A Hall or Two of Mirrors

John Haber
in New York City

The Medieval Housebook

Mirror of the Medieval World

The Treasury of Saint Francis of Assisi

Prayer Book for a Queen: The Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux

Did you reach this site searching for art on the Web? I would rather settle in with a good book.

Take the Medieval Housebook now at the Frick Collection in New York. Amid three other shows of the Medieval and Renaissance world running simultaneously in New York, it shares the museum with a sharp look at a nearly lost painting by Edouard Manet. It makes for a striking reminder of the complex, public world behind those private experiences of reading and looking at pictures. from the Medieval Housebook (Frick Collection, 1475–1490)

Nobility as a skill, art as an improvisation

A Housebook? I mean a book that sets art alongside practical instructions for living, a book that is a work of art. It holds within one volume a family's personal heraldry, the rules of war, recipes for the servants, and the focus of prayer. It contains some of the most influential and beautiful prints in the history of art.

The Medieval Housebook articulates the rules and ethos of a wealthy family. Its wish to encompass so much will make sense if one thinks back to the Bible or The Canterbury Tales. (One need not even be a reactionary defender of "the canon"!) It also reflects an ideal of the time, the family (or indeed the soul) as a microcosm of the world. At the time, that implied a stable, self-contained unit. Such a unit set a man—and reason—at its head.

Then, too, the age has seen the birth of an economy based on trade across Europe. The show's title notwithstanding, the book dates from the late fifteenth century, long after the origins of the Renaissance in Italy. So this most modern of late Medieval families responds to a new ideal, as with the Morgan's own Crusader Bible. I have been trying all along to describe it, this new aristocracy of pragmatism. A proper soldier still must bear a family's coat of arms, but it sits comfortably alongside the drab business of armaments.

The new age, of course, is the Renaissance. At the start of the century, manuscript art led to the new painting in northern Europe. Jan van Eyck himself worked in miniature before passing a bolder art along to Petrus Christus, Hans Memling (notably in Memling portraits), and others. The Met has even claimed the same origins for the Italian Renaissance down through Fra Angelico, convincing no one. Down in the south, painting and drawing took more from sculpture, especially from Lorenzo Ghiberti. Still, it articulated the same ideals—noble, all-encompassing, and practical.

The artists worked in today's Germany just before Albrecht Dürer, producing almost two hundred vellum sheets. Just 126 have survived, and here the curator has chosen thirty. Timothy B. Husband, also curator of medieval art for the Met, adds some delicious context. He includes for comparison a few works by Dürer, Martin Schongauer and other great draftsman. Husband devotes an entire room as well to additional prints by the Housebook's best artist, known only as Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet.

The best-known print techniques enforce clarity and discipline. Woodcuts, say, take care in carving. If the wood breaks in the wrong places, its relief edges cannot hold the desired image. Etching takes regular strokes because of its hooked tool, a burin. This master, however, preferred drypoint. The technique allows free sketching, right on the printing plate. It leaves lighter traces and stippled shadows, because the drypoint's needle digs in less than a burin. With it, he found a casual warmth that is simply unforgettable.

Grounded

The curator notes the Housebook's playful humor. Especially in scenes by another artist, called Master of the Genre and Tournament Pages, elegant couples carry on affairs in public. Around them, servants look on with a mix of disapproval, envy, and sheer buffoonery. (The reproduction above supplies one example.)

Husband suggests that the joke comes at the expense of the peasant. I do not believe it for one minute. The new ideal starts with parody of the lower classes, but it risks upsetting those old hierarchies forever. Its pragmatism rests nobility on the work of simple humanity, almost as the previous generation in the north had on prayer. Feminists can take heart, too. In this magnificent compendium, weaving stands alongside warfare.

One feels the chaos in these compositions. With the Genre Master, classes peek out from behind and under one another. With another artist, Master of the Planet Pages, the upset extends to spatial distinctions. Foreground and background jumble together.

One feels the change most movingly, however, in those added works by the Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet. Elsewhere, do peasants squat, while aristocrats ride, joust, and dance? Even when dogs scratch, for him closeness to the ground stands for humility. No wonder the Amsterdam Master so loves the seated pose traditionally called the Virgin of Humility.

When his Virgin and child sit astride the crescent moon, one could almost mistake their perch for a trash heap. As they rest beside an elegant rose bush, Joseph leans over warmly. That most human of Christian figures has such connection to the earth that he looks positively apelike. In this master's humble world, too, men can carry on a friendly conversation with death.

The gentle imagery fits totally with the drypoint's tender shadows. As one last coup, the Frick includes a pen-and-ink drawing. It serves as one last testimony to the freshness of a vision centuries ago.

Tag sale

Husband may have stepped away from the Metropolitan Museum for the occasion, but the Met has not abandoned the Middle Ages. Three separate shows take on the transition to the Renaissance: a survey of the time from the permanent collection, visiting works from Assisi, and a rare Book of Hours. They make the museum a decent place to immerse oneself in the past, but its sorry habits of mediocrity and pretension will not go away without a struggle. Not for the first time, the Met offers lots to see but some disgraceful curating.

Not long ago the Met tossed out on display all of the Northern Renaissance that it owns. The show made for a rare look at a collection in depth and at workshop practices, and it included a freshly cleaned painting by Pieter Bruegel. Yet an overblown display of secondary painting and sculpture offered a real turn-off. It snubbed anyone unconvinced that all these dead guys matter.

Now the Met tries again with preceding centuries. The same comprehensive approach ends up even duller and sloppier by half. Before, I was sure that the curators had invited me into a neglected storeroom. Now, I think, they hope someone will clean up the place for them.

The Met hides the show brilliantly, in a cramped wing I barely remembered exists. There it sets out more than three hundred objects in no apparent scheme at all. The first rooms look for a type of image someplace within the object—plants, animals, Christ. That alone must hold them together, what with media flung side by side wherever they find room. In the final rooms the odd arrangement breaks down entirely, shifting to such categories as jewelry.

Chronology and style play no part. In one display case, lamentations over the dead Christ sit side by side, as if for an off-the-rack sale. The very next case leaps over four centuries without warning. That leaves no focal achievement, nothing like that glorious Bruegel Harvesters.

The Met's habit of overbearing commentary continues, with full labels on each and every display item. Some make dishonest attributions and claims of quality. Most do worse: they state the obvious, the overt subject. After that, they take up how the Met obtained each item. Wrapped up in itself and its own power, the Met cares most about its own history.

Lush or sober?

What does the show reveal about "the medieval world"? Amid so many media, what uses did art serve, and what or who influenced its evolution? By setting household goods in a major museum, the curator presumably offers more than a postmodern challenge to the notion of art. But what? Despite all the labels and all those words, the Met never stops to ask.

Experts will feel let down. One told me that he could see better at any auction. He was wrong, but the show leaves that impression. Nonexperts will fare worse, with the Met once again turning people off to art's history.

The show does give a peek behind the scenes of America's greatest museum. The superb lighting helps make some items indeed memorable, including so-called minor media. I liked best a stained-glass image of a herder. He uses a painting of a steer to scare quail into line. Yes, those dark ages could stay true to what common people saw and to how they behaved. And yes, too, it thought about art.

One still thinks of the Middle Ages as dry, right down to Giotto's predecessor Cimabue. The most frequent word on the placards, and rightly so, is lush. And yet I hear more self-congratulation at work here—plus one more plug for the gift shop. The Met would like to forget that this art of delicate objects had another side. Its new realism and care grew from the same currents as reformers who attacked lush possessions.

I think again of the Amsterdam Master's quiet ideals. For him and the other Housebook masters, lush would better mean drunk. One can find an interesting history here. I would have liked to encounter it.

A slightly better ancillary show takes on the greatest of those reformers, Saint Francis. Art lovers know his vision as seen through Renaissance eyes, at the Frick. However, now a bit of the treasury from Assisi comes to the Robert Lehman wing. It makes a lucky bonus from the scary earthquake that recently rocked the basilica.

Clumsy acts: the revolution and the copy

As with the larger show, "The Treasury of Assisi" supplies objects of mixed quality. Watch out, however, for Renaissance artists as good as Simone Martini. In his hands, Saint Christopher can wade through a stream with the casual stride of a new age. A new light ripples across the flowing water.

Helpful photos show the extent of damage, better than those I had seen in magazines. I can take comfort that that ceilings collapse before walls, so some famous frescos sustained less damage than they might have.

Once again, however, I sense outright dishonesty. The Met fails to confront directly what it cannot display, precisely what makes Assisi famous. One sees only what can easily travel, and the Met avoids admitting the weaknesses that obliges. Worse, in discussing Giotto's frescos back in Italy, the Met refuses to admit something vital: many believe that Giotto did not paint them.

So who painted the frescos? The scholarly debates hinge on the clumsy architecture and storytelling. Their lines—the edge of walls, the perspective—get in each other's way, often for intensely expressive purposes. By never mentioning the issue, the Met misses yet another chance to illuminate what makes art and an era.

What explains the clumsy intensity? Perhaps Giotto was young, still in the shadow of Duccio and others. If so, one gains insight into his development—and the development of a whole new age. A young revolutionary thinks in bold terms. This painter was out to take the viewer by storm.

However, perhaps this work looks like broken-up Giotto because Giotto had been there before. Perhaps another artist was imitating him—and badly. Perhaps. Issues like these matter to more than the old idea of authenticity in art. They awaken history and meaning, and the Met has more than a little arrogance ignoring them.

Reopening the book

I assume the arrogance comes from the politics of setting up an exhibition. Italian lenders want their point of view in exchange for a costly loan. But as in "Mirror of the Medieval World," I see one more sign that the Met cares more for a curator's career than for you and me.

Perhaps, as at the Frick and as so often at the Morgan Library, it takes a return to the page. There one can still find a public space for art's intimate experience other than the modern museum. The Met's print and drawing rooms hold a little-touted third show of medieval work, a stunner. The Hours of Jeanne D'Evreux, dating from around 1325, are set apart page by page so that experts have a chance to restore and rebind this most delicate Book of Hours. The Met has done the same with the Belles Heures de Jean, Duc de Berry, from the early fifteenth century.

The artist, known only as Pucelle, adapts many of his poses from cutting-edge painting. In miniature, with the sharp line of a great draftsman, they become even more vibrant. Often the tiny figures twist and turn like acrobats.

Facing pages narrate the Passion and Christ's youth. The sequences, quite an emotional combination to start with, nestle within scores of other, marginal figures. These tiny peasants and animals, both strong and comical, fight to upstage each other and their God.

Pucelle and others made this book for a queen, not for public display. It cannot match the dignity and accessibility of the great art to come. Only the artist's delicacy and talent remain so alive.

Like the Medieval Housebook, Pucelle helps one to reimagine something lost today when philosophers and critics claim to treat art as "text." One can envision again what art and books once shared. How different from where I began—with finding this or any other site on the Web.

The right shelf

Just the other day, a writer to the Times had forgotten how to look at art. Maybe worse, he had also forgotten how to read. Museum crowds, the letter explained, no longer bother him. He can always find what he needs. Just go online!

Is this why pixilated used to mean mentally unbalanced? The writer loses the difference between a reproduction and a work of art. Make that an absurdly small copy in another medium. One should keep the distinction even now, so that Postmodernism can puzzle over it.

Never mind, though, for something else is at stake. Never mind, too, that the Web's list of works veers from arbitrary to random. As I know from acquiring photos for this site, one often has to substitute one for another. Never mind all that, for what fascinates me is another omission entirely. Art, he forgets, has long existed outside museums in another place. I mean where most people first learn about art—the printed page.

The man's strategy has a decided postmodern flavor. By removing physical distinctions, he remakes past art as conceptual art. At the same time, he chooses something that a postmodern would despise. He seeks a medium over which he can feel total control. He wants to be able to search for precisely what he wants. Precisely.

Before the Web, books had already felt much the same pressure to respond to keywords. Diet, exercise, thrillers, self-help. Philosophy too has shuddered, leaving such pieces as cultural studies, literary theory, gay and lesbian books, and feminism.

Ironically, the world keeps challenging those distinctions between disciplines. To find a publisher, though, a book must target the right shelf. How very quaint that, in postmodern art, text means the power of words to exceed their narrow meanings. Maybe Jacques Derrida could spend more time surfing the Web.

From hand to hand

It is increasingly hard to imagine a book that once passed from hand to hand like a work of art. Not even the Frick's creative virtual-reality Web site can capture it.

Pucelle and the Amsterdam Master shared that vision. They take one back to an unsettling mix of public and private at the heart of Renaissance—and all Western art since. They suggest how that mix emerged in the Middle Ages—from an image of nobility in the hands of the common servant and an image of the world in the hand of a queen. Along with the Frick, they reopen the book on a great period.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"The Medieval Housebook: A Fifteenth Century View of Life" ran through July 25, 1999, at the Frick Collection. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Mirror of the Medieval World" ran through July 4, "The Treasury of Saint Francis of Assisi" through June 27, "Prayer Book for a Queen: The Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux" through August 19. And yes, that letter actually made the Times on June 11.

 

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