When the Renaissance Looked Back

John Haber
in New York City

Jean Poyer and Renaissance France

Early Renaissance Reliefs

High and low. Fine art and popular culture. Higher hopes and ordinary things.

Fine art can sound not just alarmingly—or thankfully—elitist compared to popular culture, but downright passé. Again and again, postmodern critics have attacked Modernism for the whole idea of fine art. And just as often, conservative critics have decried art's decline into chaos. One has to stop a second to remember that galleries survive on pretension. Jean Poyer, Hours of Henry VIII (Morgan Library, c. 1500)

As two lovely shows of Renaissance art suggest, attacks, however valid, on art's inner circles today may truly reflect a present-day culture's elitism—and its short memory. At an Upper East Side gallery, sculptures in low relief, often meant for the home, disturbed my whole idea of what happened in what decade to the development of fine art. At the Morgan Library, French manuscript illumination learned from three different Renaissance breakthroughs—the great painting in northern Europe, art in the churches of Italy, and art forms confined merely to books for princes and cloisters. Each in turn was to reach far into society at large.

Trickle down

Strangely enough, battles between media for status go back to ancient times, although the last couple of centuries, as in Kant's defense of painting, brought them back with a vengeance. The ancient contest between poetry and painting, the paragone, even served as a school exercise. Maybe one should keep the practice. Write an essay now, digital versus analog. A thousand words, might as well be in Latin. Quick.

At the same time, every period has had culture for the few and for the many, though in the Renaissance, or indeed corporate America, the elite few may well not coincide with the avant-garde. And each time, a shift in boundaries has come with revolutionary force. When a young Bruges artist immersed in manuscript illumination, Jan van Eyck, turned to panels, the event may have initiated oil painting. When Italy allowed a new architecture to influence painting and sculpture—and put cutting-edge sculpture on display in full view, on the doors of a great building—it helped create the Renaissance.

Each time, too, cutting-edge art forms have trickled down to mass production, and popular tastes have inexorably changed art from below. The Renaissance workshop turned out furniture and other objects based on the master's ideas and designs. Changing views of nobility, merchant classes, and plain humanity were to alter art for centuries. Two wonderful shows made exactly those kinds of changes visible. Ironically, one had to enter enclaves that could themselves speak for the splendors and miseries of fine art.

As the grand mansion that really did house J. P. Morgan's library, the Morgan Library could well stand for an elitist notion of high culture. Just as obviously, it has a history and style in common with the abode of that other robber baron, Henry Clay Frick. Only I prefer to think of the Frick as my personal enclave in the big city, or at least I did until they made it so wonderfully welcoming to others. In contrast, I still feel like a humbled intruder at the Morgan.

Past the marbled entrance, a darkened room for special exhibitions, and the long hallways that speak of time for careful study, one may enter into Pierpont Morgan's private study. Near it stands a domed room, with ornate ceiling paintings, and then an old-fashioned library—the kind with tall leather volumes behind glass cases. Its two levels of balconies allowed access and room for intimate reflection. With just gawking visitors like me to see it now, the ladder to reach up is gone.

The Morgan's collection of rare books, prints, and manuscripts range from first editions to handwritten sketches for major symphonies. Prints and drawings set along its halls have taught me more about Rembrandt than my explorations of prominent museums. However, the Morgan's greatest contribution to scholarship lies in illuminated manuscripts, such as Le Livre de la Chasse. Artists who toiled painstakingly in gold and costly colors may be known today only as masters of a Morgan volume. These and others, in texts that the Library acquired nearly a century ago, remain little known even to this critic. One such artist, whose pages guided a generation, is Jean Poyer.

Tours de force

Poyer (also known as Jean Poyet) earned his obscurity. The Morgan pretty much says it all when it calls him "painter to the court of Renaissance France." Around the year 1500, the beginnings of the High Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci had just completed his Last Supper and Raphael was getting into stride. Up north, Hieronymus Bosch was introducing his somewhat wilder idealism, as well as a teeming and precise sense of nature, to a tradition of glowing oil painting. Poyer lived in France, well between these explosions, remote even from his nation's own political center. Aside from one regional commission near his native Tours, an altarpiece reproduced full size at the Morgan, he worked in a medium designed for few ever to see.

Not long ago, the Met made a case for Italian Renaissance miniatures, as it will for the role of medallions in the Renaissance portrait. Much like a postmodern critic struggling to vindicate pop culture, it put private books made for song and prayer at the birth of the Italian Renaissance in Florence and Siena, just as manuscripts may well have inspired the first great perspective paintings in northern Europe. One could hardly believe it. Struggling, often clumsily, to assimilate a growing naturalism, the artists worked for audiences not always pleased with the changes going on in public. From decorative borders to liturgical content, their style shows its roots, in folk tales and princely elegance. Poyer comes much later, however—and this time with a real chance for greatness.

Poised between two Renaissances, he had the chance to learn from the religious art of both north and south. He knew northern gravity and expansive landscapes, the attention to surfaces that Michelangelo had derided as tapestry making—another early debate over craft and fine art. He knew Venetian light and its sensuous approach to religious revelation. He builds on northern backdrops for their fine lines, intense colors, and thin atmosphere, but he prefers the rationality he saw in Italy. He infuses it all with the intense color of manuscript leaves, but with a simple palette that stays subservient to the growing realism. Gold enters, but its thin lines add substance to draperies though highlights and shadow.

The Morgan guides one every step of the way, all the more impressively for making no outrageous claims. It merely lays out with exceptional care the artist's career and style in contrast to his predecessors, contemporaries, and followers, such as the Claude Master. One sees individual leaves, alongside slides of other images from the same volume. One gets to turn the pages of a facsimile, almost as if one had taken a step outside of time. More remarkably still, one sees an artistic career constructed out of next to nothing but surmise. Call it a Tours de force.

Surviving records mention Jean Poyer exactly four times, and these documents link him firmly to a single leaf, so worn that only one face is clear. It must sound suspicious to spin out an entire career from such insubstantial evidence, and it is. Yet history learns to tell stories like that. A great interpreter of art, Erwin Panofsky, created an entire artist and body of work from little more than a single, cryptic inscription by the artist's great brother, van Eyck.

In Poyer's surviving leaf, that face alone has the sophisticated technique, prominent nose, rounded complexion, and comfortable expression that sets the tone for the entirety of his art. He started with the excitement of young man from the Loire Valley overwhelmed by the new. One early page, Christ taking the fatal kiss from Judas, takes place at night. The virtuoso drama may come near to monochrome, but in a darkness infused with intense, shadowy color. Before long, however, the artist finds more comfort in the plainness of day.

Taking the Renaissance easy

In Poyer's hands, a mature King David kneels to a vision in the sky. From his posture alone, he could be one of the magi come to Bethlehem in northern painting, but this king can take center stage alone. The long diagonal of his skyward prayer has Italian models, in Christ at Gesthemene or Francis receiving the stigmata. Yet David's face shows neither boastfulness nor anguish, and his broad, firm pose lies far from their tense, haggard figures.

Even Poyer's Saint Jerome exposes more flesh than anatomy. He holds his stone firmly, like the tool of a master, rather than pressing it to his chest in penitence. The landscape extends far behind, leaving him alone in the wilderness, but at home in a rich and ample world.

Poyer's land is green and inexhaustible, his city the towers of princes and kings. Laid out on simple perspective lines, they function as a stage for a courtier's restrained but command performance. The bright red of Jerome's cloak, the cloak of a cardinal, projects forward to create the stage apron. Cast aside on the ground, it may bare him in contrition, but somehow even a hair shirt looks warming, and the thorns that should press at his ankles stand before him like a shield.

Lovers get off easy, too, like ones in sitcoms who get all the good lines. In a particularly fine, intact Book of Hours, they deal with the seasons as comfortably as with each other. Exactly like the solo actors in Poyer's religious scene, the man and woman get sufficient space to keep out of each other's way. They come close enough to flirt, but their eyes say little, and their gestures move freely afield. Forget the moral of this book. If the woman fears the play getting out of hand, or the man fears rejection, the viewer need not fear it for them.

Sometimes Poyer takes advantage of the manuscript page to calm things down. Prayerful figures come desperately for blessings, but Poyer has muted this lower panel, by rendering it in grisaille, or monochrome. Just above, in living color, Saint Philip banishes idols about as threatening as cartoon characters, with all the emotion of housework. The red border, for decoration and inscription, sets them all safely in an imaginary world.

Everything seems easy and human. No shepherds or kings share the foreground with the holy family. The architecture gives them ample space to study in dignity. No flowers clutter the flat open landscape of the seasons. No animals peek out of the margins in this newly dignified art, just the initials of the queen. Poyer made some of these manuscripts for the instruction of the young prince, making them among the most beautiful children's books ever.

How to spell relief

Poyer has domesticated higher art forms in the service of wealth and privilege, long before a king and a cardinal founded the French Royal Academy. In turn, he leaves an art centered around people rather than moral dilemmas. Painting for churches has now trickled down into private art, and it slowly creates popular assumptions about humanity that, in time, will reach upward. Every great artist re-creates those assumptions, after all. It is all a part of art's re-interpretation of the world.

Another show, this time spanning much of the Renaissance, includes a work credited to a far more revolutionary artist. Yet it reflects the same mutual influence—between public and private, new and old, high and low.

Salander-O'Reilly exhibits nine reliefs, or relatively flattened sculpture meant to hang on the wall. The artist may carve or mold figures in relief, almost as if they stood alone, for viewing in the round. In addition, the artist may incise into the material, as with the fictive medallions on a throne in a painting by Piero della Francesca. In this way, he can not merely form a solid backdrop, but even create the illusion of distant space, much like drawing on paper. The technique, called relievo schiacciato, helped introduce Renaissance perspective drawing into art, through a competition to take on doors to Florence's Baptistery. At Salander-O'Reilly, the technique turns up in the hands of Donatello, the early Renaissance's most volatile sculptor, the finest student of Lorenzo Ghiberti, and an influence on Renaissance bronzes by Andrea Riccio in Padua.

The gallery sets out its delicate marbles and perspectival reliefs alongside Madonnas for private worship. Both styles deny a strict difference in function and style between painting and sculpture. However, low relief does not defy architecture altogether, like the domes of the late Baroque that dissolve into sky. Rather, its dizzying illusion marks architecture's triumph in defining a space in which to live.

In the show's major work, forms come out from the surface with the full impact of their strong, central figures, carved draperies, and dignity of religious purpose. And all this can take place against a background that dissolves into incised drawing.

In contrast, marvelous terra-cotta reliefs by Antonello Rosellino and others look back, indeed backward, to the flatter decorative style in painting of past decades. The Madonna and child have faces almost like squashed fruit, surrounded by painted fields of yellow stars in a black imagined sky. An older Florentine artist like Gentile de Fabriano would have been proud of his continuing influence. A younger one like Fra Filippo Lippi would have studied them all.

Circling around the mainstream

Progress did trickle down from high art to popular art, in context of an emerging middle class. In the same way, the avant-garde of this century is picked up and commercialized all to the glory of individualism. In turn, the emerging popular culture of the Renaissance influenced fine art, just as today, by providing an image of ordinary people. Only back then avant-garde meant the public art form, while the budding consumer remained almost invisible. But then, modernist movements, too, thought of themselves as the renewal of public art and public purpose. Think of the political murals that eventually, in the hands of Jackson Pollock and others, defined abstraction.

Similarly, another private world of the Renaissance drew on fine art for humbler media. For the nobility, artists designed not just manuscripts, but everything from tapestries to tableware. These designers too lagged the cutting edge by a decade or more. They learned from the weighty pageants of great painting and sculpture. Still, they continued to revel in elegant, almost feather-light figures that connote nobility.

Postmodernism has a broad consciousness of history and a short memory. Not just critics of modern art, but modern artists have always needed an attack on art. From Vincent an Gogh's simple designs to go with his rural subjects, maybe even earlier, fine art itself can hardly live without it. As for van Gogh, too, the attack comes with a refreshing populism. Modernists threw urinals, soup cans, and subway images at a museum's pretension. They crafted modest furniture for a better life and bold political banners for a better world.

Postmodernists have given the attack the urgency of a generation raised on television and perpetual play. Or rather, I was raised on television, only to find lines in front of museums—perhaps even museums of broadcasting. Not to mention wealthy donors dying to give big money and to lend their name. In a postmodern world, the lines between art and "ordinary things" have become blurred, but not because art history, in some formal sense, has come to an end. Rather, it is because the cultural and economic value of fine art and popular art have become blurry, too.

Ironically, the same economic conditions that threaten fine art also preserve it. Growing differences between rich and poor favor it. Corporate culture means quickly assimilating signs of life on the edge, while excluding too much of it from the mainstream. The result is not so much to eliminate the highbrow as to erase Dwight Macdonald's distinction between "masscult" and "midcult," popular culture and the derivative arts establishment.

If I am lucky, conditions will change again, and no one can say what will come next. It could be a new consensus or a new avant-garde. It could be an even more thorough dispersal of the big word art. Either way, however, art will always enact that fluid exchange between culture for the few and for the many—between an artist's ideas, craft, and reality.

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"Jean Poyer: Artist to the Court of Renaissance France" ran at The Morgan Library through May 6, 2001. "Early Renaissance Reliefs" ran at Salander-O'Reilly through February 3.


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