This is the sort of exhibition at which the Royal Academy excels – taking a topic of specialist, art-historical interest and making it exciting and accessible. Chiaroscuro (the word literally means ‘light-dark’ in Italian) was a woodcut technique that revolutionized printmaking from around 1500, using layers of different coloured inks to give a sense of graduated depth, of volume and solidity. Think of it as the 3D cinema of its day: a sort of newfangled special effect for added visual impact that soon became all the rage.
Indeed, right from the start there seems to have been an affinity between chiaroscuro and the spectacular or violent – from the earliest, three-tone masterpiece, Hans Burgkmair the Elder’s gruesomely gothic ‘Lovers Surprised by Death’, through Hans Baldung Grien’s demonically cavorting witches, to Hendrick Goltzius’s imaginings of ancient classical gods who, for sheer macho resplendency, rival anything in the Marvel comics pantheon.
Inevitably, there’s a fair amount of technical information for you to absorb along the way, but it never seems arduous. The RA does a great job of presenting different impressions of the same image, showing the effect of differing colour-schemes or numbers of layers, as it traces a history that leads away from chiaroscuro’s German origins towards Italy. The implicit argument is that it was this later, more loose and expressive style, that represents the apogee of the technique. It’s ironic to note, given this pro-Italian bias, that half the works in the show come from the collection of Georg Baselitz, one of the most famous, most loose and expressive, German artists working today.