Tag Archives: Piero Della Francesca

A Hard Act To Follow: Piero della Francesca

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Piero della Francesca, Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels (c. 1460-70), oil (and tempera?) on poplar panel, transferred to fabric on panel; courtesy the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute

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The following review appeared in the February 20, 2005 edition of The New York Observer and is reprinted here on the occasion of Piero della Francesca in America, on view at The Frick Collection (until May 19). My review of the Frick exhibition will appear in the April issue of The New Criterion.

Before I begin kvelling about From Filippo Lippi to Piero Della Francesca: Fra Carnevale and the Making of a Renaissance Master, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, duty compels me to get the bad news out of the way. Contrary to the exhibition’s title, Fra Carnevale is no master–he’s a dud.

Actually, the key word in the title isn’t “master,” but “making.” What powers the exhibition is the scholarship leading to the recent identification of Fra Carnevale as the artist responsible for The Birth of the Virgin (1466) and The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple (1466), which are in the collections of, respectively, the Metropolitan and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Placing Fra Carnevale within the milieu of Florence and, later, Urbino, the curators explore the sometimes bewildering trajectories of stylistic influence. In doing so, they pinpoint the achievement of Fra Carnevale, “the quasi-mythical painter from Urbino” born Bartolomeo di Giovanni Corradini sometime around 1420. (He died in 1484.) History has been clarified, but has it been vindicated?

The Fra Carnevale panels, coming at the end of the museum’s impressive feat of connoisseurship, are anticlimactic. The crazy-quilt admixtures of zooming spaces, overweening architecture, fussy passages of texture and disjointed arrays of figures are the handiwork of a skilled artisan incapable of articulating a coherent painting. Other examples of Fra Carnevale’s work–especially The Crucifixion and Saint Francis, wooden pictures both–evince an artist who couldn’t realize the human figure as an expressive component of pictorial form. The best Fra Carnevale painting on view, the silky and taciturn Madonna and Child (1440), may not be by him at all; it’s an attribution.

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Fra Carnevale, The Crucifixion (c. 1450), tempera and oil on wood, 40.6″ x 26.4″; courtesy Galleria Nazionale dell Marche, Urbino

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The folks at the Met don’t pretend that Fra Carnevale is the equal of the painters with whom he shares title billing. The sharp and sensitive eyes responsible for organizing the exhibition know what’s what: Filippo Lippi, Fra Carnevale’s teacher, and Piero are headliners for a reason: They’re masters in every sense of the word. In the catalog, we learn that Fra Carnevale was “not [an artist] … of the very first importance.” Elsewhere, we read that his pictures fall under the “shadow” of Piero, an artist who “epitomizes the artistic culture of Urbino.”

Piero, as you might guess, casts some shadow, and it’s there to see at the Met. Directly preceding the gallery dedicated to Fra Carnevale, you’ll find Piero’s Madonna and Child Attended by Angels. In it, the Virgin has been transformed into an immovable–though not inhuman–presence,adivine slab of architecture. She towers over the angels surrounding her and the Christ child and, as such, serves as the anchor for a deeply eccentric composition. Symmetry is suggested and then offset, but in a sneaky, unnerving manner. The space of the picture, notwithstanding the strong directionality of the enclosing architecture, is sharply stunted. The painting’s iconography is reinforced and somehow deepened by Piero’s bizarre manipulations of pictorial form. You can scarcely imagine a harder act to follow.

Make that two hard acts to follow: The initial portion of the exhibition is dedicated almost exclusively to the paintings of Filippo Lippi, and it’s a knockout. Particularly strong are The Pieta, with an ominous outcropping of rocks being the arbiter of its gravitas, and the unstoppably gentle The Meeting of Joachim and Anna at the Golden Gate; particularly strange are the jack-in-the-box elisions of space in Portrait of a Woman and a Man at a Casement.

hb_89.15.19Fra Filippo Lippi, Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement (c. 1440-44), tempera on wood, 25-1/4″ x 16-1/2″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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If it’s name artists you’re after, look for Madonna and Child by Luca Della Robbia, a terra-cotta relief that’s more fully realized as sculpture than the attendant glazed terra-cotta of the same subject by the same artist. Other figures will be known primarily to specialists of Renaissance art, but are well worth getting to know for the rest of us. I was particularly grateful to make the acquaintance of Pesellino, whose Madonna and Child with Saints is a compacted yet remarkably coherent congregation of figures. A small crucifixion by Giovanni Boccati is similarly packed with imagery–if anything, it’s more ambitious and complex than the Pesellino–and has to be counted as the purest expressionism.

By the time you’re finished zigzagging through Fra Carnevale and the Making of a Renaissance Master, you’ll be exhausted by its many and various glories. (Hey, no one said 15th-century Italian art was easy.) You might even grant that Fra Carnevale had his moments: Look closely, for example, at the supernal slice of life (the guy walking his dog) seen through a doorway just off-center in The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple. You’ll be grateful, as well, to the Met for mounting yet another serious, scholarly and stellar exhibition.

© 2005 Mario Naves

Bored With Modernism

Paul Cézanne, The Card Players (ca. 1892-96), oil on canvas, 23-5/8″ x 28-3/4″; courtesy The Courtald Gallery, London

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art has mounted a Cézanne exhibition and I’m in no mood to see it.

Oh, critical duty will have me ascending the great stairway soon enough; artistic duty, too, I suppose. Who knows? The pictures may (as my students tell it) rock my world. But it’s been a while since Cézanne and, for that matter, modernism have excited me.

Visiting MOMA, the Met’s Lila Acheson Wallace wing, the Guggenheim or any venue with a significant collection of modern art has increasingly become to seem like work. When was it that modern art started to look so . . . dusty? Brancusi, Miró, Arp, Klee, Picasso, Braque, de Kooning, Matisse–boy, have they become resistible.

Chalk it up to post-millennial blues, critical burn-out, modernist over-saturation or some irksome combination of the lot. Still, it’s weird and unexpected. I’m not about to embrace post-modernism–cheapjack nihilism isn’t an option. (Besides, PoMo was, by its very nature, D.O.A.) I’m not unaware that a certain level of self-delusion is at play: as a painter, I’m beholden to modernist precedent. But what’s excited me the past few years isn’t modern at all. It’s newer than all that.

Here, for example, is a work by one of my favorite contemporary artists:

Petrus Christus, The Lamentation (ca. 1450), oil on wood, 10-1/8″ x 14″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Here’s another, a fellow countryman of the popular Takashi Murakami:

Five Beauties

Katsushika Hokusai, Five Beauties (ca. 1805-13), hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, 34″ x 13-1/2″; courtesy Seattle Art Museum

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I’m being cute, but not really. A friend suggests that great works of art aren’t timeless so much as forever contemporary. That’s a nice distinction. The former conceit suggests relics stuck in amber; the latter, the pulse of life. Notwithstanding the stray artist or colleague who considers history disposable, we value artists of the past. Nothing new in that. That’s why we have museums.

Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels by Piero della FrancescaPiero della Francesca, Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels (c. 1460-70), oil on panel, 107.8 x 784. cm.; courtesy The Sterling & Francis Clark Institute

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Seeing Bacchanal of the Andrians (1523-25) in the Titian retrospective at London’s National Gallery was pivotal. It was rich with incident, ambition and life–like I had never seen a painting before. Then there was Hunt for Paradise; Court Arts of Safavid Iran, 1501-1576 at The Asia Society; its astonishing array of Persian miniatures left me giddy. Piero’s Madonna and Child Attended by Angels (1460-1470), a picture seen in a Met show dedicated to the (rightfully) unheralded Fra Carnevale, was similarly stunning. Watching that painting morph before my eyes, taking stock of and thrilling to its radical elisions of space and scale, I was flabbergasted. “You can’t do that“, I remember telling Piero.

Mondrian. Yeah, so what about him? I know what he’s up to. What Mondrian does–it’s so old.

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Beth Reisman, Nike (2007), acrylic on panel, 48″ x 48″; courtesy the artist

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Some of the most interesting living artists (“living” as opposed to “contemporary” here; Memling’s dead, but he’s still the competition) channel traditions and currents that, while not altogether outside of the modernist purview, are nonetheless–how to put it?–impure. Julie Evans, Sharon Horvath, Beth Reisman, David Fertig, Thomas Nozkowski, Frances Barth, Martin Puryear, John Dubrow, even, in his own cloistered way, Neo Rauch–refuse to kowtow to a tradition that would place blinders on ambition. These artists aren’t modernists per se. What they are exactly, I don’t know. It’s enough that the work is exciting.

It was with some interest, then, that I read Peter Schjeldahl’s take on the Met’s current Cézanne exhibition in a recent edition of The New Yorker. Here’s what Schjeldahl had to say about the French master:

“The only way into [Cézanne’s] art is to track his technical decisions, like a painting student receiving instruction. Cézanne became the beau ideal of modernist values–as exemplary for the twentieth century of what art should be like as Raphael had been for previous epochs–by making our perceptions of art inextricable from how it comes to be. Our eyes and minds, as we look, repaint the picture. But what if we’d rather not? What about transcendence? Cézanne never lets go.”

Elsewhere, Schjeldahl describes the pleasure derived from Cézanne’s “clutter of coarse, arbitrary seeming brushstrokes” as “punishingly astringent.” The redoubtable New Yorker critic was able to muster more of a response to Cézanne than I have in recent years. Truth to tell, Cézanne has begun to bore me.

Schjeldahl dubs modernism “an endgame”. It’s not a new conceit. Wasn’t Hal Foster or some other brainy theoretician peddling that line years ago? Haven’t we been suffering the consequences of Conceptualism and Minimalism, endgame schools both, for almost half a century? Reading modernism as a race to the finish is simplistic, but I can’t help but think it’s true.

History has revealed that modernism revived tradition at the expense of art’s metaphorical depth and range. Do I recall correctly that Matisse rued the course modernism had taken? Picasso’s late paintings–those frantic attempts at channeling Rembrandt and Velasquez–were, I think, an attempt to reclaim all that was lost in the wake of innovations he, more than anyone, had put into motion.

Never say never to art’s independence and vitality. I haven’t forgotten how I was knocked flat on my ass by the big Cézanne retrospective at The Philadelphia Museum some years ago. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to seeing this hot young artist, at which point I might mosey over to the current Cézanne show and see what the big deal is all about.

© 2011 Mario Naves