Talk About a Solo Show!

“Parmigianino’s Antea: A Beautiful Artifice,” an exhibition at the Frick Collection, poses an interesting question: Is it more challenging to view a show dedicated to a single work of art, or one featuring several?

A comprehensive exhibition demands concentration predicated, in part, on sheer numbers. The viewer enjoys (or contends with) breadth and context. But an exhibition featuring a single work demands a different kind of attention.

Most of us engage with a work of art on public view for a matter of seconds or minutes. This runs contrary to the notion that art reveals itself more the longer a viewer spends with it. “A Beautiful Artifice” insists on that well-founded cliché. Antea (c. 1531-34), a painting by the Italian Mannerist painter Parmigianino (1503-1540), is the show’s only painting.

Is the striking young woman in Antea based on an actual person or is she, as the exhibition title suggests, an artifice? In her exhaustive and absorbing catalog essay, curator Christina Neilson doggedly pursues the painting’s history. She’s a thorough detective who relishes mystery, but not at the expense of art. Even as she digs for facts, Ms. Neilson bolsters the painting’s seductive and inscrutable allure.

Antea belongs to a select group of art historical women whose fascination lies in their resistance to interpretation. There’s Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, of course, but also Petrus Christus’ Portrait of a Young Woman, Vermeer’s Head of a Girl and Raphael’s La Fornarina (the subject of another single-painting Frick exhibition a few years back). Like any good artist, Parmigianino sacrificed control in deference to the painting’s independence. At a certain point, we stop talking about art. Antea becomes a living presence.

The earliest reference to Antea came over a hundred years after Parmigianino laid down the last brush stroke, and identifies her as the artist’s inamorata. Other sources list her as an aristocrat or a bride or a whore—whichever way, she was classy. Was Antea Parmigianino’s daughter, mistress, servant or an advertisement for chastity?

Ms. Neilson considers the symbolic heft of Antea’s raiment. The marten fur she wears connotes fertility and so appears to endorse matrimony. Rubies were viewed as a conduit to the heart and soul; using this logic, Antea’s ring is another vote for marriage. Antea’s apron? It was high fashion. Her name? Through a circuitous route back to Aphrodite, “Antea” led to theories about her being a prostitute. Ms. Neilson elaborates, cites historical data and dismisses these notions. The painting is the thing.

Against a deep, burnished green, Antea faces us with tight-lipped self-possession. Her eyes are large and open wide; they’re somewhat accusatory, but not without innocence. There’s a slight blush to her cheeks.

Antea’s bare left hand fingers her necklace absent-mindedly. Her gloved right hand, pinky finger slightly extended, holds the other glove. The slight blur of her skirt suggests movement.

Erotic intent is inescapable. Antea’s left breast presses against her gold and shimmering dress, an attribute gently emphasized by the lift of her hand. Antea’s intense expression conveys longing—this is a sternly sexual painting.

Distortion of form was an essential element of Mannerism. Parmigianino’s best-known painting, Madonna of the Long Neck (c. 1534-39), is aptly titled. Antea is nowhere near as extreme, but stay with the painting—it’s an amalgam of softly stated, snakelike tics. Her arms aren’t quite connected to her body. The waistline is too high. The eyes are enlarged and saucerlike. Antea is an exquisitely furtive investigation of style for its own sake.

Artistic precedents complicate the painting’s fetching enigma. Parmigianino may have been familiar with Raphael’s La Fornarina—appropriately enough for a painter nicknamed “Raphael redivivus (revived).” Ms. Neilson glances upon Ghirlandaio, Botticelli and Titian as comparisons, but the most fascinating comparison is to Parmigianino himself.

Talk About a Solo Show!