Secularism and Shadow

John Haber
in New York City

Paintings from the Norton Simon Museum

In the Aldrovandi Dog, a mastiff all but fills the frame—from the firm stance of his four paws to the very tip of his manicured right ear. His legs cast their shadow on the porch, while a pillar behind his tail at right presses him further into the foreground. It also underscores his mass and dignity.

The painting by Guercino, one of five on loan to the Frick from the Norton Simon Museum, hangs a bit higher than I think it should. Does his placement defer to the room and its other paintings, or has he intimidated even the curators? Well he might, and the paintings initiate plans for more loans from the Norton Simon. (In return, the Frick will send west its portrait of the Comtesse d'Haussonville, by J.-A.-D. Ingres, later in 2009.) They also chart the changes from the late Renaissance through the Baroque. Guercino's Aldrovandi Dog (Norton Simon Museum, c. 1625)

They begin with The Flight into Egypt by Bassano, who consolidates and brightens Titian's chiaroscuro—the variation of light and shadow. They include Rubens in his thirties, still tempering his religious fervor with Classicism on the one hand and heightened emotions on the other. They proceed from a virtuoso still life by Zurbarán to the sentimental theater of Murillo, both in Spain. Together, they include three dogs, three mothers, and at least twice as many angels. Above all, they include the parallel development of painting in oil and a new secularism in European culture.

The Norton Simon Museum began when the Norton Simon Collection, in search of space, merged with (or took over) the Pasadena Art Museum. The curators stress Simon's growth as a collector and the inspiration he drew along the way from the Frick. One might not see that ambition as entirely a good thing. In several related articles, I look at the entanglement of money and institutions. I consider the birth of the modern museum and the Met's holdings, crises at LA MOCA and the National Academy, a no-man's-land between museum and collection with the Emily Fisher Landau Center, and art fairs in a recession. As a counterpoint, though, art in an increasingly individual, secular culture deserves its own history.

Going to the dogs

Guercino, takes the Aldrovandi Dog seriously indeed, with assurance that the seriousness will reflect on his art. One can approach a lush, shadowy landscape with its distant tower only through the dog's legs. His nose seemingly brushes against the clouds and distant trees, and a fortress-like mansion seemingly lifts his chin that much higher. The barest hint of two figures in the middle ground might have entered the estate only with his permission.

Against the sober colors behind him and the brown architecture below, his coat has that much more subtlety and variety. His pale chest captures the late-afternoon light. Black stripes and stippling cross the brown hairs of his back. One could almost reach out to stroke them and to number them one by one. The hints of black scarring on his face, like the white hairs above his mouth, show his age. They also attest to the dignity of a fighter.

Only an equally determined scholar would ask for more. Guercino, like any artist of his time, knew the Bible well and illustrated religious narratives. In turning to one of his favorite themes, The Return of the Prodigal Son, he also draws on an Ecce Homo by Caravaggio. Yet even there his tight scene of three gesturing figures shows his psychological naturalism. Born Giovanni Francesco Barbieri and nicknamed "the squinter" (for a problem that I hesitate after so many years to diagnose), he sure knew how to look. He also has a dogged and haunting fatalism—from the mastiff's scars to another favorite subject, as for Nicolas Poussin, shepherds who find death even in Arcadia.

Just as the dog can take pride in what he has endured, the landscape displays his owner's pride in its extent, its solidity, and even its darkness. No one can go back to Cento, a town north of Bologna, as it was then, around 1625. No one can say for certain whether Aldrovandi owned a mansion like the one in the distance or is looking outward from his property. Guercino, born in the same town in 1491, might be combining views to create this sweep and scope. He might be reimagining them.

One can say that they would be unimaginable without the Baroque and its achievements in oil on canvas, like that of Guido Cagnacci also in the Norton Simon. So would the painting's subject matter. In early frescoes for a villa in Cento, Guercino had focused on animals and nature, from men fighting bears to an elephant lying dead or asleep in a zoo. He had also copied the pale colors and ghostly architecture of frescoes preserved from ancient Rome, but nothing this secular or this alive. Instead of a Renaissance saint or Renaissance humanism, one has a dog. Aldrovandi, a determined amateur naturalist, would have understood.

Not everyone would take a dog as emblematic of the Baroque or of this exhibition. It begins with one miracle, an angel leading the Holy Family. It ends with another, the birth of John the Baptist to the elderly prophet Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth—so old that she cannot make it out of the background, where she lies exhausted in bed. Art historians have looked for religious significance in the still life as well. Yet it is a truism that art over the centuries also reflects a growing secularism. To understand how, it helps to see what artists were finding in oil.

The passage through Mannerism

Jacopo (or Jacob) Bassano, born Jacopo da Ponte, uses oil to lend warmth to his figures, sweep to his northern Italian landscape, and a sunny optimism to a scene of flight. It also allows him to lend a miracle a peasant dignity. As in the Gospel according to Matthew, King Herod of Judea has determined to slaughter every infant, fearing the birth of a king of the Jews. Warned in a dream, Joseph and his family are finding safety. Mary rides humbly at center on a donkey, nestling Jesus in a pose right out of Titian. Then one just has to decide what to make of their extraordinary retinue.

Most obviously, an angel leads them—his dreamy eyes, electric hues, long legs, and twisting pose all signs of the painter's debt to Mannerism. Something of that color range also infects the pale hills far in the background and adds to the atmospheric perspective. It also adds to the diagonal that gives the scene such depth and underscores its theme of flight. From the soft leaves and empty thatched houses at left, the eye moves to solid rock behind Joseph and the angel at right. The same motion destabilizes the High Renaissance triangle centered on the Madonna and child. Up it goes to her dark pyramid just left of center, and down it tumbles to Joseph's hesitant footing, all but on tiptoe and leaning on a crutch for support.

The retinue also happens to include a dog and three anonymous men. One lets loose a basket of roosters, one in skin tights takes a drink, and one half hidden behind Mary does little more than offer his rear end to the viewer. Art historians looking for hidden symbols will find in all this a parable—the flight to Egypt as the passage through life. The release of birds promises redemption and repentance, the drink demonstrates the self-indulgence that promises damnation, and Joseph looks downward to a fig leaf that promises rebirth. As for the fellow at center and his backside, someone has to get on with the march ahead. Then again, the whole crowd may amount to Mannerist clutter and little more.

Even around 1545, though, a generation after Titian, Bassano has captured his Renaissance clarity of form and rich color. Bassano uses Mannerism not to send the eye in all directions or to create anxiety, but to deepen the unity—of foreground and background, work and play, legend and everyday life. Warm earth tones connect the land and the peasant clothing. The drinker looks more heroic, more accessible, and less feeble than Joseph, and if he does not deserve a drink, then I do. In two other versions, one in Toledo, Bassano has intertwined three peasants even more closely with the protagonists—and with even less moralizing. Oil paint allows him to acknowledge the strangeness and treachery of this life, but also the difficulty of looking elsewhere.

Peter Paul Rubens brings at least as many walk-ons to the Resurrection. Since the women have found two angels at the empty tomb, not one, the painter must have taken his account from Luke. Unfortunately for that theory, he has at least doubled the number of women as well. He has also scrambled their identities, to the point that no one can agree on which is which. For the central one, he has also drawn on a Roman statue—the emblem of a faithful wife, but with a fullness of drapery and dandy platform shoes that the ancients could never have achieved. As so often, Rubens's piety, his classicism, and his love of painting have taken on a life of their own.

Not to burden you with the details, but the artist has left too many clues for his own good. Looking for the Virgin's central role, her modesty, her maternal astonishment, her scarf and blue dress, or a purple befitting royalty? Looking for the repentant Magdalene's bare feet and veil, a whore's red hair and fiery red dress, and her ointment jar? Suffice it to say that Rubens has distributed these and more traditional attributes among six women, and Luke does not mention Mary anyway. Rubens has also set the living beneath heavy stones, in the dark opening of a sepulcher, with the angels in glorious light on the raised slab that once covered the tomb. He has put the miracles of belief and art on stage, with everyone else in the audience.

Two varieties of blackness

Art historians learned long ago to look to ordinary things for hidden meaning. Critics also learned long ago that symbols have a way of spinning out of control on the way to "the truth in painting." One can see this show as a tribute to both impulses. One can see it, too, as a lesson in the Baroque's new immediacy, as with Gian Lorenzo Bernini, in mixing the divine and the human. Rubens, painting before 1614, was bringing the Baroque from Italy to northern Europe. Around 1633, Francisco de Zurbarán was breaking with his usual religious subjects for an even more immediate display of the familiar.

A recent cleaning of his Still Life with Lemons, Oranges, and a Rose makes it more alive than ever. One can appreciate more than ever the objects all but ready to touch, including the vibrant weave of the basket at center and the texture of the lemons (or perhaps citrons, a kind of large, often football-shaped lemon with a hard, often-corrugated rind). One can now see that they rest on a table rather than a ledge, with the artist's signature on its front. One can catch the shadows on the lemons and their bright yellow reflections in a silver plate. One can contrast the green sprigs covering the oranges with the pale rose and its almost invisible stem resting beside the cup at right. Zurbarán has chosen a two-handled cup, so that one marvels at the difference between the left handle in sunlight and the right in shadow.

Here, too, one can look for symbols. The pyramid of three might stand for the Trinity, the plates for the sacrament, and each choice within for something meaningful. One wants so much, from a painter best known for solitary religious figures in intense contemplation. The religious scenes also share with the still life an unnatural black background. It both brings the subject that much closer to the viewer and isolates it in another realm altogether. Still, Zurbarán is not painting or disguising a narrative, so much as using oil to make the display of the thing itself the miracle.

For Guercino, the fluidity of texture and shadow had gone almost as far, with god or man even less in sight. The Birth of Saint John the Baptist, around 1660, would seem to reverse all that. It also has less appeal to modern eyes as great art. However, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo has actually taken the course of the Baroque to its next stage. The Spaniard has more than enough piety, but he has banished the Biblical miracle to the shadows. He has also introduced something that unites secular and religious stories down through today—the sentimentality of a greeting card.

The painting has only divine light. Some of it illuminates a bunch of cherubs at top, themselves a long way from Rubens's virile young men without wings. Most of it, though, radiates from the infant John, who stretches his tiny arms to bless one and all indiscriminately. It illuminates a household large enough for any upper-middle-class patron or prophet, but common enough for the serving class to identify with the main cast. The maids wash John, dry him with white towels that no doubt signify purity, and pile some neatly folded and more colorful laundry for good measure. Naturally, too, the light falls on the cute white poodle in a chair off to the right.

Art has come a long way from Bassano's loyal hound and Guercino's determined fighter. They might not have felt comfortable around ingénues in the laundry room. They would have stood out from Zurbarán's inky blackness, but they would have got lost in Murillo's dominant shadows. His loose touch almost looks ahead to François Boucher, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and the Rococo. In the ancien regime, art has less patience with instability, even in oil paint. By comparison, a Renaissance and Baroque play with symbols is downright modern, so is the partnering of small museums, and so is this extraordinary show.

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"Masterpieces of European Painting from the Norton Simon Museum" ran The Frick Collection through May 10, 2009.


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