5.6.13 — An Otherworldly Humanism
Perhaps the most important artist of the early Renaissance passed his life in a small town. With “Piero della Francesca in America,” through May 19, the Frick does its best to reunite a colossal altarpiece and to offer a history of his coming to New York. It shows how he brought an otherworldly calm to early Renaissance humanism—and, ultimately, to modern art. And it is the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload.
Not that Piero della Francesca never saw the world. No one better understood the Renaissance ideals often associated with Leonbattista Alberti, who wrote about art’s truth to nature, virtue, and humanity—in, of course, flawless perspective. Still, he became a member of the town council in today’s Sansepolcro and remained one until his death in 1492. Pretty much all his work dates from twenty-five years or so, through 1472, and he all but fell off the map of art history for a while.
People used to call the entire century the Italian “primitives,” and his stillness seemed downright unnatural. The wide eyes of his risen Christ have seen more even than death.
One altar in Sant’ Agostino held four paintings now in the Frick Collection, including a standing Saint John the Evangelist. About four feet tall, in a harsh white beard and majestic red cloak, his head lost in perhaps his own book, he has towered over visitors from almost the Frick’s origins. One can see why the generation that elevated the stillness and complexity of Paul Cézanne and Jan Vermeer recovered Piero della Francesca as well. One can see how he became the artist’s artist from his century, much as Sandro Botticelli a generation younger became the public’s. With a second standing saint from Lisbon, a small panel from Washington, and an unrelated seated Madonna from the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, the Frick offers a rare chance to see what that changing understanding means for today.
The Madonna and Child makes a good place to start, and anyway people are drawn to it. Four standing angels form a half circle around an enthroned Mary. Portrayed as boys, they make her look that much larger than life. Jesus, seated erect on her left knee, reaches toward a pink carnation in her right hand (and not, by the way, what the Frick’s scholars call a rose), a symbol of his embrace of his adult future. Each angel has a cloak and wings of a different color. Each treads lightly on the ground, but each poses and faces a different way.
Clearly something spooky is going on, but what? The play of symmetry and strangeness extends to the shallow architecture up against their backs, just two of its walls visible. It almost anticipates the gallery as white box today. A mysterious shadow falls across the step of Mary’s throne, itself inlaid with marble and carved medallions.
Step back and everything falls into depth, exactly as it should. One can almost overlook that one never does see any more of the throne, and the room presses in so closely that Mary would bump her head if she tried to rise.
By the same token, one can overlook Piero’s humanity. Early critics would certainly have noticed the inconsistencies. They would have wanted Jesus to grab the flower like an infant at play, which is how other artists humanized the symbolism back then. Still, everything has its place, including the rich shadows filling out the robes. By all but hiding each angel’s wings, the artist has treated them first and foremost as children. In his world, great and timeless events are still taking place, and one can only expect a few paradoxes and maybe even the creeps.
Realism mattered to him, especially in the cause of the unreal. Saint John often hangs at the center of a small room at the end of the great hall, where it can dominate the vista from far away. Impressive as that is, it looks twice as large with support from a second saint—and maybe ten times as large as life.
People seem to know that the enthroned Madonna should be apart, since they photograph it that way for Facebook, but one can still see it that way. One can step way back or come close, and everything in Piero turns on that strange double perspective. One can see how a small-town boy become a calm, otherworldly presence, first in the Renaissance and again in modern art.
|Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.|