Oh, That Toledo!

John Haber
in New York City

Paintings from the Toledo Museum of Art

Time to Hope

New York became virtually a festival of Hispanic painting this fall, but did that have to mean Toledo, Ohio? Well, start a bit off the beaten path and see.

Just be sure to leave plenty of time for one last stop. The Frick indeed holds virtually a survey in miniature of European painting and all from Toledo. Among all its surprises, one has the chance to see the development of something precious to art from Christian narratives to the past century. I mean art poised between the human, the natural, and the spiritual. One sees how painters have had to redefine over and over each term in that intricate equation. Piero di Cosimo's Nativity (Toledo Museum of Art, c. 1495–1500)

A shaft of sunlight

For once, one might have to leave some of the more touristed attractions, grab the number 4 bus, and catch the rest of Museum Mile—and a bit beyond. For once, too, one need not elbow anyone to view great art.

At El Museo del Barrio, a superb private collection places Frida Kahlo's favorite subject (herself) in context not just of Diego Rivera, but of twentieth-century Mexican art. That context may account for her looking almost jaunty for once, in her peculiar mix of pride, pain, arrogance, and local color. The bus could then take one far uptown, well off Fifth Avenue, to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and to a gesture of community after 9/11. A single province of Spain releases a surfeit of often hidden treasures. As the show's occasion might suggest, the art mixes two of Spanish art's long-running concerns, intricate decoration and suffering. Already one can ask what makes art's concerns religious or human.

Amid the starkly colorful polychrome statues and a maze-like polyglot bible, I stood still for a Deposition, very possibly by Adriaen Isenbrant, a painter of the Northern Renaissance. The upright of the cross separates Mary Magdalene's more earthly tears from tight pyramid of Jesus, Mary, and John, who kneels in support as if in prayer. The transparency of oil only heightens the somber landscape, and one feels these very human measures of distance as inseparable from loss. Saint Sebastian, one of two works by El Greco, extends the muscular, heroic nude to the breaking point.

The exhibition occupies the ambulatory, or circular aisle behind the altar and choir, and it helps one appreciate the unfinished building. On the ambulatory's relatively small scale, I could better grasp the cathedral's two-tired structure, from the doubled rose windows over the entrance. As I left, a chorus of children were rehearsing, their voices floating through the vast enclosure. It felt like the sound of distant voices, as sudden and unearthly as T. S. Eliot's shaft of sunlight.

So does Toledo count, if it just happens to fall in Ohio and not El Greco's adopted home? Okay, just kidding, but the Toledo Museum of Art does bring to New York a typically swirling El Greco. The event celebrates the Midwestern museum's centenary in a way Ohioans will surely appreciate, by emptying out some of its finest European art. A dozen drop-dead paintings, from the Renaissance to Cézanne, are visiting the Frick.

When one thinks of a dozen "masterpieces," one imagines a digestible survey, like a TV series with saleable audio tape. Each work, one expects, will stand for an artist and a moment in time. To the contrary, as a special pleasure of this show, just one work can make me rethink what I thought I knew about art history.

Surprise, surprise

Surely Gustave Courbet favored a dark and weighty realism. Here, he reinterprets the lightness of Flemish Baroque art in a way that looks forward to Pierre-Auguste Renoir. His young woman, in warm flesh tones and black dress, stands before a colorful floral trellis. It offers a charming transition to Paul Cézanne and his great avenue opening onto a distant slab of gray houses.

Surely François Boucher belongs naturally at the Frick. In its permanent collection, he turns the eighteenth century's harsh realities and nostalgic dreams, derived from Jean Antoine Watteau, into shallow pleasures. Love them if you can. Here, though, a washerwoman and fisherman toil beneath cloudy skies and a decaying mill. Even the birds descend close to earth.

These traces of realism in fact pull one in to Boucher's fantasy. In the slow pace of labor and the woman leaning idly out from a window, one imagines ordinary people reconciled to their place in life. In the intricate construction of mill and trees, a subject to which Boucher returned more than once, one can see the artist aiming high and having fun. The lightness goes well with tourists in London for James Tissot, rather like a family today. The father burrows himself in his guidebook, his wife listens patiently while looking elsewhere, and their daughter just marches on stubbornly ahead.

I had the shock of discovery often. In Baron Gros's Napoleon at Eylau, the emperor, so suitably astride a white horse, reaches out to comfort the duly worshipful masses. Here, in an oil sketch, one hardly notices the great man's gesture, just one more item in the chaos of battle. The looseness of a sketch goes well with Gros's early Romanticism—and the flow of blood. It reminds one that a more individualistic world view came with darker idealization of nature.

Camille Pissarro changed styles more often than I care to remember—and he helped Paul Cézanne change styles, too. Pissarro's kitchen still life here blends the quiet colors and white accents of tradition with the flat areas and quick gestures that Edouard Manet contributed to modern art. I had to look hard to figure out that a hook of black paint stood for the bowl of a spoon. Pissarro has updated genre painting's appropriation of peasant life for a sophisticated Parisian consumer. Again, art has a way of embracing and yet questioning the natural and the human.

Still, what about that El Greco? I was happiest of all with three works that do stick close to their makers. A year before at the Frick, even before an upcoming full retrospective, a handful of variations on a theme helped me see his life and career as a whole. Here, alongside two gorgeous works from the Italian Renaissance, one gets to share in his knowledge of the past. Here, too, I got another surprise—a theme central to a century of art that one might too easily overlook.

God and nature

Piero di Cosimo painted his outdoor Nativity in the last five years of the fifteenth century. Almost fifty years later, Jacopo (or Jacob) Bassano returns to the Holy Family, this time as they flee toward Egypt to escape certain death. Another half-century later, El Greco revisits many of the same conventions for Jesus's last night of prayer before arrest. One sees, of course, changing styles and a growing command of naturalism, just as art history promises. One can see, too, a changing understanding of the relationship of humanity to God and nature.

di Cosimo's cool tones and precise drawing sum up the achievement of the quattrocento, after pioneering sculpture and before Antonello da Messina brought the shadows and colors of oil painting to Venice, but his concern for balance almost nnounces Leonardo da Vinci and the High Renaissance. Mary, who kneels over the sleeping child, dominates the tondo—or painting in the shape of a perfect circle. Her red, yellow, and blue garments set the palette of saturated primaries for the whole. Her robe offers a stabilizing vertical as the frame itself leans inward to encompass her form. A vertical down its center would anchor her face and hands in prayer.

Mary's prayer intercedes for the viewer and anticipates a revelation. A bible lies open in front of her, because of her piety and because Jesus fulfills the prophets. The blanket under him, the rocks behind him, and the hazy morning sky above announce a night of rest and a brave, new morning.

Only a few years later, with the same icy hues, the Mary of an early Michelangelo tondo raises her infant toward Joseph. Her active pose suggests Jesus's role as sacrifice, but also her contribution to a close-knit, thoroughly human family. Here, however, Joseph still sleeps at left, in the middle distance, wrapped in soft echoes of Mary's own yellow and blue. Yet he, too, has emerged from the traditional shed to take his place in a broader, more ambiguous setting. He looks smaller than perspective would lead one to expect, because the leap from the mother of God to man does not yet come lightly. The houses behind Joseph fill out a purely human landscape.

On the right, the rocks and trees become denser, with nature's vegetation amply feeding the symbolic ox and ass of the prophet Isaiah. The painter individuates every flower and every symbol, even as he binds them together. Those same flowers turn the harsh rock strata under the sleeping child into a soft bed, the towering rocks behind into architecture for a cultivated garden. The rocks could stand equally for Jesus's tomb or nature's majesty, a God's sacrificial altar or an altar of worship, a church spire or a human tower.

In other words, Mary and the infant god lie between man and nature and apart from them, in this world but not of it. The events unite all aspects of the godhead. The painting tempers its humanism by never letting one forget their strangeness. From now on, right down to echoes of the sublime in American landscape painting or Abstraction Expressionism, Western art will have to grapple with whether people or spirituality can ever feel at home in this world. One can start here to discover how.

A leap into the void

In Bassano's Flight into Egypt, the people of this earth join to protect Mary and the infant Jesus. So, too, does the earth itself, and mother and son must assume their place within it. They form a traditional Renaissance pyramid, if mounted this time. The painting's brightest light picks them out. Yet they play the least obvious role, as the taut procession of men, animals, and darker tones carries them its train. Its direction, from right to left, makes its progress appear slower and more treacherous.

Joseph bends to the left from the weight of leadership, but his humility only adds to his bulky, commanding form, his forward thrust, and his quiet, understanding eyes. Peasants fill out the train of enlacing figures, as one leans back to shout an unheard warning. The warm, heavy, earthen colors describe a lush world, but also a world of peasant immersion in labor. Egypt never looked so good—or so thoroughly familiar.

The color and peasant theme almost look forward to the art of Pieter Bruegel, and so does the painting's implicit theme of transience. God's incarnation will have come and gone, but men must still accept the burden that it has placed upon them. It adds just one more task and one more miracle to that of simply staying alive.

If the growing humanism of the sixteenth century exacts a human cost, El Greco's Agony in the Garden makes it a frightening cost as well. A century after di Cosimo, one sees the same puns on rocks, garments, and flesh. One spots again a sleeper at left and rising forms at the right. One catches much the same echoes of color, the same strong light, and the same pyramid for God at the center. Only it all speaks now of tension and upheaval. Whether one sees Mannerism as an extension of the Renaissance or undermining it, people, God, and nature are in for trouble.

El Greco's Jesus, in red, again has a blue cloak beneath him, and the angel wears electric yellow. The apostles, tossing in a troubled sleep, wear shot fabrics, the pale yellow and blue like eerie shadows of greatness. The rock behind Jesus again gives way, but now as if bent by some awful, uncontrollable energy. Its suggestions of a headstone or a tomb look ominous as never before. Clouds add another blanket over all—or a layer of stone weighing down upon the earth. The moon, torches, the angel, the light from Jesus himself, create a harsh tangle of competing lights.

Lines from torch poles, branches, and the angel's wings cross each other in all directions. They form two diamonds, flanking the central pyramid and locking each figure in place, with no hope of contact or salvation. The jarring change in scale to the torch-lit figures coming to take Jesus is a leap out of their merely human world and into a void. The whole exhibition dares one to take that leap.

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Paintings from the Toledo Museum of Art ran through January 5, 2003, at the The Frick Collection. "Time to Hope" ran through November 24, 2002, at Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, and the Gelman collection ran at El Museo del Barrio through September 26. At no point could one see all three in a single day, since the Frick exhibition opened October 29, but this is art, right?


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