A marvel of painting

 

angel faces

Angel faces (detail) from Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels

I managed to get to The Frick on Saturday to see the Piero della Francesca exhibit, and this one show, alone, made the long drive down to NYC and back worthwhile. I’d done a quick tour of a few galleries in Chelsea on Friday and was feeling a little dispirited. There was plenty of fine work, but nothing that I would have regretted missing, if I’d decided to blow it off and see Lebron at Madison Square Garden, or just stayed home. Ironically, I had to get to the museums for the sense that I was seeing something with fresh eyes. So, here’s a tip. If you’re going to The Frick for Piero, my advice is simple: save the best for last. Look at the lesser paintings first, and then be prepared to stand silently in amazement by the contrast between the other work and the greatness of Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels. This show is all about that one painting, and it works in this room the way Vermeer’s Milkmaid worked at the Metropolitan in 2009. It’s flanked with collateral paintings, but with both shows, you’re attending essentially a one-painting exhibit. I may be the only person who sees it this way, but the contrast between the six other paintings and this masterpiece couldn’t have been more dramatic for me. As I looked at the fragments of the altarpiece, the individual figures, I had to suppress the urge to ask for my admission fee back: after a minute or so I wanted to move on. My response was to wonder why American collectors took such pains to secure work by this founder of Renaissance painting. (Historical note: they bought them for only hundreds of thousands of dollars.) When I got to Virgin and Child, though, it was as if I were meeting a completely different painter. I had the rare sensation of looking at a quality of work I’d never seen before, which is nearly impossible to experience after decades of viewing thousands of paintings. I don’t know if this painting could change your life, as Peter Schjeldahl suggests, but I can attest that it ought to change what you think it’s possible to do in paint. Or maybe I should say it will make you realize that there are some things the rest of us will never be able to do.

The other paintings in the show don’t have the same uncanny aura of absolute stillness and impenetrable unity as the Virgin and Child, in which every form and detail seems to emerge out of continuous field of energy—everything in the image seems to share the same essence, even though the painting is really the sum of a thousand intricate details. To give the other work its due, Piero’s portrait of St. Augustine is enormously impressive: the way he rendered the glass staff and the narrative panels of Gospel stories sewn into the saint’s cope. Yet the sky behind him and the firmament underfoot seem to be formally distinct from the figure, as they would seem in everyday life. There are any number of ways he could have rendered them: it’s just backdrop. The whole point of the painting is what’s in the foreground, the figure, and the background might as well have been negative space. By contrast, everything in Virgin and Child seems to be an integral part of everything else: columns and robes merely different manifestations of something common to both; people and architecture are different embodiments of one transcendent . . . something. That something, in this case, is whatever was moving Piero’s brush around. (This sense of interpenetration reminded me of how the trees seem to transform imperceptibly into the clouds above them in Fragonard’s Progress of Love elsewhere at The Frick.) The background and foreground seem to be part of a continuum, organized geometrically, the detail in the wall’s crown molding just as carefully rendered as the rosettes at the base of the throne. To some degree, it’s almost as if the image offers an “all over” effect. Visually, everything counts as much as everything else.

The astonishing effect this painting can have on you seems to derive from a host of subtle achievements, most of them having to do with formal choices and the handling of materials. You’re seeing utter mastery of a medium. On a purely technical level, it evokes that question you always want to ask yourself when you see a work of art: how did he do that? For the past two days, in my head, I’ve been trying to come up with a way to describe the look and feel of the painted surface. Your field of vision, which feels enormous even though it has shrunk down to only 30 inches by 42 inches, seems to hum with anticipation though you’re watching a baby do nothing more than reach for a rose. Except for the maze of cracks in the lower left corner, on the angel’s white robe, Piero managed to hide all evidence that the image is actually painted. So he did exactly the opposite of what I look for in so much work: that tension between seeing the paint as an end in itself while you discern, at the same time, whatever illusion the paint evokes. With this work, you forget that you’re looking at a painting, and you seem to be eavesdropping on another, utterly actual world, which is somehow more vivid and real than the one you see every day from nine to five. Yet you aren’t seeing anything remotely like what passes for hyperrealism now, or even Vermeer’s remarkable photographic effects (those are on view in another room at The Frick). It offers a faintly stylized rendering of human figures and architecture, and yet it’s done with such skillful and gradual shifts in hue and value, and such authority of line, that you immediately enter a totally coherent visual world.

This scene appears to be lit by two sources of light. Scholars say that the six figures are clustered together in an open courtyard, lit by the sky. And the scene does seem to be illuminated from all directions at once, a world without shadow, to the point where the figures and objects almost seem to generate their own light. Yet take a little more time, as you stand before it, and you’ll see that another light is shining on everything from behind your left shoulder, so that the angel in a white robe casts a faint shadow onto the base of the throne. I marveled at the way Piero handled that shadow. It almost isn’t there, as you would expect the angels themselves to be, yet these visitants are solid and opaque and look fully human, though they cast ethereal shadows that aren’t really dark. That shadow is a bit darker, as it should be, where it emerges from the angels’ bare feet, and then grows fainter as it climbs up the row of rosettes carved into the throne’s foundation. Those rosettes are painted with absolute care, and you can feel the delight he must have felt as he spent time carving them with paint: there’s something gorgeous about the warm gray tone he used to handle the tiny shaded curves of the petals. He loved painting that little strip of carved stone. You can feel it. If you look at the rosettes in the shaded section, though, you see that he didn’t make everything in the shadow darker, he simply took the edge off his brightest and darkest tones, as if he’d adjusted the contrast more toward the middle and away from the light/dark extremes in the brightly lit passages. He does to that little shaded portion what you would do to a distant portion of a landscape—the brights aren’t as bright and the darks aren’t as dark. So he found a way to indicate shadow without actually darkening even that small part of his vision.

That’s just one minor section of the painting, and it’s something nearly impossible to fully appreciate in reproductions. On that note, if and when you actually see the painting, look at the skin tones. This is something you can observe crudely in the photographs, but the delicacy of the color appears to be impossible to capture with a camera. He’s arrayed the four angels around mother and child, and they seem to be spiritual pillars, the load-bearing elements of a larger order, keeping the sky from falling on all of them. In their robes, they’re a personification of the architectural columns in the background. What’s marvelous is how ordinary and human these angels look in one respect—they stand around like domestic servants, obedient but maybe a little bored, the one in white with arms crossed, thinking of other things. At some point you realize they don’t have wings. So how do you know they’re supernatural? If you look at the skin tones, you realize Piero has color-coded his cosmos. The Madonna is fully human, and her face has the sanguine tone of a woman full of love, a little flushed, with the rosy tint of her warm blood. Then look at the angels, and you can see the painter first laid down a layer of color somewhere between blue and green for the angel faces. Then he built up a more natural flesh tone on top of it, allowing the light to pass through the upper layers and reflect back off that cool undercoat. The contrast between those layers is integral to the internal tensions of the entire composition, which hovers been cold, geometric austerity and warmly accessible humanity. What’s incredible is that the angels have personalities lurking behind those eyes, with facial expressions that convey human attitude, even though there isn’t a trace of pink in their skin. Eventually, you notice that the skin tone for Jesus hovers between the two extremes: it’s nearly as cool as the angels’ but slightly warmer, a mix of human and divine, both God and man. Every square centimeter of this painting was given obsessive, loving care, and it isn’t hard to imagine that Piero surprised even himself by what he accomplished when finally stood back and looked at what he’d done. Not long ago, I had a conversation about painting with Cole Carothers, an excellent Ohio painter I met at Manifest on my last visit, and we agreed that in the best work, you reach a point where you see yourself doing things don’t really know how to do. It just starts happening. I suspect Piero reached and went beyond that point with this painting and was asking himself the two questions all serious painters want to be asking when they cease working on an image: How did I do that? Will I ever be able to do that again?

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