she’s noticed how much Christian iconography persists in popular culture, whether in the oeuvre of Beyoncé (the singer’s latest album is, of course, titled Renaissance), or the last LP by FKA twigs – Magdalena. As for visual art, she also points out that since painting has enjoyed such a big return to figuration in the last few years, “you have to look” at the Renaissance masters, including even those she calls “the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” (Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael) that people often take for granted. “You can’t avoid them when you’re looking for references on ways to paint. To ignore this whole tradition is almost impossible.”
This is taken to its extreme by Callum Innes, whose recent performance, Tondos, at Sean Kelly in New York, was inspired by the tondo, the circular image favored by the likes of Michelangelo and Botticelli. It’s a surprising turn for Innes: the 60-year-old Scotsman, who was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1995, has always been known for a very modern abstraction and his paintings don’t look figurative at all – big. sheets of red or purple bisect the canvas and bleed to the edge. But then his inspiration is also surprising. It was a commission by Sotheby’s to paint four barrel ends of whiskey barrels for a charity auction that introduced him to the idea two years ago. “I hadn’t really considered it until that point,” he says.
For Innes, the Tondo is primarily a way to play with form and color. “It brings you straight to the point,” he says approvingly. “It’s a very physical thing.” Previous masters did inspire him: he quotes Dirk Bouts’ famous Announcementfrom 1470 (“the use of red in that painting is so extreme”), or Botticelli’s Madonna of the Pomegranate, which is dominated by an equally striking blue. Yet this is not an entirely new beginning – at art school in the 1980s, Innes produced several figurative paintings heavily influenced by Raphael. However, we won’t be seeing them anytime soon. “Thank God, I destroyed most of them!” Each artist, it seems, is allowed their own renaissance.