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Review: "Piero Della Francesca in America" at the Frick Collection, New York, NY (February 12 to May 19, 2013)
Piero della Francesca, St. John the Evangelist, 1469
Over spring break I had the opportunity to visit the Frick Collection’s exhibit, “Piero Della Francesca in America.” What connects the seven works by Piero featured in the exhibit was that they were all painted in the artist’s hometown Borgo San Selpolcro. Although Quattrocento Italian art is typically associated with Florence, Piero proves the Renaissance was flourishing during this time outside of Florence as well. The exhibit stressed, “He was as much Borghese as Michelangelo was Florentine” I particularly took interest to the piece, “Saint John the Evangelist. “ The work was commissioned by Angelo di Giovanni di Simone as part of an altarpiece in Borgo Sansepolcro and was commissioned in 1454 and finished in 1469.
An exemplary work of the Italian Quattrocento, Piero exhibits the revitalization of classic ideas and the importance of the individual. The painting imposes geometry on a Christian image and makes use of perspective. Almost coming out of the painting, John the Evangelist has an overwhelmingly physical presence, accented by the overlapping layers of his rich, red garment and by the shadows in the folds of the garment, created by the light hitting the image from the upper right. Meant to be viewed high up on an altarpiece, one can infer Piero used subtle lighting effects to make the space of his painting harmonious with the space of that church. The back of St. John’s hands, which support the book he is holding, are slightly illuminated, even though the light source is coming from a the upper right. This makes sense in that the book would have still be seen high up on an altarpiece, above flickering candles. John the Evangelist is in the foreground of the painting, with the architecture of the church and blue sky behind him. Yet John almost fills up the space of the piece like he himself were a physical Christian pillar of the church. When looking at the piece another thing one sees is that one of his bare feet is covered by the edge of a platform. Infrared reflectography shows Piero painted the entire foot before starting on the platform, even though he had planned out the entire composition and knew the right foot would be blocked out. This detail reveals the artist’s determination and organized process to create a convincing pictorial space.
While there is no symbol of an eagle, an attribute usually associated with images of John the Evangelist, and he is typically painted in his youth, the book John is holding helps us identify who he is. The emphasis of the book as the iconographic key in viewing this work, reveals the important Piero believed John possessed as a scholar. Piero is evoking a feeling of devotion for John here for the intellectual legacy the Evangelist left in addition to the religious significance of the image. Piero is not trying to glorify John by making him look young and majestic. He paints the wrinkles in John’s face, the bags under his eyes, and we see the veins on his hands. The power and glory of painting comes from its realness and from John’s intellectual beauty.
Piero della Francesca, Enthroned Madonna and Saints Adored by Federico de Montefeltro, 1472-1474
Piero studied the writing of Baldassare Castiglione, Italian courtier and diplomat, who wrote a book, The Courtier, on what he believed to be the model Renaissance gentleman. Humanist ideals were imbued in Piero’s style and approach. In another painting by Piero (not in the exhibit), the “Enthroned Madonna and Saints Adored by Federico de Montefeltro,” Piero puts the patron of the painting, Frederico de Montefeltro, in the scene in the San Bernadino degli Zoccolanti near Urbino. The artist is therefore combining contemporary and biblical times in one image, showing the importance of man, himself, in a highly religious piece.
By: Lizzy Weingold
Review: “Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery” at the Frick Collection, New York, NY (October 2, 2012 through January 27, 2013)
Joseph Mallord William Turner, “Dawn After the Wreck,” 1841; Watercolor, gouache and rubbing out on paper. Courtauld Institute Gallery, London.
In the past five or six hundred years, internationally celebrated artists have often been deemed “master painters” because their colorful works are so easily identifiable. Yet the current exhibition at the Frick Collection proves that this term has not provided artists with adequate recognition. Organized by the Frick’s deputy director Colin B. Bailey and his colleagues, “Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery,” showcases 58 works reflecting the technical diversity of artists who dominate the realm of cultural fame in the minds of Americans. A small and compact presentation, the exhibit’s walls are lined with works dated from the 15th through 20th centuries, and despite its approachable size—dictated by two adjacent galleries in the basement of the museum—the historical range of the works at first appeared overwhelming during my visit. However, my doubts immediately faded after descending the entrance of windy stairs when I learned that each piece had arrived from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London; the single source of the work unifies and constrains the scope of the show. The curators were therefore able to successfully streamline their attempt to deepen our respect for drawing and shape our perception of what it really means to be a “master.”
Drawings from Italy, France, Spain, and England, and from periods including the Renaissance, Baroque, and Impressionism hang side by side at eye level, organized chronologically. A potentially chaotic effect is avoided by the clear sequence of time: the room to the right of the staircase moves from the 1400s to the 1600s, and work from the 1600s to the 1900s hangs in the room to the left. Only four drawings are displayed on free standing walls perpendicular to the main sides of the rooms, leaving unlimited space for viewers to walk freely from the beginning of the right room to the end of the left. The organization of the setup in turn effectively draws attention both to general changes in aesthetic over time and to the individual attributes of each drawing.
I noticed the endless discussions among visitors despite the crowded atmosphere, indicating that the free space in the galleries encourages viewers to comment on the substance behind the chronological shifts. Once I had individually walked around the entire exhibition, the two sides became distinct. The earlier right side appeared strikingly monochromatic, with only reds, browns, and whites marked into each piece. These limited palettes show that the “mastery” of artists like Da Vinci, Rubens, and Rembrandt, most known for their paintings, was significantly defined by their ability to achieve the effects of light and natural 3-D modeling with simple media and restrained chromatic range. Instead of creating grand narratives with luminous oil paint, these works are finely detailed, focusing on particular lines and edgework to represent the shapes of the human figure and the fabric adorning it.
With works from later time periods, the left side is contrastingly bolder. After the 17th century, artists became more interested in using broad shapes than thin lines and rigid hatching to render perspective and form modeling. They no longer intended to convey particular details such as casts of light on individual drapes of fabric or edges outlining human features. Instead, the “masters” aimed to create layered compositions with less objective interpretations of form and more experimental uses of media. Turner’s “Dawn After the Wreck,” the exhibition’s clear high point, conveys an emotional intensity that exemplifies this change in emphasis. Drawn in 1841, Turner’s piece utilizes mixtures of gouache, watercolor, and scraped chalk to achieve both smoothness and textural depth. Its subject matter—a lonely howling dog, blood tainted beach, and eerie colored clouds—depicts a desperate coastal scene. The melancholy effect is partly achieved by the varied range of color that diverges from the constrained earth tones in the room to the right. Both a wide streak of ultramarine in the horizon and the sandy yellow reflection of the moon onto the shore represent a shift in focus from specific to general and subtle detail. Turner has used a spatial image to communicate a strong feeling, and the curators’ structured arrangement of the galleries has accentuated his triumph.
The show’s precise organization also grants every included time period an equal amount of attention. Visitors comment just as much on the physical forms and concepts behind the images in the right room as on those in the left. As I walked along a wall in the first gallery, I could hear women discussing how the happiness of the instruments in Bloemaert’s “Death and the Lovers” contrasts with its grim imagery of death exemplified by a figure’s skeletal legs. A similar level of enthusiasm was present in the second gallery, where a couple mentioned the power of the shapes and heavy lines in drawings by Daumier and Degas. This balance reflects the overall success of the exhibition. An effort to heighten an appreciation for a more restricted media through a historically broad lens is seamlessly combined with proof that diverse interpretations of skill have equal merit in qualifying the aesthetic of the “master” artist.
By: Solomon Bass